Bruce Banner and Autism

I spent a while after I got into FrostIron examining the ways I’m similar to Tony Stark. I posted the results on my Tumblr (which is down right now, or I’d link it). But recently I’ve been more into understanding the mind of Bruce Banner and comparing it to my own.

I was never interested in the Hulk. I didn’t experience the character of Bruce Banner much at all until I saw Avengers. If there’s one thing I disagree with Joss Whedon about, it’s his idea that Avengers would have been even better with more Hulk. No, what I liked about the Hulk arc was watching Banner.

I’m probably the least angry person I know. It looks like a complete mismatch on the surface. But I want to explain my theories about how the Banner in Avengers works, and how it’s similar to my own, very oddly-constructed psyche.

When I watch Banner in Avengers, I see a man who functions by keeping his thoughts in the forefront of his consciousness, rather than his emotions. He’s always looking for something to focus his mental energy on, and he’s trying to balance that with avoiding confrontation if at all possible. The way he moves when he’s on the Helicarrier, it looks like he’s itching to move, to go find something to look at, to fiddle with, but at the same time he’s very hesitant to move fast or without proper consideration, lest he cross anyone’s invisible boundaries.

He says things like, “I just wanna finish my work here….” It’s not just to push away the tension and conflict, although that’s part of it. I see a guy who loves to use his mind, who would often like everybody to shut up and go away so he can play with pretty numbers and waves.

He doesn’t mind Tony, though, even though many people find Tony abrasive. That’s because Tony is always ready with something shiny and distracting, a question or an interesting point that engages Bruce’s mind. Tony might make him angry, but he’s always angry, and his secret to keeping that secondary? Cling to thought. Keep emotion from affecting his responses.

That is me, all the way through, when I’m suffering from negative emotions.

The fact that they’re so rarely anger is beside the point.

The point, I think, for me is that it’s a place I don’t know how to inhabit. It’s a state I don’t know how to deal with because it just refuses to be examined. I’ll mention the Aspie aspect here because the more I talk to my friend who deals with Autistic kids every day, the more I think that this is not just me; this is a thing that everyone on the Autism spectrum shares.

We identify the idea of ourselves with our thoughts. We occupy the land we build for ourselves out of facts, numbers and patterns. That is us. These emotions that neurotypical people keep telling us to identify as also ourselves, more often feel to us like a ring of bullies, standing around us and pushing us in different directions. It’s bewildering and we don’t understand why they do that or what they have to do with ourselves.

I don’t understand, relate to, or see through the eyes of my emotions any more than Bruce Banner has these things with the Hulk.

And like Banner, I can go along with a positive emotion with perfect equanimity and maintain my composure, my sense of self, my train of thought – unless it’s a particularly intimate example. Forming emotional connections with people can make me flip my shit and lose my voluntary responses. I get kinda lightheaded and lost-feeling.

There was one time I managed to hang onto my consciousness and identity and an abstract idea while simultaneously identifying as having an interpersonal emotion. That moment will forever be one of my strongest memories. It’s the first time I managed to string together words without a conscious awareness of choosing words. It was like an out-of-body experience, watching my brain put words together without actually inhabiting it. Words are what I do. My words are who I am.

Since then I’ve gradually developed the ability to tune into my emotions and let my thoughts govern themselves, even talking to people while leaving off my consciousness of the words I’m using for a moment.

I don’t know how to deal with negative emotions and people at the same time. Interacting with people requires words. Experiencing negative emotion takes away my ability to use words. I’ve gotten to the point where I can identify with my emotions, but I still can’t function as myself if I let them become primary and experience them fully. It’s still one at a time, on or off.

So when I’m experiencing negative emotions, I act a lot like Bruce – sort of shifty, twitching to get my hands on something that will occupy my brain, responding to questions whose answers require complex dispassionate thought, but avoiding conflict or subjects I’m emotional about. I’ll grab a book or my computer, I’ll leave to make myself tea, or in desperate situations start picking apart my own clothing or put my fingers in my ears, hum, and think of whatever story I’m currently writing.

Once I lost my temper. I was with a group and one of them pushed to know more about my emotions on a given subject. It was another out-of-body experience, and I don’t remember if I used words but I remember throwing things. I don’t remember deciding to throw things. I remember feeling like a little brain struggling to pilot a huge, out of control mecha-body that badly wanted to do its own thing. I remember the only direction I was able to make effectively was throw sharp thing thataway, not at friend.

So that was the one time I was the Hulk. Most of the time my negative emotions only cause me to skulk away and cry, and although I don’t relate to being angry all the time, I do relate to the feelings involved.

Those are my realizations on the subject of my own Aspie brain being similar to Bruce Banner’s. I have some idea of why I’m like that, and although I don’t think Bruce is Autistic, I have some ideas as to why he might be like that as well.

He wasn’t born without the ability to connect with his own emotions, like someone on the Autism spectrum, but there are conditions that cause that later, like PTSD. That’s always the second place I go when studying a character I relate to because I heard once that in children, it can be difficult to tell the two conditions apart. There’s also a couple dissociative disorders that could make sense. The point is that he has trouble dealing and identifying with emotions that have traumatized him in the past.

Bruce Banner (in the Marvel comics) has had a pretty messed up childhood. His father was an alcoholic, angry, abusive, and murdered Bruce’s mother. That is certainly enough trauma to be getting on with. It’s no wonder that he can’t manage to deal with his own anger in a healthy way. Many people theorize that Bruce already had Dissociative Identity Disorder – that the Hulk already existed, and the gamma experiment merely gave it form.

But I relate to Bruce and not the Hulk, because Bruce and I both struggle to understand, control and manage that part of ourselves that we don’t necessarily see or want as part of ourselves, but that other people insist is, or should be.

I’ve written a bunch of stuff about me and my brain; you can get to it via the link at the side there that says Asperger’s.

Also if anyone’s interested, a lot of these thoughts occurred to me while I was writing the first few chapters of a Bruce/Clint slashfic for a friend. So that’s here:

If you’re curious but don’t like slash, the first chapter can be read independently as a character piece.



1 Comment »

  1. Laurie said

    Hi. I read the story and loved it. You suggested I might be interested in reading your thoughts about how Bruce has made a coping skill out of clinging to rational, logical thinking and distraction as a way of keeping his emotions from overwhelming him.

    You were right, I found all of your posts on the subject of how you experience the world fascinating. Thank you for sharing them.

    As I understand it, different parts of the brain handle different tasks and logical thinking, like doing math problems, isn’t in the same place as where emotions are seated. Making your brain focus on the logical, engaging it in a puzzle, can reduce or stop the overwhelming feelings of emotions that are not merely uncomfortable but threaten to drown you.

    You used drowning as a metaphor in the story for when Bruce’s emotions are going to overwhelm him. I thought that was an excellent way to describe his slipping out of control. Of course, the consequence for him fully experiencing those emotions is a lot bigger than the rest of us.

    It’s scary going out of control. I have rarely done that, but one time that I did my friend made me play cards with her and I was able to stop crying and see things in context again, process why I had overreacted the way I had. I have seen people stop an incipenent panic attack by someone getting their attention and making them do multiplication problems in their head.

    Bruce has probably relied on that coping skill too much, cutting himself off from experiencing most emotions, afraid that he’ll go too far. He’s been crippling himself, because he needs to feel emotions to be truly happy. He felt love for Betty, friendship with friends like Stanley (I’m going by movie canon here, IH 2008). I adored how Mark Raffalo played him in Avengers, the body language that so clearly showed what you described in this post.

    You described in your earlier post about using a mental map to navigate socially acceptable behavior, and that changing your diet allowed you to kind of stray from the map and go by intution. My dad used to have a saying when he wasn’t sure where he was going when we were driving somewhere. He’d say he was using ****(our name) Dead Reckoning. Intution. We’d all groan sometimes and hope we wouldn’t get totally lost but most of the time, Dad’s Dead Reckoning worked, although we got to where we needed to be by a different road.

    So Bruce is regaining something he’d pushed away from himself, and you’re navigating new waters. I wish you luck in your journey.

    Laurie (laurie_ky on AO3)

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