Our Coping Methods Are Not Our Experiences
I recently heard a story from another autistic person regarding an experience in a CPR class. The NT instructor, not knowing any of the adult students there were autistic, said the following:
“When typical people walk into a room they see all the chairs and the lights. When an autistic person walks into a room they can only zero in on one of the tables and a few of the lights. Isn’t that such a good description?”
This. Is. Not. How. It. Works.
This is part of the problem with NTs always trying to speak for us. Autism, by its very nature, can NOT be understood from the outside in. What parents or others see as “autism” is not the experience of autism.
It might be unfair of me to say that NTs can’t imagine the world as we experience it. Probably some of them could. But I think it would require a virtual reality-type simulation even more intense than the one that was advertised to simulate migraine symptoms.
We Get Everything
Most any autistic person could tell you that we actually tend to take in too much information. Our brains don’t filter anything out, so we take in everything – all the lights, tables, chairs, chipped paint on the walls, stains on the floor, the play of light and shadow outside the window, the traffic outside, the noise of the air conditioner, the temperature of the room, the press of people even if they’re not that close to us, the hum of the fluorescent light that nobody else can hear.
This is why we get overwhelmed.
NT brains naturally filter out things that they deem “irrelevant” or “unimportant”. This isn’t conscious, it’s the brain deciding what sensory input is needed and what input is not. Usually, an NT brain decides that the sound of the air conditioner or a fluorescent light is not necessary. Same for whatever is happening outside the window, chipped paint, etc. The NT brain sees this sensory information as superfluous, so it filters it all out – with the result that NT people just never notice these things unless something calls attention to them.
The autistic brain seems to lack this natural filtering ability. My theory, as an autistic person, is that the hypersensitive autistic brain doesn’t have that filter matrix built in. Our brains don’t consider anything to be irrelevant, so we get everything, all the time.
We Have to Block Things Out
Since our brains just take in everything all at once, we don’t have a choice but to block most of it out. We’d go crazy if we didn’t. So while it’s true that when we walk into a room, we’re likely to focus very hard on just one area, that’s our way of coping with an overwhelming experience – NOT the extent of our perception.
This one incident in that CPR class encapsulates the problems surrounding autism research. Since Leo Kanner first described the condition in 1943, almost all research has focused on what doctors and parents could see from the outside. That completely bass-ackward methodology has led to ridiculous misconceptions like the one in that story and the misinformation that has created such a stigma around autism.
They’ve mistaken our ways of coping for the experience we’re trying to cope with.
They Could Just Ask Us
It’s only recently that the scientific community is finally figuring out that asking autistic people how autism affects them might be a useful thing to do.
Even with the acknowledgment that plenty of us can speak or communicate in other ways, for decades nobody thought to actually talk to the autistic people they were studying. Because of that, a great deal of the “conventional wisdom” surrounding autism is being found to be completely false.
We could have told them that.
It’s way past time that autism research included the actual experiences of autistic people. If people would just take the time to listen to us, I think we could shed a lot of light on our own condition, and therapies and treatments might progress by leaps and bounds. NT parents and doctors and therapists have spoken for us long enough, and for all the work they’ve done, they’ve come to wrong conclusions about us. It’s time we let the NT world know that our coping mechanisms are not our experiences, and what they see is not all there is to being autistic.
What do you most want the NT world to know about your experience as an autistic person? What misconceptions have you run up against or had to correct? Has an NT person ever tried to explain your autism to you?