Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The difference between understanding, and being, in autism

This is a continuation of my previous posting, on the differences between autistic and neurotypical consciousness. This is something many people don't think about when confronted with the communication problems associated with autism.

People automatically assume that you are a person, with intents and emotions and ideas, and that you, like them, have the ability to fluidly control these aspects of identity. When communication is impaired, people believe that the problem is a lack of understanding, and a lack of awareness.

These points may also be factors, but what many people do not understand, is that you can have understanding of social relationships, and an awareness of a situation, but lack THE ABILITY to properly interact.

As a child, I was permanently confused. I didn't understand why the other children wouldn't' play with me, and why they had such strange behaviours. Things such as "forming groups"- the other kids when told would automatically and quickly decide who to work with, without saying anything out loud to each other. To me, it seemed pretty much like magic ESP. So, I was usually picked last for everything, and had to be "assigned" a group by a teacher.

To "normal people" socializing seems very natural and "easy". It just happens. But socializing is actually a very intensive process, and many things are going on in the brain at once.

But I made the effort in attempting to understand psychology and human behaviour, and now people are no longer so mysterious. (Thank Gawd for the internet.) I also read a lot as a kid, and novels taught me more about people than people did. (Even if they don't want to, all children on the autistic spectrum who can read should read novels. This helps with the understanding of other peoples emotions and whats generally going on in their heads.)

So with effort, I taught myself to understand, and I began to understand how to be aware. By aware, I mean how to pay attention to signals of other people, as well as being aware of the context and situation.

But, there is a limit to where understanding and awareness can take you.

In my mind, I can design many situations and "scenes" of different types of interactions. I can imagine a situation and then predict what I would like to do. I write occasionally, and can flesh out different characters and dialog in a story. The difference is, that when it is in my mind, I am always able to do what I want to do, and I "have control".

This is difficult for people to understand. They might think "if she can write, and understand these things, then that must mean she is choosing to act improperly." Not so.

In my imagination with effort I can change the tone and volume of my voice, use proper facial expressions, and carry on a conversation or discussion with another person. I can mirror people, walk normally, flirt, or comfort people. But that is imagination. In real life though, these things are extraordinarily difficult to manage in real time, because I do not have the level of control over my consciousness that "neurotypical" people do. It's like imagining yourself to be driving a race car and winning the race, and then ACTUALLY trying to drive a race car and crashing early on.

Also, there is a difference between understanding in the moment, and understanding in reflection. I may misunderstand what is being said, because I don't have enough "brain space" to consider alternate explanations at the time, because my mind is stuck on "one track"- but afterwards I am able to understand when I have the ability to visit the other "tracks" of alternate possibilities.

A few months ago, I walked downtown to attend a major celebration. The kind of event that you will only experience once. Everyone was running through the streets, strangers were hugging and high-fiving, and everyone had the same exuberant, excited expressions on their faces. I had never felt so different and strange in my entire life.

I could not join in. Instead of reflecting that powerful emotion and becoming one with the crowd, most of my brain power went into blocking out the busy hectic environment so that I wouldn't trip over my own feet. Inside I had the desire to join, have a drink, and meet new people, but I could only watch from the inside. That night the only people I managed to talk to were a bum who tried to steal my pop because he thought I secretly had alcohol in it, a clubbing chick who wanted me to affirm that she did not look over 30, and some guy with a weird accent that offered me what he described to be: "some rare herb from somewhere in Africa that causes you to hallucinate bright lights turning into phoenixes while experiencing a unique euphoria." I politely declined that offer, my brain was being screwy enough that night.

If you don't have this ability to absorb and reflect emotional information, it really does seem that people have psychic powers when communicating. I used to be very perplexed as to how people are able to watch what another person is doing, and then voluntarily move their face to match the others expression exactly, and instantly, while talking at the same time. To me, that seems pretty much like reciting Shakespeare while playing tennis. That is because it isn't entirely voluntary. There IS a sort of psychic atmosphere that is created with people: mirror neurons.

People absorb and automatically reflect each others expressions, thus communicating emotionally. They only occasionally voluntarily move their faces around. Add to that, people have a pretty good idea of what facial expressions they are displaying- an objectivity of what others see- and can so voluntarily "tweak" their expressions.

But for me, I have a VERY hard time telling what my face is doing. I tend to have no expression, or very exaggerated expressions. I can feel my facial muscles move (sometimes more, sometimes barely) but it is very difficult to translate those movements into a face, or expression that others see. I lack an "objectivity" of myself in space.

This is one of the reasons why I have been fired from a lot of jobs, I believe. For example, in fast food or labour jobs, there is usually some kind of pain involved, whether its grease burns or a sore back, or a general brain pain from over-stimulation. Even though the pain might not be bothering me that much, (I have a reasonable pain tolerance) it could still be showing on my face, and I can't properly realize AND suppress that expression.

So- to other people, apparently it looks like I'm scowling and being very irritable or sullen. But in reality, it has NOTHING to do with my emotions or what I am thinking at the time. People take this to mean I'm some sort of bitchy person and "not a team player", and "bad customer service" because I have some sort of attitude problem. But believe me, when you are so broke you can barely afford to eat, you'll be a team player to keep your job! For pretty much all of my jobs, I have not been given a real reason for why I was being fired, apart from useless statements like "you don't belong here". Even if I try to mention Asperger's and explain, it doesn't matter. Those kinds of facial expressions make people feel uncomfortable, and they don't want to know why, they just want you GONE.

If I had A CHOICE, I would definitely NOT go around looking like I'm in a bad mood, and have weird expressions. I wish I had the ability to communicate what I'm actually feeling, and to "act" when the situation requires it. To put people at ease, and to appear friendly, warm, and confident. My life would be entirely different. But people never see me as these things. They just automatically assume I have a negative sort of personality, and that I choose to be that way. But in reality, I might be perfectly calm, and have nothing negative floating around in my head. This is also worse because I am female, I believe. Everyone assumes girls will be more sociable and outgoing.

I wish I had a magic machine that allowed me to switch consciousness with someone else, so they could see what being trapped in this kind of mind is really like, and how much of what happens is not a choice at all.

That you don't have the ability to be yourself. That its an ongoing struggle to be present and communicate.

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