Jun 10, 2024, 06:25AM

Autism and How It Works for Me

Against me, I should say.

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So far I find there are two ways of looking at the autistic experience—excuse me, I mean the high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder experience. Most often you run into the notion of an out-of-step mentality, of the autist having a different set of assumptions about how people interact and how the world proceeds, with this mismatch producing hurt and social confusion. I started with that idea, but on finding that I’m an ASD sufferer (sorry, I do say sufferer), and on looking into my own experience, I lean toward a different idea. This is that the autist has impaired sensory perception and therefore suffers from pervasive confusion and the emotional effects that come with it. Because when you’re more confused and off-balance than other people, just see how you feel while getting through life. I don’t rule out the first notion, that autists come with built-in assumptions that most people don’t share. But my life has been shaped by something else, and most people don’t point at the thing and say it’s there. So I’ll try.

Physically I’m afflicted by a condition that cripples my perceptions of ongoing events. The tricky part: this crippling takes a form that hasn’t been pinned down. If you’re blind, your eyes don’t work and everything’s black. If you’re deaf, your ears don’t work and everything’s silent. Past these conditions, description becomes trickier. If you’re autistic in a way that overloads some particular sense organ—nose, ears, eyes, skin—then the curry splits your brain or the light from the lake pierces you or the girl’s soda slurping kills you or that corduroy feels like sandpaper. The non-sufferer’s assignment is to recognize why you’re making a fuss, that it’s because some particular small thing gets played on your nervous system like it was a very big thing, a painfully imposing one. The sufferer’s assignment, in my view, is to avoid making a fuss but still end the pain, and good luck with that. The other day I got up and walked out of a café, loitered on the sidewalk, and then came back. But I had to do it twice because of the same girl and her slurping, and I had to keep a look off my face. Autists with tougher conditions will have to do a lot more, and maybe they won’t feel too forbearing about the situation. But everyone has a good shot at knowing what’s up: it’s the combination of that slurp and your trick nervous system.

My bigger problem isn’t the slurp. It’s more pervasive. It’s some combination of too much sense intensity here, too little processing capability there, and the set adds up to my minute-to-minute confusion about what the hell is going on. At this point all I can do is seize on one component, the one that bulks so large that I could swear it dominates my life. I mean eye contact. I’ve cursed my eye-contact problems for how they’ve hurt innocent people and crippled my social life. But the effects reach further. They… oh damn.

The best I can do right now is make this point: what’s at work isn’t my behavior, it’s a physical malfunction. When the malfunction hits, it’s like a passenger airbag has opened up, a passenger airbag maybe one-third the size of the room, but no one feels it but me. It gets me right around the eyes, expands from nowhere and collides with my face. Nobody else’s, it’s my special deal. A twist: I don’t see the airbag. Nobody does. Not me, the person being hit, and not them, everyone else. I tell myself that the action is something I’m doing. The other people, if they notice, think I’m doing it too.

A room with people means that airbag opening up, and so it will go, over and over until my life’s been played out. Try to think with that going on. Try to keep up with the drift of action and events. My life is a long tournament of never learning to cope.


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