This post isn’t so much about the lockdown itself, but about my reaction to it – specifically as an autistic person and migraineur.
According to Lloyd Geering, it is thought – specifically language – that separates humans from other higher forms of animal life. With language, we can construct alternative realities (religion, stories, metaphors etc), communicate our thoughts and ideas precisely to fellow humans for example. Without language, we’d be little different from the great apes. I’m not convinced.
Apparently most humans think in words. Take for example, the wife. I’ve asked her how she thinks. She grew up knowing only the Japanese language, but studied English literature in University. As she describes it, she thought in Japanese. For the first few years of living in Aotearoa New Zealand, she continued to think in Japanese and it was necessary to translate English conversation into Japanese, consider the response and then translate that into English to reply – a process that was quite tiring.
Eventually she started thinking in English, which is how she says she processes her thoughts today. However she still retains the ability to think entirely in Japanese and can switch from one to the other more or less on demand. Although the switch is a conscious move on her part, once the switch is made, no further effort is required until it’s time to switch again.
She finds the role of translator very tiring because of the effort of switching modes between the two languages. It becomes exhausting in very quick time. I notice that the sign language translators for our government officials have quite short stints, often requiring more than one person during a single address by the Prime Minister or other official. Mentally it’s hard work. I find this true with all communication.
Many autistic people seem to think primarily in images and it is necessary to translate those images into word patterns in order to communicate their thoughts to others. Here, some autistics will say that the effort to communicate with other autistics and neurodivergent individuals takes much less effort than when communicating with allistic (non-neurodivergent) individuals. As approximately 98% of the population is not autistic, communication with the wider community can be challenging and exhausting.
I have an almost nonexistent ability to form mental images even from quite detailed descriptions. Likewise, when it comes to recalling visual images from memory, I don’t visualise anything. I retain knowledge about what I must have seen, but more or less in the form of a wordless set of bullet points that I can translate into sentences if required.
I have in the past described my mode of thinking as thought bubbles that combine and split, similar to oil in a lava lamp. Each bubble contains a concept or groups of concepts that are constantly reforming through the splitting and recombining.
When it comes to communicating, I consciously have to go through the process of splitting a concept into groupings of progressively smaller ideas until they reach the size of paragraphs. From there it’s necessary to construct sentences, at first without words, and then to choose the necessary components of language in order to communicate in written or spoken form.
I reverse the procedure when taking in what someone has said or written. While the metaphor of bubble seems appropriate when it comes to levels approximating paragraphs and smaller, it is less appropriate for “higher” levels. They are more like clouds, having no clearly discernible boundaries and can combine and split is ways where it’s not possible to precisely know when they split or join.
So what has any of this to do with the COVID-19 lockdown?
Because the translating of thought clouds into words requires effort, isn’t instantaneous and is somewhat imprecise, I usually spend considerable effort practising the translation of ideas into words and refining them so that they will be intelligible to allistics. When I’m happy with it, I can store it away in memory from where I can recall and recite it, rote form, when appropriate.
Nearly all nonconsequential communication – small talk – comes from this memory bank of prepared sentences, both for what I say, and for matching input from others. Under normal circumstance, I need to constantly refresh what is stored, otherwise the content fades over time.
Since the lockdown, the necessity of, and demand for, using prepared sentences and phrases has diminished. So much in fact, that I notice I am not in a state of constantly refreshing existing ones or preparing new ones just in case they’re needed. The outcome is I feel less stressed. I don’t feel I’m in a constant state of rehearsing for a performance commonly referred to as life. Mentally, I feel relaxed, and for me it is quite a novel experience.
For many migraineurs, stress can be one of the triggers for a migraine attack, and I suspect in my case it’s a primary cause. Since the lockdown, the frequency and severity of migraine attacks has diminished significantly.
Particularly noticeable since the lockdown is that often a migraine attack goes through just the aura phase, with a shortened or nonexistent prodrome phase, acute phase (the actual headache and associated severe symptoms), and postdrome phase (the migraine hangover).
I appreciate that for most people, isolation and the lack of communication opportunities can be distressful and can cause anxiety and stress. On the other hand, I’m relishing it. Perhaps when this pandemic is over, I should consider becoming a hermit 🙂