Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Seeing is believing


Like everyone else on this planet (perhaps with the exception of the previous POTUS) I am not perfect, nor was I born that way. Today I want to focus on some imperfections I was born with. I’m using “imperfections” here in two different ways.

  • Those traits and characteristics that society deems as flaws disabilities, unacceptable or a nuisance to deal with
  • Those traits and characteristics that one feels about oneself that are flaws, disabilities, unacceptable or a nuisance to deal with.

Often times, what one perceives as an imperfection may not be deemed so by society, and of course the opposite is true – what society deems as an imperfection may not be deemed so by oneself.

In my own case an obvious example is autism. Almost certainly, no one in any profession would have considered I was autistic until perhaps the 1990s and the condition became better understood. I wasn’t diagnosed as such until 2010. My family had always been very accepting of my “quirkiness”, but the rest of society wasn’t. I was cajoled, teased, bullied, reprimanded, punished and violently assaulted for being “different”.

I perceive the world differently at many levels compared to non-autistic people, and I may post more on how growing up as an undiagnosed autistic affected my life at another time, but today I want to concentrate on the imperfections of my eyesight and vision, and how those have been perceived by myself and others.

I was born with both myopia and astigmatism although neither myself, family, friends or school teachers realised it. It was finally my music teacher who realised I was unable to read music notation in advance of where I was playing that lead to my first “real” eye examination when I was 12 years old.

Sure, for the previous seven years, I had passed the usual eye test at school where one reads an eye chart at a prescribed distance.

Tests were carried out on the entire class by putting all the students in a line and then taking the student at the front of line through the test. Not being particularly assertive, I usually found myself near the back end of the line. Alternatively, we sat at out desks and were called up in alphabetical order by family name. Either way I was always in the last quartile of the class to be tested.

I don’t recall how far through the chart we were required to go, but I think it was only as far as the line for 20/20 vision. I always passed the test with flying colours. I could rattle off the letters as fast as the best of the class.

The problem was that I couldn’t read the chart apart from the very top letter, and even that was very marginal. So how could I pass every time? By the time it was my turn to read the chart, twenty or more children had already read it in my presence. First with one eye and then with the other. I had heard the chart called out 40 or more times at varying speeds. More than enough repetitions for me to have memorised it.

I don’t recall whether the memorisation was intentional or not, but I do recall that the class consensus was that “failing” wasn’t a desirable outcome, just like failing any other test wasn’t. So everyone including myself did our best to get a “good” pass. I felt good when the adult conducting the test would say something like “Very good, well done Barry”. It was praise I seldom received from anyone other than my parents.

If I had understood how bad my eyesight was, what I was missing and how corrective lenses could change my perception of the world around me, I would have had no qualms about failing the test. Such is life. It took a rather crabby and domineering music teacher to recognise my disability.

Strange as it may seem now, I had no idea that my eyesight was so poor. In fact I had the perception that it was rather good, and I wasn’t the only one. This came about because whenever we travelled along the highways I was able to recognise roadside hoardings/billboards well before either the driver or my fellow passengers. In hindsight, the explanation is simple. I had learnt to recognise all the signs not by the wording or images but by the combination and pattern of colours, which in those long forgotten days (the 1950s) tended to be consistently the same year on year.

As a humorous aside, it wasn’t until after I had my first set of glasses that I discovered that the name of one of the most ubiquitous signs at that time had been been assigned an “alternative” name by the family – an in joke I didn’t discover until I could read the wording myself: Cough Cough and Hammer was actually Gough Gough and Hamer.

I recall the sudden panic, almost terror that I experienced the first time I walked out of the optometrist’s shop wearing my new glasses. As the shop door was closing behind me and I looked ahead, I suddenly and simultaneously took a step backwards into the door and ducked. It literally felt like the world was being thrown at my face. The clarity of the detail of the shop fronts on the opposite of the road felt like they were a mere 6 inches (the NZ switch to metric measurements was still decades away) in front of my face.

It was perhaps the most disorienting experience of my life at that time. I was frozen to the spot. I don’t know how long I stood in that doorway ducking pedestrians and cars that seemed to be inches away, but were in fact yards away.

It seems rather odd now that it never occurred to me that the very obvious solution to my situation was to remove my glasses. An optometrist employee recognised my dilemma and pulled me back inside the shop and removed the glasses. After some quick instructions not to put on my glasses until I was in a small room that I was familiar with and to work up to bigger spaces from there, I was sent on my way.

As much as I wish my new glasses improved my life, they didn’t.

A characteristic of many people on the autism spectrum is the inability to subconsciously filter information arriving via the senses. For example in a crowded room where several conversations are taking place, most people are able to ignore conversations they are not participating in. Other conversations will only reach their conscious awareness when there’s a noticeable change such as in volume, pitch or body language – for example when an argument starts.

Most people have the ability to ignore conversation threads they are not participating in. I can’t. A simple analogy might be the example of being in a group conversation when all participants start addressing you all at the same time, at the same volume but all on different topics. I think the resultant confusion will cause most people to put their hands up and demand that the participants speak one at a time. That’s the situation I face all the time. ALL.THE.TIME!

It turns out that my ability to filter out visual stimuli as that same as my ability to filter out aural stimuli. I can’t. I found the bombardment of new visual information overwhelming and exhausting. Previously trees were largely blurry blobs of green. I could distinguish individual leave only at relatively close distances, so perhaps no more than a hundred or so leaves at any one time. Suddenly I was seeing thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of leaves all at once – every one a slightly different size, shape and colour, and all moving independently in the breeze. I didn’t know how to process all this new information.

Suddenly telephone poles and power poles had distinguishable cross arms, insulators of various colours but seemingly on no particular order or pattern. I could see the wires and the patterns they wove overhead. I could actually make out birds sitting on the wires or on rooftops, and even identify the species – something I had previously only been able to do from the pages of a book.

And speaking of books, whereas previously there was only a small area around the word I was reading where the shape of individual words could be distinguished easily (I recognise words by their shape as much as I do by the letters within them), suddenly every letter on the page became individually identifiable, every one of them yelling in unison “Read me NOW!”

Wallpaper patterns now continued right around the room instead of being discernible only in near proximity. On large buildings, all the individual windows could be seen. What’s more they formed regular patterns, and any break to that pattern became a distraction I couldn’t avoid being aware of. The same with pathways. Joins formed patterns that extended into the distance and any spot where the pattern was disturbed jumped out at me. I couldn’t help but notice it.

Never before in my life had been in a situation where I could distinguish the facial features of more than five or six people at one time. Now I could see all the features of everyone in the classroom ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Just too much information to handle. It didn’t help me with facial recognition, but it did allow me to apply the rules I used for identifying individuals at greater distances than previously. Crowds became a confusing collection of

Tiled roofs became a collection of thousands of individual tiles, many of which had individual characteristics I couldn’t help noticing. I could see the corrugations on corrugated iron roofs, and the rows of nails holding them down. Disturbances in the rows (a nail missing, irregularly spaced or out of alignment) shouted out “Look at me!”

Sixty years on and and the same distractions still occur. What I have learnt is how to consciously push them into the background. Over the years I have got better at doing it and it probably takes less effort to do so. There are still times, especially leading up to and during a migraine where I find all the visual information overwhelming. It’s nice to be able to remove my glasses and move into a visually gentler and less harshly chaotic world where I’m not assaulted by detail.

While I mostly appreciate the details I seem to notice when no one else does, there are times when I wish I could simply not notice them in the first place – just like everyone else.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and was diagnosed as being autistic aged sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

4 thoughts on “Seeing is believing

  1. This was very interesting. I was quickly reminded of a chapter in neurologist Oliver Sacks book describing a middle-aged man who had been fully blind all his life, then had an operation that restored his sight – it was a disaster – all he could see was a lot of pieces – he couldn’t put them together to actually see things. He suffered a lot. Over time, his brain found a way to shut much of the ‘seeing’ down until he was back to a level of blindness that he was comfortable with.

    It’s as if you were half way into such a situation. Did your eyes gradually adapt? You seem to read okay now. And you write well.

    That business of figuring out the eye chart is humorous. There are so many ways we devise solutions to social life. When I was a boy I used to cross the street on the red lights not the green. it sounds bizarre, but it was just that I was watching the light that the cars and trucks were using. When it turned red they stopped, so I could start. That made more sense to me

  2. PS – Sacks’ book is An Anthropologist on Mars, the same one where he recounts his meeting with Temple Grandin, the autistic animal behavior scientist/engineer.

    • I’ve read a few of Sacks’ case studies – and found those relating to prosopagnosia and migraine of special interest as I have both conditions. I haven’t read An Anthropologist on Mars

      I don’t think my eyes had any problem adapting as essentially all I had was blurry, out of focus vision. I think it’s more to do with the processing of the information I receive. I’m uncertain about whether I had/have a problem unlearning adaptations I had already made to cope quite successfully with my visual impairment, or whether it’s a case of autistic visual hypersensitivity and information overload. Probably it’s a combination of both.

      I still find I’m bombarded with visual information/stimulation when wearing spectacles and remove them when they aren’t truly necessary. I have found ways of coping in most situations. One technique is to give my attention to an object some way ahead and avoid looking around. However that creates a different set of problems itself. I struggle wherever there’s a lot of stimulation/activity such as in shopping malls, where I also get a double whammy of audio and visual overload. Large crowds, films where there’s a lot of visual activity or camera panning, I struggle with. The tendency in live performances to use pyrotechnics and intense dynamically changing backgrounds means most are off limits to me. I struggle with many TV shows for the same reason, but at least I can sit well back from the screen and can turn away or block the screen with my hands when I find it too much to cope with.

      I can read and write reasonably well, but my spelling is appalling – spell checkers have been a lifesaver. I still read by word shape – especially ascenders and descenders – as much as or more than by reading the individual letters. Where I prefer reading/writing to conversation because it gives me time to process the information received and to prepare my response into words. I think I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that don’t think in words and I need time to “translate”.

      • This business of reading by word shape is interesting too. I’ve known for a long time that there are words I like because of the look of them. I suspect this might be a part of language that no one has ever talked about, and you might be the world champion of it without anyone knowing.

        I too don’t think in words, at least mostly. Temple Grandin says she thinks in pictures, and I know there is an element of that in my own thinking. But there is something else, that is not words and not pictures. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it for a long time and I can’t.

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