Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

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Masks and communications

While most of my readers have been living under various forms of covid-19 restrictions for upwards of eighteen months, for us Kiwis in Aotearoa New Zealand, and especially outside of Auckland it is a novel experience. Social distancing and masks have not been everyday parts of our lives until around 2 months ago when the delta variant finally succeeded in breaching our border security measures and is proving impossible to eradicate, unlike previous variants.

Mask wearing is now mandatory for people aged 12 and over when taking public transport or visiting businesses, and recommended when away from one’s home or “social bubble”. Personally, apart from yet being unable to find a means to avoid the fogging of my glasses, I find my stress level definitely rises to the point where it can’t be ignored after about 30 minutes of continuous mask wearing, and I need to remove it, even if only for a minute, to restore myself to something resembling normalcy. I can usually achieve that by retiring to the car or finding an out of the way park seat or equivalent where the mask can be briefly removed in safety.

However, that’s not the most serious downside to mask wearing. I have always had impaired hearing. I was diagnosed as having 70%-90% hearing loss when I was around 7 or 8. Normally I can get by reasonably well, and when a word or two can’t be clearly recognised, I can usually deduce it by context. It’s only just in the past week that it has really dawned on me how reliant I am on lip reading as an essential component of my ability to understand the spoken word.

I’ve recently had several occasions where it has been necessary to converse with a shop assistant while making a purchase. In one case it was a quiet environment but I was unable to recognise even half the words spoken by the assistant. Often I was unable to understand even the gist of what he said. By the end of the transaction I suspect he was just as frustrated as I was about the slow progress of our conversation. I found the entire process embarrassing and somewhat humiliating.

Later in the week, I visited a somewhat noiser shop where I had gone to pick up some items I had bought and paid for online. Sure I could have had them delivered, but the delivery would have cost more than the products. I’m not a penny pincher, but we do have a fixed and somewhat limited budget to live on. In theory I should have been in and out of the shop inside of a minute, but it was not to be. It didn’t help that the online instructions for collecting online purchases were incorrect for the local branch. In fact it may have been less confusing if there had been no instructions at all.

After waiting at the counter under a sign reading “Collect online purchases here” and seemingly being ignored, I sought out a shop assistant and explained why I was there. To cut a long story short, it took over half an hour to collect my purchase and only then because I finally resorted to seeking yes or no replies or asking them to point or make a specific gesture order for them to communicate with me. At no time did it occur to them to initiate non-spoken communication. I found I had to give specific instructions. Even when I discovered that where I was waiting for my pickup is no longer applicable, and then asking where I should go, no one thought to point in the appropriate direction until I specifically asked them to point with their arm/hand/finger in which direction I should go.

I’m not sure what sort of privileged lives the young people working in that shop have “endured”, but it was apparent to me that they wouldn’t understand the irony of directing a wheelchair bound person to take the stairs to a different floor or instructing a blind person to read a sign painted on the wall. I would have thought that people with disabilities are encountered often enough that most non-disabled folk would have some level of understanding or empathy. Apparently not.

Come to think of it, while I don’t consider being autistic as being disabled, some of the hyposensitivities and hypersensitivities that result from being autistic can be made disabling by a lack of empathy, and sometimes by antagonism in the 99% of the population who are neurotypical. So in hindsight I really shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of understanding or empathy I have received over the past week or so due to no longer being able to augment spoken conversation by lip reading.

Perhaps I am on more common ground with neurotypicals when it come to reading facial expressions of those who are masked. I’ve heard and read many complaints about how much more likely it is to misunderstand someone or be misunderstood when masks cover so much of the face. I’ve queried a few acquaintances about this, and they tell me that it does reduce the amount of non-verbal communication they receive. The amount of perceived loss seems to vary considerably. When pressed, it’s varied from “some” to “heaps” (a lot).

Most people don’t think about how much body language and facial expressions contribute to spoken communication until it’s brought to their attention or they find it missing from others or they realise their own intentions are not always fully understood. The necessity to wear masks is bringing the significance of non-verbal forms of communication to the attention of some of the more socially aware folk.

My own (admittedly very anecdotal) investigation suggests that people rely on the eyes as much, if not more, than other facial expressions. So while a mask can reduce the amount of non-verbal information received, it doesn’t eliminate it. If anyone has tried the Mind in the eye test, they will realise how much most people can read from looking at the eyes alone. So spare a moment to consider the situation I now find myself in.

I do very poorly when reading facial expressions. I can recognise a few basic facial expressions, but if I rely solely on the eyes I’m lost. The average for adults taking the Mind in the eye test is 26 out of a possible score of 36, but varies from 17 to 35. Women average slightly higher than men. For autistics, the average is 22. I’ve tried the test many times, and the best I have ever done is 17 out of the possible score of 36. Typically I hover around the score that might result from random selection – a one in four chance of getting the correct answer for any given question – 9 out of 36. In other words, I haven’t a clue how to read eyes.

It is becoming clear to me that what emotions I can read from the face depend almost entirely on the mouth and now that they are effectively hidden behind masks, I am blind to emotions being expressed unless someone describes their emotion(s) in words. I’m really not sure how I can effectively remedy the the losses I now realise I am faced with, as I don’t see the likelihood of masks being done away with for some considerable time, if at all.

I’ve spent seventy years learning how to limit social faux pas, and more importantly, how to recognise them when they occur so that I can take remedial action. I can foresee that mask wearing will set me back decades. Perhaps it’s time I seriously thought about becoming a hermit as a full time occupation.


Not knowing what you don’t know.

Lyric Holmans has released a Youtube clip explaining why she finds people overwhelming. You can view the clip and read a transcription on her blog. Like her, I find people can be overwhelming, and the reasons are similar – non-vocal communications.

While humans may be the only species to have developed a language, all vertebrates and many invertebrates communicate in various ways with their own species, and to a lesser extent other species. And while non-vocal communication may take second place to spoken (or written) communication in humans, it remains an important factor in our everyday communications.

For the first 60 years of my life, I was totally unaware that language (spoken or written) was complemented by other forms of communication, namely body language and facial expressions. I’m not alone. Many people don’t realise that body language exists, but nevertheless, they use it and read it every day. It’s instinctive to them. For many autistics, including myself, its not. Hence the title of this article.

During those first 60 years, I was able to read body language in domestic pets – better than most people in fact – in babies and to a lesser extent, toddlers. But apart from the way lips form with a smile or laughter I was unaware that the face, especially the eyes, can convey a whole raft of emotions and ideas. Even so, I was unable to distinguish between a grin and a grimace. I was completely unaware that humans also used posture, movement of body and hands, even vocal pitch and volume to supplement the words they use.

Now that I do know that a significant part of human communication is non-vocal, I’m able to look for it, and that in itself can be overwhelming. In the first place, making a conscious effort to look for non-vocal communication requires effort, so much so, that sometimes I forget to listen to the actual words being spoken. And then I’m always asking myself whether or not a particular facial or body movement is indeed intended (intentionally or not) to communicate something. And if it is intended to communicate something, what exactly?

I managed to survive the first sixty years of my life, more or less intact, not knowing that body language and facial expressions play a vital role in interpersonal communications. I’m yet to be persuaded that knowing it exits at all, let alone its importance, makes my communication with others, as individuals or groups, any less overwhelming. In my case it might actually make it more so. Group dynamics is another mystery to me (Lyric touches on it in the post linked to above), but that’s a topic for another day.


Manaakitanga – a Kiwi answer to Covid

One aspect of Pākehā (European) cultural dominance that we Kiwis have historically downplayed is the undervaluing and sometimes the suppression of Māori culture. Sometimes it has been the result of a misplaced belief that one culture is more advanced or otherwise better than another. Other times it resulted directly from a notion of entitlement – that settlers had a right to indigenous resources and if that necessitated the overriding of Māori customary law by British law, so be it.

A hundred and fifty years later, the courts are beginning to recognise that customary law has equal footing with common law, and not before time. In legislation we are seeing a start to the recognition of the Māori world view as a legitimate perspective on equal footing with the Western world view. One example of a change from the Western perspective has been the granting of personhood to forests, to rivers and their catchments, and to mountains. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next few decades much more of the landscape is also granted personhood.

I accept that such a concept is alien to most people immersed in Western monoculture where personhood can only be granted to individual humans, and to a limited extent, to corporate entities. In the West, two thousand years of Christian thought has separated humanity from nature and has placed mankind, collectively and individually, above and in control of nature. It hasn’t worked out too well in my view.

Since the revival of Māori culture, from the 1970s onwards, aspects of Māori culture have started to infiltrate our once Western culture. At first, it was merely the acceptance that aspects of Māori culture were “allowed”. In other words, Pākehā “granted” Māori the “right” to express their culture publicly – a form of tokenism. But over the decades something more profound has occurred.

Not only have Pākehā accepted, and more recently welcomed aspects of Māori culture, they are also embracing it. By this I mean that not only have Pākeha recognised that Māori culture has equal standing with their own, their world view is being coloured by it. Perhaps Pākehā have been influenced more by Māori for more than a hundred and fifty years, but it’s only very recently that they have acknowledged the fact.

I return now to the topic of this post: manaakitanga. If you look up the term in the Māori Dictionary, you’ll see that it is defined as “hospitality, kindness, generosity, support – the process of showing respect, generosity and care for others“. But it’s more than that. It’s also about recognising the collective – that one’s freedom as an individual is only as strong as one’s place in the community.

The importance of the “collective” has probably been an unconscious part of the Kiwi culture for more than a hundred years. Perhaps some on the right of the political spectrum will identify this with socialism, but I believe that is only partially correct. Socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole“. Manaakitanga is more about values than about process.

Concepts such as universal suffrage and welfarism that became part of the New Zealand landscape in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and more recently, a universal no fault accident compensation and recovery system, can I believe, be at least partially attributed to manaakitanga, although Pākehā have been slow to recognise the source. Today manaakitanga is a core part of the education system in Aotearoa New Zealand.

So what has manaakitanga to do with the current pandemic? It is, I believe, the reason why this nation has been successful in keeping Covid-19 out of our communities. While being an island nation has made the shutting of borders somewhat easier than most nations, given the will, any nation could do the same. And the argument that a nation can’t shut its border due to commerce doesn’t cut it either. This nation is more dependent on international trade and the steady inflow and outflow of travellers than most. For example, as a percentage of GDP, international trade in NZ is twice that of the US.

Manaakitanga can be seen in our willingness to forgo personal freedoms for the sake of the community as a whole. When this nation went into lockdown for six weeks from late March last year, they were the most restrictive anywhere, (with the possible exception of Wuhan.) If you believe Kiwis accepted the hardships and pain the lockdown caused because we’re “subservient to our overlords” (yes, I’ve seen that description used of Fox), then you really don’t know Kiwis at all.

We made our sacrifices in the interests of the the collective – what we have called a “team of 5 million“. And it worked. Our lives are for the most part like they were before Covid appeared on the scene. The experience has reinforced the idea that an individualistic approach is not enough and that it takes a team for us all to gain true freedom.

Perhaps the relative failure of many nations in the West compared to those in the East, is due to the notion that personal individual freedom, and “rights” are paramount and above the interests of the collective. I’m not sure that such a concept has ever been held in the high regard in this nation. It’s not part of the Māori world view, and when we consider the motives of many of the early settlers, it wasn’t high on their agenda either. A “fair go”, an escape from the excesses of unregulated capitalism, egalitarianism, equity and equality in equal measure, and fair sharing, were more on their minds than personal liberty and bettering their peers.

The influence of a Māori world view has, I think, lead us to better understand what it is that we have always, if unconsciously sought, and now Pākehā too have a name for it: manaakitanga.


Special people

On Saturday I and two of my siblings travelled the three hours to Opunake to a commemoration service for an aunt. I’m in my 70s and the two siblings are knocking on the door of 70, and attending funerals, commemorations and celebrations of lives of recently departed is becoming more frequent by the year.

This particular service was called a commemoration as the aunt died in January, but due to the restrictions on international travel imposed by Covid, it was felt more appropriate to delay the funeral until as many as possible would be able to attend. Instead of there being a presence of a body in a casket, there were her ashes in an urn on a table amidst flowers, photographs and a candle. Somewhere between 200 and 300 attended

Looking back on the services I have attended over recent years, it struck me that the only “real” Christian funeral was that of my mother. All the rest either ignored Christian theology altogether or at best may have included a token hymn that reflected an aspect of the deceased’s life more than anything specifically Christian.

Like all the others I have attended (apart from my mother’s) there has been no mention of God or gods, Jesus or an the expectation of an afterlife in heaven or hell. The only token towards a cultural Christianity was a quip by one speaker who mentioned that if her late husband was the one designated to drive her to the pearly gates in his much loved orange Vauxhall Viva, she’d probably wish to be somewhere else – anywhere else. He had a reputation for loudly expressing his view that he was the only competent driver in the world (and probably in heaven), although it was evident to everyone else that he wasn’t.

Aunty Joan was my father’s oldest sister and was just a few weeks short of her 105th birthday. She was one of twelve siblings, of whom only two remain. I was going to title this piece “Another one bites the dust” in light of that comment being made in jest by one of her remaining brothers, but I suspect some of my readers might not think too kindly about such an irreverent phrase, particularly if they have experienced a recent loss of their own.

On the drive back, my brother, who is neither a Christian nor religious made the comment that Aunty Joan was a true Christian, and the world could do with more people like her. My sister and I agreed, but I quipped that a great many fundamentalist Christians would disagree. It all comes down to what one considers “being Christian” is all about.

I live in a society that is secular but nominally “Christian”, and as best as I can recognise, the religious beliefs of Kiwis has changed little over my lifetime. What has changed is what Kiwis consider “being Christian” is. Until the 1960s, most Kiwis regardless of their religiosity would have been offended if they were described as not being Christian. Being Christian did not centre around belief but around action. One was judged by their deeds – generosity of heart and spirit, helping those in need regardless of one’s own circumstances, listening, caring, being supportive and being a warrior of whatever one perceived as social justice.

What has changed over recent decades has been that the concept of “being a Christian” no longer has that meaning. Lead by the importation of fundamentalism it’s become all about belief – having a specific sort of faith, and that “good works” count for nothing. Perhaps if one does “good works” for the purpose of salvation (whatever that is) then just maybe they do count for little. But people such as Aunty Joan never gave salvation a second thought. They give of themselves because, in good conscience, they could not ignore the needs of others.

For old schoolers such as myself, Christianity was (and I’m using the past tense deliberately) about one’s relationship to humanity (Love your neighbour as yourself). Today it seems that for some Christians, all that matters is one’s relationship with a deity and the worshipping of “His” Bible.

Sixty years ago I too would have been offended if someone had declared I wasn’t a Christian. Today, I’d be offended if they said I was. It’s not that my beliefs or values have changed significantly, it’s because the common understanding of what being a Christian has undergone a radical change under the influence of the fundamentalist evangelical movement. That’s why today, if someone asks if I’m a Christian, I always ask what they mean by being Christian. I’m unlikely to be in agreement with many who are younger than fifty.

The following is a poem by David Harkins that was presented at the service. I felt it was most appropriate.

You can shed tears that she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love that you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.


Disturbed dawn

By nature, I’m a night owl. I’m seldom ready for bed before midnight, and even then it make take a few hours before sleep overtakes me. During that time I find myself replaying conversation scenarios – sometimes recent conversations, occasionally long past conversations, but mostly I find myself rehearsing potential conversations. These fall into two very distinct groups: those that are necessary, and those I would like to pursue should the opportunity arise.

In the necessary category are items of small talk which for neurotypicals seem necessary to normal social interaction. Also in this category are those conversation threads one undertakes in commerce, and routine conversations with friends and family. Even much of the conversation with the wife falls into this category.

It’s not sufficient to rely on the bank of scripts I have stored away that can be recalled more or less on demand, as these can be used only in short bursts: comment, reply, comment, reply. Beyond that they’re not likely to be particularly fruitful. So in the hours I’m awake and every sensible person is sleeping I rehearse the many possible ways a scenario might develop. I practice being serious, flippant, casual, precise, vague, humourous, so that I can call on the appropriate script when needed.

And so it was at 5:00 am this morning when I realised I had spent most of the night rehearsing a range of conversation threads that might pop up when the wife and I join with family and friends to celebrate the (secular) festive season on Christmas day. The dawn chorus was just commencing so I made a conscious effort to cease rehearsals and instead bath in the glory that is dawn – even if the sun didn’t shine.


Tea for two

Tea is the name Kiwis give to the evening meal. Why, I have no idea, but that’s the way it is. And before anyone tries to tell me that we are mutilating the English language, may I remind you that the Americans call the main course of a meal the entrée, when it’s supposed to be the course before the main course, and they commit the greatest of all culinary crimes by topping an oversized meringue with whipped cream and berries and calling it a pavlova!

The wife and I don’t dine out often. Quality restaurants tend to be somewhat pricey in this country, and being on a limited budget, we get better “bang for bucks” by buying top quality ingredients and cooking at home. Besides, even better restaurants tend to leave us a little disappointed. The wife has an exceptional skill when it comes to flavour and aroma and she has a mastery that few professional chefs could better. A quiet intimate tea for two with a glass or two of NZ Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris or Chardonnay in the comfort of our own home is hard to beat, and there’s no need to drive home afterwards.

While perhaps presentation isn’t quite up to that of the professionals, flavour and aroma more than makes up for it. Here’s a selection of home cooked meals we’ve enjoyed over the past month [Duration – 2m 37s]

Nothing can beat a lovingly prepared home meal


How to embarrass yourself…

Use the word twink in an online forum where you’re possibly the only Kiwi.

I discovered a new use (for me) of that term today, and it was definitely not what I had in mind. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, Twink is the leading brand of correction fluid. It’s also become a generic term when referring to correction fluid in general. It’s used as a verb to name the action of correcting a (typing) mistake much the same way as hover is used in the UK to name the action of vacuuming.

New Zealand’s most popular brand of correction fluid


Christianity without God

On several occasions on this blog I have attempted to describe my religious beliefs. I describe myself as being religious and as being a non-theist. I describe myself as a Quaker but not a Christian. However I still find “God language” useful and meaningful to me. For myself, God is a metaphor, or perhaps more accurately an envelope that holds those ideals I value highly – fairness, compassion, social justice, kindness all rank highly. However, someone else may value obedience, adherence to rules, an eye for an eye, conformity. Whatever values one holds as being most important, that is what is contained within the envelope I choose to call God.

As an aside, I would argue that in fact even those who wish to believe in God as a supernatural being, also do exactly what I do, except they have come to believe that the envelope is the all important bit, worthy of worship itself – something beyond themselves. By doing so, they see the contents contained within as characteristics of the container. The outcome is that the contents are no longer open to question or revision.

What many of my readers may not be aware of is that Christianity today is less liberal than it was a century ago or even in my youth. Theological Liberalism remained the driving force of Christianity in Aotearoa New Zealand until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Since then, Liberal Christianity, along with it’s younger relative Progressive Christianity have faced a greater challenge from conservatism, Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism..

Those same forces have had a 50 year advantage in the USA, having gained momentum in the first quarter of the twentieth century. It is presumably why some comments from Americans regarding my attempts at explaining a non-theistic approach to God are so antagonistic, especially from avowed atheists. Most seem to be unable to conceive of God in non-theistic terms.

Complicating matters, is that here in NZ only one in three people claim a christian affiliation, whereas in the US three out of four people claim to be Christian. So the context in which my beliefs developed are radically different from that which most Americans experience. The result is that that neither the American Christian nor American atheist has much in common with the Kiwi form of liberal religion that shaped my world view.

So rather than attempt to use my own words to explain what I believe, here is part a presentation made by Sir Lloyd Geering around 9 years ago (he’s 101 now, and he was 92 at the time of the presentation).

This particular part of the presentation was an afterthought. He was asked to explain the backgound behind his book Christianity Without God. It’s essentially “off the cuff” as he hadn’t made preparation for this part. I’ve included a Youtube clip. As often happens with the Kiwi accent, Youtube’s inbuilt transcript doesn’t do a particularly good job, so for those who find our accent a little difficult, I’ve transcribed it below keeping as close as I can to his actual words.

Well, Christianity Without God came about in a funny way, you know. I don”t know if you have heard anything of the Sea of Faith movement. It is associated with Don Cupitt, the radical theologian in Britain, and now it’s a movement in New Zealand as well. At one of the conferences, I offered a little workshop called Christianity Without God. I did it with a bit of tongue in check really, because it sounds a bit absurd – how can you have Christianity without God?

However, it aroused so much interest that somebody put it on the Internet. Then somebody in America found it on the Internet and drew attention to Polebridge Publishers about it. So Bob Funk who was at the head of Polebridge Publishers and the Westar Institute said “Couldn’t you write a book about it?” and I said “I don’t really know about it. I’ll have a go”. So I wrote Christianity without God.

Now, in the course of this it was really tracing to my own thinking about God, because when I came into the church, they all talked about God. I didn’t know quite what to make of God. I knew the image of an old man in the sky was just an image, and I was content, really, to feel I knew nothing about God – that God was the supreme mystery about life. And then I gradually came (as a result of reading a good deal of theology) to refine that.

So in this book, I have tried to show that in Christianity without God, I mean Christianity without a theistic view of God. Now, theism is the term which means you think of God as personal being – of course infinite compared with us, but nevertheless, one who thinks, and plans, and performs miracles, and answers prayers. That’s theism.

Well, all I want to say is that that view of God no longer gels for me – no longer gels for a lot of people. Now it doesn’t mean to say that I’m casting the word God away. No, If I use the word God at all, I’ve got to use it in a different way from that.

Indeed, one great Roman Catholic scholar said right back in the ’60s we have to learn to speak of God in a radically new way. So Christianity without God means Christianity without that old idea of God, but it leaves God language free.

Of course we don’t have to use God language. God language is a symbolic language, and theology has much more in common with poetry than it has with science because it has to do with that highest dimension of human experience – what sometimes we call the spiritual dimension, because we haven’t got adequate words to describe it otherwise.

That’s why it links it up with poetry and the arts – the visual arts, and the dramatic arts, the storytelling arts. There where we have mediums through which which we can use in order to reach out to that which is beyond us. So if I use the word God at all, though I’m more careful now because, you see it’s ceasing to be a word that you can use without explaining what you mean by it. Otherwise people assume you’re meaning the theistic God, so in some ways it’s better not to talk about God at all. But I do I do so in the way a theologian, Gordon Kaufman (from whom I’ve learned much), suggested.

The word God has played a very important role in the Western world. Not simply because of that image which has to go, but because of what it did. It was a central point. Now to illustrate this, let me say when our pioneering forebears came to Australia and New Zealand to what they thought was a sort of virgin land (forget about the Māori and the Aboriginies), and took it over and planned how to use it.

Their surveyors had to come in, and what did the surveyor do? He went to the nearest hill and put a trig station in, and from that trig station, he measured out the land and it was given out in plots. Now the trig station was on a chosen bit – that is, it was humans who decided where the trig station was to be. But having chosen it, it then became a central point to which they referred for the land.

Now the word God has played that role in the Western world. if you don’t know a thing, you’d say “Only God knows that”. Who made the world? “Don’t know. God made the world”. That’s how we answered all the difficult questions of our children as they were growing up. Use god as a reference point. So the use of the word God as a reference point is very good.

Now, what is my reference point? I was asked this recently when they did a television documentary about me. What was my reference point and I said “Well, they are values. The things I value most,” I said, “are Love and justice and compassion and goodwill and honesty and so it goes on,” and then I said, “and those are, for me, God.

In that sense I think God language has a very important role to play but in the traditional sense of that image, as John Robinson said in 1963, “That image of God has to go”.


Thinking about the lockdown

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 🙂

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Why did I say?

I have at any one time, a number of unpublished posts on WordPress (currently 23 29). Some of these may eventually be published, but the majority are used by me as sounding boards where I write down and develop thought and feelings that exist in my mind but lack words or visual context. In a way, I’m translating my thought processes into a form that I might be able to use in dialogue with other people.

Outside of the blogosphere, I do exactly the same, except the thought processes are kept in small mental “notepads” where concepts have been converted into streams of words at various levels of completeness. During most of my waking hours, I’m constantly moving from notepad to notepad revising the content so that I can recite it should a need to communicate with fellow human beings arise. I find speaking “off the cuff” difficult at the best of times times, even with friends and family. I rely to a large extent on finalised or nearly finalised notepad scripts. I can really put my foot in it if the only appropriate script hasn’t been well prepared.

Quite simply, I don’t think in words or images, yet I’m unable to communicate with fellow humans without making an effort to convert “thought blobs” into strings of spoken or written words, otherwise known as sentences and paragraphs, or larger objects such as a blog post or opinion piece. I struggle with conversations because of the necessity to convert incoming words into “thought blobs” and then to reverse engineer my thoughts back into word streams. Social interactions require almost instantaneous conversions in both directions and although I can convert incoming word streams into thought processes reasonably quickly (providing there are no other word streams within earshot, or some other distraction) and with moderate accuracy (providing there are no other word streams within earshot, or some other distraction), reversing the process is much more difficult, not to mention exhausting.

While most of the unpublished WordPress articles start out with the intent to publish, the process of putting words to what I wish to express, exposes a “weakness” in the way I process ideas. That is I find it very difficult to put forward an argument in a way that is meaningful to those who don’t process thought in the same way as I do.

Some articles simply stop part way through, waiting for the moment where I can add flesh to the bare bones of what I have written. Sometimes, the effort of translating thought into words reveals flaws in my logic, but not necessarily providing me with a solution. These articles will sit there until either I realise the premise is not worth considering and I delete the offending article, or I find a solution and publish after considerable revision.

Most posts languish because I realise I’m unable to do the translation from thought blobs into meaningful dialogue. A bit like running an automated translator over some complex idea presented in a language that has absolutely no relationship with your own. For example here’s the previous paragraph after it was translated into another language and back into English:

Part of this information is just waiting for conversion at any time period beyond the quality of the bone with different answers. Sometimes, someone wants to understand the cut word, but does not provide a solution. In this approach, Until I understand this data, I will pull the information or find a solution after a constructive publication.

Sometimes, when I review what I have previously written, especially if it’s largely abstract, philosophical or religious in nature, it makes about as much sense as the translation above. There’s a few unpublished articles which currently are about as understandable as the example above, but a few days from now those article might make sense and others might appear as nonsense to me. What others might make of them is another matter.

Even this post, which I’ve published as a consequence of something I did a few hours weeks ago, consists mostly of content for an unpublished post about how I convert the way I translate my thought processes into English, and the fact that even though I’ve just recently turned 70, I still struggle with the process.

Perhaps my biggest issue is that language is linear – within sentences, within paragraphs, within stories. While perhaps the best communicators are those who are linear, I struggle with the whole concept of linearity. For me, there is no beginning, middle or end: there’s just a whole, (or if I’m confused about something, there’s just a hole).

Another issue is that I don’t see anything in absolute terms. This gives rise to some people interpreting what I say/write as being vague. Ashley of The Boastful Blasphemer is convinced that I’m “the most wishy-washy, waffling, non-committal, vague, imprecise, escape-hatch-leaving ‘debater’ I’ve ever talked to“. While I completely disagree with the “escape-hatch-leaving” part, there might be an element of truth in the rest. There are no absolute truths. Every fact is open to interpretation (even if we don’t realise that is what we are doing).

I have at times stated that I have no notion of time. This is probably somewhat inaccurate. I understand the notion of time – I am unable to experience time. Most people seem to remember events in terms of chronological distance. They seem to instinctively know approximately how long ago personal experiences occurred. I have absolutely no idea. I’m only able to remember the relative significance of various events. Important events are close while less important events are distant. This even applies to the present moment.

For example when experiencing a migraine, everything occurring in the “now” is distant and may be further away than events that occurred even decades ago. In such circumstances the past is more “real”, and certainly more immediate than the present. After the migraine is over, everything I experienced during the attack remains distant. A good example of this might be the first time I saw my first grandchild. I had a migraine at the time. I have absolutely no memory of the actual event. The only “memory” of the event is the description provided by my wife and daughter several years later.

This brings up another factor: With a very few exceptions, I have no visual memory of past experiences, nor can I create a visual picture of an event. For this reason, I find it difficult to distinguish between events I experience directly and those described to me by other means. The above incident with my first grandchild is one example. For a while I thought I was able to describe the incident from my own experience. Later I realised that there were discrepancies in my “recollection” that turned out to be the way I interpreted the event as described by my wife and daughter.

Here’s another example. My daughter’s home has tall picket fence at the front, about as tall as I am, nearly as old, and unpainted. Now you know as much about her front fence as I do. I probably could not identify it from a photo lineup of similar fences any better than you could with the description I’ve provided. Oh, there’s a row of trees and bushes on the property side of the fence. So if only one photo matched that description, and one of the photos was definitely a picture of my daughters fence-line, then that would be the photo I’d pick. But then knowing the facts that I’ve just provided, you would be able to do exactly the same thing. And you’ve never seen the place.

Fortunately there’s no other property in the same block that matches the description above, so finding it is not difficult. If there was a similar fence-line, I’d have to memorise a different set of parameters that made the daughter’s property uniquely identifiable.

What some of you might be able to do is create a mental image of the fence-line I’ve described. While it’s very unlikely to be an accurate image, it’s something you can “see” in your imagination. I can’t. I rely on the information I’ve specifically set out to remember. Specifically, there is a thought blob that when translated into English indicates last block in street, on left, picket fence, my height, my age, unpainted, trees behind. There is no picture associated with that description.

In the local New World supermarket milk products are located on shelving at the back left corner of the store. It is the south west corner of the store and diagonally opposite the entrance, which is at the front right, north east corner of the store. Now you know as much as I do, and if I were to place you in front of the supermarket, you could find your way to the milk section just as easily as I can. What I can’t do is describe what my eyes have seen when I visit.

This lack of visual memory can lead to potentially embarrassing moments such as the one recently described in I wonder what she wants? I learnt a long time ago to be careful of relying too much on distinguishing personal features. It’s rather embarrassing to discover the person you’ve been talking to for the last ten minutes is not who you thought she was, but a total (but friendly) stranger.

I’m not even immune from failing to immediately identifying my wife, and we’ve been together for 48 years. When we go out, I make a note of what she’s wearing. Remembering that information, along with the fact that she’s likely the shortest oldish person of Asian appearance is usually sufficient for a visual identification. While that description is reasonably reliable here in Aotearoa New Zealand where approximately one in eight people are of Asian descent (and around one in twelve in our hometown) , I discovered it wasn’t so helpful in Japan where the ratio is more like 999 in 1000 are of Asian descent, although she is still significantly shorter than average, even in Japan.

A further visual clue is her gait. It’s rather reminiscent of how a cowboy might walk after a week in the saddle. While it’s not exactly what could be described as elegant, it’s a godsend when it comes to identifying her when in this country, but again, in Japan not so much as many women of her generation, especially from farming families, walk in a similar manner

So how do I recognise people? Mostly by voice. I’ve found that to be the most reliable for me. In fact, as there are no other forms of distraction, I can usually recognise someone on the telephone faster than in a face to face situation. If I happen meet someone I know while I’m out and about, there’s a good chance I won’t recognise them unless they speak to me, and even then, the distractions of sights and sounds might be enough to delay recognition for some time. At home or in the office, there’s much less distraction, and I can usually recognise the caller before they’ve identified themselves.

As I was diagnosed as having a 90% hearing loss when I was seven years old, I wonder why I am able to recognise voices so well. But that’s a conversation for another time.

I know face blindness is more common in autistic people than is the general population, and I wonder if a lack of visual memory and thought without words or images are also more prevalent. To date I haven’t seen any discussion of this, but perhaps its something other autistics experience and haven’t realised that it’s not what most people experience.