Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Are you Aprilness-aware? — transponderings

It’s still (just) April in parts of the western hemisphere and I’ve only just now stumbled across this (in my opinion) well written article, so I have no hesitation in reblogging it at this point in time. Anna writes what I have felt for some time but have been unable to put my thoughts together on this matter. Thank you Anna for explaining what I feel deeply.

It is, thankfully, nearly the end of another month with Aprilness. Another Autism Awareness Month – or as the ever-so-slightly-more enlightened have started to call it, Autism Acceptance Month. These are not labels chosen by the Autistic community (and I use a capital A here intentionally). This month of awareness- or acceptance-raising isn’t something any of us asked for.

Are you Aprilness-aware? — transponderings


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Quaker conversation

One thing I do notice when with Quakers, is how much my comfort level varies depending on the occasion. In other groups and settings, even on occasions the family, I always feel like a fish out of water, and I feel much the same with Quakers in “unstructured” situations, for example chatting during refreshments after worship. But in more structured situations such as meeting for worship itself, “Afterwords” (a time for reflexions or thoughts that arose during, or outside of, meeting but one felt wasn’t suitable for ministry) or business meetings or discussion groups, I feel “at home”.

What sets “structured” conversation apart is the mode of communication that follows implicit but undefined guidelines. These include moments of silence between each speaker, and one doesn’t respond directly to another speaker but simply speaks their own mind or thoughts. “Let your truth speak” (an old Quaker saying). The idea here is that one should speak to their own truths, not oppose or argue against those of another person or group. It allows individual Quakers to hold a wide variety of perspectives, without being judged right or wrong, and perhaps more importantly, encourages one not to pass judgements on others based on one’s own biases and prejudices. We all have them.

For me this mode of conversation provides me the opportunity to truly communicate. It allows me the time to digest what has been spoken and time for me to convert my own thoughts into reasonably structured sentences. I really struggle forming sentences “on the fly”. Not only do I have to find the right words and put them in the correct order, I then have to manipulate the jaw, lips and tongue “in real time” to convert those words into sounds that will be intelligible to the listener.

This is a tall order for me, even in company that I’m comfortable and familiar with, but in other situations the fear of misunderstanding, or worse, being misunderstood generates stress that has a negative impact on how I perform. Perhaps I’ve mastered the art of conversation to a limited degree, but in my youth I was extremely clumsy. Let me assure you that fear caused through being subjected to violence, both verbal and physical due to communication failures has left an indelible mark on my confidence in social situations.

Simply knowing I don’t need to respond directly to anything anyone else has said is comforting and allows me to feel an equal among equals. Simply knowing I’m not going to be judged by what I might say alleviates that subconscious fear of violence that always lurks when when in company of others. Simply knowing I will be given the space to allow my thoughts to grow into words that can be shared gives me a freedom of expression I seldom experience elsewhere. I feel valued.

Over the years, a number of atheist fellow bloggers have recommended I would be better off joining a sports club than “wasting my time with religion”, but I beg to differ. At least their suggestions have been with the best of intentions, which is more than I can say of some other sections of society. For me religion isn’t about theories, theology, dogma or creeds (absent within quakerism) nor about deities or about believing what others claim is The Truth. For me religion is experiential and how one responds to that experience.

I don’t believe in the supernatural, but often my response to the good within humanity, the beauty found in nature, the awesomeness of the universe, and even simply knowing I’m uniquely me, is so intense that it feels like there is “something” that others might explain as being supernatural or divine. Please note the emphasis on how the experience feels, not that there actually is a supernatural dimension. This is most fully experienced in the company of others with a similar perspective. For me that’s among Quakers.

What gave rise to this post was that I was strongly reminded of how awkward, uncomfortable, and dare I say fearful I feel in unfamiliar situations. In the early hours of yesterday morning (about 12:20 am from recollection) I Zoomed into an online Quaker meeting for worship at Woodbrooke in the UK. As always with silent worship, I felt right at home, and I remained that way until the end of the meeting. Then as conversation started, I felt the panic set in.

There was only one person at the meeting that I knew. I have known her through the medium of blogging for seven or so years, and while I am very comfortable about sharing my thoughts with her through the medium of WordPress, in the “real time” environment of Zoom, I struggled to make any form of “normal” conversation, what is often referred to a “small talk”. I should have reminded myself that she too is a Quaker and that we both could have slipped into the Quakerly “structured” mode where moments of silence aren’t considered awkward and where conversation doesn’t need to imitate small talk. I’ll try to remind myself of that next time.

One final observation. It occurs to me how much the Quakerly form of communication suits the autistic experience. Generally Autistics are not interested in games of one upmanship, debating or winning arguments. In spite of our social awkwardness, we’re more amenable to sharing and cooperation, and due to our minority status in a neuro-normative world, are more appreciative of differences being … well, just different. It’s not a case of being better or worse, right or wrong. When austics get together their form of communication is often along the lines I’ve described here, with perhaps shorter silent periods between speakers. Our normal mode of conversation parallels the Quakerly “structured” mode to a remarkable degree.


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Truth

Fiction is a lie that tells us true things over and over again.

Neil Gaiman

We have art in order not do die from the truth.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.

Maya Angelou


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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


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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