Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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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.


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Why I’m Not a High-Functioning Autistic

Like most autistics, I dislike functioning labels. These are terms neurotypical people use to describe how an autistic person appears to be relative to a typical non-autistic person from a non-autistic perspective.

I have been described as “high functioning” because I had a successful career of 35 years with the same multinational I.T. company and because I have been married for 48 years and have two wonderful children. Yet my attempts at socialising can at best be described as “tries hard, but fails to implement the required rules. Grade: F”.

My social skills are lacking. I can’t do small talk; I avoid eye contact and touching of any sort unless I know someone very well; I can’t read body language and that especially applies to that used in the process of dating and courtship (by either sex); I didn’t understand gender roles; not being aware of non-verbal communication, I didn’t use any, and my voice and body language appeared to be lacking any feelings or emotion. If I had put my faith in finding a partner the “normal” way, I’d still be looking. (Perhaps I’ll tell the story of how my wife and I discovered each other another time.)

When seeking work for the first time, I applied for six jobs and was accepted for all of them. They were all related to my “special interests”, often referred to by “autism experts” as “obsessive interests”. While I still struggle to tie shoe laces, or converse and do up a button at the same time, I had no problem dismantling a mechanism with over 5000 individual moving parts and comprising of more than 8,000 parts in total, and then reassembling it without the need to refer to a manual. This was in spite of a work colleague messing up my neat piles of parts spread over four workbenches just “for laughs”.

I struggle comprehending a three line haiku in English, yet I had no problem solving a Boolean equation comprising of over 4600 symbols, or single handedly writing and maintaining a parts management system comprised of more than 20,000 lines of code that was used in the company I worked for in the late 1980s until the mid 1990s.

(I have used the past tense with regards to the positive traits mentioned above due to the fact that my ability to process large amounts of information has declined with age and the rise in frequency of migraines.)

On the other hand, I have no perception of the passage of time. I understand the concept of time. I’m unable to experience time passing. Without some external aid, I can’t tell you whether 5 minutes or five hours have passed. Something that happened last week or last decade often feels more recent than something that happened yesterday. My determining of “recent” is based on how much detail I can recall, not on when it occurred.

As a consequence, I suck at time management and prioritising tasks. Given the opportunity to concentrate on one task as a time, I can do a superb job, but ask me to juggle two tasks at the same time, and there’s every chance neither will actually be completed.

So while I’m deficient at some skills, I am very proficient at others. I am neither a “high functioning” autistic, nor a “low functioning” autistic I am simply autistic.

What is most appalling about the use of functioning labels is in the determining of one’s competence. Wikipedia’s editorial decision to delete pages by or about those they consider “low functioning autistics” is but just one example.

This post was inspired by one of the same name by Emily Volz over on the Aspergian: Why I’m Not a High-Functioning Autistic


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Wow! I’m not into poetry, but very occasionally something speaks to my condition (to use a Quaker term). I am quite familiar with the experience described below. Bombardment of the senses, especially in social settings, is something many on the autism experience.

The hourglass is set, sand fills the corners of my eyes. Dust particles react to the sounds like fairies grouping around a newborn. Swarming, the buzz can sometimes be unbearable and all I want to do is wake up. But no matter how hard I pinch or how sharp a pin I prick myself with […]

via Overcrowded — Treeshallow Musings


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As a male autistic, I was less aware of social norms than many females on the spectrum seem to be. I was in my early twenties before I learnt the hard way that I needed to make a more conscious effort to appear “normal”. Violence is a very “effective” teacher in that regard.

Although it would be some forty years later before I discovered I was autistic the effort of masking has had an impact on my health and that of my family. Here is a post from a female perspective about masking, although a lot of it applies to everyone on the autism spectrum to varying degrees.

This topic was requested by two different people in two different ways. One friend wanted me to talk about masking, and another asked what seemed to me to be a really challenging question: “How large is the area within the spectrum which is better treated by teaching coping skills and social conformity? Thinking of hyperactive […]

via Masks! — K807


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To speak or not to speak, that is the question

That dear readers, is a question I’m unable to answer. At (almost) 68 years of age, I still don’t have a clue when it’s my turn to speak. And it’s not for the want of trying.

I often get it wrong even in one on one conversations, but if I’m in a group of two or more other people I’m like a fish out of water when it come to practising  conversational turn taking.

It appears to me that conversations consist of one person leading and others following, adding variable length interjections from time to time  (the nature and frequency of which varies from culture to culture), and then by some mysterious mechanism the lead is transferred to another member of the group.

To a person like me, the ability of others to smoothly navigate a conversation is more than an art or skill. It has the appearance of the participants having some sort of ESP or supernatural ability that is used to negotiate who says what, and when. In fact there was a period in my childhood when I was convinced this was true, which goes a long way to explain my brief fascination of the paranormal at that time.

I’m sure there’s a discipline of science that studies the mechanism by which people negotiate  conversations, but the average person seems to have no idea how they do it. Believe me, I’ve asked. Typical responses are “I’ve never thought about it” (so I gather), “It comes naturally” (no it doesn’t), “It’s instinctive” (no it’s not), “what a stupid question!” (why?), “everyone can do it” (really? I can’t)), “just take your turn” (when is it my turn?), “just observe and you’ll learn” (I’ve been observing for more than 60 years, so how about a hint or clue?).

It was only eight years ago that I learnt there is an explanation for the reason I find conversation so difficult: I discovered I am on the autism spectrum. However being armed with the knowledge why I fail to recognise non-verbal clues (a skill most people don’t realise they possess), does little to help me. If I concentrate exclusively on another’s body movements or tone of voice, I can maybe recognise something that possibly might be non-verbal clues. However, it’s a moot point as the concentration required means the words spoken have gone in one ear and out the other and I’m unable to relate what might have been expressed non-verbally with what the person has said.

When I first learnt I was on the spectrum, my only “knowledge” of autism was through the film Rain Man. I wanted to prove I wasn’t autistic, and tried many online tests in an attempt to prove the experts wrong. I failed totally. One test I tried (on many occasions) is the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. This test measures one’s ability to identify emotions in others by looking at an area around the eyes and without any other input.

The test consists of looking at a total of 36 pairs of eyes and choosing one of four emotions to match the image. The mean score is roughly 27/36 for women, 25/36 for men and 22/36 for people who have been identified as having Asperger Syndrome or “High Functioning” Autism. I’ve tried this test on numerous occasions, and the very best I have achieved is 16/36. However most of my results have been close been between 10 and 13, which is only marginally better than one would expect from a tossing a dice to choose an emotion.

So the next time someone appears to be rude by interrupting inappropriately, just consider the possibility that they might struggling, almost to the point of exhaustion, of trying to fit in and having no idea why they don’t. They struggle to fit into your world almost every moment they are awake. It won’t hurt you to try to fit into their world sometimes.

For those who would like to try the test for themselves, there are online versions at http://socialintelligence.labinthewild.org/mite/ and https://www.questionwritertracker.com/quiz/61/Z4MK3TKB.html. The latter requires Adobe Flash, and provides the answers, both of which are good reasons for me to avoid it.


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I am atheism

I am atheism.
I’m visible in your children, but if I can help it, I am invisible to you until it’s too late.
I know where you live.
And guess what? I live there too.
I hover around all of you.
I know no colour barrier, no religion, no morality, no currency.
I speak your language fluently.
And with every voice I take away, I acquire yet another language.
I work very quickly.
I work faster than paediatric aids, cancer, and diabetes combined
And if you’re happily married, I will make sure that your marriage fails.
Your money will fall into my hands, and I will bankrupt you for my own self-gain.
I don’t sleep, so I make sure you don’t either.
I will make it virtually impossible for your family to easily attend a temple, birthday party, or public park without a struggle, without embarrassment, without pain.
You have no cure for me.
Your scientists don’t have the resources, and I relish their desperation. Your neighbours are happier to pretend that I don’t exist—of course, until it’s their child.
I am atheism. I have no interest in right or wrong. I derive great pleasure out of your loneliness.
I will fight to take away your hope. I will plot to rob you of your children and your dreams. I will make sure that every day you wake up you will cry, wondering who will take care of my child after I die?
And the truth is, I am still winning, and you are scared. And you should be.
I am atheism. You ignored me. That was a mistake.
And to atheism I say:
I am a father, a mother, a grandparent, a brother, a sister.
We will spend every waking hour trying to weaken you.
We don’t need sleep because we will not rest until you do.
Family can be much stronger than atheism ever anticipated, and we will not be intimidated by you, nor will the love and strength of my community.
I am a parent riding toward you, and you can push me off this horse time and time again, but I will get up, climb back on, and ride on with the message.
Atheism, you forget who we are. You forget who you are dealing with. You forget the spirit of mothers, and daughters, and fathers and sons.
We are Qatar. We are the United Kingdom. We are the United States. We are China. We are Argentina. We are Russia. We are the Eurpoean Union. We are the United Nations.
We are coming together in all climates. We call on all faiths. We search with technology and voodoo and prayer and herbs and genetic studies and a growing awareness you never anticipated.
We have had challenges, but we are the best when overcoming them. We speak the only language that matters: love for our children.
Our capacity to love is greater than your capacity to overwhelm.
Atheism is naïve. You are alone. We are a community of warriors. We have a voice.
You think because some of our children cannot speak, we cannot hear them? That is atheism’s weakness.
You think that because my child lives behind a wall, I am afraid to knock it down with my bare hands?
You have not properly been introduced to this community of parents and grandparents, of siblings and friends and schoolteachers and therapists and pediatricians and scientists.
Atheism, if you are not scared, you should be.
When you came for my child, you forgot: you came for me.
Atheism, are you listening?


Are you an atheist? Did the message above appal you? I hope it did.

Are you religious? Did the message above appal you? I hope it did.

In some regions of the world, atheists are victims of the attitudes displayed in the transcript above, and many of the religious in those regions would support the sentiments it contains, even if they would be reluctant to voice them openly. Fortunately I live in a region where all forms of religion and non-religion are accepted and valued. Atheism along with the world’s major religions are regarded in a positive light by around 90% of the population.

That’s about all I’m going to say about atheism and religion in this post as it is not really about religion (or lack of it) at all.

Huh? I hear you say? Truly it’s not. The transcript above has been very slightly modified from the original by replacing one word with the word atheism. I could have changed a few additional words the make it more consistent, but I think the message is very clear as it is, and that is that atheism is a very bad thing indeed.

While I concede that the harm manifest in the transcript will not be recognised by some fundamentalists of any religious flavour, I think the rest of us, religious or not, can see it. In some parts of the world, the transcript might be considered hate speech and the speakers sanctioned accordingly.

Most people like me will recognise the transcript, and know what word originally stood in place of atheism. We know it is hateful and harmful. People like me experience the result of the demonising of our person-hood that voices such as the ones in the original transcript cause – every day.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be subjected to not just disapproval or hatred, but intense compliance-based training to ensure every action, every deed, every word that you utter or write makes you indistinguishable from others in a devout religious community? Many like me don’t need to imagine. We’ve lived it.

Although the analogy of atheism is not perfect, if it’s made you uncomfortable or angry,  or given you food for thought, then I’ve succeeded. If you don’t know what the original word is in the transcript that I replaced with atheism, I’ll help you out. It’s another word starting with “A“. The transcript is of an advertisement put out by an organisation that supposedly has our best interests at heart, but fails to consult us or allow us to take a part in its activities, and makes others fear and hate what we are. No matter where we are in the world, we cannot escape the attitudes expressed in the transcript.

The original word in the transcript that I replaced with atheism is autism, and the advertisement is I Am Autism put out by Autism Speaks. I’m not going to put a link to the video, but if you want to see it in all its horror, search YouTube for “I Am Autism commercial by Autism Speaks”.

It does not speak for me!


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Autism is nothing to fear

Over on the silent wave, Liana makes a plea not to demonise autism. Get to know us. What makes us different is nothing to fear. Look, I am surrounded by non-autistic people, and while I might never understand their way of seeing the world, I see no reason to be afraid of them, or their condition. The same applies in reverse. The only thing to fear is the public perception of autism, not autism itself.

I live in the US, where the predominant feeling surrounding the autism spectrum is fear. Parents decline to vaccinate their children because because they’re afraid they’ll wind up autistic. Parents, I hear you, on a certain level. Some children really do react badly to vaccines. I’ve heard too many stories, even from people I know–reasonable […]

via Autism is nothing to fear. Are you scared of me? — the silent wave


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Theory of mind(reading)

Theory of Mind is a concept that autism “experts” have come up with, but as is amply illustrated in Laina’s post, one must ask whether it’s the autistic or the expert that lacks it.

the silent wave

Realizing that you’re autistic when you’re an adult means you get to do a lot of searching. This takes multiple forms – soul-searching, Google-searching, memory-searching, and often, people-searching (the journey of finding others just like you).

In my internet searching, I tripped over a staggering number of tidbits that clicked my entire world into place. It was like being given the instruction manual to my brain, and having it translated into my native language.

There was one particular concept, however, that did not click in line quite so easily: Theory of Mind.

What the hell was that, this “Theory of Mind” of which so many speak? The term stoically hides any further information.

Many a mention, nary a definition. At least, not a definition that helped much.

At first, my Inner Smartass came out. ”Well duh–of course we have minds. That’s not a theory!”

Har-har. 😉

It took me…

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