The video says it all. There’s nothing more I need say. (Turn on closed captions if you have a hearing disability)
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.
In the unlikely event that you are unaware, April is Autism Awareness Month. You may see slogans such as “light it up blue” and others promoted by an organisation inappropriately named Autism Speaks. What it doesn’t do is speak for the autistic community, and in the eyes of most adult autistics it does more harm than good.
Below is a video clip created for Autism speaks in (I believe) 2016. While their rhetoric has been toned down in recent years, I see no evidence that their attitude towards autism has shifted one iota. It depicts people such as myself causing irrevocable damage to families and that we as autistics have very few prospects of living a rewarding life unless we are “treated” or unless a “cure” is found.
I’m not bothering with a transcription for this clip as the voices are American and consequently Youtube’s subtitling of the clip is quite accurate. So for those who wish to read read along, please turn on Subtitles/Closed captions.
Here are some appalling statistics related to people who are autistic. These are statistics from Australia, but in all “developed” nations you’ll find the situation is similar. It’s important to understand these are not inherent in autism itself, but are entirely due to the way society treats those with autism. If you think racism is harmful, what do these statistics tell you about ableism?
- About 60% of adult autistics are underemployed or unemployed
- 87% of autistics have a mental illness
- autistic people are nine times more likely to die by suicide than the general population
- autistics have a life expencey of 54 years
We deserve better.
We don’t need to be cured. There’s nothing wrong with us. As suggested in the next video clip, perhaps neurodiversity is important in maintaining a healthy and sustainable cognitive environment in the same way as biodiversity is important in maintaining a healthy and sustainable physical environment. What is very clear to autistics is that current social attitudes towards autism is harmful. It’s not us as individuals that need curing. What is needed is a paradigm shift in how society views neurodiversity
A transcription has been prepared by Theresa Ranft and reviewed by David DeRuwe, so for those who find the Australian accent difficult or for those with hearing difficulties, please turn on Subtitles/Closed captions.
About the speaker Jac den Houting:
Being diagnosed with autism is often seen as a tragedy. But for Jac den Houting, it was the best thing that’s ever happened to them. As an autistic person, concepts like the Neurodiversity paradigm, the Social Model of Disability, and the Double Empathy Problem were life-changing for Jac. In this talk, Jac combines these ideas with their own personal story to explain why we need to rethink the way that we understand autism. Jac den Houting is a research psychologist and Autistic activist in pursuit of social justice. Jac currently holds the role of Postdoctoral Research Associate at Macquarie University in Sydney, working alongside Professor Liz Pellicano. In 2015, Jac was awarded an Autism CRC scholarship to complete their PhD through the Autism Centre of Excellence at Griffith University in Brisbane. Prior to this, they gained almost 10 years’ experience as a psychologist in the criminal justice system, with the Queensland Police Service and Queensland Corrective Services. Jac was identified as Autistic at the age of 25, and is proudly neurodivergent and queer. After participating in the inaugural Future Leaders Program at the 2013 Asia Pacific Autism Conference, Jac quickly became established as a strong advocate for the Autistic community. Jac is a current member of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network of Australia and New Zealand (ASAN-AuNZ)’s Executive Committee, the Autism CRC’s Data Access Committee, Aspect’s LGBTQIA+ Autism Advisory Committee, and the Aspect Advisory Council.source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1AUdaH-EPM
I’m not a person who feels down if things don’t go as intended. Melancholy is doesn’t seem to be part of my DNA. About the only time I feel “out of sorts” is during a prolonged migraine episodes when it feels like my “get up and go” has “got up and gone”.
Although I don’t consider I have reached my “twilight” years, I’m definitely in my “late afternoon” years. Despite being a chronic migraine sufferer, and living for sixty years not knowing I was autistic, but feeling like I was a square peg being forced through a round hole I view my life as being a wonderful experience. I can’t imagine an alternative life being any better.
Mostly, I recall the good things that have happened in my life, and whether or not it’s good to do so, I tend to sweep memories of negative experiences under the carpet. One reason for this state of affairs is due to having alexithymia, often referred to as “emotional blindness”. I suck at reading the emotions of others, but I’m even worse at reading my own. I know happiness and contentment are pleasurable experiences and I know deep sadness is is not. Most others I’m oblivious to, and it’s only since discovering I am autistic have I learnt to recognise some emotions by carefully thinking about the physical manifestations that frequently accompany emotions.
If it feels like my blood is about to bool it means I’m angry (or wearing to many clothes or in the early stage of another migraine). If I feel a churning motion in my stomach, it means I’m nervous (or some food has disagreed with me or Im hungry or I’m in the early stage of another migraine attack). If my face feels hot, it means I’m embarrassed (or I need to remove a layer of clothing or I’m in the early stage of another migraine attack). If I find my hands or jaw is clenched then I’m most likely very stressed out (or I could be in a state of rising anger or I’m in the early stage of another migraine attack). If people ask me to repeat something I’ve said then it might be because I feel down and am talking too quietly (or I’m in the early stage of another migraine attack and I’m slurring my speech, or we could be in a noisy environment). And so the list goes on.
Learning to recognise emotions this way is quite confusing. For example, If I feel my eyes start to water (and there’s no irritant present) does it mean I’m happy, or sad, or both or something else? If I feel a lump in my throat is this really nostalgia tinged with sadness? What else can it mean? And is it something else if I experience both the lump and the water? I really have no idea.
Over recent weeks I’ve been having moments where I recall my thoughts from my teen years many decades ago when I was beginning to understand that I was in some way different from everyone else and very different from my peers. I don’t recall having any feelings one way or the other as it dawned on me that everyone had a group of friends and I had none; that others seemed to revel in loud and noisy events where everyone talked very loudly, but I was unable to make out a single word and I’d be physically ill within five minutes of arriving; That I had no clue about the topics fellow teenagers were talking about and none of them seemed interested in why the Ab class locomotive was so ubiquitous in NZ or the nature of black holes or what technology driverless cars might employ in the future.
While I was very comfortable in my own company, I realised that having conversations with myself was not very profitable. I don’t recall feeling sad or angry or disappointed about my situation. I simply accepted that that was the way it was. But now when I look back at those moments when I began to realise that I was in some way very different from everyone else and would never fit into their world, I do feel a discomfort somewhere just below my diaphram. I’m not able to distinguish between mild indigestion and hunger, and I rarely have either sensation, but this sensation is something like that. If I’m sitting or lying I have to get up and do something, but I have no idea what or why.
I’m guessing the flashbacks and the uneasy feeling are associated but how and why? I’m confident I understand my teen self better now than I did back then. So are the sensations due to a reliving of emotions of the past that I wasn’t aware of at the time, or are they new emotions created out of hindsight and in the full knowledge of what was to come. Either way, what does this sensation represent? Regret? nostalgia? Sadness? Disappointment? Loss? Something else? I’m assuming it’s negative because it’s unpleasant.
I doubt very much that it’s happiness due to knowing how my life has turned out. For the most part I think I’ve been blessed: a best friend companion and lover for almost 50 years; two wonderful children and three amazing grandkids. What more could I desire? While there’s always a possibility that the discomfort and the flashbacks are unrelated and purely coincidental, I don’t think so. And that’s because after hearing a particular song this morning, the hunger or indigestion was much stronger and still lingers.
Popular songs have always been about the hopes and disappointments of romance, but scattered among them are a few that deal with the hopes, dreams and disappointments of every aspect of life. I find song lyrics fascinating because it is often very difficult to know what a song is really about. The song I heard this morning was one of my favourites at round the time I left school or perhaps shortly after and was about the time I realised that I was not a typical teenager by any stretch of the imagination and never would be.
As I listened to the track, I suddenly felt the discomfort rise as these words were sung:
People all around, they never seem to notice me Maybe because my mind's behind a cloud that no-one sees the wood for trees What's wrong with me?
Did those words speak to me then but I didn’t realise it, or are those words speaking to me now reminding me how much my life would have been different if I was not autistic? I don’t know. What I am sure of is that I’m unlikely to get a good night’s sleep thinking about it. Bugger emotions! (Is that frustration, irritation, anger, regret or something else?) They’re so confusing. It’s at moments like these that I wish I hadn’t had any mindfulness training, and I’d remain blissfully unaware of the connection between emotions and bodily sensations.
For anyone interested in hearing the source of my discomfort, here it is. I was into psychedelic music at that time which is why I might have found this piece attractive Perhaps all I’m feeling is nothing more than nostalgia for a music era that no longer exists. Oh I give up!.
One of the difficult parts of being part of a minority group is having your group or aspects of your group defined by the majority group. As an autistic person, every time I leave home I am subjected to a world that pays little heed to the needs of neurodivergent folk. At best there is token allowances for which I’m expected to be grateful. For the most part, I’m expected to put on a mask of normalcy no matter what, and hide my true identity. But should I?
Ethnic minorities also face similar hurdles. Yesterday in Parliament an MP (Member of Parliament) was prevented from speaking by the Speaker, and was eventually ordered from the House when trying to raise a point of order over the matter. His crime was that, in the opinion of the Speaker, he was not dressed appropriately. Standing orders require that in Parliament MPs must be appropriately dressed, which is for men to wear a jacket and tie as part of “business attire”.
In an email sent from Speaker Trevor Mallard, to MP Rawiri Waititi, the Speaker said that a review of the Standing Orders supported members dressing in formal wear of the cultures they identify with. This lies at the heart of the matter and I will address this shortly.
Rawiri Waititi was wearing a business shirt and jacket, but instead of a tie he wore a hei-tiki. For many Māori, the wearing of a hei tiki is part of their cultural, spiritual and personal identity. The fact that he was prevented from speaking raises several issues in my mind. I’ll get the least controversial aspect out of the way first.
What is “business attire?
A quick search online revealed a range of “business attire”, including “casual“, “smart casual“, “business casual“, “business informal“, “business professional” and “business formal” just to name a few. And that’s only for Western dress. Whew!
In the New Zealand context, I would argue that typical business wear for men over recent decades is dress shirt, dress trousers, dress shoes, a jacket and for most occasions a tie is optional. Here, I use “typical” to refer to accepted Pākehā dress (around 70% of the population identify as Pākehā or NZ European).
The Speaker is of the view that ties should be optional and last year he sought the opinion of MPs about abandoning the rule on ties. Apparently there was little support for a change, so the standing order remains – a tie is mandatory. Fair enough, you might say. The majority have spoken, so that’s the end of the matter. To me that shouts out tyranny of the majority.
I’ve titled this article “institutional racism?” simply because it’s a term that will be most familiar to my readers. To my mind, the term race is a very blunt tool when it comes to understanding the oppression of and discrimination against minorities. I see race as being a set of physical characteristics that make one group distinctive from another. It says nothing about culture, cultural expectations or cultural values.
Regretfully, racism (judging a person or group by their physical appearance) does exist in this country. I have witnessed it although it has never been directed at me in Aotearoa New Zealand in a form that I am able to recognise. I have experienced “low level overt racism” while in Japan, especially in the ’70s and ’80s. In recent visits to Japan, it’s mostly limited to assumptions that I would prefer to use a knife and fork instead of chopsticks, or that I would be more comfortable shaking hands than bowing, neither of which are true. I have an intense dislike to shaking hands and avoid doing so as much as possible. My eating utensils of choice are chopsticks, even for some western style meals.
My children did experience overt racism as youngsters, principally from their peers, and if they are subjected to racism as adults it’s more likely to be covert in nature. If racism has been directed at the wife, she has been oblivious to it, although she has described incidents where I suspect racism has been a factor.
However the issue at the heart of the article is not about race but about custom and culture.
While in Japan, I knew it was inappropriate to blow my nose into a handkerchief or to eat an ice cream while walking along the street. Japan is very much a monocultural society, and while I attempted to adapt to the subtleties of Japanese culture, many I were oblivious to, and as a Gaijin visitor I was given much more leeway than I would be given if I had had a more permanent residence there.
Aotearoa New Zealand claims to be a “bicultural multi-ethnic” society. Our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, guaranteed Māori as Tangata whenua (literally “people of the land”) equal partnership with the British Crown and specifically protects land, customary rights and traditions. For most of this nation’s subsequent history the treaty has been ignored. Only in the past fifty years have the descendents of those settlers and more recent arrivals begun to recognise the significance of that founding document, and then, often grudgingly.
I don’t believe racial discrimination is a significant issue in this country although it does exist and can deeply affect those subjected to it. On the other hand cultural oppression is vey significant. Any law, regulation, requirement or expectation that diminishes, devalues or denies aspects of cultural identity is effectively cultural oppression. This particularly applies to Māori, given their status as tangata whenua, their rights under the Treaty, and as they constitute a significant minority within this country.
A hundred years ago, the accepted view, including by some Māori leaders was that the best hope for Māori was assimilation – effectively making Māori into brown Pākehā. The practice and teaching of Māori knowledge and wisdom was suppressed as was the use of Te Reo Māori (the Māori language). No room or recognition was given to Māori custom or values. Some Pākehā still hold the same view today.
It didn’t succeed. It created a downtrodden, demoralised subculture that has and continues to have serious repercussion for Māori and to a lesser extent for the rest of society. Thankfully the last fifty has seen an almost miraculous revival of Māori culture, and some of it is rubbing off on sections of the Non-Māori population. This is, in my opinion, healthy for our society.
With that background out of the way, let’s return to MP Rawiri Waititi and his “missing” tie. I believe the Speaker made the wrong call on several grounds. I’ll go through these in the order they come to mind, not in order of importance.
Letter of the law versus spirit of the law.
I’m a firm believer that the spirit/intent/purpose of of a law/regulation/rule is just as important at the letter of the law. Why was the law drafted in the first place? I would argue that the tie rule was not simply an arbitrary rule enforcing a culturally biased dress code, but part of package to maintain the dignity and respect that Parliament deserves as the highest court in the land. The tie rule should be applied in a descriptive manner, not in a prescriptive manner.
Clearly, the wearing into the House of a dirty singlet, a wrinkled pair of stubbies and worn out jandals (thongs to Australians and flip flops to the rest of the English speaking world) would lower the dignity of Parliament. But so too would the wearing of a weather beaten food stained tie and jacket retrieved off an old scarecrow that had been in a cornfield for several years. Yet it would meet the letter of the law as the standing order is currently worded.
Instead, Waititi wore a dress shirt, a business suit and replaced the tie with a culturally significant alternative adornment. I fail to see how this could possibly have negative effect on the dignity of Parliament and in fact I believe it enhances that reputation by not imposing the preferences of one culture onto another culture.
Freedom of expression
The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (NZBORA) guarantees the right to freedom of expression in any form and this should not be restricted. An example of this that NZ law prohibits the desecration of the national flag of any nation. However the courts have have taken the view that the public desecration of a national flag is a legitimate way of expressing an opinion regarding the actions or stance of a country or its representatives and so is protected by the NZBORA. I think it would require that the only motive for the desecration was to cause offence before there was any likelihood of a prosecution being successful.
Waititi feels very strongly that Māori have been subjected to “colonial oppression”, and who can blame him. The evidence is there for anyone who cares to look. Outside Parliament, Waititi stated that his hei-tiki is his tie of choice. It ties him to his tīpuna (ancestors), whenua (the land where his ancestors have lived and where their placenta are buried), and his people. He went on to say that the political party he represents will not be subjugated nor assimilated to dated colonial rules. “I will not be forced to wear a tie.. this is about standing up against subjugation or assimilation”. Is not the wearing of a hei tiki an expression of his identity and also a stance against what he views as cultural oppression by Pākehā.
Who decides what is “culturally appropriate”?
Waititi has described his dress as “Māori business attire”. Is it the place of the (Pākehā) Speaker to determine what is Māori business attire, or is that the domain of Māori? From my observations, a great many Māori businessmen display a hei tiki or other traditional forms such as a hei matau (stylised fish hook) instead of, (or sometimes over) a tie.
Being culturally sensitive
Māori culture is going through a renaissance and there is growing sense of pride for their traditions and values and how those are expressed. What right have I as a Pākehā to say how Māori should express their culture? The Speaker suggested that Waititi take the tie issue to the Parliamentary business select committee for adjudication, but as Māori are a distinct minority on that committee, isn’t it still a case of Pākehā deciding whether or not a hei tiki is “appropriate”? I would consider it insulting if I were in Waititi’s position. Surely we’re all adult enough to listen to the aspirations of groups that are not our own.
Recognising the rights of others
We live in a pluralistic society with many cultures, religions, lifestyles, and outlooks. There’s more than enough room for them all. We all deserve to be able to live a life as we best see fit. There is no place however for one group to impose its values and practices on another, be it cultural, religious, political or economic.
I was going to rant on some more, but circumstances have changed. Today Rawiri Waititi returned to Parliament in the same attire as yesterday. When he rose to speak, there was an audible sigh from Speaker Mallard, but he did not prevent Waititi from speaking. I won’t speculate on why the Speaker had a change of heart, even if it appeared to be somewhat reluctantly. But I am pleased that he did. It was the correct decision. He should have made it yesterday.
As someone who belongs to a distinct minority that has been pathologised as being “broken” more so than accepted as different but equal, the post below speaks very much to my condition (Quakerspeak for “my experience is very similar’). Thank you gracenotes17 for your contribution to this very important topic.
I have often heard people say that it’s important to be able to voice your opinion and disagree with others’ without being accused of hate speech. To an extent, I agree. I think everyone has a right to voice their opinion, and when people are able to do so respectfully, it can be an opportunity […]Agreeing to disagree – opinions vs realities — unwrittengrace
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.
It’s the time of the year when my inbox gets swamped by emails promoting fall sales and advice to prepare and stock up for winter. There seems to be an assumption by almost every advertiser that either:
- the seasons are the same world over, or
- there is nothing south of the equator.
I appreciate that around 57% of the world’s population live north of the Tropic of Cancer where it is indeed autumn (or fall if you prefer). I don’t begrudge you receiving promotional material reflecting the season.
However, there’s a little over 40% of the world’s population that live between the tropic of Cancer than the Tropic of Capricorn for whom there are no seasons. For them, seasonal advertising is more or less irrelevant.
That leaves a little under 3% of the world’s population who live south of the Tropic of Capricorn and for whom the seasons are the polar opposite of what it is for a majority of this planet’s human population. Seasonal advertising is always either six months too early or six months too late.
Consider this: There are approximately twice as many people who belong to the LGBTQ+ community as there are who live south of the Tropic of Capricorn. We have our rights too. And this includes appropriate seasonal advertising.
Ableism is still alive and well.
For the Bracken family, the agencies and institutions in place to protect and help them instead terrorized them. Read More →
It’s been a while since I touched on topics of a religious nature, so here’s one that’s been on the back burner for a while.
I believe the teaching of religion is important. Not because it teaches what is right or wrong, good or bad, but because it teaches us a lot about the evolution of human thought and morality.
It can help us understand that good and evil, are concepts that change over time. It can help us understand why we value some ideas today that had little value in the past and why we have devalued some ideas that were regarded as sacred in earlier periods. Whether we like it or not, religion has played a significant role in how we have come to understand the world.
To a great many anti-theists and non-theists, bringing these two words, “teaching religion” is like a red rag to a bull. You can almost see their nostrils flare on hearing those words. But does it need to be that way?
For myself, religion is a means by which I can understand what I experience. It nourishes me in a way that other experiences of being human do not. I acknowledge that this is my experience, and what I experience is unique to me. If you wish to call it something else other than religion, that’s fine by me.
The following video, and the transcript below describe what teaching religion means from a Quaker perspective. Whether or not you agree with the teaching of religion at all, it is not “indoctrinating people in the ‘correct’ way to think in terms of the cosmology or the meta-narratives of religious philosophy”. Your feedback after watching the video or reading the transcription is very welcome.
I am very clear in a public context that I never say, “I teach religion,” because I have learned in my life that that’s a conversation stopper. For most people that I encounter in the United States of America, they hear that as, “I participate in indoctrinating people in the correct way to think in terms of the cosmology or the metanarratives of religious philosophy.”
It couldn’t be further from the truth at a Friends school. That is not what we do. In fact, when I say to people, “I teach religions,” they say, “Oh wow, that sounds cool!” I’ve heard people say when I say I teach world religions, they say, “Oh that was my favorite subject in college, I loved that,” and it’s a conversation opener. And that’s what we’re doing at Friends schools, we’re opening the conversation, we’re not closing it.
For me as a teacher, my goal is to create an energized, safe space for students to get in touch with their own ideas but to encounter the ideas of other people in the room and other people from other times and other spaces, either through a text or through the internet or some other device that I share and I want them to be alive in the present with what’s real for them.
Quakerism is a wonderful container to have conversations around the edges. I often say that Quakerism is a great religion for people who are entering religion for the first time, or for people who are leaving religion. So we have a lot of people who are excited about Quakerism because they’ve thought of themselves as agnostics or atheists and then they encounter this tradition that permits that possibility but also invites exploration of the mysterious and doesn’t block out experiences of transformational or paranormal possibilities.
And then there are other people who have come from very doctrinal or creedal religions and they have felt oppressed or controlled by those traditions and Quakerism gives them freedom. Great, welcome!
So we have a tremendous mix within our community, and that’s a mix that we also have in our classrooms because at Friends schools, the majority of people in the room are not Quaker, and there is no expectation that they should be—and more often than not, the teacher is not Quaker either. So what we’re doing is we’re having a conversation that is possible because of the Quaker ethos of acceptance, tolerance, universality, and openness to the unknown.
Creating Safe Discursive Space
This is not a situation where there’s a catechism or a planned method of instruction so that you get the right answers or the right information. It’s quite opposite, actually. What we are doing at a Friends school is we are creating safe, discursive space for people to ask into the sublime, into the mystical, into the beautiful, into the mysterious. And it turns out that everyone has had that experience.
We’ve all had dreams. Are dreams real? Are dreams religious? Are some dreams religious? Are no dreams religious? In fact, what does it mean to be a person who is in touch with a dimension of reality that we can’t measure or see? It means to be fully alive, so let’s talk about that.
Exploring our Identities
And at the same time, I am very happy bringing in the language of scientific cosmology and what some people call atheism because that belongs in the room as well. So when I tell them that when I was young, I identified as both Quaker and atheist, I see their eyes get wide, like, “Oh that’s a thing? Like, I’m allowed to be that?” Sure! What are you, what’s your truth?
And then suddenly I hear a polyphony of different identities around the room and suddenly now we’re talking, because, “Well I’m Jewish and Christian?” Well, theologically speaking, how can you be both? Well it doesn’t matter, let’s not interrogate that question. Let’s honor that that’s your truth and let’s talk about what that means to you. Which stories speak to you? Which parts of those traditions have meaning for you personally, and why is it important that you honor both of those traditions when you were asked what religion are you? And let’s welcome all of that and stumble forward.
I want students to leave my class saying “That was fun!,” because it is fun actually. It’s fun to realize that you are having some dimension of reality that you know is true validated by somebody else and then you find out that there are rich traditions that offer different narratives, different names, different colors, different stories, different energies to exactly the stories that you personally have had. Wow, that’s cool!
Now turn to the person next to you and talk about your experience and listen to their experience and notice if there are similarities or differences. And now let’s come back to what we were talking about. Maybe we have a text from the Bhagavad Gita that says something really profound from a couple thousand years ago, and now let’s look at the Gospel of John, or the Gospel of Thomas even! Or maybe we’ll look at something from Deuteronomy and say, “How does this compare to your dream? What do you love?”