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.
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