Good evening Internet!
So this week’s post is going to focus a little bit on what’s happening in the brain when someone on the autistic spectrum meets the world at large. I should also mention I’m fresh out of an exam on this kind of thing, so forgive me if I get a little technical.
I should also mention being inspired by this post here; an article on “Meta-Culture” written by a good friend of mine. I think Meta-Culture is a really good phrase to describe someone’s mental landscape, so I’ll continue to use it here (no infringement intended, except possibly on the good name of psychology). Like me, he’s a bit on the spectrum, and a lot of our personal experiences in society line up.
The defining feature of any Autism Spectrum Disorder is social impairment. Whether high-functioning, profound, Aspergers, or somewhere in the middle, we are born without this innate ability to…I suppose ‘read somebody’s mind.’ To be able to tell what somebody means without asking for clarification, or to read the subtext without needing a prompt. It’s not an upraising thing either, so you can dispense with the whole ‘cold mother’ argument right here and now. Children on the spectrum show changes at the most basic building blocks of brain structure – we’re talking the neuronal level. We are literally wired differently to neurotypicals, like Jedi and their midi-chlorian counts.
And as you might expect, a lots of these differences are found in the ‘social’ areas of the brain; Frontal lobe, temporal lobe, facial processing, language areas…there’s even been a psychologist try and show mentalising abilities are linked to issues with ‘mirror neurons,’ which stop us from imitating other people. I can tell you right now that’s not true for everyone, but interesting nonetheless.
Definition: Mentalising, to mentalise (v) – The ability to understand the mental states of oneself and others that underlie overt behaviour. So not quite Derren Brown, for those of you who were wondering.
So, it’s hardly surprising that we’re not sure from the outset what these funny little creatures trying to interact with us are really trying to achieve, if anything. I don’t have a lot of explicit memories of primary school but my overarching ones include a lot of being lectured by my classmates whenever I’d done something ‘weird.’ Not a nice feeling.You spend a lot of time messing up on the playground or in class and nobody will explain to you how, or why you messed up. It’s deeply confusing. Claire Sainsbury, in her wonderful book ‘Martian in the Playground‘ said “It was like everyone around me was playing some elaborate game, and I was the only one who hadn’t been taught the rules.” At eight years old, with only the vaguest concept of what autism was, having someone put it into words for the first time was a real eye-opener, and that quote has sat with me ever since. After that I started forgiving myself a bit for all those social screw-ups that made me so unpopular at both primary and secondary school. It was me, but it wasn’t really my fault. It wasn’t like I asked to be born like this.
In terms of emotional development and in some areas of higher functioning, I’m about 3 years behind everyone else in my peer group (my own estimate, not a clinical opinion). As I mentioned last week, I’ve only just worked out higher education exams. Yes, everyone has to learn some social scripts, like eating in restaurants or going to the cinema, but not everyone has to learn them all; like the correct greeting, or when to greet, or knowing when to talk to someone and when to leave them alone. The correct protocol when seeing someone you might recognise in the street. When to pet the dog and when not to (that is so difficult. So many nice dogs, so little time).
Even today, walking into a new cafe and ordering a coffee can be fraught with difficulty, even fear, especially if I’m not having a ‘good words’ day. Did you know that anxiety disorders have a prevalence of around 40% in children on the spectrum? A lot of the symptoms are often mistaken for the characteristics of ASD, though, like hand-wringing, and social withdrawal, and insistence on sameness, so some will go untreated. Ultimately, anxiety disorders are a lot more common in neuroatypicals than in others – and it honestly makes logical sense. I don’t even have to cite the science. If you grew up knowing that there was a high chance that every time you went up to speak to someone – be in your best friend or the barista – there is a higher than average chance of f*cking up massively, wouldn’t you develop some anxieties? As I’ve said before, social awkwardness and anxiety are not mutually exclusive, whether in a disorder or other wise.
I eventually grew over a lot of those, mostly through some good friends, sheer grit and the knowledge that hiding wasn’t going to solve anything. Trying to act like my favourite book characters helped, because I got thoughts and scripts and a lot of confidence from them. The internet helps as well, through mediums like this; people sharing their stories. We’ve all got a lot more in common than we like to admit. As Sherlock Holmes said last week in The Lying Detective, “I have this terrible feeling from time to time that all of us might just be human.”
We don’t all have the best understanding of other people’s meta-cultures, but it’s not an excuse to be an arsehole – on either side of the table – and it’s not an excuse to bully or belittle. While a lot of us will learn how to talk to people – how to be ‘earthlings’ if you like, rather than the martian in the corner, some of us need a bit of understanding every once in a while, be it our own space and permission to do what we want to do to calm down, or an out in an emergency.
We’re doing our best, and we love you.
Stay awesome, people.