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Life Through Autism-Tinted Glasses

Empathising with someone whose brain is wired in a fundamentally different way is a task that is understandably difficult for anyone. Since autistic people make up less than 2% of the population, I thought I would dedicate a page to explaining how various everyday events and experiences can feel through the lense of an autistic person. Please be aware that the autism spectrum is quite diverse, and my personal experiences do not necessarily apply to any other specific autistic person.

Autism-Tinted Glasses Eye contact - Aversion to eye contact is likely one of the most well known stereotypical traits of autism, although the reasons put forth for this aversion are too rarely explored. Speaking for myself, I would describe it as less of an aversion and more as viewing the behaviour to have a radically different meaning and purpose than neurotypicals ascribe to it.

Many people have affectionately noted the many apparent similiarities between cats and autistic people. There is definitely overlap between how autistic people such as myself treat eye contact, and how cats naturally treat it. For both cats and autistics, eye contact is exclusive to either challenging/intimidating a potential rival, or to intimate situations. Staring at someone's eyeballs during a typical interaction feels as awkward and uncomfortable as screaming threateningly at them, or perhaps making out with them.

To hopefully give a glimpse of how the expectation of eye contact feels for us, imagine you arrived in a foreign country and were told that you are obligated to either scream angrily and make threatening gestures at everyone you talk to, or alternatively, to make romantic advances at them. Imagine then if everyone considered you rude, untrustworthy, or even mentally challenged because you abstained from following their bizarre customs.

To take the metaphor even further, imagine if you finally capitulated to social pressure and started forcing yourself to engage in these actions, only to be considered a buffoon anyway because it turns out there's an unspoken and inscrutable system governing how long you should be making threatening gestures or kissing your conversational partner and at what points during a conversation. It's no wonder so many of us strongly prefer communicating via text.

Autism-Tinted Glasses Verbal communication - Despite autistic people being vastly more likely to have above-average IQs than neurotypicals are, a great many autistics never actually learn how to communicate verbally. Many non-verbal autistic people are still perfectly capable of communicating via written word or other methods however. While I personally learned how to speak at an abnormally early age, it still feels to me sometimes as if verbal communication is not something that comes naturally.

To use computers as a metaphor, it often feels as if the program that governs social interaction is always running in the brains of neurotypicals, while I have to manually open it when a situation arises where it's necessary. If someone starts speaking to me without warning while I'm focused on something else, there is sometimes a moment where everything they've said sounds like complete gibberish to me, before the "social interaction" daemon wakes up and translates it into words. I'm also quite prone to not being able to remember people's names when I suddenly have to greet them.

Autism-Tinted Glasses Social events - Virtually all social events are such a perfect storm of triggers and annoyances for autistic people that attending them can feel like literal torture. Beyond triggering the sensory issues that many autistic people have and causing virtually all of us a great deal of anxiety, the endless simultaneous conversations, loud music, bright lights, and other stimuli endemic to social events can make it impossible for us to pay attention to anyone we talk to. "Everything louder than everything else", to quote Motorhead.

For a good idea of how trying to follow a conversation at an average social event can feel like to many autistic people, try opening half a dozen videos up on your favourite video streaming website all at once, and then try to pay attention to the sound of any specific video. For many of us, our brains are not good at filtering out extraneous noises, and as a result, the words of our conversational partner are stuck in a fierce competition with all of the other sounds in the room. I have noticed that this issue has become far worse for me after the coronavirus lockdown however, so it is likely something that we can improve with enough effort.

The aforementioned sensory issues can also make eating in public a highly uncomfortable nightmare for us. The smells and overwhelming sounds of everyone else eating are alone enough to completely kill any appetite we might have. Beyond that, we tend to have sensitivities towards many foods that are so strong that some of us can vomit involuntarily if we try to eat them. Some of us are disgusted by even the faint smell of some popular foods. Eating in a room full of people all eating a diverse variety of foods can be nearly as off-putting as trying to eat in a bathroom full of people defecating.

Social events are made even more of an irritating burden to us because many of us simply do not care about traditional celebrations that warrant them. As I've bemoaned in the past, I see no meaning behind events such as birthdays or anniversaries beyond "the Earth is in the same spot in its orbit around the Sun as it was when x happened!" Invitations to social events essentially translate into "please leave your comfort zone and subject yourself to sensory hell for hours on end in the name of celebrating something that has no meaning to you whatsoever!"

Autism-Tinted Glasses Visitors at home - Having people, even friends or relatives, visit one's residence can almost feel like a home invasion to many autistic people. I have many times sympathised with my cat being allowed to react to such intrusions by hiding under the bed and hissing at anyone who came close. Our homes are our main or only sanctum from the often hostile and loathsome outside world, so having that world suddenly intrude into that space can feel like a fundamental violation, and make us feel like cornered animals. Sometimes this can even lead to meltdowns, especially if the autistic person is a child.

Even after the guests have vacated, we can still be put off by the many signs of their visits. For myself, I have a need to rearrange any furniture and other items that were moved from their prior spot and remove all traces of the scents that the interlopers left behind. Essentially, I have to reclaim my territory by removing any "territorial markings" that the guests unwittingly created.

I probably don't even need to point out how obnoxious and callous it comes off when someone tries to visit us with little to no advance notice, since even many neurotypical people take umbrage to this sort of behaviour. Unannounced visits combine the offensiveness of regular home visits with the offensiveness of completely violating our routines, all while demonstrating a complete lack of respect and consideration for our time.

Autism-Tinted Glasses Unexpected routine changes/Having our things rearranged - I'm grouping these seemingly unrelated experiences together because they trigger very similiar reactions in many autistic people for much the same reason. Having our routines uprooted, especially unexpectedly, and having our things or our personal spaces rearranged, can feel like as much of a violation to us as a home invasion or a physical assault.

I daresay that having a strong sense of control over our personal environment and routine is as important to us as having control over our own bodies. I vividly remember a number of incidents during my childhood where I would spontaneously turn violent over my father going into my room and throwing something away or rearranging my things, or over being suddenly informed that we would be going on an unannounced vacation or trip. The reason for these meltdowns is because these events are perceived as such fundamental violations to many of us that the logical part of our brain can completely shut down, forcing us into an immediate state of fight-or-flight.

Autism-Tinted Glasses Peripheral vision - Many autistic people are predisposed to having unusually good peripheral vision. While I did not realise that there was anything unusual about my own vision for the longest time, I can remember a number of instances where someone else assumed I wasn't looking at something that I could clearly see.

With how skittish autistic people tend to be, our ultra-sensitive peripheral vision can occasionally make us have a jump scare from seeing some minute speck in the corner of our vision move, due to mistaking it for an insect.