Do you see what I see? Navigating the non-autistic world

Most people experience the world through a bunch of different ways of ‘seeing.’ They see subtle facial expressions and nuances in a person’s body language. They see the hidden meaning within a conversation. When they see faces of people they have met before they register that person’s face as a unique set of features. When they reflect on their inner world they can feel and articulate different emotions. They are aware of when there is some kind of pain or physical discomfort. They know if they are sick and when they are sick they can usually pinpoint which part of the or body the unpleasant feeling or pain is in.

I can’t really do any of these things. Autistic people have our own ways of ‘seeing’ which tend to differ form the non-autistic ones, but we usually spend a lot of time with non-autistic people and we can feel our different vision is somehow wrong. It isn’t wrong, and it is vital to keep our pride in who we are and respect for our divergent identity. However, I have found that navigating he non-autistic world often requires some understanding of their kinds of vision.

Over the years I have improved very slightly at these things but those forms of ‘seeing’ are mostly beyond my knowledge.  Many of my Autistic friends share this difficulty in seeing things like emotions and facial expressions and faces. One of the most difficult things is that non-autistic people often have no clue that anyone in the world doesn’t see things like they do.

If I look at my life, I have done quite well in my chosen areas of work and socialising than one might imagine was possible. But this is a learned experience. When I was younger I was completely baffled by the world. I saw a different picture to that of others around me. On some level I was aware of this. As a child I worked out that there was meaning in eyes and facial expression by deducing it from descriptions in novels.

I struggle with things which many would take for granted. A practical and rather yicky example of this is that I didn’t work out until I was in my teens what the sensation just prior to vomiting felt like. I apologise to may dad’s car/s. In fact my mum tells me that if I said I didn’t feel well as a child it meant it was probably something serious as I could never work out what feeling unwell felt like.

In my twenties my inability to see my emotions led to some very dangerous places. I was traumatised by various events when I was twenty-one so self medicated with drugs. When I was sober I had no control over what came into my mind but I knew exactly what being stoned felt like so I associated being stoned wiht ‘safe’ feelings. Drug use combined with anxiety about my impending eviction and homelessness meant that I developed a mental illness that I still have 22 years later. But had you asked me how I felt the day before I went to hospital to gain my schizophrenia diagnosis I would probably have said I felt OK. I was completely unaware I was unwell.

Looking at my issues with seeing various things others seem to find glaringly obvious it surprises me that I managed to function in society at all. I find it hard to unpack a journey over time, to understand how I used one skill to scaffold another and move into a more fulfilled and pleasant place. I know that I did because I am in a different world to my teenage and twenty-something self. I know a lot of other autistic people who share some or all of my difficulties in ‘seeing’ what is apparently obvious to others and are living the sorts of lives they want to.

It can definitely be done because it has been done many, many times over. There is that school of thought that suggests Autism is of necessity a deficit and that Autistic people will never manage to do, well, all the stuff that a lot of my Autistic friends do!

I am deliberately using the motif of seeing in this post. The reason for this is that if a person has a vision impairment they will use means other than seeing to navigate their way through the world. There is a ‘deficit’ which is compensated through strategies other than seeing visually. I can’t speak for everyone here but in my case I have also used my own means and ways to navigate a world much of which I can’t ‘see’.

I think each of us probably uses a slightly different set of strategies to navigate the non-autistic world. My straggles have changed over time as my life has changed. The main approaches I use now are:

  • to be upfront about my Autism, This means people aren’t seeing an inexplicably strange non-autistic person. It adds to their knowledge of me and gives them the opportunity to ask me questions if they are unsure of what I do or say. Knowledge is power – and sometimes that knowledge might just be that I struggle with certain sounds or smells.
  • I am very fortunate to have quite an incisive intellect. I can deduce what is happening through context, even if i don’t ‘see’ it. This is particularly evident when I don’t recognise a face or in being able to find out what emotions a person is feeling and why.
  • I am kind. This is not just a random attribute. I choose my character in about 2001 as I didn’t like who I was back then. Being kind and generous was a choice. One benefit of this is that people tend to be more ready to listen and understand an odd but kind person.
  • I trust the judgement of others when I know my own judgment might be off. Sometimes this involves some discussion.
  • I love and value myself as I am. Just because I don’t ‘see’ everything going on around and within me, I am still a person who aims to be generous and helpful who is quite good at writing and lots of people say my words have helped them.

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