MM: [Speaking of some autistic people…] we do not draw a line between inanimate and animate beings, that they all have a soul to us.
Daina: As a child, everything was somewhat alive to me. Perhaps the face-processing tendency that most NTs have enables them early on to distinguish what is alive and what isn’t, and what is human and what isn’t.
Ava: Or maybe what is and isn’t alive, is just another assumption that NTs make. So for the NT child, either because of the strength of those attachments to faces and the accompanying social world, or through some coincidental developmental process, the aliveness of the sensory world fades. Whereas we ACs retain more of the direct experience of the world and less of the face-addiction-belief thing.
Sola: This reminds me of a poem that I studied in high school, “The Pond” by Bjalik. The poem describes a secret place in the forest, where there is a little pond and a tree growing from it. When the poet was a little boy, he used to go there, alone, and listen to the “language of visions,” an unmediated way for the child to communicate with the tree and the pond. The articles that I read about this poem discussed the role of spoken language, as adding the social aspect, separating the initially naive child from the true essence of the world. I was enchanted by the poem. For many months I perseverated on the meaning of communication and language, searching the library for more articles about this. However, unlike the conclusion of the poem, I did not feel that growing up and maturing inevitably meant losing this innocence and being expelled from nature. I felt that I was still that child in the forest. Now that I know that I am AS, I am not surprised that the poem had such influence on me.
MM: We are always sewing souls into the things we create.
Jane: Yes I think soul (essence of being) is created through the creation of a relationship. I call it a moral relationship (which I know sounds prissy or sanctimonious to some), by which I mean a relationship where there is acceptance/acknowledgement of agency and responsibility. When I relate to an object (whether it is another human or a bear I have created out of cloth), with my moral/aware consciousness, when I acknowledge my power to affect (recognize, hurt, heal, shine like the sun or nourish like rain — even to destroy like lightning), I also give power to the other (the object) to affect me. So that other is as alive as I am (in this sense). We are in a moral relationship that gives life meaning. That is why I know the bears who are my most intimate and daily family do help me be/have whatever is good in who I am and what I do. It is the relationship that makes us who we are (that makes me who I am). And I say that even though I have a strong tendency to want to say/feel I am I, alone. That fraction of truth lives inside the larger truth of relationships.
MM: Most of humanity is ignorant for not seeing what is around them. I hear the rocks and trees. Wish me well and tell me I am one of them, one of the silent ones who has now been given a voice, and that I must come out of hiding to protect others without voices: in my case I tend to help give voice to persons with Alzheimer’s disease. My washer and dryer speak to me, and I painted a face on them and gave them names and make sure I don’t overwork them. When I worked in a copy shop I could produce more copies than any other employee. Yes, I could understand the physics of the machines and their limitations from overheating etc. But for me the machines were talking to me and I talked back regularly.
I was raised by my Siamese cat I could understand her language better than the human language, and so I spoke Siamese before I spoke English, and I thought the cat was my real mother because I could understand her more than I could understand humans. I speak to children, babies, machines, rocks and trees as if they can hear me and they know what I am talking about. That is why my success with Alzheimer’s patients is so high: I treat them with such great respect and assume they know what I am saying. And I wonder why the rest of the world is so ignorant as to treat others as stupid and dumb and things and animals so terribly because they are somehow less than us? Well I think that this is a very arrogant stance to think we are better or more alive than these others who very much have a soul.
Women From Another Planet, edited by Jean Kearns Miller
I’ve used this quote before but not here. I love it because when people see autistic people relating to objects, they think we inhabit a bare, dead, empty world because that’s the way they see objects. But it’s not always how we see objects.
I think of all my autistic traits, this is one of the ones that I’ve gotten some of the most degrading shit for. I mean for traits I actually have, rather than ones people imagine up in their heads.
People, especially online, want so very badly to convince me that the world around me is dead, that they do the verbal equivalent of grabbing my shoulders, shaking me really hard, and screaming in my face that essentially I’m such an idiot that I can’t even understand such a basic “fact” about the world. Never mind how culture-specific this “fact” turns out to be, it still inspires a great deal of anger that I don’t conform to it. I don’t know why it makes them so angry, but it does.
That was one of the most common negative responses that I got to that video that went viral. “Water can’t interact with you, WATER CAN’T THINK!” “What you call interaction is just the laws of physics.” (And that’s different from what I’m saying, how?) I was stunned that of all the things I said they’d pick that one to argue with.
The second time I posted this quote on my blog, another autistic blogger posted what I strongly suspect was a direct response. It was all about how anthropomorphism (seeing human traits in nonhumans) is a cognitive error that humans are subject to, and how animism (what my post was apparently considered) was a form of anthropomorphism. There was a lot of condescension in it, and a lot of stuff that, whether the person was aware of it or not, ran something like “my culture, unlike ‘primitive’ cultures, knows how the world really works.” I found it pretty insulting but couldn’t find the words to respond. But here are some:
I don’t call my beliefs animism mostly because I’m afraid of the mental widgets that go with anything ending in ism as a belief system. When I talk about something being alive, I’m not attributing any human qualities to it at all. I’m talking about things as themselves. As what they are. And their own real features are their aliveness. So is all the stuff in between them, the way things interact with each other. To me that is alive, and to me what’s strange is the way most humans consider most things dead and other organisms sort of half-dead or more, compared to humans. It doesn’t seem accurate at all, and it does often seem rather destructive.
But what do I know, I’m just an autistic person who’s too much of an idiot to understand how the world works no matter how much anyone shakes me and screams the truth at me. Gah.
I wish I was a better writer, poet, and/or painter
Because there’s some experiences I really want to share with people but unless they’re enough like me to get the gist and fill in the rest, it just doesn’t much get across.
Ever since going over those redwood pictures, and finding that video and book that told me about iteration (when a redwood tree grows out of the branch of another redwood tree) and the first explorers of the tops of redwoods, I’ve been experiencing something amazing that is completely curing the homesickness caused by thinking about redwoods.
I’m really good at getting the feel of places and people. Much better than getting and retaining any other information about them. Unfortunately I have very few words for what I mean by the “feel” or “sense” of something. I can say that it is not in the least bit abstract. But it’s not just the sound or appearance either(although it can express itself in visual or auditory or etc. metaphors… or something). It’s something that I remember being able to do before I had concepts and before language, and has remained dominant throughout my life even after getting language and concept.
Most of my paintings are about this kind of “feel” and they are the only way I have ever discovered how to convey “feel” in an even remotely accurate way. (Some of my more freeform songs approach it too.)
Additionally, my memory works best in this area as well. Sometimes it’s literally the only memory of something that I’ve got. Just about always it is the most dominant and most accurate part of memory for me (and the hardest to explain). Which is one among many reasons that when I recount past events I usually recount this concrete underlayer of what happened, rather than the abstract outer layer that most people tend to see and get confused by.
Anyway, since I started thinking about this, the memory of the feel of this tree has become very intense. In all important ways it is as off I am there curling up among its roots and experiencing the full depths of its personality that a human can feel. It is a very strong sensation yet polite — it doesn’t cross any boundaries it ought not to.
I’ve long done things sort of like this. It’s become especially common since I’ve been in bed all the time. I’ve immersed myself in the feel of skiing, lying on a hot granite rock in the mountains in the sun, all kinds of things. And it doesn’t feel like daydreaming. It doesn’t obscure reality, it enhances it. Rather than making something up in my mind it feels more like connecting directly to another point in time and space in the real world. Daydreams make me feel bad in the long run, this doesn’t.
But this is much more intense than my usual experience. And it’s crystal clear. And there is so much depth, clarity, layers, etc. But I can barely even begin to describe a single one of them. It’s like the tree’s personality is with me.
But the personality of a tree is almost nothing like the personality of a human or any other animal. So there are very few parts of English even made for this sort of description.
People have accused me of anthropomorphism a lot, because I see plants as having personalities and objects as alive in their own way. To me the whole world is alive. At least, alive is the best word I have for it. But to call that anthropomorphism is insulting. I don’t see plants and objects in terms of human qualities unless there’s overlap there. The aliveness of a rock has little in common with the aliveness of a human. It’s got uniquely rocklike qualities, and I see a rock as its own kind of thing, not a Western-style inanimate object with human-style attributes tacked on.
And the amount of people online who have approached me in various combinations of fury, outrage, and condescension, to tell me that things are just things and are not alive. That they’re obeying the physical laws of the universe rather than interacting with me. (As if that is mutually exclusive or even different things!)
They remind me of the time I was walking around with a twig for company and the cops found me “wandering” and for no good reason at all, grabbed my twig and snapped it and threw the pieces on the ground. It’s completely gratuitous and some of them seem to take a weird pleasure in trying to destroy something meaningful to a person who doesn’t think like them. Others just seem to feel superior, or simply feel as if I am wrong and need to be corrected. As if they need to explain to me — or explain me to others — why and how I reached my wrongness. The first time I tried to write about my lifelong relationship to objects, a post immediately popped up on a fellow blogger’s blog, describing anthropomorphism in excruciating detail. She didn’t mean any harm but her descriptions don’t match my experiences at all, and I was uncomfortable that she didn’t even ask what I experienced before explaining it.
There’s also this strain of thought on it that seems to be related to the idea that this is something only inferior people believe. Whether they mean cultures described as “primitive” with “animist” beliefs (explained as part of the evolution of cultures, by Westerners of course, not asking people about their beliefs), or… the attitude some people have towards me as “you’re a retard and you don’t know better, so I will explain it to you”. It’s still about inferiority either way. People are supposed to “evolve” from “primitive animism” to “modern Western rational belief” with various stages in between, and “animism” is supposed to be a cognitive error that we have now corrected.
I still can’t believe how angry people get about it though. I’ve always seen things this way and I’m far from the only family member that seems to. To me everything has something akin to “aliveness” for lack of a better word.
And so does this tree. And I very much wish I could convey it better. It’s very rich, and both simple and complex at the same time. By which I mean, it’s simple because it’s not abstract and can be taken in without brain strain, and complex because of the sheer number of layers involved. And there’s a lot of depth to it.
And I keep repeating that and repeating it won’t convey it any better. I just have no more words. I could attempt a painting but I won’t know whether I’m talented enough until I finish it.
So until then I’ll continue to be immersed in this other place and possibly other time as well. It really feels as if I’m right there.