Sunday, November 8, 2015

Autism and the Human Race's Childhood

Lately, several realizations have been going on at once, which have tended to weave together to give me a single insight. I want to tackle that insight in this post.

First, I'm working on a personal memoir for the whole month of November, one that I ultimately want to publish. It's on my life with autism and my unique way of dealing with it, but in doing that writing, I've also had to do lots of introspection. And one thing I realized above all in that soul-searching was that my autism makes it so I don't naturally think in terms of "here" and "there". For me--and many other autistics, I'm sure--the world would only make sense if everything were here, so that you don't even have to think in terms of distance. I want the world to be an image on display, where everything is present, apparent, and visible. Hiddenness doesn't make sense to me, and neither does deceit. Any tendency toward "literal" thinking I've had in the past is due to how inconceivable hidden things are to me. And any professor-like eloquence I had as a kid then likely happened because I wanted to convey all of what I meant in words, shoving all the meaning normally used in body language into the precision of advanced vocabulary.

But in our house, we're also fostering kittens at the moment. They're a joy for all of us--they brighten our spirits and help us connect to our tenderly loving side. But something struck me the other day when watching those kittens play. They seemed to get on really well--and even communicate--without uttering a single word! How could this be possible? I then remembered a thought which I had heard from Temple Grandin's works: that animals think in pictures (as she says autistics do, as well). But could those kittens also be communicating in pictures? Could there be a subtle, instinctual communication between them that consists only of gestures and movements with their little cat bodies?

If so, another insight I remembered gives an interesting dimension to the animal's kind of communication. I've not kept it a secret (especially on my religious blog) that I'm a huge fan of the 18th century thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed he could "see through" to the spiritual world and converse with the beings there. Swedenborg wrote in the first volume of his Secrets of Heaven (which I read last summer) that the earliest humans didn't speak in words at all. Instead, they "spoke" through gestures and facial expressions, much the same way that I speculated that animals do:
"They also spoke less with words than people afterward did and still do. Instead, like the angels, they spoke in ideas or mental images, which they could communicate by endless changes in facial expression, especially around the lips. This part of the face has countless series of muscle fibers that today cannot work separately but in those times were independent of each other. Using these muscles, they were able to display, signal, and represent their ideas in such a way that what we would now need an hour to express in articulated sounds (that is, words) would have taken them a minute. And they conveyed their message to the grasp and real comprehension of those present much more fully and clearly than words or sentences could ever do. This may seem impossible, and yet it is true."
Swedenborg said that the humans of the "earliest church" spoke like this, before the descent into literal conceptualism that both ended this way of communicating and is symbolically represented by Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. And re-reading this recently made me wonder: could that "earliest church" be the time when the human race was still barely separate from the animal? Maybe we as humans had our perfection on earth when we didn't yet think of speaking in words. The Bible never says that the animals were expelled from the Garden, after all...

Relating this back to autism, I began to speculate some more. In a book called The Reason I Jump, an eloquent thirteen-year-old boy with autism wrote of his opinion that "Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travelers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.” Could it be that we autistics "think in pictures"--in a way where everything is visible and nothing is hidden--because we are a kind of envoy from that "earliest church?" Perhaps this would mean that we, as autistics, are somehow called to bring the world back to that state where thoughts were written plainly on the face and heaven shone through everything surrounding them.

Of course, many autistics struggle reading facial expressions. But could this lack of understanding only exist because autistics are "wired" to avoid the ambiguities of hidden levels of meaning? Maybe if autistics were taught to forgo words entirely, we could be like the members of that earliest church and communicate thoughts 60 times faster than verbal language could. That's somewhat similar to the explanations I've heard for the savant capacities of some autistics (that they can think so quickly because they don't need to use words; they use pictures as a "shortcut"). But because our culture is so outwardly verbal (you're reading this in words, after all), autistics never stop to think that there could be something more to their "disability," something which would basically make them superheroes. We would be like my kittens communicating with only slight facial expressions and twitches of the tail, only with the ability to "speak" of math, philosophy, art, and anything else you can think of.

Practically speaking, I think that the best thing a teacher or parent can do for autistic children--and through them, the world--is to encourage them to think and speak in pictures. Teach them to paint and to draw. When they're old enough, encourage them to read and write poetry. And above all, teach them that words are only images which have forgotten how to be images; that child's full potential will be unlocked when they learn that the whole world of colors, textures, plants, animals, symbols, and archetypes is laid open for them like a giant dictionary. Maybe that autistic child announces the onset a future world where--like Swedenborg said of that earliest church--we think entirely in poetry, metaphor and myth, communicating images through still more images, yet never losing clarity.

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