This article is based on the script of the video of the same name uploaded in March 2022
You can watch the video by clicking on any of the images in the body of text.
Hi. I’m Quinn and I’m Autistic.
Welcome to Autistamatic.
In the comments section of a recent video a viewer asked me:
“How do you KNOW you wouldn't be the same person if you weren't autistic?”
I had to ask myself how I could answer that in the cramped space of a comment response, so I decided to do that viewer the courtesy of devoting a whole episode to their question.
“I think therefore I am”
It’s one of the best known phrases from the entire history of philosophy. It tells us in simple terms that the act of our conscious thought is proof of our existence. If I were ever to doubt that I was “real”, the very fact I was having that thought serves as proof that I am. Humanity has long believed that the essence of self, our awareness of our own existence, is distinct from our corporeal form.
It suggests that what I define as “me” goes beyond physical limits. Science tells me that when my body dies, the essence of my consciousness – my self awareness– dies with me. People of faith believe that same essence is a soul which lives on in an afterlife or is reincarnated in a new body. Others believe in ghosts or a spirit realm and transhumanists search for technologies to transfer our consciousness into machines to continue our lives in virtual worlds or artificial bodies. Whatever our beliefs, the idea that our consciousness or souls are separate from our physical forms has been at the centre of almost every faith and society.
On a biological level, our sense of self is little more than the living process of crackling energies flowing around specialised nerve cells, little different in principle from software running on a computer. In his book “Simulacra & Simulation” Jean Baudrillard theorised that if we actually WERE sentient programmes running in a virtual world we wouldn’t actually know it.
My existence as a thinking, feeling entity is in constant flux, growing and building on everything I’ve witnessed, all the feelings that have coursed through me, all the decisions I’ve made and the memories they created. My future decisions cannot help but be influenced by the memories of those made in the past.
There are 3 key differences between autistic minds and the average we call neurotypical. This autistic triad consists of differences in our senses, our emotions and our veracity. All of these differences have been covered individually on this channel previously.
Most autistic people can point to one or more senses or sensations that, for them, are more or less acute than the average. Unless we have a sensory impairment like being deaf, blind or anosmic there’s rarely any anatomical reason for it. We don’t perceive certain stimuli differently because our sensory organs are any better or worse than anyone else’s, yet we still demonstrably out perform or underperform against the neurotypical average when examined.
Using myself as an example, I have an acute sensitivity for human sounds including, but not limited to speech. As I mentioned recently in the series I did about prosopagnosia or “face blindness”, my sensitivity to those sounds plays a significant role in how I recognise people. When I’m physically and mentally strong I find myself overhearing things other people can’t. I’ll hear people talking across the room despite loud ambient sounds or follow several conversations at once.
It’s a difference that’s worked both for and against me. On the one hand it made me aware of things that I was able to mitigate, avoid or capitalise on, but on the other I’ve been vilified as an eavesdropper and punished for knowing secrets I’ve been accused of obtaining through underhand means.
My sensitivity can be too much for me to handle when I’m not feeling at my best though. Those distinct lines of conversation become a disjointed babble that confuses and frustrates me. When I’m strong I hear things people didn’t want me to, When I’m not I sometimes can’t make sense of people talking to my face.
Both the positive AND negative aspects of my aural sensitivity influence the decisions I make.
Our emotions are at the core of our self-awareness and our memories. How our decisions are influenced by our emotions has been a subject of intellectual and moral debate throughout history. Is the thoughtful, self-reflective and logical approach better? Or the emotional, seat of the pants, “gut feeling” the way to go?
Like half of the autists in the world, I’m alexithymic which means I sometimes don’t experience emotions in
quite the same way others expect. When in emotionally charged situations I may be aware of a positive or negative “charge” to my feelings, but I can’t narrow it down to specifics until much later, in effect going through the same emotional roller-coaster a second time after the fact.
I sometimes find I don’t feel much at all when everyone else is highly emotional meaning I may seem underwhelmed in happy times but also be the calm, collected organiser when all about me are losing their heads. I’ve often been relied upon to be the one who brought calm to a tense situation or took control when accidents happened or tempers frayed.
Other times I’ve experienced an intensity of emotion that surprised people. I’ve been moved to tears by beauty no-one else could appreciate, felt compassion for people before anyone else has recognised their pain and laughed like a drain to be greeted with blank confusion.
My emotional make up influences my morals, my sense of justice, my loyalty and what I want out of life.
It colours my every thought and gives texture to my memories.
Our veracity is our relationship with the truth and in this the autistic and neurotypical view can be VERY
different. In short – most autistic people have a stricter view of what constitutes truth, which is apparent not only in how we choose to communicate, but how in we react when we sense deception.
It’s a common archetype of autistic people that we’re “blunt”, “inappropriate” or “indiscreet” and it’s one of those rare tropes that holds some truth. It reflects our need for straight, unembellished, naked truth. We would generally much rather people were honest and candid with us than hide things or WORSE, tell us what they think we want to hear.
White lies may be intended as a kindness, but when we discover the truth behind them the feeling of betrayal can be as palpable as any treachery or deceit. If we think of truth as an absolute concept, rather than a malleable one we begin to see the lies most people choose not to see. Not those which get punished, but those which we tolerate as part of everyday life. Modern politics is built on misinformation– whether on the grand geopolitical scale or the personal scale of the workplace, the local community or in families. Sycophancy is as dishonest as backstabbing, back-covering and “being economical with the truth”.
When we look deeper lies can be found in the exaggeration or understatement of casual conversation, the times we literally say “literally” when we don’t really mean literally at all, or the embarrassing details we leave out when we tell a story. It’s in humour, in advertising, in the florid descriptions in the restaurant menu or the product reviews in online retailers. Every time someone expresses an opinion as if it were fact they aren’t telling the truth. At it’s most basic level, any statement which directly or indirectly conveys information that’s false, can’t be verified, is misleading or knowingly incomplete, is NOT the autistic truth.
The 3 qualities at the heart of the Autistic Triad of Distinction are so-called because they are the 3 aspects of autistic thought that are most distinct from the neurotypical average. They are also 3 of the biggest influences on our personalities, our memories, our choices, desires and ambitions. They are the cornerstones of that intangible entity we call “self”.
Without my autistic hearing I’d have undoubtedly made many different decisions because I’d not have overheard so many warnings and I might not have looked quite so gormless to others when I couldn’t understand them.
My feelings would have been very different were I not autistic. I might find it easier to “enjoy the moment” and “join in” and I might even see the appeal of countless social exercises that baffle me now, but I doubt I’d retain my specific concept of beauty, nor find such intense fascination in my interests or find humour AND JOY in the things that I do.
And were I not autistic my relationship with the truth MIGHT be...looser. I wouldn’t have spent 50 odd years painstakingly dissecting the words and behaviour of other people to extract nuggets of reliable truth
nor invested so much time in constructing mental flowcharts to ferret out the reasons for behaviours of others that look irrational or self-defeating to me. If my veracity were dialled to “average” I’d have a better understanding of what people “really” mean when they contradict themselves and be more tolerant of everyday lies, but I’d also be more vulnerable to deception, more easily carried along with the tide, more concerned about my position in various pecking orders and more reliant on the approval of others.
If I understood the world with the stock, neurotypical arsenal of senses, emotions and veracity then I’d probably have enjoyed more “shared experience” with other people around me, but I would also have missed out on so much that has shaped me into who I am today.
I wouldn’t be “me but not autistic” I’d be somebody else. Same body, but someone else would be in the driving seat. Someone with different memories, different habits, different values, priorities and feelings.
I’d still be Quinn, but in name only.
I’ve also a very personal answer to the question of
“how do I know I wouldn’t be the same person if I wasn’t autistic...”
I grew up in a family that was always at war with itself, everyone constantly jockeying for position and competing for both affection and dominance and I was the only one who didn’t take part. Whilst they lied to each other, cheated each other and took advantage of any kindness they were shown, I was always on the outside looking in and wondering why they hurt each other so much.
The one and only thing they all united in was their incomprehension at my inability and unwillingness to play the same games. They simply couldn’t comprehend why I’d rather be seen as a loser than be an abuser.
Even now I’m still the outsider looking on, still not quite knowing why they put so much effort into inflicting pain. I’m nothing like them and the one notable difference between myself and my remaining immediate family is that I’m autistic and they’re not.
My life has been one long research project, delving into every source I could find to discover why I didn’t
click with my family or my peers and the one thing I keep finding, is most of those core differences are shared with other autistic people.
I KNOW I wouldn’t be the same person, because the memories, thoughts and feelings that would form the “I think therefore I am” of this theoretical, non-autistic version of me, the allistic sentient program to be downloaded into the transhumanists computers or the neurotypical soul that might reincarnate or ascend to the afterlife, would be very, very different from the decidedly autistic one talking to you now.
You can watch the video by clicking on any of the images in the body of text.
(c) Autistamatic 2022