Thursday, July 28, 2011

High-Functioning TARDIS

When I changed the title of this blog to “Perception Filter” last week, I was just trying to come up with a phrase that fit my way of seeing the world. It isn't easy trying to explain my behavior to people without an ASD. They just lack the understanding of the interior causes to some of the weird effects that they can see. I hit on the idea of a “perception filter” as a description of how certain details, like people's emotions, get washed out of my awareness by other unusually keen sensations. The day I came up with it, I was feeling pretty clever. Still, the phrase seemed a little bit more familiar than it should have.

Then I watched the DVD set for Dr. Who Season 5, and I remembered why the phrase seemed so familiar. Those of you who are watch The Doctor and his adventures already know where this is going. For the rest of you, the Perception Filter is a piece of technology on the show that causes the wearer to be cloaked with an illusion. Unlike the holographic technology you often see in science fiction, the Perception Filter works by tricking the brain into perceiving reality differently. For example, instead of a giant scaly carnivorous fish creature with spider legs, people might see... a brunette. I'd forgotten about that little twist of tech when I first renamed the blog, and when I saw it on the show, it was pretty embarrassing. I almost changed the name of the blog again.

After thinking it through, I'm keeping it. It just fits. In fact, after thinking about the way the Perception Filter worked on Dr. Who, I thought that the new blog title was moreappropriate for tying in to a concrete metaphor.

When I have symptoms that are the result of my sensory inputs not being like everyone else's, it's not that there's an illusion out there that I need to dispel, and it's not that anything in reality is camoflaging the things I don't see. It's just that my brain perceives something different from what my eyes are actually taking in. This is exactly how the Perception Filter works on the show.

There are some limits and rules for this device. For instance, the Filter can't override survival instincts. The instinct for self-defense in the people who are being “filtered” breaks the sensory distortion that the Perception Filter creates. On the show, this results in people being able to see, say, giant monster fangs hanging out of the mouth of a human being.

My own symptoms mirror this effect when it comes to people's emotions. I'll miss the signs that normally tell someone that they've said something to offend or annoy other people. I'll even fail to realize when it's an inappropriate time to talk or ask questions. That doesn't mean that I can't see emotional displays, though. When something really, really wrong is about to happen, I'll suddenly realize that the person I'm dealing with is at the end of her rope. It's just that that sense only usually kicks in about ten seconds before the other person goes completely aggro and blows up.

The filter does other weird things, too. Sometimes, when people are upset, I get that immediately, but I am unable to pick up enough of the cues to be able to empathize correctly. It's not that I don't have empathy, it's just that it goes a bit... sideways. I might assume, for instance, that my partner Elizabeth is mad at me when in reality she's worried about her grandmother being sick. I can see her negative emotion, I just can't see the grades and shades of it.

That's one of the more important points about us that I try to make to people at work and in my social life. ASDs don't lack empathy. They lack the ability to display it appropriately. Sure, there are a few of us that have become completely mercenary and even borderline sociopathic, but that is usually a rarity, and as often as not (in my experience) it's caused by environment as much as the ASD. What happens to a lot of us is that we feel emotions deeply and grow concerned about the people around us. We just have absolutely no instinct about what to do from there.

If I see something that might be grief, stomach pain, anger, or tiredness, what do I do? Offer an antacid to someone who's about to hit me? Ask a family member with indigestion if someone has died?

Over the years, I've had a lot of people assume that I'm an abrasive personality or that I am arrogant and look down on others. Some of those people were correct—I had a chip on my shoulder for a few years. Most of the time, though, it was that what I saw and what was actually happening were so distinctly different from one another that no one could possibly realize that I was sane and reacting logically—just not to the same thing everyone else saw or heard.

I don't want to be one of those autism advocates who insists that the world should just automatically adjust to our needs, but I really did spend some years enduring punishment for things that I just didn't know about. It's very, very difficult to live and work in communities like college dormitories and retail sales when you spend a lot of your time either not knowing how to react to what you see or reacting wrongly because of your brain's interpretation of things. It's not impossible, though. I managed to live independently for nearly a decade while basing all of my reasoning about other people on faulty perceptions. It wasn't pretty.

I have Elizabeth to thank for ending that period of my life. She's been working with me actively for the past couple of years to help correct some of my “filter” problems. After all, if self-preservation overrides my filter, then partially redefining self-preservation might help to shape what I can see. I know the world isn't going to automatically know how to communicate with me, because I understand what I don't understand now. She acts as my seeing-eye dog and interpreter for emotions.

That's really been the big change. Before, I didn't even know that I was the victim of a Perception Filter, so when other people treated me badly and I didn't understand it, I assumed that they were psychotic. After all, they would suddenly get mad at me for something I didn't do, or they'd expect me to automatically know how to do something without telling me it even needed doing. If someone did that to you, you'd probably want to take a crap in their cup of coffee, wouldn't you?

I realize now that most of the people I thought were capricious, mercurial, or otherwise douchebaggy were actually just frustrated with me. They had no idea that I wasn't acting out just to mess with them, just like I had no idea that they were used to assuming other people would be capable of judging their attitudes and needs without having everything explained step by step. The only reason I can do this, though, is because Elizabeth finally started to measure the differences between my reactions to certain situations and the reactions of other people. Then, she was able to give me feedback that helped me to adjust my outward behaviors.

It's like she has some kind of power to see reality as it is, no matter what kinds of filters are in place. In my world, she is The Doctor.

--Michael Scott

If you liked this, please leave me a comment or send me an email via the Contact button on the site menu.  If you are interested in more autism stories, my work is listed on Amazon.com.