Autism & perception: impaired filter function
Around 1% of all Swiss people live with autism. One of them is Seraina V. (name changed). When she leaves the house, she experiences her environment as “a dense web made up of thousands of impressions, truths, information and expectations”. This is typical of the developmental disorder: people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD for short, lack a filter function. Their brain has difficulty distinguishing important information from unimportant, which leads to sensory overload.
Difficulties in social interaction:
Autistic people have problems expressing their feelings and needs and understanding other people’s facial expressions and gestures.
Impaired communication or language:
Some with the condition struggle with learning and understanding language, have difficulty articulating themselves or speak little to not at all.
Repetitive, stereotypical behaviour:
People with ASD often have an intense interest in specific topics or objects. They stick to set routines and follow certain practices known as “stimming” behaviours – such as counting, rocking or flapping their hands – to regulate their emotions.
A disorder expressed in a range of forms
Autism isn't a disease, but a congenital peculiarity that can occur in various forms. The best known are early childhood autism, Asperger's syndrome and atypical autism. The disorder can be expressed very differently, which is why the term “autism spectrum” has become established. There is no such thing as “the autistic person”. People with ASD are unique, just like all of us.
Living with autism: constant sensory overload
Neurotypical people can hardly imagine what it’s like to live in a world that constantly overwhelms them. Sometimes it must feel like being the only one standing under an umbrella with holes in it, while everyone else is protected from the wet. Seraina's perception of stimuli fits this metaphor: “Everything floods in on me and I get overwhelmed if I’m not careful. Sounds, for example.”
When sound & light are painful
Many people with autism – just like Seraina – are very sensitive to noise: “If I'm in a quiet place and I hear loud sounds, it's as though the sounds contaminate the silence. The volume itself is secondary, it's the disturbance that bothers me.” What’s merely a sound for others triggers physical pain or anger in her. For Seraina, sounds are often not “just” loud, but “too” loud and light isn't “just” bright, but “too” bright. In an attempt to make her world more manageable, she uses aids that include a collection of ten pairs of sunglasses in different tints and noise-cancelling headphones.
How do autistic people feel?
Autistic people perceive things differently to neurotypical people. But what are the differences when it comes to feeling emotions? This question is difficult to answer for 2 reasons:
- Firstly, we all experience emotions individually anyway, whether autistic or not.
- Secondly, it’s almost impossible to explain the thing that makes us different from others. To put it in the words of the French writer Jean Genet: “Those who grow up in a burning house don’t know that other houses aren’t burning.” This is why Seraina finds it difficult to describe her emotional world. She doesn’t know anything else.
Gut feeling in social situations
Ultimately, being treated as someone who doesn’t conform to the “norm” seems to have had a greater impact on her emotional world than autism itself: “I have much less access to my gut feeling because my inner compass has been proven wrong from an early age. If you constantly hear that your experience, your feelings, your way of thinking, your solutions etc. are wrong, at some point you can no longer trust your compass.”
Difficulties in interpreting (non-verbal) signals
Seraina has learnt to ignore body signals and intuition, depending instead on rules and objective facts for guidance. However, facts can change and rules can be interpreted differently. This creates difficulties for Seraina, as she explains: “We’re perceived as unsympathetic and inflexible. We’re the ones who don’t understand when something isn't meant literally.”
Challenges in communicating
This also makes communicating with other people a challenge. Seraina finds conversations tiring, as she’s constantly busy trying to register what’s being said. Conversations with neurotypical people feel to her “like a dog and a cat trying to communicate with each other. We just don't speak the same language. And that’s ok.”
Therapy can help with self-acceptance
By learning about her autism spectrum disorder, Seraina has come to know that she isn't “wrong” and other people “right”. This is precisely what support services – like cognitive behavioural therapy and tailored coaching – aim to teach people with autism. To accept their own individuality and recognise their particular strengths. to learn strategies to help them cope better in a world not designed for their needs.