Autism Speaks for itself: Lost on Planet Earth

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Most people think that autism is a social handicap, and that communicating and relating are the key issues relating to autistics. However, social skills are only one aspect of the syndromes of autism. I was not only lost in the social world, but also in time, space and the physical world.

I felt that my body was like a robotic submarine exploring the alien world at bottom of the ocean. The real me was looking down from somewhere far away, as if it was controlling the submarine from a ship at the surface of the ocean. Whenever I recalled events, I looked at the happenings of my life and myself from a detached, third person perspective. I never looked at the world from inside my body. I was not "in" me.

I did not know that I had a body. My hands did not belong to me, and I did not know that I have feet. I had no idea where my body parts were, unless I looked for them with my eyes. I was also not aware that I can control my body parts or precisely how to do that. Whatever I did, I must guide my body with my eyesight rather than by "feel". This slowed all my movements down. Without the ability to feel my body parts, accidents happen easily. As a result, other people often blame me for being too slow and clumsy.

  Passing through the tunnel

I also could not relate the names of the body parts to these parts. Therefore, when other people told me to open and close my mouth while singing, I could not connect the verbal instructions to specific movements of specific body parts. As a result, I was fired from the school choir for no apparent reason a week after joining it. Fortunately, my mother managed to teach me to look at people during a conversation by using her hands to turn my head towards her whenever she spoke. I could only understand the instructions if my body part was physically moved in conjunction with them. Unfortunately, this will not help me get mucus out of my asthmatic lungs, since no one can possibly manipulate my internal throat and lung muscles to teach me how to spit the mucus out without coughing violently.

I could not feel sickness and discomfort in my body. I never received the warning signs that a throat infection or stomachache is coming. My mother often grumbled that I did not warn her of my impending illness, but I did not know how to do that. She must have thought that I could predict the future. I could tolerate hot and cold conditions well, since the discomfort did not bother me. When I walked, I moved with a strange gait since I have to create my own way to move my body around instead of using my default instincts. My body was often stiff like wood, since I did not know how to let it relax automatically.

 

I could not always catch what the teachers said. Sometimes, their words would suddenly turn into a familiar sounding but unintelligible foreign language without warning. Strangely, I was unaware of it when it happened. I only knew that somehow, my classmates mysteriously knew about what to bring for art class tomorrow and what the literature teacher has assigned for homework today. The only sure way for me to note down instructions is if they are written down.

I could see the old CRT computer monitors flickering, all the way to up to 75Hz. It looked like an unstable pool of water, with a bright white line running very fast from the bottom of the screen to the top (or vice-versa). I was surprised that most people could not see it. Meanwhile, the CRT television made a strange high pitched sound so I knew when it was switched on, even when it was muted and I was sitting in the next room.

I only ate certain foods that I eventually call "safe mode" foods. These are simply foods that did not evoke any negative reaction in me, and which can be consumed without much physical effort. For instance, prawns taste yucky and removing their shells require much effort. Squid looks and tastes strange. Jelly has a strange texture. Over time, I learnt to reject any new food, since new food is very likely to evoke negative reactions.

I have no interest in good tasting food, since I had a poor sense of taste and could not appreciate the subtle mix of flavors and sensations. In the school canteen, I chose a stall that is cheap, has "safe mode" food and shortest queues. I detest eating bony fish since I must spend an hour or more excavating fish bones. Sorting the bones out while chewing the food was like the mystical gung-fu in ancient Chinese drama shows; impossible for me to learn and use. My dream was to be able to photosynthesize like plants or recharge myself from the electric socket so that I do not need to waste time to bother with eating.


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I did not have a sense of my location, since I have no idea that 3 dimensional space existed. Everything looked flat to me. Likewise, when I visualize or imagine something, I only saw a flat image. I could not sense the following intutively:

Form The structure of the object in 3D space, both inside and outside
Texture The feel of the object if touched (e.g. rough or smooth)
Mass The weight of the object
Location The 3D position of an object relative to other objects and from my perspective
Disintegration Limit The intensity and type of stresses which causes damage to an object. For instance, bending a plastic folder too strongly will cause it to break or deform.
Passive Behavior The behavior of an object passively interacting with another person. For instance, glass placed at the table's edge is likely to fall and break, because it is likely that someone will accidentally topple it when walking past.
Tool Function The behavior of an object actively interacting with another person. For instance, we are supposed to grip a cup's handle when handling a cup of hot water, not the cup itself. The function of the cup is to hold liquids, and the function of the handle is to protect our hands from extreme temperatures of the liquid within the cup.

This meant that I must use my eyesight to guide even simple actions like pouring water into glass. If I was distracted, I would pour too much water or my hand will move too much and spill water onto the table.

 

I have no idea what I should prepare myself for in the future, so I relied on rigid habits and timetables to give me an anchor. With this information, I can prepare myself to experience what is prescribed to me. [When I have finished with my work, I have no idea what to do except to prepare myself to accept the next task.] If the future deviates from these "predictions", I felt extremely uncomfortable. To me, the future is like the fixed past, except that I have yet to experience it. [I am sure we will all feel uncomfortable if we noticed that our history is constantly changing.] I had no idea that I lived in time, although I could measure the passage of time with watches.

I was sleepwalking most of the time and did not knew that I exist. In Secondary 3, when I became aware of my own self-existence, I started to distinguish between the past, present and future. My past existed in chronological order. My future was uncertain and many things could happen. However I have no idea what is likely to happen and what is not. An alien invasion, a terrorist atomic bomb attack on Singapore or encountering a hungry tiger that just escaped from the zoo are just as likely to happen as encountering a rainy day or having runny nose.

Thus, every moment in life held unexpected surprises, including those which could end my life. I aimed to prepare myself for all these possible scenarios by greatly expanding my knowledge. The anxiety I felt about all these scenarios carried over from day to night. At night, I tossed and turned in my bed for hours, thinking about what to do for every conceivable scenario I face.

 

It was only when I recovered my instincts that I realized that I just left a terrible nightmare. I wonder how I have managed to last so long with such a major, hidden handicap.

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