Thursday, 11 February 2016

Visual Autism and Understanding Language

This artwork above?  It's based on two brain scans.  Both are taken whilst the person is talking about a social situation.
On the left, an autistic brain.  Someone who is a very visual thinker.  They think in pictures, not words.
On the right, a non-autistic brain.
That's electrical activity, the colours.  Electricity makes heat.  Which one is going to reach 'boiling hot' inside first?  Which person is going to want to leave the conversation first?

That's dilemma one for visual autistic people like me.  No matter how much we love being with people, chatting with them...well, it can lead to real brain pain.

The second problem, for visual autistic people like me?  We really do think in pictures, not words.  There are different sorts of autism.  I am a visual autistic person.  Here's a bit of conversation:

"Did you hear that Donna has a bun in the oven?  Well, I told Sam that he can't have his cake and eat it.  Now he'll have to face the music."

Apparently this is nothing to do with buns, cake, or music.  Apparently it's inappropriate to ask what sort of bun mix Donna used when cooking.  Or what the cake was like.  Or what Sam is playing.

People like me  - visual autistic - spend much of each social meeting being completely baffled.  Other autistic people who think in words may understand perfectly.

Then, there's long sentences, with weird words in them. 

"A commission is a tried and tested model for influencing change.  It is an opportunity to draw a group of key people together with parliamentarians to hold inquiries, hold evidence sessions, call for written evidence, write reports and produce recommendations for policy and practice.  These inquiries will be time limited.  The first inquiry will be on access to healthcare for people.  This inquiry is currently in the scoping stage.  
Critically, a commission creates an opportunity to ensure that individuals, charities, service providers, policy-makers, academics and health professionals can collaborate and work strategically in partnership with one another to see the world become a more friendly place "

So they are drawing a group of 'key people'?  People who have keys?  People who are shaped like keys??  And there's a scope involved somehow.  Possibly like a periscope?  There's people holding things and calling out things.  The last sentence has 37 words in it.  But none of them make a 'picture' of what is happening.  I have no idea at all what that sentence means.  If I had to guess, it means that a lot of people will get together somehow, and do something really vague.  Possibly that is correct.  I hope they remember their periscope.  It takes me a long time to decode.  I ask people to help.  Often they wonder why, and think I am just being awkward.  People tend not to take the request seriously.  "Oh that Ann, she even studied at Oxford University.  Of course she can understand.".  I did, too.  Local history.  My topics  - statistics, maps, plans, buildings, landscape.  Pure visual.

And it's awkward, because I'm expected to know what complex sentences mean.  As the MD of a Professional Practice, I can write technical reports with no trouble at all.  So why can't I read the 37 word sentence?  

OK, here's a sentence or two from our technical reports:  "The property is a two storey modern office of brick construction under a tiled roof.  It has an area of approximately 340 square meters, subdivided into:  Reception, open plan office, three WCs, kitchen, stores."

We are describing a thing.  All of it involves writing down what we can see.  I can remember every detail of every building I've visited with my professional team.  From every angle.  Every colour, every crack, every item stored in it.  A complete 3D 'walk through' of that building and site.  With my visual system, I can see colour changes that others cannot.  I can spot patterns that others cannot.  I can hear at frequencies that others cannot hear.  Those are advantages for the work that we do.  I'm not interested in being bribed to report a value that is not true, because that is against the rules.  Not even if they offered me £millions.  Not interested.  That's another advantage for the work we do.  I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of maps and plans.  Another advantage.  But tell me that Donna 'has a bun in the oven', and I'm baffled.    16 years of producing reports. Thousands of reports. 100% accuracy.  One of the most respected professional practices in the UK.  Co-owned and run by an autistic woman.  Yes, that could be your child in a few years' time.  If you work with their strengths and interests.

The work I do to help autistic people in society is fantastic.  But working with some non-autistic people can be very very hard work indeed, sometimes.  So many expectations that I can read any University level stuff.  So many expectations that, if I can't, I must be too unintelligent to include.  We miss out on so much talent and expertise from autistic people, as a society.  We misunderstand autism, and especially how visual autism works.

If people use shorter sentences and straightforward explanations, I can understand just fine.

I write at 'easy read' level.  60+ on the Flesch Reading Ease scale.  That's a 'how easy is it to read this' program that is part of Microsoft Word.  You can find out what the score means online, very easily.  Other reading ease programs are available.

Here's the next challenge:

I said I like cake
I said I like cake
I said I like cake

Word emphasis.  Voice tone.  People use this all the time.  It can be used to create sarcasm, jokes, etc.  It changes the whole meaning of a sentence.   And many of us who are autistic will struggle to hear it or read it accurately.

Those sentences, with different words emphasised in bold?  The first has the word 'said' in bold.  The last has the word 'cake' in bold.   But they are the same words.  To me, all we have done is write the same thing three times, and made one word darker than the rest.  Visually, it's the same.  A person who is happy when they see or eat a cake.  That's what I visualise.

For visual autistic people, keep sentences short.  Describe something.  Use the words you actually mean.  Avoid sarcasm, as too many of us will understand it literally.

Visual autistic people can be a fantastic asset to any team.  Our creativity and understanding of the physical world around us can be amazing.  But we really do use and understand language differently.

Instead of thinking that we are being rude or lazy, or unintelligent, learn about autism.
Learn about our own ways of communicating.  Ways that involve being totally straightforward.  Ways that involve pictures, and communication by movement and pattern. Ways that do not need eye contact, face expression, body language, voice tone or strange expressions.  It's a different way of communicating, not a broken one.  And it is wonderful to explore.