Not thinking in pictures; autism and a possible sub-diagnosis of aphantasia.
May 16, 2018 § 30 Comments
It’s been a curious time – one of transitions, I guess. Spring weather and lighter nights coincide with reaching beyond the 2 year anniversary of my diagnosis of autism.
A decisive diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome came as a surprise, I expected equivocation and maybes’. Hidden disability is a tricky rogue, adept at fooling even the person who embodies and lives it. A subtle form of gaslighting is our daily bread. You look fine! You seem okay! Why can’t you do that? You did it yesterday…
These are the conversations we internalise and play on repeat, looping endlessly, until diagnosis day or the day/s self-identification kicks in (either is good in my book).
From this moment you can begin to deconstruct, understanding ever more the hows and whys of the daily struggle. Sometimes we wade through treacle, and sometimes we glide like swans. Only careful unpicking reveals why (though the why is often maddeningly elusive). Finding out why is so helpful. Finding out why (I find) often requires a group conversation. This can be quite random for an autistic person – a process of sifting and happening on rare pieces of gold.
But these golden nuggets can be just what we need to rub the looping critical internalised voices from our minds. Yesterday I learned about aphantasia from autistic blogger and researcher Shona Davis. Aphantasia relates to the inability to visualise images. I’m still wrestling with the concept and am uncertain that it applies to me wholly, but suspect that at least partially it probably does . I often find that peeling back sensory and/or neurological difference is cloudy at first, my kind of ‘normal’ is long lived and late diagnosis can feel like playing a game of tag with yourself. I’m also a little hung up on how literally to take ‘seeing’ pictures in the mind as an expression, let alone arrive at a whole new diagnosis just like that. But it sounds like an important thing to know about yourself when so many areas of life can be affected.
Okay aphantasia is not well known or researched, but I find myself reflecting in new ways on how poor information and services are for autistic people, how little attention is given to the detail of our diagnosis. There can be so many strands to each individual presentation of autism. Not only should we as a society embrace that fact instead of chasing tired old stereotypes about autism, we autistics should also receive commensurate support.
Aphantasia could provide the key to so much understanding of the many ways in which I struggle to learn and retain information, recognise people and keep them in mind when they are absent. It could also relate to the intense need to see and touch things to understand them, and to learn hands-on rather than in the abstract.
I also feel I’ve reached a tipping point after diagnosis in which I must begin to reconstruct my life. There comes a point where all the carefully garnered information about autism and reinterpretations of my decades on the earth should lead somewhere – to forming new helpful habits and adaptations I hope.
As I drifted off to sleep last night I tried to conjure a scene. Useless. See a yellow bucket, I said to my sleepy imagination. Imagination said no.
If I screw my eyes and dig back into word association fleetingly I get something – a picture book bucket. I find a black bucket easier to conjure (builder’s buckets are a stronger image – more familiar probably – but slippery as sand in my mind’s eye). I don’t get nothing at all but what I get is faint and has that rolodex quality which facial recognition also contains for me. I get there by association. I don’t see black (as some report) and I don’t see words either. Perhaps what I see is something in-between?
The more familiar an object is the more clearly I see it but it quickly skips away. I can see my fantasies (I can see pieces of art I’ve made or imagined pieces) but I can’t seem to conjure images to command. There are also powerful visual experiences which stay with me that I can’t easily rub out so I feel this form of seeing for me may be deeply linked to emotional engagement at the time of seeing (if that makes sense).
I reflect again how poorly I understood the variety within our autisms when I read Temple Grandin’s incredible book, Thinking in Pictures, so many years ago, desperate to understand my newly diagnosed child. I can now see that fascinating as it was it didn’t help me all that much. They don’t think in pictures either – though obviously some autistics do, while others of us can’t conjure a single mental image.
My work as a visual artist is curious when you consider that I don’t have this ability firmly embedded in my neurology, and that my visual acuity is otherwise high. I’m incredibly visually sensitive (sometimes this is painful) and this guides me in my work. Probably, as in so many other ways, I’m just navigating differently.
Yesterday I took a picture of a broken plastic magnetic letter while out walking (a new habit). It is orange, the magnet is missing and it lies frontside down. I can see it clearly in my mind and this image is stable. Is this because it struck me so? Is it because I took a photo, and then spent time editing it on instagram? Is it because I love orange? Or is it because it is the letter which begins all the names of the men closest to me?
In recalling it just now before adding the image I had forgotten that it was broken or that it had a small blossom resting on it. Otherwise my visual memory was strong.
I think the truth may be that when it comes to detail and specifics, when there is time to embed an image (as in the creative process) and when the emotional pull is strong enough I can visualise an object. Visualising a whole scene, or something in the abstract is something else entirely.
Somehow knowing this feels like a huge step in rebuilding my life.