Over the last several years, people have suggested that I might be autistic. Most of these comments have been made by caring individuals who are close to me, and they have done so with a sense of gentleness and compassion. The insinuations have been that I might be on the high functioning side of the autism spectrum, perhaps fitting with a form of Asperger’s syndrome. I suppose that I could get tested by a doctor to either confirm or negate these suppositions, but there’s a part of me that just kind of likes living in the mystery of not knowing … and perplexing everyone around me.
April is known for being the month designated for bringing awareness to the reality of autism. The word “autism” is rooted in the Greek word for “self.” The origin of the term was used to describe people who tend to keep to themselves. I don’t know if I’m autistic, but I love being by myself. In fact, the world is so much quieter when I’m alone. I do know, however, that I am extremely sensitive. A while back, I had a psychiatric evaluation done, and after getting what some might categorize as a clean bill of mental health, the doctor did specify that I displayed a high degree of sensitivity. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been sensitive. The world has always felt … loud.
One of the early thoughts on autism was that autistic people lacked perception. Later, people theorized that it was actually the opposite, that autism was the result of a neurological overload due to an amplified perception of stimuli. If I might take a stab at this as a nominally educated biology student, I think it’s actually both. If you think of the human sensory experience as a sound system, I think you could get a better idea of what is going on. Most people experience life through the well adjusted microphones of their physical and mental senses. However, some of us are born with certain microphones that are turned up way too loud, which causes mental feedback and pain. And other of those microphones are barely turned on at all, which makes it hard for us to understand what people are trying to communicate to us.
I can certainly relate to this analogy. In many ways, I feel like the gain levels on my senses are set at extremely high levels. My eyes are ultra sensitive to light. In fact, before I learned to wear sunglasses, I used to get debilitating headaches. When a dog barks, it doesn’t just hurt my ears … it hurts my brain. When people touch me, it feels electric, not like static electricity or in a sexual kind of way. It just feels intense. So, I don’t normally seek out physical touch. When I’m in a crowd, it is extremely disorienting both because of the clamor of their voices and because, emotionally, it feels like I’m connected with all of them at once. It’s overload. There are times when I feel like I can absolutely read someone’s mind, and there are other times when I feel like I can’t tell if someone is being funny or serious. Some mental microphones are set high, and others are set low. I’ve only had two serious romantic relationships in my entire lifetime, and those were back in my college days. Apparently, I look pretty sexy from a distance, but once you get to know how awkward I am in person, those seemingly irresistible qualities fade pretty quickly.
So, why do I bring all of this up? It’s not to make you feel sorry for me or for anyone else who has heightened sensitivity or autistic tendencies. Because the truth of the matter is that my sensitivity to light also gives me a keen eye for photography. My sensitivity to sound enables me to be a better musician and singer. My emotional sensitivity empowers me to be an empathetic counselor, and my lack of a love life simply provides more free time to go on adventures and to help people and animals in need.
So don’t pity people that you don’t understand. Appreciate their differences, and recognize that what you perceive as weakness is just strength in disguise.
PAUL MICHAEL JONES is an artist who currently dabbles in music, photography and creative writing.