Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Matter of Perception

Last week, a picture of a dress went viral on the Internet as a lively debate ensued in the social media as to the true colors of the dress: blue and black or white and gold. My seventh grade students enthusiastically defended their choices, and I was a little worried that my decision apparently mirrored that of notorious singers Justin Bieber and Kanye West. Quickly, the media published reports about the scientific basis explaining why people saw the dress differently. Essentially, the eyes and brain work together to determine color; however, light and perception play key roles in making the final decision. [To read an article explaining this phenomenon, please click here.] While I’m certain that dress is really blue with black trim, others are just as convinced that the dress is definitely white with gold trim. It’s a matter of perception, after all.

In mulling over this debate, I’ve been thinking about how autism could also be a matter of perception. While some characterize people with autism as having a lack of empathy, others have suggested that people with autism may be more empathetic than typical people are. Because people with autism may not react emotionally to certain situations, others perceive that they don’t feel the same emotions or maybe even don’t really care. However, some adults with autism who can verbalize their feelings have expressed that they become overwhelmed in certain situations and must shut down, making them appear emotionless or uncaring.

Similarly, people with autism may be thought to be of limited intelligence, especially since 40% of them do not speak. Since most of the testing methods used to assess intelligence focus upon language, evaluating true intelligence proves difficult. For example, two psychologists have assigned Alex an IQ of 70, which qualifies him for disability benefits by placing him in the mentally handicapped category. However, Alex can solve multi-digit math problems in his head more quickly and accurately than I can, and he taught himself to read at age two. Consequently, I don’t place much stock in standardized testing. Perhaps autism is a different intelligence that cannot be measured with traditional tools.

Yesterday, as I watched Alex thoroughly enjoying himself at a college basketball game, surrounded by noise, activity, and sensory stimuli that could easily overwhelm anyone, I often wondered what he was thinking at times. At one point, I watched his eyes gazing around the top of the gymnasium and carefully noting some details. Knowing his love of dates, I thought he might be reading the years of championships emblazoned on the banners hanging from the ceiling. A few minutes later, the mystery was solved when he told me, “Sixty-two.” Of course, I had no idea what he meant by that number, so I asked him what he’d been counting. “Lights, “ he proudly told me. For Alex, the world makes sense in numbers instead of words, and he takes control by taking inventory. Lately, we’ve had to move him along in stores when he suddenly finds objects that catch his eye, and he wants to count them. Like Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man who counted toothpicks, telephone poles, and cards, Alex wants to count bricks in a wall, tiles on a floor, or lights on a ceiling. Most of us simply see the whole picture—a brick wall, a tile floor, a brightly lit room—but Alex notices all the small parts and puts them together because he perceives the world differently.

Besides counting the lights, Alex was also enthusiastic about seeing the team mascot walking around the gym. As the Crusader came closer to where we were sitting on the second row, Alex eagerly put up his hand to give the friendly mascot a “high five.” Unfortunately, by the time the Crusader walked to where we were sitting, a group of little kids came running to mob the mascot, standing in front of Alex and denying him the greeting he wanted. Patiently, he waited his turn for the high five, but the mascot was busy with the kids and never saw Alex. Although Alex was disappointed, he never stopped smiling, but he began to shake. I asked him if he was all right, concerned that he was upset, but he explained that he was excited. Even though he didn’t get his high five, he was happy to see the Crusader up close and content enough with that interaction. Clearly, he felt such great emotion that his body responded by shaking, which was probably caused by an adrenaline rush. He had just as much enthusiasm about meeting the Crusader as the little kids did, but he knew as an adult that he couldn’t push his way into the crowd and had to accept gracefully that he wouldn’t get the high five he wanted. Although Alex often seems to be distracted or even distant, he is actually engaged in the situation but dealing with the activity on his terms, which others may not perceive correctly.

While the blue/white dress debate illustrates differences in perception similar to those seen in attitudes toward autism, the attention focused on such a meaningless issue seems wasteful to me. Of course, theories about the attention this topic received also made the news: perhaps people focus on small things like the color of a dress to divert their attention from overwhelming and upsetting items in the news. [To read an article on this theory, please click here.]  While I wish autism would receive the attention and concern the color of the dress received last week, I suspect that autism has too many mysteries and problems to be as appealing as the less important news items featured last week. As I observe Alex, I realize that he copes with the world in his own way. Instead of talking about the dress colors, he counts lights and waits for mascots and finds joy even when things don’t turn out as he’d hoped. Some may see that as a weakness; I see that as a strength.

“Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides You, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.” Isaiah 64:4

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