Neurodiversity is an immersive video installation that presents the world -- more accurately, worlds -- of people with ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. I am using the project to explore the idea that autism is primarily a perceptual condition. This idea, which has been promoted by autistic activists, has powerful philosophic implications, and it also undermines theories that autism can be understood in terms of behavior.
My interest in autism began when I met Temple Grandin. I was a TV programming executive, and we were interested in a doing a series on animal perception. Temple is one of the world's leading authorities on how animals perceive, a topic that fascinates me, and I was also keen to cultivate the world's first autistic television host.
My personal interest in animal perception came from my background in philosophy, but, after a few conversations with Temple, my interest shifted to autism. She claimed that there are similarities between certain forms of mammalian perception and that of people with ASD, and it was these similarities that enabled her stunning insights into the way cows, dogs and other species behave.
Before I read Animals in Translation, I considered autism as a purely psychological condition. Why are autistic people seemingly self-involved? In the 1950s psychologists promoted a now discredited theory that "refrigerator mothers" were the cause of autism in children. Current explanations propose that ASD involves impairment in one's theory of mind, in other words, the ability to read emotions and intentions, or in the mirror neurons that form the physiological basis of empathy.
The story I got from Temple led me in a different direction. She explained how the world terrified her when she was young because she lacked sensory integration. Associations that develop organically in the neurotypical (what may be called "normal") don't happen in people on the autism spectrum. Autistic people also have extraordinary sensitivities to phenomena that others don't notice. Florescent lights, the contrast between letters and paper, abrupt sounds or movements: all these things can send the "autistic" subject into sensory conundrums.
I found other first person accounts of autism. Donna Williams explains the experience of being monochannel in her book Autism Inside Out. Monochannel perception occurs when a person's brain can only attend to one sensory modality at a time. You can see, and you can hear, but you can't see and hear at the same time. Monochannel makes for confusion, especially in social situations which require ongoing calibration. A friendly touch can be a shock if you don't see it coming, which then leads to a cascades of awkwardness and withdrawal.
The word autism implies that people with ASD are self-involved, but autistic people who write tell a different story. They describe hyperacuity to sensation, a condition which leads to an overwhelming attention to details in their environment. Amanda Baggs created a video, In My Language, that shows how phenomena like running water captivate her. And Tito Mukhopadhyay, who moved from India to Austin, Texas, has written several books that describe the many stories he hears from mirrors, fans and elevators.
With Neurodiversity I am working to understand the range of human experience. I am also trying to understand the specifics of autism. While it is often treated through behavioral intervention, I have found that autistic behavior can derive from attempts to compensate for perceptual instability. Take arm flapping, a behavior which occurs when an autistic person loses proprioception, or their awareness of body in space. It may seem disruptive, but for autistic subjects it's steadying, because they regain spatial awareness. As a side note, my kundalini yoga instructor leads us in arm flapping for the same reason -- she claims it "balances the hemispheres and orients the body in space."
In cases like arm flapping, behavioral intervention may comfort neurotypical caregivers, but it may not address the core issue for the "autistic" person: a terrifying loss of body. Autism may be diagnosed through its attendant psychological and behavioral disorders, but I wonder if some of these don't stem from a more fundamental perceptual condition.
Autism is a subject where art, science and philosophy can meaningfully interact. Science provides analytic tools for developing a clinical model, and neurology can illuminate where autistic processing differs from neurotypical. Because autism touches on human subjectivity, it also requires philosophic rigor, as it is tempting to apply scientific principles beyond their proven range. First-person accounts of autism should be weighted heavily against clinical observation, and I am using these as the primary source for my artwork.
Why create an artwork about autism? Art expresses the human spirit. Even as technology-driven science explains the spiritual away, the human spirit remains the primary force that integrates our consciousness into a self-and it is the self, a divine fiction, that we experience directly, with all the joys and sorrows of everyday life. I don't think the clinical "disease-based" understanding of autism creates sympathy, and it may also miss on key facets of the autistic experience that could be used for diagnosis, intervention and socialization.
Art integrates: at its best, art reinforces our identity as beings with a place in society and the cosmos. Unlike science or philosophy, it creates a matrix of experience, and I can use it to synthesize different strands of explanation, to test them for consistency. Ideally I can give a direct experience of the object of study. Without downplaying the pain associated with the condition, my artwork may help us look beyond our current conceptions of ASD. Perhaps it could even help us, meaning me and other neurotypical readers, to appreciate autism, as many activists are now asking us to do.
Image by Beverly & Pack, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet