Friday, 4 April 2014

Senses: For the National Autistic Society

Last week I gave a speech at the Spectrum Ball, which is the yearly fundraiser for the National Autistic Society. It was an excellent event: Simon Amstell threw grapes at the crowd; Jack Whitehall talked about s*****ing (interpret that as you wish); Francis Boulle offered up the most enormous diamond I've ever seen (well, I suppose that's not saying much, but still); Daisy Lewis glamorously held the hat for the tickets; Fred Page sang beautifully, and Geordie Naylor-Leyland sang (beautifully too) about dwarves, cheese and fat girls.

It's easy at these kinds of events to lose sight of what exactly they are for. The NAS asked me to contribute a piece to their programme, so since it's not available online I have decided to publish it here. Autism and Asperger's Syndrome are areas where not much is known, and raising awareness in the general public is of paramount importance.

Here's the piece, entitled Senses:

Humans have more than five senses. We can balance. We can feel pain. We can touch our noses with our eyes closed (try it now – you’ll see if you’ve drunk too much.) We can calibrate changes in temperature. We can echolocate. (Well, maybe not the last one.)

All of this information hurls into our brains – literally at the speed of light and sound. Most people can order it, sort it, process it, and present a picture of the world around us which helps us navigate. We package up all this data and, almost instinctively, deduce things from it that seem obvious and – indeed – normal.

We can all say, objectively: we are in a room with lots of people gathered to raise money for The National Autistic Society. We can look at the person on our left, and judge if they are hungry, tired, happy or bored.

As language and society evolved, humanity developed these simple deductions into a whole, subtle code of signals and signs which tell us about other people, and, more importantly, how to deal with other people. When you catch the waiter’s eye and raise your eyebrows you’re telling him a lot; when you shrug, or fold your arms, or make a face, you are communicating without even trying.

But imagine if you couldn’t do those things. Imagine if, somewhere along the line, the information that the universe gives you got scrambled.

Imagine if the words that hit your ears became long strings of meaningless sounds, and that you could only understand one sentence in three.

Imagine if all the things you saw were so bright and overwhelming that you could only make out one major piece of information – and that that thing wasn’t even the right thing.

Imagine if everyone else in the room was shouting at you because you’d got that information wrong, but you didn’t even know why or how.

The world that we know suddenly becomes an alien, frightening place. Everybody else seems to move to a different rhythm. They know how to talk, how to race, how to win. They know how to catch a train, drive a car, do the shopping. They seem to know how to live, how to be what we call normal.

But you can’t. And what’s worse is that you yourself don’t know why you can’t.

So in order to gain some sense of order in your life, you begin to categorise what you can.

It might be the way your food is arranged. It might be a pattern of cars, or a song that you heard at a certain time. It might be a phrase that somebody said to you once, whose meaning you keep trying to unpack and unpick.

It might be a comic you read when you were 4, or a sound that a radiator makes at night.

All of these things are anchors – recognisable points in the rush of things which tell you who you are.

If these patterns become upset, then you become upset, because you have no control. You hold on to the only part of your senses that makes any sense at all.

And this doesn’t always make any sense to other people. You feel trapped, anxious, scared, alone and frightened.

The autistic spectrum is a broad one, and something that still isn’t fully understood. We have been making huge strides in our understanding of the many conditions that lie along it, and how to care for and aid those people that have it.

Really that’s what I would like you to remember. That each person who has an autistic spectrum disorder is just that – a person, like you or me, with emotions, feelings, and senses. Each case is different: there is no easy solution or “cure”.

That is why we need as much help as we can get to raise awareness and funds to help those who suffer from it.

Remember: people on the autistic spectrum disorder aren’t making no sense. They’re trying to make sense. And that’s what all of us, in this often bewildering world, are trying to do.

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