Beautiful Otherness: Autism and Extra-Consensual Perception (Perceptual Warfare 22)

“Unnaturally” enhanced senses are so common to the autistic experience that they may even be the norm.[i] In Soon Will Come The Light (1994), Thomas McKean describes an ability to sense other people’s emotions. “It is rare that I know what anyone is actually thinking, but concurrent emotions are very common.” McKean  adds that “the link is much stronger if [he is] actually touching the person.” In her first book, Nobody Nowhere (1992), autistic Donna Williams describes her experiences of “day dreams” that she later verifies to be accurate visions of other people’s behavior.

“Such day dreams were like film in which I’d see a sequence of everyday events that really didn’t relate in any way to myself. I began to test the truth of these day dreams approaching the friends I’d seen in them and asking them to give me a step by step detailed picture of what they were doing at the time I had the dream. Amazingly to the finest detail, I would find I had been right. This was nothing I had controlled, it simply came into my head, but it frightened me.”[ii]

In “The beautiful otherness of the autistic mind,” Francesca Happé and Uta Frith write that autists

“have privileged access to raw forms of information, not normally accessible, that may give a new and more veridical perceptual insight, in contrast to expectation-biased interpretations. . . . [My emphasis] One possibility is that all people with autism have the potential to develop savant skills, and that chances of exposure and opportunity play a large part in determining outcome.”[iii]

In other words, the degree to which autistic people are provided with an environment conducive to the development of their brains and perceptual faculties would determine their ability to function as Nature intended them to do so — in stark contrast to what (neurotypical) society demands of them.

The phrase I emphasized above is worth returning to: “a new and more veridical perceptual insight, in contrast to expectation-biased interpretations.” The word veridical has two meanings, one being simply “truthful,” the other more intriguing: “Coinciding with future events or apparently unknowable present realities.” Also, in psychology, “relating to revelations in dreams, hallucinations, etc., that appear to be confirmed by subsequent events.”

This is what I call extra-consensual perception and I think it’s the key, not only to understanding autism but to understanding reality and our present predicament as human beings.

The second part of the phrase is equally important: “expectation-biased interpretations,” this relates to something known as “perceptual narrowing.” According to Wikipedia, “Perceptual narrowing is a developmental process during which the brain uses environmental experiences to shape perceptual abilities. This process improves the perception of things that people experience often and causes them to experience a decline in the ability to perceive some things to which they are not often exposed.” A 2006 study showed that “infants start out life with perceptual abilities that subsequently decline as they get older.[v]

In his influential work about his experiments with mescaline, The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley gave a more cosmic spin (expanding on a theory by Dr. C. D. Broad) to the phenomenon of perpetual narrowing, referring to the brain as “a reducing valve.”

“’the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.’ According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet.”

Or, to be a specialized citizen of neurotypical society?

[i] “In The Sound of a Miracle, Georgie Stehli described the hyper-acute hearing that explained her sleeping difficulties. At night she could hear her own body functions; the sound of her heart beating, the blood running in her veins, etc. This phenomena was reported by several in our survey as well. The constant noise from their own bodies was described as a terrible distraction that was often the cause of some their behaviors.” 
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] The piece adds, “There is general agreement that savant skills can be found in people who are not autistic. An open question is whether such individuals share the cognitive characteristic of bias for superior featural processing. If ‘eye for detail’ is an important predisposing factor in talent, regardless of autism, this might perhaps help to redirect the trend for ‘Asperger spotting’ in geniuses current or long dead: instead this theory suggests that it is one or more of the cognitive biases/abilities characteristic of ASD, rather than the diagnosis itself, that is linked to special abilities and could usefully be identified in well-known individuals, from Newton to Bill Gates.”
[v] The study was conducted by researchers at Florida Atlantic University and Princeton University, and reported on in the April 17, 2006 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “These new findings contrast with previous studies that have shown that perceptual abilities improve during childhood. According to Dr. David J. Lewkowicz, professor of psychology in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science at FAU, head of the Perceptual Development Laboratory, and principal investigator, ‘As we get older we become specialists, and when we specialize some of our initial perceptual abilities actually decline.’”

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