Book Club: Sensing Too Much, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 19 2014 @ 10:00am

A reader responds to the email from the parent of two sons with sensory processing disorder:

horowitz-onlookingAs a well-functioning but diagnosed older person on the autism spectrum, taking a walk is an annoying and frustrating event. I friggin’ notice everything. I have to force myself not to read every word in every ad, identify the make and model of every car I pass by, peek around to see what that sound was – even though I know it was just a car door closing or a skateboarder in the distance. It doesn’t ever, ever stop.

That said, taking these walks with Alexandra Horowitz and her guests in On Looking got me out of my head. Getting out of my own head doesn’t happen enough, even when reading insightful books. Now, when I walk, I remember some of the wisdom of her experts’ knowledge and I look for those things. I think, What am I smelling? I look at the annoying signs and instead of repeating the words over and over until I see another annoying sign, I look at the typeface. I force myself to focus. On building materials, on rocks, on asphalt even.

In some small sense, I’ve become a better autistic. Or at least a calmer walker.

Maria Popova, who is hosting the Book Club, responds to the reader:

I love this. It reminds me of a favorite passage from the book:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of orwell-2information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

The challenge this reader articulates, and a challenge for many on the autism spectrum, is that of being unable to turn off precisely those myriad external stimuli that the average person automatically misses. But what’s interesting is that over the past decade, growing bodies of research have shed light on the autistic mind as not lesser but different.

Perhaps one of its great advantages, and a key point of difference, is exactly this wide lens of attention coupled with narrow focus on each of the many things attended to – a fusion of what’s an either-or proposition for the nonautistic person. At its most acute, this advantage can manifest as anything from intricately detailed visual lists of everyday objects to mathematical genius. Autism advocate and pioneering animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has spoken about this beautifully in her TED talk and her introduction to the book Drawing Autism.

For the rest of us, though, missing “the vast majority of what is happening” is undoubtedly a survival strategy. I tried to imagine, biking through the city today, what it would be like if I paid attention to everything simultaneously – listened to every bird and every siren and every rushing executive yelling on her cell phone, looked at every storefront and every redhead and every fleeting reflection in a car window. I’d crash instantly – both literally and figuratively.

Follow the whole Book Club discussion here. Maria and Alexandra just recorded a short conversation over various aspects of On Looking, so stay tuned.