For me, this is one of the hardest parts of being autistic.
To explain: our senses are being bombarded at all times. Non-autistic brains (and possibly some autistic ones - I don’t know. I can’t speak for anyone but me, really) have a kind of filtering and sorting system. They are able to ignore a lot of irrelevant details and sort the others into some sort of meaningful pattern or story, and that is what gives them a sense of context.
For most of my life, I was unable to do this very well. Events just seemed to occur at random and have no connection. I had little sense of cause and effect. I felt powerless and at the mercy of what seemed an unpredictable environment.
I could copy other people and try to guess at why and when to behave in certain ways, but I really had no clue. I thought that at some point, I would somehow absorb all this knowledge that everyone around me seemed to have - it was like they were all in on something I had no idea about - but it never happened.
It turned out that the secret was that they could perceive context. Lacking that ability made me blind to whole areas of life.
It was something random that helped me learn to perceive context. It was a book by Plato, called ‘The Republic’. It taught me how to strip away layers of detail and use a particular style of questioning to get at the heart of a situation.
After I read it, something just seemed to ‘click’. It was as if a light had come on that had never been on before. I could suddenly ‘see’ whole areas I’d never had access to before or which I had previously stumbled around in blindly.
When I look back into my memory, there are whole areas that simply start at that point. Before that, those areas in my memory are simply blank, as if parts of me were switched off. In many areas, I feel as though I was only born at that point and that growing up started from then.
This context blindness is part of what made me susceptible to an eating disorder and body dysmorphic disorder. It is very hard to have self esteem or confidence when you feel like you are flailing around in the dark in a country where you speak the language but understand nothing of the nuances or subtext or customs.
But at the same time, it was trying to recover that helped me deal better with the lack of social understanding that results from context blindess, too. I read so much about psychology and anthropology and so on that I feel I actually know MORE than the average joe now! And the same with ‘computing’ context. I worked so hard at it, that although it is incredibly stressful and labour-intensive, I am a lot better at this now than many people around me.
The only difficulty is that, although I am now so quick at it that it seems as unconscious a process for me as for anyone else, it is very anxiety-provoking. It may seem natural and unconscious, but it is not. And that is a frightening way to be. Because without all that effort, I would be in the dark again. And many times I fear that I’m seeing things the wrong way.
When I mess up, it’s like waking up and realising I’m standing on a busy street with vehicles bearing down on me from every direction.
However, I feel proud of how far I’ve come and I feel proud that I have been able to do this. I don’t mean I feel superior to people who can’t. I just feel proud of the efforts I have made and my achievements. I have a lot of respect for the people who continue to struggle. Few people realise how hard it is to deal with that every moment of every day.