Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Input Overload! - Intense World Theory

Last week I discussed how empathy works in people like me, and why we aren't as 'unfeeling' as the general public seems to think. But I stopped short of explaining a possible reason for why the difference in empathic ability exists in the first place. Why? Well, to be honest I'd been researching and typing for nigh two hours, and really wanted to get the post out. Mostly though, it was because I knew that if I continued, I'd be there another two hours, and the post would have been far too long for comfortable reading, so I decided to split it in two. After all, that's the reason they decided to make The Hobbit into three films, right? Nothing to do with money at all...

It's always been assumed that the difference in (remember, not lack of!) empathy, as explained in my last post, stems from an inability to read others' emotions. This is undoubtedly true, in the sense that our cognitive empathy is much weaker than neurotypical people (read my last post for more on that). But of course, a lack of cognitive empathy is itself a symptom, not a cause in and of itself. So where does it come from?

The Intense World Theory provides a possible explanation. Thought up by Henry Markram and his wife Kamilia, it puts forward the thought that rather than being characterised by a lack of empathy, autism in fact comes from too much of, well, pretty much every sensation. At first glance, this seems absurd. In fact, that's what I thought when I first came across it. How could my lack of cognitive empathy possibly come from having too much of it? It just didn't make sense.

Then I thought about it again, and realised that he may just be on to something here. His theory, brilliantly explained in an article here, doesn't just cover empathy. It states that autistic brains are 'hyperexcited', or taking in far too much information to process. This covers, emotions and senses alike. The result is that autistic people like me live in a world where, depending on the particular hypersensitivities, the lights are constantly too bright, voices hurt our ears, clothes feel like sandpaper, and trying to read body language is like receiving 1000 texts and trying to read them all at once.

Once I'd looked at it like that, I saw how much this fits with both my own experiences, and that of the wider autism community. It explains the hypersensitivity situation particularly well, and also the lack of cognitive empathy. I'll try and explain how both feel to live with below, but I might be a bit off with a couple of things, I'm not the greatest creator of metaphors.

 I personally don't have many hypersensitivities, but I'll do my best to explain. You know when you have a hangover, and all the lights look like someone shining a laser torch in your eyes? For some autistic people, that's what all lights look like, all the time. I squint a lot on holiday, because the sun is always too bright, especially reflecting off white surfaces. Then theres sound. Continuing with the hangover theme, imagine your friend is trying to ask if you want some water. Doesn't matter how quiet they try to be, it still hurts, doesn't it? Again, that's how it is for some of us. It's not a physical pain, but sometimes, especially with crunchy sounds, I just can't focus because it sounds like someone is trying to break into my head with a drill. Taste can be completely off, making many foods taste like they went off some time around when the pyramids were built. I haven't heard much about a hypersensitivity to smell, but being linked to taste I imagine some people have difficulty with that too. For me, the worst one is touch. If anything lightly touches me, it feels either like being tickled, or instantly sends me into a state of frustration. I can also feel contact long after it's gone. If someone touches my arm, or squeezes me, I can feel exactly where the contact was for several seconds, even up to a few minutes.

I think that's enough on physical sensations, so let's move on to the other side: emotional and social stimulation. This was the one that made me really realise that this theory could be correct. I used to think my lack of cognitive empathy was just that; a lack of it. But then, as I started to socialise more and more, I realised that it didn't seem to be the case. It isn't that I don't have any idea what to do in a social situation, it's that there are too many ideas! When my friends use body language and facial expressions, I do see them more often than not. I see the sign that there is a message, but there are so many nuances and peculiarities that I see, it makes it extremely hard to tell which of the possible messages I'm supposed to be seeing. Imagine being told to expect something in the post, and reply to it immediately. You go downstairs, ready to receive it, and as you get there, 500 different letters come flying through the letterbox. How are you ever going to know which letter is the one you were told to expect? And if you do find it, what are the chances it wil;l be in time to reply? That's what it feels like trying to decipher social cues. Not too little input, but far, far too much of it.

So, going back to the initial question, how does this result in an apparent lack of empathy? Well, imagine all the above circumstances. Really imagine them, living with any possible combination of them, day in, day out. Can you honestly say you wouldn't just retreat from the chaotic world you perceive and try and avoid as much input as possible? That you wouldn't take refuge in finding patterns amongst what you decipher, and stick to those patterns whenever you can? Therein lies the answer. I and other autistic people don't wish to avoid contact and hide, but it's extremely hard to do otherwise given the massive overload we get when we 'come out our shell'. Bearing in mind we've been like this all our lives, it means that as babies, we would avoid things we didn't understand, for fear of more overload. That means less socialising, and so of course the crucial cognitive empathy developed at that stage is missing. The core of it is still there and extremely strong, after all picking up too much of the signal is what causes the problem, but the overload prevents us from developing it. In a sense, I guess that means Simon Baron-Cohen was right when he said autistic children develop social skills later than others. Our social difficulties just come from trying to understand a world that's just too much.

I hope this has helped to understand the theory, and how people like me think and feel. Knowing me, trying to explain it in a human readable manner has probably resulted in a mess, and I've probably missed a couple of things, but I live in hope. If you're interested, I strongly advise reading the article I mentioned earlier in the post, it's brilliant and does amuch better job of explaining than I could. It can be found here.

See you guys later!


1 comment :

  1. A really insightful post, one which will help me work with aspies in the future. Hope you are well Chris.