Daily Archives: June 24, 2006

Efficiency and frugality


In response to one of my earlier posts on interpretations of my eye gaze, Allison Cummins wrote:

As an NT, I use facial expression (as Amanda noted) and body posture when interpreting gaze.

In Western culture, we tend to prefer the vigourous, dynamic agent. Firm handshake, upright posture and all that.

In Nigeria (I lived there four years), where all that tension and vigour would be a waste of scarce calories and generate unwanted heat in a hot climate, people are much more relaxed. While most Canadian NTs would expect someone to stand up, look you in the eye and shake your hand firmly, a Nigerian is likely to remain seated with her head propped up on her arm, more or less looking toward you, as she proffers one limp hand to be shaken.

Many Canadians would interpret this not as frugality, but as laziness and inattention.

Amanda has a frugal-type body posture. She uses support (floor; elbows on knees) and has a facial presentation that could be unkindly described as “slack.” For me, this overall picture suggests someone who isn’t particularly present in her own body or for the other people with her, whether because she’s daydreaming or incapable of thought. Eye gaze is interpreted in this overall context.

Of course, knowing better, I can make a point of disregarding certain signals and focussing on other ones. But people have to know better to do that… otherwise they will defer to their unconscious readings.

This idea of frugal body postures reminded me of one of my own observations about the way I do things, formed when I was just starting to realize I had an outward appearance and that people were judging me based on it. I noticed that very little of me moves at any given time, in relation to the background. In fact, only the bare minimum amount of me moves voluntarily at any given time.

I say voluntarily because much of the time I have the standard autistic mannerisms as well as tics, both of which can look like a lot of movement. (As a very rude professional said the other day, in gesturing at me to make uninformed pronouncements about stuff I needed without acknowledging my presence, “See all that movement?”) But that’s background. In the background, there is either movement or stillness, but it’s still background, something my body is doing, probably for a good reason, but not something I’m voluntarily doing to achieve a tangible end.

When I say I use the minimum movement possible, I mean against that background. Whether I’m rocking or not, I still use the fewest body parts possible in order to type with my hands. I have noticed that non-autistic people (at least, in America) are in a constant state of what to me would be gross overuse of my body: Even when they are doing something with their hands alone, their faces and all possible body parts are involved in generating assorted signals or something. They seldom use the “resting” postures that my body assumes when that particular body part is not doing anything (the postures that apparently get interpreted as “blankness” or even signs of neurological injury).

But this exact kind of efficiency and frugality that I use, is one of those things that would fall under the heading of an autistic-style life skill. Many of my behavior programs, of course, were designed to try to get me to stop looking like this. That requires monitoring so many body parts that it’s really impossible, and even when I do achieve some semblance of it, the effect isn’t to make me look NT, it’s to make me look really weird with pasted-on expressions and such that are fairly incongruous and would probably scare the crap out of a lot of people who read standard body language.

me attempting to look NTish and only succeeding in a scary-looking facial expression

This is an example of me doing my best to do NT-style posing for a picture.

This obviously doesn’t work too well, and I know that once I get one thing (like the facial expression) then the rest of my body goes back to doing whatever it was doing. I can’t wrestle the whole body into submission at the same time, and even my face isn’t doing a natural smile at all. Even if I could look like that all the time (which I can’t), what’s the point? It’s wasteful, inefficient, and doesn’t even make me pass particularly well (the goal in the training that got me to do things like that was passing, it was never achieved). Compare it to the hand-flapping pictures on my other website, and ask yourself which one looks happier, and more natural for me. Hint: It’s not this attempt at a smily thing.

This efficiency, though, is exactly what is needed in order to control a body that must first be found, like any other sensory input, and then controlled, one piece at a time. Trying to train someone out of it is training someone out of… efficiency. That’s not a good thing to train someone out of, but it seems to be the focus of a lot of “social skills” sorts of things. A special ed teacher (for whom I have no respect) once told me that her goal was to make it so that when her class went out in public, they “didn’t look like a bunch of retarded kids being taken out in public”. So she as much as admitted she wasn’t teaching anything functional, only cosmetic. (And trust me, they all looked autistic, even when she was done with them.)

It’s not just movement, of course, that demands this sort of efficiency. It is also thinking, and perceiving the world. Wastefulness in these areas leads to overload, and overload leads to pain and shutdown. It is harder to describe the skills it takes to deal with thought and perception, because they are not as concrete and overtly visible as movement. But they are very similar things: Don’t waste what you’ve got.

All of these skills are pretty much the antithesis of how autistic people are taught to deal with the world.

For instance, many programs for autistic people rely on basically memorizing large amounts of symbolic information about the world. That is horribly inefficient. It requires perceiving what is in front of you, converting it into symbolic information, calling up the correct symbolic information on the basis of whatever it is that you’re doing, cross-referencing that with a whole bunch of other symbolic information, and then converting all those symbols into action or words. By the time you’ve done all that, the response may create as many problems as a non-response would, and you haven’t even had the chance to check in on intention. And you’ve used up a whole lot of mental energy on generating all those symbols (whether said symbols are words or something else).

Similar things happen when communicating with an autistic person. If you want me to do something, the most efficient thing to do is bring me the objects used in doing that thing. However, most people don’t do that. They announce things like “Would you like to do this?” which requires deciphering what they’re saying, remembering what they’re talking about, and responding in yet more words, and then in actions, which requires starting various body parts moving on my own with no appreciable cues to physical movement. Or they wave things back and forth in front of my face so fast that I can’t possibly see whatever it is they’re trying to show me, and the slower I am to respond, the faster they jiggle the object around. Then they’re surprised when I shut down and can’t do anything, or melt down and scream.

The combination of pressure to respond and total incomprehensibility is never good, and using various long and winding routes to get the information in is not good either. There’s a very particular side to side motion that people do, where the bottom part of something stays still and the top part is moved rapidly and rhythmically from side to side. It makes the object utterly incomprehensible to me yet conveys a desire that I respond to the object, and makes the object impossible to ignore. And people wonder when I start banging my head. Hand me breakfast and I’ll eat it, start talking about breakfast and waving oatmeal boxes around in the air and you’ll drive me up a wall trying to keep up with everything and generate the desired responses.

And yet things like that are considered among the “best” of what there is to teach autistic people. What autistic people actually need to learn, is ways of doing things that do not take up so much space cognitively. This, of course, is yet another thing with no fancy names, money to spend, promises of normalcy (in fact the person will almost undoubtedly look less standard), resemblance to anything medical, or appearance-saving shortcuts that are really the long way around. So it’s, yet again, unlikely to catch on in the “we’re doing something doing something doing something doing something” mentality that pervades the autism world. Much better, apparently, to bend autistic people in strange unsustainable directions or force us to take the long way to do things half as well as the short way, if at all.