“Relating to objects” doesn’t have to mean “robotic”.


I was rereading a book called Women from Another Planet, which is written by several autistic women, many of whom I know and like online. There’s a part of it that seems to relate to my experience of considering human relationships not the only relationships, and human communication not the only communication:

A perhaps startling suggestion, is that we may even have learnt empathy and other moral attributes, through our early relationships with the nonhuman world, despite a common NT assumption that fascination with the nonhuman risks making us more robotic. For example:

MM: We are always sewing souls into the things we create.

Jane: Yes. I think soul (essence of being) is created through creation of a relationship. I call it a moral relationship (which I know sounds prissy or sanctimonious to some), by which I mean a relationship where there is acceptance/acknowledgement of agency and responsibility. When I relate to an object (whether it is another human or a bear I have created out of cloth), with my moral (aware) consciousness, when I acknowledge my power to affect (recognize, hurt, heal, shine like the sun or nourish like rain — even to destroy like lightning), I also give power to the other (the object) to affect me. So that other is as alive as I am (in this sense). We are in a moral relationship that gives life meaning. That is why I know the bears who are my most intimate and daily family do help me be/have whatever is good in who I am and what I do. It is the relationship that makes us who we are (that makes me who I am). And I say that even though I have a strong tendency to want to say/feel, I am I, alone. That fraction of the truth lives inside the larger truth of relationships.

MM: Most of humanity is ignorant for not hearing and seeing what is around them. I hear the rocks and trees. Wish me well and tell me I am one of them, one of the silent ones who has now been given a voice, and that I must come out of hiding to protect others without voices: in my case I tend to give voice to people with Alzheimer’s disease. My washer and dryer speak to me, and so I painted a face on them and gave them names and make sure I don’t over work them. When I worked in a copy shop I could produce more copies than any other employee. Yes, I could understand the physics of the machine and their limitations from overheating etc. But for me the machines were talking to me and I talked back regularly.

I was raised by our Siamese cat I could understand her language better than the human language, and so I spoke Siamese way before I spoke English, and I thought the cat was my real mother because I could understand her more than I could understand humans. I speak to children, babies, machines, rocks and trees as if they can hear me and they know what I am talking about. That is why my success with Alzheimer’s patients is so high: I treat them with such great respect and assume they know what I am saying. And I wonder why the rest of the world is so ignorant as to treat others as stupid and dumb and things and animals so terribly because they are somehow less than us? Well I think that is a very arrogant stance to think we are better or more alive than these others who very much have a soul.

Jane and Mary Margaret have two of my favorite personal webpages by autistic people (although I’m biased because I like them personally as well): M. Jane Meyerding Home Page and Little Girl in Red.

When I first moved out on my own, I was pretty isolated, and never seemed to fit in the social world at all. (This was in many ways the least of my problems at the time, given that I was also near starving and dealing with filthy living conditions I couldn’t seem to do anything about.) Even at the hippie garden across the street where I got free meals on Thursdays, I basically just sat there and everyone talked around me. Which I was actually somewhat glad about because everyone there was so touchy-feely it was unnerving — one guy even jumped up right across from me spreading his arms and said (to the room in general) “You can never have too much touch, you can never have too much love,” and I mostly strongly hoped he wasn’t going to hug me. But it still pointed to being pretty isolated socially.

The driveway to the house I lived in an attachment to, was full of rocks. After dealing with Internet people or the hippie garden or other places that considered people most of the world, I’d go out there and I’d line the rocks up, stack them in piles or towers on my pants, and hold them in my hands. And suddenly it would become very clear I did have a place in the world, and that human society was only a small part of the determination of what that place was or what value it had. The rocks reminded me that humans were arrogant in thinking they were the entire world, and in trying to convince me that they were the whole world and determined my place and worth.

They also let me know that something made sense. Hunger, thirst, and sleep deprivation made my sensory experiences fragment even more than they usually did (I think they even do this to people whose neurology is more or less typical). But the sensation of a rock in my hand somehow never swirled into the sensory chaos that everything else did, and the existence of rocks assured me that everything else still existed too, even if I couldn’t tell what a whole lot of it was. So they let me know also that there was more to the world than all this chaos I couldn’t understand.

So I wrote this song about them:

The rock in my hand tells me
That there is a world out here in this swirl
The rock in my hand tells me
That things will not disappear

The rock in my hand tells me
That there is a world out here in this swirl
The rock in my hand tells me
That things will not disappear

The rock in my hand sings an avalanche song
To the rocks in the ground all around
It sings fearful power and boldest delight
And of death and of sand and of love

The rock in my hand tells me
That there is a world out here in this swirl
The rock in my hand tells me
That things will not disappear

The rock in my hand tells me
That there is a world out here in this swirl
The rock in my hand tells me
That the world has a place I belong


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

14 responses »

  1. I’ve sung it, actually. (The difficulties I have with speech mostly involve parts of it that don’t necessarily affect singing. A staff person I had who was a speech pathologist actually had some kind of complex explanation of how that works, but I don’t know it, only that it’s relatively common. Think Mel Tillis.)

  2. Ms. Miaow,

    You rock. How is your dog/cat/asthma situation? I read about it yesterday, and I hope that you have some trustworthy friends to help you with a solution. It’s essential that you keep your companions, even if the doctor doesn’t understand that.

  3. You are a great teacher. You are much needed (as in “The Desiderada”). People need to be enlightened to the knowledge that others who don’t communicate the way society dictates as “normal” are still complete in their humanness. I thought I was opened minded and I thought that I understood compassion. When I saw your video “In My Language” and I was deeply affected. I am amazed at how little I “know” now. Your video taught me a great lesson that you, me and all other people have our own languages. I have been compassionate towards other people who have “disabilities”. I believe that those who are considered disabled are usually more “abled” than most of the people I know. But your video really let me see a glimpse through your eyes. Any way we can learn to walk a mile in another person’s shoes is a good lesson.

    Thank you for your contribution and sharing your thoughts.
    I am glad that you chose to learn how to type and communicate within our community. I pray that your lesson is seen and heard and understood by multitude of people.

    I thought your poem was beautiful.

    “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;

    you have a right to be here,

    and whether or not it is clear to you,

    no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

    From “Desiderada”, Author Unknown although some maintain that this piece was written by Max Erhmann.

  4. also, on relating to objects: interesting that people will react with less shunning, and indeed spontaneous fascination, to autistics who relate specially to numbers, rather than those who might concentrate on physical objects.

    vis. 60 minutes on daniel tammet http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/01/26/60minutes/main2401846.shtml ; the most interesting quote there: “[Daniel] He believes his large family may have actually forced him to adapt. ‘Because my parents, having nine children, had so much to do, so much to cope with, I realized I had to do for myself,’ he says.”

  5. Heh… one of the things that got people thinking we were “emotionally disturbed” as children was a supposed inability to tell the difference between things that were alive and things that weren’t alive. In other words, that we were attributing thoughts, emotions, etc, to all kinds of objects around us, whether they were considered to be alive by other people or not (rocks, trees, cars, household appliances, etc). Looking back, it seems that it was less the fact that we attributed sentience to things other people didn’t consider alive as that we attributed it to the wrong things– it would have been “okay” if we’d attributed emotions to a doll, because it looks like a human and because that’s considered a “normal” form of childhood play, but it wasn’t “okay” to attribute emotions to spark plugs and pool filters. Or to play about being those things.

    I’m still fundamentally confused about why it’s considered so vastly much worse to perceive communication, thought or emotion where it might not exist than to deny it exists when it does. I’m reminded of an article I read once in a magazine where some “expert” was insisting it was bad to “anthropomorphize your pets” (which seemed to mean, in this context, believing they were capable of thought, emotion, and attachment to humans at all, not believing that their mental states were exactly the same as humans’), and someone pressed him to come up with an example of a negative consequence that might come out of this, and he said something like “well, uh, people overfeed their animals because they think they’re asking for food.” Overfeeding versus inflicting physical and emotional suffering on something because you don’t believe it’s capable of feeling that suffering… oh, yeah, that sure is a difficult choice to make. In the case of people who are considered to have “no conscious thought,” the worst that happens is that you just waste your time trying to communicate with someone who can’t comprehend it. I’d rather err on the side of caution and waste my time than condemn someone to that suffering.

    And for all the much vaunted “Theory of Mind,” I think there’s something like a theory of mind missing when someone has difficulty perceiving communication in anything that doesn’t look like a human, or in humans who don’t meet your criteria for what people “should look/act like.”

  6. I was also brought up by a cat. Or more accurately, we grew up alongside each other, speaking each other’s language. I appeared to interact with non-human animals, objects and machines more than I did with humans, which of course led to the “robotic”, “withdrawn”, “non-communicative” stereotypes (because communication and empathy with non-humans never seems to get considered communication and empathy, just anthropomorphisation or something).

    When I line up objects or stare at them, or focus completely on taking apart a circuit, or show an “unusually” deep connection to fiction (etc.), people tend to claim that I’m “withdrawing from the real world again”. This is far from the truth. If anything, I *need* objects to find some sense in the general chaos of the physical world, as you said.

  7. hmmm, funny, you like rocks.

    so do i.

    i have a lot of land, and a tractor, and not much money.
    stonework is very expensive, because labor is too expensive.
    gone are the days when you could find cheap labor to dig rocks.

    i live in new england, and every yard is full of rocks.
    you dig them up, they grow back.
    old tales talk of devil rocks.

    no matter how much you dig them up to grow your gardens,
    the rocks always grow back.

    there is some reason, but i don’t care.

    i love to dig up rocks.
    it relaxes me, for reasons i don’t understand.

    cutting trees and working the garden just don’t do it.
    it has to be rocks.

    i make stone walls, without the mortar.
    they look like walls from colonial times.
    nobody even guesses they are not.
    people then would dig rocks.
    you put little rocks between the big rocks, to make them stay..
    you fill the holes, slowly, little rock, by bigger rock.
    then you can place another really big rock.

    i make little walls around the gardens.
    sometimes i don’t even bother to plant the gardens.
    i line the walkways with my little stone walls.
    my property front looks like a the remains of an old stone fort.

    on the driveway end, at the main road, i built a stonehedge.
    a celtic artwork, with very heavy rocks.
    the biggest my tractor could move.
    sure, the little town thought it was insane, the first year.
    the second year i planted yellow tulips around the ring.
    the third year i planted clover in the center.
    it now is beautiful, and everybody in town loves it.

    now i’m collectig rocks to resurface the outside of my house.

    i just love to work with the rocks.
    when i get home from my computer engineer job.
    i just want to take my huge iron pike, and find a cool quartz rock.
    or maybe a red granite one.
    or go where the stream dried up, and pick smooth brightly colored.

    i don’t know why, i don’t care.
    i’m past the hump where people laugh.
    and it still makes me happy.

  8. I used to feel better with rocks than people when I was younger, I still kind of do. I actually talk to rocks and make friends with them, sometimes they hitchhike with me for a while until they find a new spot they like, which because of my culture (Cree) isn’t totally unusual, although I still have to hide it. In Cree culture we have animate and inanimate objects in our language and the oral traditions say that a long time ago we routinely talked with objects like pans and rocks and blankets and so on. I haven’t heard the story about how we stopped being able to talk to them. But apparently the animate/inanimate language structure goes back to this. And funny things are animate, like donuts. Who knew?
    I was reading somewhere that scientists actually found biorhythms in rocks, corresponding to breathing and heartbeats. Except with a rock it takes something like a month to have one breath and three weeks for a heartbeat. I forget where I read that, I’ll have to look it up. But it’s an interesting point that possibly neurotypicals are just really really out of tune with things in their environment.

  9. Your song reminds me of an amusing and strange “science fiction” book where the in/animate split isn’t there:
    Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
    Available in full online

    Alan’s father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine—he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune teller, and an island. He only had two or three family portraits, but he treasured them, even if outsiders who saw them often mistook them for landscapes. There was one where his family stood on his father’s slopes, Mom out in the open for a rare exception, a long tail of extension cords snaking away from her to the cave and the diesel generator’s three-prong outlet. He hung it over the mantel, using two hooks and a level to make sure that it came out perfectly even.

  10. Pingback: Textura « fé cega, faca amolada

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