What I mean by “beneath” words.


I was trying to explain to someone what it meant when I said that I spend  so much time “beneath” words, and have to climb up to them from below. And it hit me that I could depict all of the different layers I go through one on top of the other. I once depicted them (but not all of them, and not showing them as layers) before, so I already knew some of how to do this. I used cut out pieces of construction paper to do the top six layers, and paint for the bottom two.


I’m numbering the eight layers from bottom to top, but describing them from top to bottom. So I am going to start with the eighth layer.  Also these are the layers for written language specifically. Some of them do correspond to spoken words.  

The eighth (top) layer shows the words, “Don’t you know another”. It could be any words, but after not having a clue which to use, I chose the start of a sentence that a guy in an emergency room told me when I was a teen, after I was picked up very overloaded in public and humming one tune over and over to calm down. (He was in that mode people get in when you’ve become unable to talk so they suddenly decide you’ve become unaware of your surroundings too, and they mutter at you in a specific tone that seems to assume you will never tell anyone what they said.) These words represent what happens when you understand the words perfectly well.  

The seventh layer reads “melly doxel rin tunsh”. It represents being able to recognize the sounds a word might make, but not being able to understand their meaning. Whether or not you know that words can have meanings (I didn’t know that when I learned to read, and had skipped over some layers entirely that only became meaningfully separate later).  

The sixth layer reads “ncj fv rztlh xlm hnnc”. This layer involves recognizing the letters as letters, but not deriving sounds from them. 

The fifth layer shows a series of symbols such as circles, squares, zig zag lines, and other shapes. They are arranged as if they form words with spaces between them. This represents recognizing the letters as symbols, but not as recognizable letters.

The fourth layer shows a series of small slightly wavy lines, arranged in a pattern. This involves recognizing the letters as separate things, but not recognizing them as symbols. 

The third layer shows a bunch of joined together lines. This represents seeing and noticing a black pattern on the background, but not really separating out the pieces. 

The second layer is painted. It shows a variety of shapes, some recognizable and some not, some vague and others clearer, all blending into each other and the background. The photo has different colors than the real object due to the flash, for instance something medium green came out almost light pink. There is some loss of the actual multilayered texturing that’s in the real one too.  This layer represents just sort of seeing a lot of shapes and colors and visual textures, and the patterns those things make, and not even noticing the text at all.  Although it’s by nature visual, this is usually happening in all the senses at that point. 

The first layer is gradually and unevenly shaded into by the second layer. It shows a textured black background with a white circle in it. This is when not even sensory impressions make much of a dent in conscious awareness. The white circle is meant to show that even though this may seem completely blank in some ways, it’s not as empty as it may seem. (When things seem totally empty I feel “disappeared”. I did not attempt to draw this, but it would be zero.)

The things I drew were usually somewhat arbitrary. It would be possible to include more or fewer layers, or things “off to the side” that don’t fit into a simple sequence. I drew this to communicate a basic idea, not to do a perfect representation of everything.  There are doubtless layers above eight too — but I drew this to show what is beneath what most people think is the most basic, not to show all the different levels that fluent reading can take.  

Anyway, in different people who experience all these layers, things may work differently. For instance someone might live in the sixth layer, climb to the seventh layer easily, climb to the eighth layer with more difficulty, fall back to the fourth layer during ordinary shutdown, and the second during more severe shutdown. Such a person will have a very different experience of each of these layers than I do (for instance viewing the second layer as total confusion instead of comforting, familiar, and easily navigated).  And a second person may live in the sixth layer also but never make it to the eighth and have great difficulty with the seventh. And someone else may live in the fourth, and climb to the seventh easily by skipping the fifth and sixth altogether. 

I generally live in the second and first layers. This is where I am comfortable and have the widest experience navigating. I have a lot of experience built up there and it isn’t disorienting.  There are things that can disorient me during shutdown but they aren’t part of the scope of something about reading and are hard to depict. And then there’s layer zero during shutdowns. 

Climbing up to layer three and four can be done with some effort. It’s not always possible but it’s easier than the things above it. 

Layer five has a barrier that takes much willpower and effort to push through. Layer five is when things become pretty painful. It’s like each time I look at a symbol and recognize it for one, it burns my brain and squeezes on other aspects of thought until they run off and hide. 

There is a similar thing that can happen to me when at a similar layer in perceiving my surroundings in general. For instance, I might pick out anything circular in my surroundings and each circle I see hurts my brain the same way.  And in listening to my environment, I will generally pick out a really annoying and short musical rhythm or tune from the sounds around me, and hear it boring its way into my ears over and over. 

Past that barrier, things might be hard but nowhere near as hard as going through that barrier is.  Sometimes I go to the sixth level and sometimes I skip it and go straight to the seventh. 

Between the seventh and eighth there is another barrier. Not as big as the barrier between fifth and anything below it, but still recognizably difficult. My guess is that’s because putting actual meaning into the words is very different from, say, matching a set of sounds to a set of visual squiggles, which is just pairing one sense with another without having to match it to concepts. 

(The concepts themselves are usually not one word at a time. It’s more like, what set of words goes the most often with what set of experiences, and then which patterns of word orders and such go with which others.  And then skip the words you don’t understand (more than you might expect) and take what’s left and hope it makes sense.)

Anyway, obviously most of these layers involve climbing, and some parts of the climb are steeper or more difficult than others. But often I will find that it’s impossible to climb any higher than a certain point no matter how hard I try. Other times it’s impossible to climb because I entirely forget that the higher layers exist. Frequent cutoff points for both of those are between two and three (the point where the text is noticed), four and five (the point where symbols are recognized), and seven and eight (the point where meaning of words is introduced).  

Additionally, most of the time I let go I fall down to at least the second layer if not the first. Sometimes I fall down to the third or fourth instead. But there are two really terrible things that can happen instead. I can get “stuck” in one of the really painful areas. 

Getting stuck in the fifth layer happens sometimes. It’s as if the symbol-recognizing thing in my brain has so much momentum that it takes time for it to stop and drop down to something easier to take. Everywhere I look there are symbols. And every symbol noticed is pain. There is no way to stop this except to ride it out. 

But even worse is getting stuck at the eighth layer. This happens if I read or write too much without falling back to the lower layers to rest. I described this layer as the one where meaning is added. But I meant this only in the sense of matching a set of words to a meaning. I didn’t mean meaning as in meaningful. Quite the opposite.  

When stuck at the eighth layer, there is no escaping the words whether I look at words or not. The words have gotten inside my head.  The meaningfulness that I derive from the second layer is nowhere to be found. Direct experience is nowhere to be found. The only thing to be found is words, words, and words. 

Things go orange or yellow (the two most painful colors) and flickery, accompanied by an equally flickery ringing in my ears, and a dry burning all over my body.  And inside my head all I see or hear are words. Flickery words. Buzzing words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Repeating like that in an endless loop.  And the terrifying emptiness that to me seems like the essence of what words and all other abstractions are (yes I am a writer with a loathing for words).  

The longer I try to do something like read to take my mind off the flickering, the worse it gets and the longer it takes to go away. Time seems infinite at times like this. The only thing to do is suck it up, lie down in a dark quiet room, and tough it out until it either disintegrates or I fall asleep.  If I’m awake, I gradually experience more and more periods of dark quiet, until finally the humming flickering wordiness dissipates. Usually at that point I’m exhausted and possibly have been frozen in one position for hours. 

I can think of very few experiences I like less than becoming stuck in the eighth layer.  I would far rather deal with shutdowns where nothing I can’t feel/see/etc. exists and I keep hitting layer zero and vanishing from my own awareness. 

Another important thing is that people operating at the same layer are not necessarily experiencing the same thing. My ability to read means I can operate at the eighth layer despite living at the first and second most of the time. Another person might live at the eighth. Another person might live up at some sort of eleventh layer I haven’t got into, and be experiencing the eighth due to shutdown. The person who lives there will be the only comfortable one. I will be uncomfortable because I am greatly stretching my abilities and hanging by my fingernails. The person from the eleventh layer will likely be distressed and disoriented because their usual abilities are gone and they don’t have the long experience functioning in that layer that someone who lives there does. 

This is one reason I find it really offensive when people assume that every person who can read and write (at least some of the time) has identical experiences. That assumes that everyone who can sometimes get to the eighth layer lives there, doesn’t understand the other layers that come before it, and can always get there. It’s not that simple. It’s not even as simple as the picture makes it look (and this picture is only about reading!). Life is quite a lot more complicated than that. 

So that’s my simplified guide to what I mean when I talk about living “under” or “beneath” words. Similar but not identical things apply when I talk about what’s “beneath” certain kinds of thought, perception, movement, etc. Oh and generally writing something this long puts my reading at layer seven at best, which is one of several reasons I can’t easily proofread, summarize, remember what I wrote, or do various other things.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

27 responses »

  1. J — It wasn’t intentional but it may reflect my biases. Or it may just be because it’s harder to depict those using letters. I do plan at some point to try to depict what being stuck in the eighth layer feels like, with much more detail, though.

  2. If I lived in a society where I was expected to try to go “down” to layer one or two, it would exhaust me. It would take mind-breaking concentration to not think words.

  3. In text I’m always at the 8th layer, except for rare occasions when I’m extremely sleep-deprived. Actually, come to think of it, I can see several layers around that level – one where everything makes sense and fits together, one where I keep skipping chunks that don’t make sense and getting the gist from every fourth sentence or so, and one where each sentence makes sense on its own but doesn’t fit into a whole. The lower levels tend to be when I’m reading a subject I don’t understand or it’s in an odd writing style, or else when I’m tired.

    With speech, usually I’m at the 8th, but during meltdown I’m at a ‘7.5’ layer where I get the emotional intent but not the actual words. And sometimes when I’m tired I slip into the 7th layer.

  4. This is so stunning and real. Thank you. It has given voice to intuitions I could only vaguely intimate. Would it be possible for you to send me a copy of the painting?

  5. How absolutely beautiful and real. Could I possibly get a copy of the painting? I think it’s a philosophic masterpiece

  6. The layers I’m talking about don’t deal with emotional intent, just with the meaning. I can pick up emotions when down at the second (in fact going much above that can make me unable to pick up emotions)

  7. Different Naph/ftali (this excites me) heh.

    I’m amazed at the way you represented this, and then explained it. Each element has so much density and clarity, and the piece as a whole is absolutely stellar. I always love reading (and watching on youtube) your stuff.

  8. Just out of curiosity…..when people (other than those you already know in person) approach you and attempt to interact at autie-friendly conferences, do you feel as if you are being forced to go into a higher level than you’re already at?


  9. very helpful to know that. is it like a vibe of “someone wants something from me” coming off? or some other vibe that is not clearly defined?

  10. Sometimes it’s that. Sometimes it’s other things I don’t know the words for. And sometimes it seems to immediately pop me into an incredibly passive state where I at worst cannot respond at all and at best can only respond within certain parameters.

  11. Could be response to a threat…..information onslaught is a threat..if you don’t take steps to avoid it…result could either be a meltdown, shutdown, or loss of capacity to respond to things you wish to respond to…in a way you wish to respond. (If wrong please correct if you can. I’m not trying to say I know this for a fact…..I’m speculating. The more I understand about someone the more I can try to make an informed decision about trying to interact with that person.)

    The only semi-related thing to this you’d written…..that I could find on this blog…was “If you recognize me” about being outside doing errands and being spotted by strangers and chatted up.


  12. Wow, this is really neat.

    My experience is a lot like this, too, but with fewer layers. Almost all the time, I live in the second layer, and it can take me a long time/lots of effort to get up to the levels needed to do the sending part of communication. I have an easier time with the receiving part, most of the time, although the second level, with the meaningless sounds, is fairly common to me, too. I am pretty much always in the first level when it comes to reading text.

    Thank you so much for creating this, it’s such a handy reference point for this stuff, which I’ve always had trouble describing properly.

  13. ^Whoops, reversed the counting order there. The second “second level” I mention should really be the seventh, and “first” should be eighth.

    I live on the second layer, and have a hard time coming up through the layers to produce speech (or, to a lesser extent, text). But I can usually comprehend language at the seventh or eighth levels, depending on whether it is written or spoken. There. That’s what I meant to say.

  14. Really fascinating.

    You’re right, everyone’s different.

    I probably live in your “eighth layer”: words have always been where I live and experience, to the extent that I tend to remember and think in word strings, remember people and places almost by text descriptions, and remember music by remembering the lyrics. I envy people with better visual, spatial or kinetic memories and perceptions than I have.

    I’m probably uncommon in the degree to which I Think in Words, but it’s complicated by most people *thinking* they think in words, while their experience is probably richer and more nuanced than mine socially and visually and in terms of things like music.

    I have a few pure-sensory perceptions that I know I haven’t thought out in words or read in a book, but they’re relatively uncommon.


  15. Your words are a gift to those of us who do love words–you put them together in beautiful and very functional ways.

    Your writing communicates to me something from the layers beneath the words. When I read your writing, I’m getting the meaning of the words, phrases and sentences like I do when I read anything else, but I feel like I’m also getting more–sort of a feeling of little doors and windows opening, looking under stones, noticing things I hadn’t known were there. Your words are doing much more than most writer’s words do.

    Very cool, and very impressive – thank you!

  16. I’m just waiting for someone to claim that by writing this post you think that it’s somehow “beneath you” to try and speak. People have been misinterpreting your words in so many different ways I really wouldn’t be surprised.

    That would be another example of bullying……especially if whoever claimed that didn’t let you clarify or just ignored your efforts to clarify. It’s one of the harder kinds of bullying to deal with…….because you have no recourse……you just have to kind of get over it by yourself, and for autistic people who are prone to perseverating on thoughts and stuff its a real painful b*tch to get over. (I know most autistics perseverate but some do more than others….we’re classic examples)

    How do you (and I mean anyone here…not just one person) deal with that kind of pain?

  17. Heh. More like I am beneath words than words are beneath me. (The stuff in this post is mostly about receptive language but that never stopped anyone bent on willful misrepresentation.)

    As far as I can tell what they do is one of two things:

    1. Make up something about me. Then proceed to sift through my writing for something that they can stretch the meaning so far that it breaks, in order to “support” the crap they made up.

    2. Read through my writing until they find something that sparks off an “Aha! I could bend this past the breaking point to make her really look terrible!” moment. Then proceed to do so.

    One of the posts they did that to was about the way I smile when I am terrified or disgusted (like many other neuroatypical people). They twisted this into meaning I am a sociopath that derives enjoyment from horrific events.

    Another post they did it to was one in which I compared performances I made as a child, to being completely unable to avoid really unusual behavior in front of large groups of people. It was fairly obvious that I was talking about the anxiety of being stared at and judged while doing things absolutely beyond my control. But of course they said it meant that my stimming and tics were a performance.

    What really struck me about those two things, is the fact that if I really were a sociopath or someone pretending to be autistic, those are two posts I would never have written. Why put stuff out there calling attention to such things if that were really my motivation? But of course the bullies frame it as “a moment of rare honesty” or suchlike.

    That’s the other thing they do — they read through stuff I have written and divide it into “honest” (stuff they can try to use against me) and “dishonest” (stuff that they can’t use against me). As if they somehow have this deep insight into my brain (they ought to work for the “justice” system if that were the case). It also plays into the thing they do where they try to stand the world on its head, and so, for instance, during periods when I have been very “lost”, or dishonest, or other things like that, they portray that as the times in my life where I have had the most awareness and integrity. And now that I am very aware who I am, have a great deal of integrity, and do my absolute best to be honest (including avoiding communication on autopilot and stuff like that), they portray me as some combination of dishonest, lost, confused, etc.

    Then there’s the really strange thing they do where they take some event in my life that I have talked about in public before, and claim to have just discovered it. Like my drug use, having been to college early, going to a school mostly for rich kids (but avoiding the fact that I have always pointed out I was unusual there just by being middle class, because they have for a long time wanted to portray me as rich for some reason), having spoken and walked before in my life, etc. If anyone points out I’ve written these things, they go “Oh well then she hid them by writing about other things”, such a no-win situation they try to create.

    The one thing they try to avoid at all costs is that you could take any person in the world and do the same exact things to manipulate people’s opinions of them.

  18. “The one thing they try to avoid at all costs is that you could take any person in the world and do the same exact things to manipulate people’s opinions of them.”

    If they DIDN’T avoid that, their ideas would totally implode on themselves…….they wouldn’t fit their special widget patterns.

    Oh believe me, we totally get that you are “beneath words” in this post. But we don’t think that words are somehow better than you……as some bullies may interpret it. The word “beneath” in this instance doesn’t necessarily mean below the level of intelligence…..it just means that your “normal” or perhaps “natural” form of communication occurs……say…….if communication is an onion…….your natural way of communicating is a level beneath the level words come in. Correct?

  19. This is a great concept for showing people, how you perceive language like this. I’m starting to think, maybe this is how my mom feels when she doesn’t hear something right. I tend to get frustrated, with having to repeat myself, I know I need to learn to be more patient about it.

  20. The way the layers of this picture are symbolic, stylized and personally specific reminds me of some Australian Aboriginal paintings.

    Their artists have an intricate worldview that makes perfect sense for them, their environment, and their families, but their work was initially viewed by Europeans as junk because the viewpoint and use of media seemed so strange. Later these paintings were exoticised; finally Europeans came to MANAGE and CONTROL their artists’ output. Today the pictures’ true value is only beginning to be recognized and understood. See any parallels to the history of the disabled?

  21. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Post Topic » Distance Underthought

  22. Pingback: Disrespect or disability? Take two « Urocyon's Meanderings

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