What May Be Happening When an Autistic Person Appears to ‘Go Somewhere Else'


Here’s a riddle to solve: I am not an island, and yet I am surrounded by water on all sides. What am I? I am just a person, swimming through this vast ocean that we call the universe. Einstein himself describes the passing of our lives as a river, and an ocean current keeps the features of that metaphor. G.W. Swain says that autistic people can be considered the birds in an ocean life system, holding their breath before returning to the surface for air, then diving back down again.

I want to use the premise of “no man is an island” and the ocean analogy to explain something that very few people have been able to shed light on from an outside perspective – the detached, unemotional-appearing nature of autism that often features in autism awareness films to dramatize the condition. Dramatizing is perfectly fine of course, but one should consider its limitations.

The apparent lack of emotion and detachment is not who we are. It is just an image that is projected on the outside. Rose King spoke at a TED event and famously said that there is a second, private world for autistic people, separate from the one we all share. It is here that emotion, attachment and most processing takes place.

We form attachments like everyone else. Imagine a boat on the surface, connected to the sea floor by an anchor. This connection is a hand guiding us into the shared world, but it connects people and places to our inner world as well. And that world is often not shown on the outside. For nearly everyone across the spectrum, there tends to be a difference between the world we perceive and the world we are able to respond to.

Please remember, we have feelings just like everyone else, and we want to express them. What value does any emotion, positive or negative, have if it remains inert in the mind? If anything, the stigma surrounding autism makes it more difficult to express emotions. We all create a reality together by letting emotions from our minds into the wider world beyond. But how can we be expected to add our emotions to that reality if we are regarded with suspicion and fear when we process them in the way that works for us?

When we in the autistic community appear to “go somewhere else,” that’s often what we’re doing. We’re going to a quiet place within to listen to the emotions and process them. So don’t be afraid of us if we look distant and removed. We just have to go somewhere a little further out to truly experience that which makes this world, this ocean, worth sharing: intimacy.

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