Am epiphany started to occur to me yesterday as I was writing my last piece, Impressionable: a breakthrough in working with super-sensitivity, a post that had pipped me at my own post for publishing an account of my recent holiday to Amsterdam, which is already written-up and ready for my other website Spinning the Light but which hasn’t gone live yet. That post also touches on Asperger’s but in a much more anecdotal, subjective way (as subjects on Spinning the Light tend to do) yet I still hadn’t published it several days later. Why not? Because I wanted to include some photographs of my trip…and they weren’t (still aren’t!) ready. I have this over-hanging sensation of burden that I must finish my post; yet I have thousands (yes, I said thousands) of photos from that holiday to plough through before I can make my selection. This is where my epiphany about super-sensitivity occurred…always burdened, always processing, the feeling is the same.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a photographer. An artist, yes, but always the photographer first, starting from my Polaroid Instamatic then leaping straight to the next degree after I borrowed my brothers “big” camera with its lenses to take on a school history trip. After that I joined a photography club that met in a dusty room at an adult recreational club and which, apart from my quirky friend (whose parents socialised at the bar there) consisted entirely of retired, fairly opinionated but kind-hearted old men…an odd thing for a teenager to do but perhaps not in the light of my Asperger’s. I was passionate about taking pictures and wanted to be around other people that felt the same and, in my school, that didn’t include my other peers, who were only interested in boys and hanging out on street corners, it seems. So I had badgered my friend and there we were, comparing images with balding men on a Friday evening. The desire to socialise around it has long gone but there’s not been a period of my life since that hasn’t been recorded in photographs; and not necessarily the compositions that you would expect to see but my particular view of the world.
The thing is, I take photos like other people open their mouths to talk…and if pictures were words, I would be quite the chatterbox, snap snap snap yet its a preferred way of communicating, for me, when I share in pictures on social media. I know, with all new insight, that just as I am prone to doing or saying too much to be considered polite in a social setting (unless I am on my guard), easily overstepping the mark in my enthusiasm or bluntness in my Asperger’s way, I also share way too many pictures than is socially acceptable (somebody told me this once…I unfriended them and continued), bombarding my facebook account with dozens of images that only a few select friends ever bother to look at. Taking these snapshots is only the beginning for me as I am the consummate perfectionist and have a vision for most of the compositions that I put together (for all they are mostly taken at blinding speed…because I glean potential as though with a sixth sense and then I am onto it in a jiffy), meaning I have to recall and work my way back to that moment’s inspiration when it comes to processing an image that could have been taken a very long time ago. This means that, as well as remembering to go back to the shot itself, I have to somehow recall what it was that inspired it, what I wanted to draw out in the frame, how I envisioned it looking when it was done, etc…its a lot to carry around with me but its a kind-of compulsion that I have.
This means I come home from a trip with one hell of a backlog to process through and, truth be known, I am miles behind going through all the gems I’ve brought home from my last few trips. At the time, I see something that feels important; a certain composition that interests me…and I take it…but then there are just so many to go back to that I can feel like I’m drowning when I realise the number Ive clocked up in a day or a week. Sometimes, I do nothing but trawl though old folders of them, editing and searching for gems I can process to a higher level of perfection but its always a quick-sand conveyor belt since I only go out taking more on my next walk.
So, why is this soo important for understanding my Asperger’s and the way I process sensory data? Because I realise the camera is merely a tool, an outside implement or an externalisation of how I already operate on the inside!
It was this preoccupation with “needing” to process my photos that threw up the now obvious analogy with my new understanding that I experience life in a highly impressionable way, through all my senses, literally my whole body involved, from my skin to the way my stomach can responds to things in an instant and far more subtle reactions that are harder to describe. It includes the synesthesia that mixes up sensory data in an attempt to find the right medium to express what it is that I “see”, which is seldom so straightforward that typical descriptions will suffice. Yet who do I describe them to? Not you or anyone else since I can’t, not really. No, the descriptive process goes on inside of me and it never ceases using interchangeable sensory data to express impressions that even I can’t make sense of a lot of the time and yet, while I am alive, I find I must or I would drown in them; they are so dominant that they are primary to me in a way that intentional thoughts and cognitive preoccupations may be primary to another. In my other blog, I used the phrase that I feel like a walking photographers plate when I am out and about in an overstimulating places; my body takes impressions of all the sensory data going on around me and stores it rather than letting it just pass through. Yes, stores it like someone would store a photograph..meaning to study it in more detail later!
Here was my epiphany since there seems to be a two-fold process going on here. Compared to a neurotypical person (and I speculate here since I can’t know for sure) I seem to 1) take in a whole lot more detail than the average person, in a variety of sensory formats (eg. vibrational data…as in detecting frequency…and using all of my body senses, not just the five obvious senses, muddling them together rather than limiting them to their own train tracks) and then 2) I store this data for far longer than is standard, as though I want the chance to process them in detail at a later date. Of course, this means I become quickly overwhelmed, reaching capacity in situations where a neurotypical person my not even consider that “anything is going on”.
Now you could assume that this is a failing in the autistic person…their processing is defunct, slow, too pedantic, they aren’t reacting, adapting, sifting, prioritising or filtering quickly enough. Or you could argue that they are more thorough, detailed, precise, interested, perceptive, aware, diligent at going through what they have gathered, wanting the time to thoroughly process it all thoroughly later, hence the need to take an impression and store the effects in body tissue, as per my last post. Like the innovation of photography itself, it could be deemed to be an upgrade from where there was no facility to record a detailed impression of life; or when it would have taken an artist to sit down and paint the scene, which is far from the same thing. However, for the sensorarily overwhelmed autistic person, it means they can end up (like the over-zealous photographer) with too much to process and a massive, and growing, backlog of sensory detail to be sifted through and made sense of. Like an overworked computer, their hard drive gets filled up to the brim with old files and their processing becomes slow or crashed-out…as does mine when I don’t remember to store all my photography on an external hard drive.
By the way, uploading my finished and tagged photos to the internet or publishing my thoughts in a blog (or even a journal) feels somewhat like making use of an eternal hard drive to free up my operating system…it releases the pressure on some of the sensory impressions I’ve been working through of late, organising them into some semblance of usefulness.
Of course, as with my photography habit, there are times that this gift (and it is a gift) can be a real joy, a source of great inspiration and excitement. Rediscovering this joy was one of the breakthroughs of my recent holiday; I became quite lit up with the thrill of everything my senses were taking in and couldn’t wait to get onto processing some of my images, making them into the finished articles I could share with the world. I’m also working on making it more lighthearted and fun; less of a perfectionism and ordeal Lately, Ive started editing “on the hoof” using a portable version of Photoshop, for instance, and this encourages me to take time out in a cafe and to breathe, pull inwards and take my time over what is still fresh in my mind’s eye. Its similar to how I have started carrying a small notebook so I can jot down my thoughts as they happen rather than trying to remember them until I get home or to some place I can get on with the writing task. I’m becoming less precious about the need for perfect circumstances in which to get on with my creative tasks, allowing them to be portable. The end result is I feel less cluttered, borne down upon, muddled, burdened or as though I am constantly being dragged out of the present moment by things that pertain to an earlier time, due to the constant backlog of processing to be tackled; I can be more present and this allows me to still my nervous system for small periods of respite from the sensory fray. I can so relate this to improvements I could make as an Asperger’s woman who is constantly burdened with an obscure sense of too much going on inside to make head or tail of; perhaps I need to lighten up about the processing side of that too!
Yet this epiphany that I walk around in life taking a constant, unceasing, series of snapshots of sensory data is a big one since there is no getting off its merry-go-round for someone with sensory awareness like I have and I wonder if this is a feeling shared by others with autism. Its not thoughts in my head beating the marching tune of life so much as these impressions, like pictures of sensory juxtapositions that I know will never happen again so they are important to me and my curiosity forever gets the better of me, like I am seeking profound meaning in these experiences; a way out from the heinously stuck preoccupations of a world I struggle to relate to and so I have to make sense of them…if not now then later. So I collect collect collect every sensation that comes my way; imprinted onto a slide for later scrutiny, when I can compare with others that are similar since synchronicity is one of my favourite messengers.
Like, as a photographer, I might glean the potential in a street scene that involves a beautiful window and a bicycle, a reflection and an overhanging tree that glints in the afternoon sun, my senses see potential in a moment where I notice a rhythm plus a tingle plus a strange high-pitched sound from the left plus my eyes sting as though spices are on the stove and I have a certain metallic taste in my mouth and those cars whooshing through in the rain make me think of the colour burgundy and remind me of some other time long ago that holds important information I need to recall, which holds a key to a realisation I have yet to reach….this is a vain attempt to convey the kind of sensory cacophony that is mine in any given moment and obviously, more so in busy places, which can exhaust and overstimulated me very quickly indeed and no wonder, if I am taking it all in to such a degree. There is no conclusion to this post, it is merely an observation that felt important, shared in case anyone else can relate.