Reflecting on empathy

Responding to a Film by someone Autistic

Monday 22nd October 2012

OK, another outpouring: I’ve just seen this short film for the second time; it’s called ‘In My Language’, by a woman who is autistic and does not speak. Her name is Amanda Baggs and she uses the pseudonym ‘silentmiaow‘ for Youtube Posts, here is the film as it appears on her individual page on Youtube:  ‘In My Language’

During my degree course, I moved from studying painting towards performance based work. That meant learning a new discipline and to some extent a new language, though ‘dialect’ might be more appropriate. With a shift away from using tools, towards putting myself in the picture, using me as a mark, a stroke, a pointer or a prop within a conceptualised setting. My preference immediately was for interactive performance,the scary sort, where the artist has some direct contact or interaction with the viewer or audience. Great fun!

My reason for mentioning this is the simple relationship I see in Amanda’s evocative and hypnotic film between human and environment. A sensory exploration of the world towards making some sense of it. Understanding some of these concepts can make for effective and affecting art. Maybe one day I’ll make some more.

detail of oil painting of apple

Apple, Oil on Canvas

Amanda has behaviours and actions that look very different from what might be regarded as ‘normal’ or average. This is described and given some explanation in the film, as she helps us to enter her world and perhaps gain insight into what her actual ‘language’ is, using a transcription she has written herself. It is a dialogue, an interaction, a simple process of sensory exploration with musical and rhythmic accompaniment. Many people with Autism repeat actions – which is known as ‘stimming’ (self stimulation) or use rhythm to calm themselves.

This blog has to do with my tentative explorations of certain traits or certain reactive experiences, that lead behaviours within me and some people close to me. It is rather too easy to say ‘oh everyone does that sometimes’, or ‘all men are like that’! Far too damned easy, to the point of being dismissive and hurtful. So, my exploration today involves my own reaction to seeing the film again (the second time) and why it made me ‘fill up’ with a lump in my throat. For a start, it certainly was not due to feeling sorry for Amanda. Of course not, I only feel sorry for myself!

Nasturtium flower

Part of the diagnostic process for people who might be ‘on the Spectrum’, i.e. exhibit or experience the traits of Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) includes finding out if there are sensory issues. ‘Issues’ being where something is in some way interfering with that ‘normality’ we all claim or seek. So, quite a lot of people cut labels from the neck of their tee-shirts. I do and so does my Hubby. For some reason the manufacturers make them out of razor-blade-nettle-cloth. Oh don’t you? Oh…

I can’t wear synthetic fabrics next to my skin and new bras have been an issue for a while, as there are relatively few made of cotton. Knickers are easier! Socks… Still working on them. I like to dress for comfort, which often means really soft and quite baggy clothing. I change my clothes a minimum of twice a day, from ‘indoor at home, baggy-daggy’, to ‘out-to-shop’ and every evening it’s ‘warm-and-cosy-really-soft-and-oh-yes-baggy-daggy’! If you catch me unawares at home, I may be in baggy-daggy mode, and will probably feel embarrassed. From what I can fathom though, most people, especially women do this. So not too abnormal there! My point is really that everyone of course experiences certain comforts and discomforts in the world. But hyper-sensitivity goes along with Autism. Being overwhelmed by stimuli is part of the picture. It can delay the ordinary decision making of life, as the messages have to be sorted and processed before action is taken.

‘In My Language’ shows Amanda either mimicking some of the visual signals she is receiving, or responding to textures and shapes by making them interactive through sound. She prods and strokes, waves and hums her way around a space full of lumps and bumps, shapes that have no intrinsic meaning, and sensory experiences that are not described in the naming of a thing – in our language anyway. A door handle is the name of a thing, but the handle itself is metal and makes a metallic noise when it is banged or tapped with something hard. To my mind, this is a semiotic sort of world. We name things just for themselves, with etymology describing the history of words. Often it does not describe the origin of the word itself. When it does, it’s a bonus.

pear oil painting

Pear, Oil on Canvas

I see Amanda waving her hands gently like the breeze wafting the flag in the distance. She hums as she does so. A link is made between within and without, she is having a dialogue which is not in any way abnormal. Having it and naming it as such with an inanimate object might be considered so. Ha! But we all talk to our computers right? Our plants? Our car that won’t start… Well yes, we often do. But do we mimic them? Or feel so attached to them that if they are damaged it hurts us? Ah, do we feel empathy with our world? Amanda is linking her own personal sensory experience with the physical world, through her explorations and simple mimicries. A central understanding of the world is gained through sensory stimulation. But translating that overwhelming muddle of stuff into a communicable language? That’s the province of the Neurotypical, the non-autistic. Finding ways to communicate effectively with other humans is one of the biggest challenges facing anyone on the Spectrum. The signals received from the outside are not processed in the same way, it’s as though every stimulus is turned up to maximum and can only be discerned by careful focus and concentration. Too much going on causes meltdown.

Feeling empathy and behaving empathetically actually go right along together in the Autistic or Asperger’s world. Empathy is our basis for understanding how another feels. So my brief upwelling as a reaction to this film was empathetic. My own feelings were aroused by some sense of understanding of what was going on. I am easy to rouse to tears. I am highly empathetic, sometimes painfully so. I think it is an extension of the irritation caused by that label in the tee shirt. An internal twinge, a sort of pain, the prickling of tears brought on by tuning in. Like when music we describe as ‘sad’ is played. The minor key carries the message of sentimentality, or some emotion that can be read as sadness, nostalgia, the herald of loss. It is poignant. That’s how I found the film.

I have to move away from the extreme to keep this realistic. I do not have Autism. I do have some Asperger’s traits. Extreme sensitivity, to the point of personal overwhelm is one of them. Having some useful way to decode the world so that it doesn’t become a blur, is the expectation of most, the province of some and the challenge of quite a few. Learning to draw helped me. It taught me how to see small component parts and the relationships between things. Writing too is useful. The collecting of thoughts, information or ideas and formulating a way of presenting them is extremely useful. It is probably how Amanda manages to write with such articulacy rather than speaking. Thoughts can be seen when written down, whatever the original language.

The film evokes a desire to communicate in me. So, I’ve waffled on a bit here about what it means to me. I hope you have enjoyed watching, I can recommend the one about boiling a kettle of water too. Very evocative, full of meaning, hard to comprehend but deeply affecting. That’ll do!

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