The title might seem like a weird question, but I think it’s at the core of why so many adult autistics didn’t have a clue how* they were different until adolescence or beyond. Because if you experience something one way all the time, how are you going to know that your way of experiencing something isn’t how others experience it? Their experience is outside of your experience.
If, like me as a kid, you largely eschew fiction because you think the authors are bad at writing people, can’t relate to any of the characters, and don’t see the point in reading this crap (it was in middle school that I first discovered an author who wrote people who weren’t the stereotypical dolls-and-clothes girls in books aimed at girls and first got into fiction) and you eschew television because high pitched noises hurt your ears, laugh tracks scare you and the frequent changes for commercial breaks annoy the crap out of you (I last willingly watched a television show on cable 7 years ago, just so you have some idea of just how much I hate most TV), you’ll have even less chance to realize how you experience things differently, because you’ve accidentally insulated yourself from the experiences of others.
If you hear from all the adults around you that your perceptions aren’t your perceptions, that you must be crazy or a whiner or a wimp or just looking for attention when you complain about things, do you believe them? Or do you believe your experiences? For a long time, I believed the adults. Adults knew more. Therefore they were probably right that I was just a lazy wimp. After all, everyone else said they found it annoying but just toughed it out. Why couldn’t I? It was only when I started to realize that adults were wrong sometimes (regularly!) and that they could be mean and lazy and so on – in other words, when I started to realize that they were just as fallible as me – that I started to question whether I was right when I exclaimed angrily that they didn’t understand as they ever-so-patiently tried to explain to me that my reality didn’t exist and that I should just shut up about my eyes hurting because nobody wanted to listen to that on a day out in the bright sun, and besides, my eyes didn’t really hurt, anyway.
I’ve seen some parents lament that their kid can’t articulate how they perceive things differently. I suggest that they should consider that maybe their kid doesn’t know how they perceive things differently. If their eyes hurt because it’s too bright and yours don’t, that’s a perception difference. But consider: Your kid has grown up with hir perceptions for all of hir life. That’s hir normal. How can xe recognize that hir normal is different from your normal? It’s obvious to you how you perceive the world, because you experience your perception of the world all the time. Not to hir. Xe can’t take your brain out for a test drive.
I was 17 before I was able to articulate that everyone else seemed to have received the social skills manual but me. I was 22 before I realized that most people who exercise 10+ hours a week don’t have trouble walking up a hill and realized my asthma had relapsed (this despite a slow creep of symptoms for 8 years). I was 25 before I realized that my senses differ from most people. Think about it – I was 25 before I realized that I wasn’t being a wimp when I jumped, yelped and covered my ears at a feedback squeal. 25 before I realized that I react so much more strongly to stuff like that than other people because I perceive it more intensely. And I’m a person who has largely been painfully aware of the fact that I am different from most people since elementary school.
Realizing where your perception differs from others is hard. I can’t unplug my brain and try yours on for size. You can’t try mine on. That means that for me to figure out how you perceive things, I have only nonverbal cues and narratives that I used to discount out-of-hand as too unbelievable to rely on. Autistic people have a notoriously difficult time with nonverbal cues, and if you don’t trust narratives because they don’t feel real to you…
I don’t really know where I’m trying to go with this, except it feels important in a way I’m having a hard time putting in words. My recent and ongoing anxiety issues are making thoughtful analysis and putting my thoughts into the right words** and those words into type far more difficult than I’m used to. I guess that what I’m trying to say is: Don’t assume an autistic person knows how their experience differs from others but is just unable to put it to words. A lot of us have spent a lot of time being told we’re not different so much that we discount our own perception in favor of what others say is true, and additionally, it’s really hard to realize that others don’t see or hear or smell or taste or touch or otherwise feel the world as you do. The block might be coming at a far more fundamental level – the level of simply not realizing that not everyone finds bright sunlight more painful than a sprained ankle or finds a crowded room fear-provoking, or what have you. Maybe words aren’t where the breakdown’s happening. Maybe it’s happening at the not-realizing-it’s-not-a-moral-failing level.
*knowing that you’re different and knowing how you’re different are two very different things – I knew that I was different from other kids by age 10. How took over another decade to really get a handle on, and even now I’m not sure I grasp the full extent of how I’m different from the allistic norm
**Case in point: Those who read the first version of this post, before I made a few edits, may have noticed a lot of homophone substitution happening – “may seem light a weird question…”, “…bad at righting people…”, “… than I’m used too.” etc. I also forgot two critical sentences. If my word retrieval in type is that compromised, you can guess how bad my speech has been for the past almost two weeks. Anxiety makes everything harder.