Category: sensory perception


We’re now into events that I have an easier time imagining myself competing in– at least in a dream.  🙂   In this part of the list, the event as a whole might seem fun, but there’s usually one or two things about it that give me pause.

20. Field events

Another big category lumped together. Basically, you have jumping (the long jump, triple jump, high jump, and pole vault) and throwing (the shot put, discus, javelin, and hammer).

I’ve never been terribly interested in these events, but I like the simplicity of just seeing who can jump the farthest or the highest. I used to try to see how far I could jump with a running start when I was a kid (and much more flexible). I liked the feeling of spinning around, too, so I was always entertained by the way athletes use centrifugal force to throw the discus and hammer.

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This post contains spoilers for the plot of the computer game To the Moon.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, play or watch the game!  Otherwise, keep reading.  This post looks a bit more at one of the game’s most interesting characters, River.  (“River” is a popular name in sci-fi, isn’t it?  You also have Firefly‘s River Tam and Doctor Who‘s River Song, both of whom are also very interesting people.)

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To the Moon screenshotThanks for reading my introductory post about the computer game To the Moon!  This post will start to get into the details of the plot in earnest, so only continue reading if you don’t mind finding out what happens in the game.

My girlfriend Megan has already written over a dozen posts reflecting on her reactions to the game and how it relates to Asperger’s syndrome, and they are really neat!  Her posts are a lot less spoilerish than mine, so you can check them out if you want to learn more about the themes of the game without being spoiled about the details of the plot.

Megan seems to have less trouble expressing her thoughts in words than I do; I usually have to have all of the details laid out in front of me before I feel like I can say anything.  With that in mind, the spoilers begin below…

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Sensory overload is one of the most common struggles for people with autism or Asperger’s, but as with most things, it looks a little different for every individual.  My friend Megan had a really good post on her journal in which she listed the sensory inputs that she finds comforting and the things that lead to sensory overload.  I also like the point she makes about how being so sensitive is not all bad; it also means that we can find a lot of joy and comfort in simple things.

Anyway, I thought I’d use the same format she used to describe what sensory overload is like for me.

What sounds are comforting?

  • Rain on the roof.
  • A breeze rustling the trees.
  • The normal background noises of nature– frogs, insects, and birds.
  • An album of familiar songs that I know by heart.
  • An instrumental passage or guitar solo that rocks so much I have to turn the sound up, close my eyes, and nod my head (hopefully when no one is watching!)
  • A cat’s purr.
  • Silence.

What sights are comforting?

  • Maps.
  • Systems that use symbols and/or colors to organize things or convey information (especially if the color choices make sense).
  • Simple graphics using straight lines and bright colors.
  • Complete sets (of elements, constellations, countries, planets).

What textures are comforting?

  • Cold, smooth, clean surfaces.
  • A couch where I can stretch out and feel that it is there from my head to my toes.
  • A car or bus window when it is cold outside and I can press my head up against it.
  • A purring cat curled up on my chest/stomach.
  • Holding a smooth, hard game piece like a domino or a shogi tile, feeling the grooved patterns on it.

What spaces are comforting?

  • The edge of a room, with a sturdy wall I can lean against and feel that it is there.
  • The arc of a swing.
  • A hiding place.
  • A beautifully and logically designed game board.
  • The golden ratio.
  • A wide open place that is uncrowded and safe, where I have room to move and I know I am allowed to move.

What smells are comforting?

  • Waffles (or really any good food) cooking.
  • Approaching rain (ozone).
  • Autumn smells (fallen leaves, wood burning).

What tastes are comforting?

  • Pasta (texture as well as taste)
  • Cinnamon Life + Honey Nut Cheerios (the meal I have eaten more times than any other)
  • Mint Oreos in milk
  • Key lime pie with graham cracker crust

What are some of my favorite places?

  • Our cabin at Penn’s Creek, especially waking up in my bedroom feeling refreshed after my only lucid dream, when I decided to fly after I realized I was dreaming but didn’t wake up immediately.
  • On a cruise to Alaska, the quiet corner of the ship’s lounge my family found to talk, play games, enjoy hot tea, and watch the scenery pass outside.
  • Some parts of my football website (the few parts that are up to date!)
  • Places that aren’t real!  Red Brinstar in Super Metroid and the underwater glass tube, Snow Barrel Blast in Donkey Kong Country, the Tiger’s Claw (Wing Commander I), the Shire and Rivendell in Tolkien’s books.
  • The basement of our house when it is cool and quiet.
  • The tire swing at our house in Danville.
  • Being at home with the whole family around a warm fireplace while it rains or snows outside.

What things trigger sensory overload for me?

  • Having to navigate an unfamiliar place.
  • Multitasking (except for a few specific exceptions, like following multiple games in sports).
  • A lot of people talking at the same time, especially if some of them sound angry, frustrated, or upset.
  • Situations with a lot of rules that I don’t know or understand (or where I am expected to “just know” what to do).
  • A lot of bright lights from different directions in a dark area (especially driving through a city at night).
  • Signs, messages, and arresting images everywhere that don’t have any rhyme or reason (like a shelf of books or CDs in a bookstore; every cover is trying to get me to look at it by being the brightest, the most different, or the most shocking).
  • Portrayals of infinity.
  • Situations where I can’t find a place to stay out of the way and observe.
  • The feeling of chalk dust on my hands.
  • Being covered with dirt, mud, or sand.
  • A blaring television or radio that no one else is paying attention to.
  • Emotional overload.
  • Sometimes, I experience sensory overload after the fact– I’ve managed to negotiate a social situation or other challenge successfully, but as soon as I’m back home and able to relax, all of the stress comes crashing back in on me.

How can I tell if I’m approaching sensory overload?

  • My muscles tense up.
  • I find it hard to concentrate on work or fun activities.
  • I get a headache (sometimes a migraine)
  • I have an overwhelming urge to escape the situation I’m in, as soon as possible!

What happens when my senses are overloaded?

  • I try to get away, become (even more) quiet, and try to be inconspicuous.
  • My stimming behaviors, like toe-walking, rocking in place, swinging my legs, and biting my nails become more pronounced.
  • I appear to “zone out,” avoiding eye contact with everyone, instead focusing on something in the distance or on nothing at all, the “thousand-yard stare.”
  • My speech becomes very nervous; I speak faster, more quietly, and less clearly.
  • I have a harder time listening and retaining information.
  • With strangers, I may freeze or operate in slow motion, perhaps giving the impression that I am stupid or impaired.
  • With people close to me, I may become impatient and grumpy, snapping at them (apparent from my tone of voice; I may say “Okay, thanks,” but my tone of voice says “Stop talking to me and leave me alone!”

How can I prevent sensory overload?

  • Learn my capacity for sensory bombardment; accept the fact that it is less than most people’s and that I need to choose which things I participate in.
  • Give myself permission and allow time in my schedule to stay at home and rest.
  • If I’m in a situation that could lead to sensory overload, plan ways that I can take breaks, such as going for a walk by myself or sitting and reading during an optional activity.
  • Have others who know me well, that I can go to for help when I start to feel overloaded.

What’s in my sensory emergency kit?

  • Headphones and an MP3 player with all of my favorite music on it.
  • A puzzle book (especially cryptic crosswords).

How can I recover from sensory overload?

  • Time by myself, not talking to anyone.
  • After that, someone to talk to.  🙂
  • Taking a nap.
  • Taking a hot bath.

How do I know when I’ve recovered from sensory overload?

  • I no longer have a headache.
  • I am able to be around other people and enjoy their company.
  • I can get work done; I can be creative again.

What things cause you sensory overload, and how do you deal with it?

(I have heard that conversations about dreams are one of the most boring things you can talk about.  Be warned; I’m going to be testing that idea in this post!  🙂 )

The world in my dreams is much bigger than the real world.  I mean that in a literal sense.  I often dream about places that are familiar to me, but they are almost always larger and more complex than the places were in real life.  That’s one of the few things I think the movie Inception portrayed accurately about dreaming (at least until they decided to skip the maze concept in favor of an action scene– that was too bad).

Houses go on and on, with room after room opening into one another.  My high school building has twice as many floors as in real life, and there are hallways you can only get to by going through a classroom.  My church has back stairways leading to endless dimmed passages.  My rural college becomes a city college, where instead of walking to class I am driving through traffic over hills and through tunnels.  Everywhere I go, I am finding new places I didn’t know about– professors’ offices in the basement of the library, underground shopping malls that are miles across, museums holding everything imaginable.  The journey from home to grad school takes me over huge mountain passes (even Texas has somehow become Alaska).  Sometimes I dream that I have to drive my way through a tangle of overpasses and underpasses or even jump over a river using an incomplete bridge.

Even things like familiar television shows and video games take on an enlarged, alien appearance in my dreams.  I always recognize them, but after I wake up  I realize I was imaging things that never existed– Star Trek didn’t cover a span of 100,000 years (as much as it may seem to some people!) and there was no Super Mario game with a thousand levels.

These dreams aren’t unpleasant– often I enjoy exploring these places.  As in real life, I don’t usually interact much with other people in these dreams; I either just wander or try to make my way to some appointment.  It’s too bad I can’t remember them very well, because they would make pretty neat settings for stories.

If I had to guess about why I dream this way so much, it probably has something to do with the feeling that the real world is always just a bit more complicated than I can understand, requiring a bit more of me than I feel like I can keep up with.  Maybe my overcautious mind magnifies my circumstances, and I get to see that in my dreams.  Or maybe getting to explore a larger world while I’m asleep makes the real world seem like not as daunting a place.

CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment about face blindness last night, and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it.

If I could add captions to the movie, that would be fun, but I don’t know how to do that.  So I’ll try writing a running commentary according to the time index of the video.

Part 1:

0:10  It’s been a while since I watched this program.  Goodness, they are being dramatic, with correspondent Lesley Stahl giving her introduction from an endless black void with a creepy picture hovering behind her!

0:45  As you might expect, the report mostly focuses on some of the most extreme examples of face blindness, because… well, that’s more dramatic!  My own face blindness is not as severe as most of the examples they will talk about in this segment.  (Also, while face blindness is often a trait of autism/Asperger’s, many faceblind people are not autistic.)

I have never had trouble recognizing my close family members or myself in a mirror.  And I was able to recognize my high school classmates right away at our reunion. But I’ve spent years with those people where I saw them on a daily basis and spent time getting to know them.  I start to have trouble with people I only see from time to time.

1:20  This is something I’ve always wondered about 60 Minutes.  Do they make sure that the stopwatch is always at the right minute and second based on when the commercial breaks come, or do they fudge things a bit?  It looks like the watch is running about 20 seconds fast here, but I think that’s because they cut the “Tonight on 60 minutes…” part out of the video.  What?  Oh, face blindness. Sorry.

2:00  I have at least some facial recognition ability, because I can recognize most of these celebrities.  And the ones I have trouble with are possibly due to unfamiliarity with the celebrity rather than face blindness.  But this is easier than real life facial recognition, because 1) I already know it’s a celebrity, and 2) the faces don’t move or start to wonder why I’m staring at them.

2:22  This camera shot is a more accurate representation of the task in real life.  All those faces going by– how can I pick out the ones I’ve seen before?  Do other people’s brains really do that automatically?  If so, that’s amazing!

3:20  There’s no “Aha!” moment for me when the faces go from upside-down to rightside-up.  It’s just the same image flipped.  Most people don’t have to turn their heads to read words that are printed upside-down, do they?  It’s the same for me with faces– if I don’t know them upside-down, I won’t know them rightside-up.  But flipping the image seems to cause instant recognition for Lesley Stahl.

4:00  Those poor people… I feel terrible for me too.  (Just kidding.)  : )

4:45  When you don’t automatically recognize faces, you use context to help you keep track of people.  If I understand what Dr. Novotny is describing, she can become familiar with a person as her current patient, but when they step outside into a crowd of people, their context is completely changed.  Now they are just one of many people visiting the hospital.  She might remember that the patient was a young woman with medium brown hair, but now there might be three other people in the room who fit that description, and if she makes an assumption, it could be wrong.

5:08  This is a nightmare scenario for me.  I would have to ask for the coworker’s e-mail address or try to text them, because even if he tells me his name, I will probably not recognize him in a different context.

Whenever I arrange to meet someone, I am usually not looking for a face I recognize.  I am looking for someone who fits the general description of the person I am meeting (age, gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, etc.) and who appears to be looking for me (by making eye contact or smiling when they see me).  Until I am sure who they are, I hedge by pretending to recognize them in a way that is hopefully also plausible as simple friendliness if they turn out to be someone I don’t know.

6:00  This exact thing happened to me with a friend who changed her hairstyle between school quarters.  She no longer had her hair in a ponytail, and that was enough to make me unsure that she was the same person until she greeted me by name!

I don’t experience quite as much dissonance as Jacob Hodes appears to, though.  If I saw a person change their hairstyle in front of me, they wouldn’t “disappear.”  I know they’re the same person because they haven’t gone anywhere.

8:00  The interview with artist Chuck Close is probably my favorite part of the segment.  I think he does a good job of explaining the thought processes a faceblind person uses to identify people, and showing how you can still be good at recognizing people by paying attention to details.  I think I also recognized the picture of Leno by the chin and of Tiger Woods by the lips.  I thought Tom Cruise was Doug Flutie, though.

Until I read about face blindness, I thought this was how everyone recognized faces.

10:00  I can echo what these people are saying.  The idea that most people have a mechanism that instantly and automatically “labels” faces for them seems as weird and unexpected to me as face blindness appears to be to Lesley Stahl.  Half the people I know say they are bad with faces, so I just figured I fit into the same category.  Maybe I do, and it’s a spectrum like autism rather than a sharp divide between “normal” and “not normal” the way the segment makes it appear.

11:05  Thanks, Ms. Stahl.  What a cheery thought!  (sarcasm)

12:00  I haven’t had the experience of not recognizing my own face, but I don’t really need to recognize it very often.  I mean, when I look in a mirror, the person in the mirror is going to be me, right?  Other people stay on my side of the mirror.

Moe by Michael Firman (click to visit webcomic)

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A lot of what you read about autistic and Asperger’s personalities tends to focus on their typical weaknesses, like social awkwardness and difficulty connecting with other people.  There’s a lot written about how traits like introversion can be a hurdle for autistics trying to fit in to a workplace or to form relationships.

But it’s a huge mistake to dwell only on the negatives.  Let’s ask a different question:  What are the strengths of an Aspie personality?  Can a person with Asperger’s or autism be a good coworker, a good friend?

I believe that the answer is yes, without a doubt!  People with autism, Aspies, shy people– have a lot to offer, especially if others are willing to listen and be patient with them.

I think that the character of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series is a great example of some of the strengths of an Aspie personality, and the way her friends accept her is a great example of how to treat others who may seem a bit different.

Speaking as an Aspie, it tends to be hard for us to talk about our strengths because we are so constantly aware of our weaknesses, but I think it’s a little easier to point out the strengths of a fictional character like Luna.

With that in mind, here are five positive character traits I see in Luna that I think she shares with a lot of Aspies:

1. The fruit of time spent alone in thought.

Aspies tend to need a lot of time alone to sort out our thoughts.  It’s not that we are smarter or deeper thinkers than anyone else, but we are more easily distracted by all of the sensory data bombarding us from every angle and the conscious effort it takes to participate in the give-and-take of interacting with other people.

In some ways, the magical world of Hogwarts seems like it could be a nightmare for someone who is prone to sensory overload.  It has all of the noise and busyness of a school, with people headed every direction all the time.  But I think the most annoying thing would be the pictures.

All of the paintings on the walls at Hogwarts are enchanted, so the people and things in them can move and talk.  So you can be walking down the hall by yourself, and one of the pictures might try to start a conversation with you.  If have a light on late at night, they’ll all start complaining that they’re trying to sleep.  Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but I think it would get annoying feeling like you’re always being watched.  (And then even if you get away from the pictures, you still have to deal with the ghosts!)

Luna grew up in this sort of magical world, so maybe it doesn’t bother her that much.  On the other hand, it’s not that different from having to contend with blaring advertisements in a crowded mall or airport in the real world.

But she does seem to appreciate time alone.  In Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter finds her in the forest feeding thestrals, the silent winged creatures that are invisible to most people.  When Harry asks why no one else seems to see them, Luna explains that she and Harry can see the thestrals because they have seen death– Luna lost her mother at the age of nine in an accident, and Harry was orphaned when he was just a baby.  Just months ago, Harry also witnessed a friend and classmate being murdered by the killer of his parents, the dark lord Voldemort.

At this point in the story, Harry is feeling isolated from his friends and ignored by his mentors.  He knows that Voldemort is about to strike openly and try to seize power, but the authorities are in denial.  They refuse to even speak Voldemort’s name and have published stories in the “respectable” papers portraying Harry as a liar.  Some of the people that Harry thought were his friends are avoiding him, and he has started to avoid them.

Luna quietly observes that perhaps Voldemort wants Harry to feel isolated.  “If I were You-Know-Who,” she says, “I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.

This isn’t the sort of insight that occurs to someone without the benefit of a lot of time spent sorting out her thoughts.  Who would expect a shy little girl to have spent time considering the strategy of a ruthless enemy?  It’s an insight she has arrived at only after a great deal of thinking quietly by herself.  Luna, too, has felt isolated, because of the teasing of the other students and the fact that she has experienced a loss that most children her age can’t relate to.

It turns out to be the insight that Harry most needed at that point in his life.

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My family recently finished watching through the Harry Potter movie series, and I thought I’d write a bit about my favorite character in the story, Luna Lovegood.  As far as I’m concerned, Luna steals every scene she’s in.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, Luna Lovegood is a wizarding student attending Hogwarts one year behind Harry Potter’s class.  She isn’t introduced until the fifth story in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It’s not difficult to believe that we never saw her before year 5, though, because she mostly keeps to herself, and no one wants to talk to her because she seems very strange.

Luna’s mother died when she was nine, and her father, Xenophilius (literally “lover of strangers/strange things”), is the editor of a paper called the Daily Quibbler, which is the magical equivalent of those tabloids they used to have in supermarket checkouts with front-page stories about Bigfoot being kidnapped by flying saucers.

No one takes such things seriously, except apparently Luna, who is always talking about magical creatures that no one (not even wizards!) has ever heard of and making other observations that seem to come from nowhere.  She tends to speak in a soft monotone and stare with a distant, almost expressionless gaze.

Luna (Evanna Lynch) introduces Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to a thestral.

Does it surprise you when I say that a lot of Harry Potter fans with Asperger’s syndrome or autism can see a bit of themselves in Luna?  She is often mentioned in discussions online about fictional characters who may be “Aspies.”

Such discussions almost always become quite tricky.  Even moreso than with a real person, a fictional character is shaped by the reader’s own perspective– he or she originally exists in the author’s imagination, but then each reader’s imagination “fills in the blanks” in its own way when picturing a character.

J.K. Rowling did not explicitly write the character of Luna Lovegood as a person with Asperger’s.  But because she is a good writer, she created a character with a distinct personality that is also familiar in many ways.  It’s an interesting balance– Luna seems like someone you might meet in real life, in large part because she is entirely different from any specific person– just as every individual is unique.  (I told you it was tricky.)

The nature of Asperger’s syndrome itself makes the prospect of “diagnosing” a fictional character even more nebulous.  Asperger’s itself is just a label for a set of traits that are often observed together– actually, not unlike a story.  It defines a rather blurry category, but the traits themselves do not describe any person exactly.  Nor does every person with Asperger’s look, think, or behave the same.

All of this is meant to explain that I’m not trying to argue that Luna Lovegood has Asperger’s syndrome.  I think that people in a lot of different situations can identify with her.  What I’m more interested in is describing the aspects of Luna’s personality and behavior in the movies that I identify with as a person with Asperger’s (and perhaps also a fairly quiet/shy person).

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Jonas and me

Jonas and I sitting on the back of a giant turtle. Jonas is two years old in this picture, and I'm almost four.

When I was 20 months old, my younger brother Jonas was born.  In a lot of ways, we’re similar.  People in my family tend to be quiet and introverted.  We both like to study things in great detail.

But in other ways, our personalities have always been different.  After my tumultuous first few months, Jonas seemed like the happiest baby ever; he was a lot calmer than I had been.

This continued to hold true as we both grew.  One day when I was three or four, Jonas and I were in a room with a door that had a mirror fastened to it (not very securely, as it turned out).  Jonas grabbed the mirror, and it fell off the door, shattering with a loud crash!  Mom came running to find Jonas standing nonchalantly by the door with a cut on his finger from the mirror, and me crying and shouting hysterically.

“How many times have I told you not to do that?” I yelled at my brother again and again.  The answer to that question was zero– I had never mentioned it before– but it was something I had heard people say when they were angry, and I was mad at Jonas for making such a loud noise and a big mess!  It took longer to console me than it did to bandage Jonas’s hand.

Most of the time, though, I think Jonas and I got along very well.  It was a lot more fun playing and learning when I had someone to share the experiences with.

Jonas grew faster than I did– it was very common for people to ask my parents if we were twins.  I heard “No, they’re 20 months apart” so many times that I still often think of the age difference between us in months rather than years.

As we grew, Jonas tended to be more adventuresome and willing to try new things than I was.  He was usually the first to try an unfamiliar kind of food or a new activity.  In some ways, I suppose, he has been like a big brother to me, though he has never looked down on me as if I were a little brother.  Looking back now, I think there are a lot of experiences I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to enjoy if Jonas hadn’t been there to get me to try them.

four days old

Four days old.

I was born in Pittsburgh in May 1980, when the Steelers and Pirates were both defending champions.  My parents were younger then than I am now.  I asked my Dad once if he was nervous about becoming a parent for the first time, and he said, “Not really.”

You see, my father was a pediatrician, and my mother was a nurse, both of them very smart, caring people who had taken care of many children.  They always knew what to do when my brothers and I would get hurt or sick.

My mother has told me that I cried a lot.  All babies cry a lot, of course– what else is there to do?, but I cried a lot even for a baby.  Apparently, I was often uncomfortable.  My skin was easily irritated.  In general, I was overly sensitive– a description that would fit me all my life.

My mom would hold me for hours, trying to get me to stop crying.  At times, she was in tears, wondering how, with all of her training and experience as a nurse, she could seemingly calm any baby but this one.

I have no idea if my restlessness as an infant had any connection to Asperger’s (a term that hadn’t even been coined yet).  I did find it interesting to read of a similar experience in Daniel Tammet’s autobiography, Born on a Blue Day.  Tammet is autistic and experiences vivid synesthesia (perceiving things like words, numbers, and days as having colors and shapes).

When he was a baby, Daniel cried at all hours of the day, and his parents would calm him by making a sort of hammock out of a blanket and swinging it back and forth, each of them holding one end.  It does make sense to me that a baby with autism might experience the world with more sensitivity and take a longer time to adjust to that than a non-autistic baby, but I don’t have any real evidence to back that up.  I would imagine that experiences vary quite a bit depending on the individual.

But whatever the case, I am so thankful for my mother’s patient love.  Before I was even aware, I was loved unconditionally by my parents.  I think that my parents have been the most powerful testimony in my life about the love of God.  It’s because of that reflection that I have a concept of what God’s love is in a world that usually doesn’t reflect it clearly.  It’s why I can have hope even in the most painful or distressing times that all along, I have been resting in the arms of my heavenly Father.