Iris’ ability to read other peoples inner thoughts and feelings seems like a an impossible paradox considering that one of her key “handicaps” as an autistic is that she does not experience emotions herself. But this apparent paradox is resolved upon closer reflection. Among “normal” people, (also called the neurotypical), interaction, such as conversation, is accompanied by subtle automatic emotional cues given off and picked up almost subconsciously. Since this subtle exchange is happening for the most part below the level of articulate awareness, it’s more like feelings given off and picked up rather than words. However, the fact that the appropriate feelings are picked up means that there is actual information being transferred, in other words each person is learns the other person’s feelings just as if they were expressed in words. From a communications engineering perspective this is not so different from reading each others’ minds. Now, in the case of Iris, the reason she can’t interact in this fashion is not because she can’t pick up the other person’s emotions, but because she doesn’t have emotions of her own that are automatically given off in response. Instead, when she picks up these emotional cues she has to categorize them, put names to them and store them in her memory banks for use in her “acting normal” behavior lists. In other words, what she does is read the other person’s feelings and translates them into words. I believe it is this skill, which she developed in order to “be ordinary”, that enables Iris to “read people’s minds”. And it is this that helps her see what is actually happening in communication among people.
Here is Iris, the lady in red in front of the white cabinet, holding forth on the art of communication.
Iris, the autistic author of A Different Childhood, spent some time in her youth working on the night shift in a hospital cancer ward. It was a place pervaded with the fear of death where the staff avoided the patients by running around doing a lot of things, whether they were needed or not. With her amazing ability to read peoples inner thoughts, gained by her diligent observation of how “normal” people function as she was learning to become “normal” herself, Iris was able to see the underlying causes of their distress. In the excerpt below she shows herself as observant as Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, and exceeds him in effectiveness, because she sees the issue ans she knows what to do about it.
“When a patient was restless or anxious I stayed with her after I had done my rounds. I sat down, held her hand and talked about the immaterial. I asked the ones able to talk how it looked in their fears and got many descriptions of hell and all sorts of horrors that humans can imagine. The worst anguish was that so many thought that they hadn’t finished living, that their life hadn’t been good, that they hadn’t gotten out of it what they wanted (as if there is something special to be gotten out of life, as if it could be completed in the sense of “finished product”), that they had been too scared and too bound by duties. That feeling easily shifted into bitterness which they took out on the staff. They were well and had time left.
That envy was dreadful for the dying. They couldn’t help being mean and difficult, and at the same time felt more and more guilt feelings. I realized the hamster wheel they were on and that the patients really wanted to talk about their lives, have some type of connection, and work through their fear of death. I sat down and quietly asked them to tell about their life. I asked them to talk about both the light and the dark. They were often stuck in the dark and it took a long time and many turns before they got through it. I asked them what experiences they had had, what the agonies had taught them and if there was something rewarding they could find in it all. Often then they thought of something and little by little their mood brightened and we began to have a nice time together.”
If you would like to learn more about Iris and her experiences in this and other situations, you can read more on our blog and you can read her book, A Different Childhood.
I preferred to be in my inner world, in what I later called “the real world” or “Out”. “The ordinary world” – the one you thought about if you were hungry, cold, longing, yearning – was very strange to me. Sometimes for short periods I ended up there and it was very unpleasant. It made my body feel like an unmoving piece of meat that often hurt. Then there was a lot of dangerous demons and horrible noises that scared the wits out of me. Then I would often scream, bang my head and scream until it quieted. The light was also so unpleasant in “the ordinary world”. Everything changed constantly, and my head burned and ached.
In “the real world” there was always a different kind of light, and it was very pleasant. In that world I associated with my friends. There were two of them, a light and a dark being; their names were Slire and Skydde. They were boys, but they didn’t look like people, they were beings, they were “sweeps”. You could think of them as a scrap of silk fabric that floats in the air, that sweeps through it, that sweeps through “The real world”. That’s what I was also: a sweep but I didn’t see myself as light or dark.
A fascinating thing about Iris’ description of her synesthesia and out-of-body like fantasy life is the hints it offers about the workings of her brain, as well as of others. The great pattern matching machine, which researchers think the brain must be, has to spend most of its first years learning and storing patterns that it acquires through the senses. Patterns that it receives from the eyes obviously make optical sense and are perceived as such when acquired. However, in Iris’ case with her synesthesia, audio signals from the ears, and do not make any optical sense, get into her vision system where they are still perceived as images. But what kind of images can they be. In Iris’ case they tend to be light shows, like fireworks or shooting stars. The brain expects images from the vision system, but when they originate as sound signals, the higher layers don’t have any sensible visual patterns to recognize so it has to create some out of thin air so to speak, which are then perceived. I imagine the situation similar to a computerized pattern recognition system where the IO driver has a bug so that signals from the microphone go to the optical pattern recognizer software, which of course can’t make sense of it. However, it is programmed to treat stuff coming in as potential patterns so it proceeds to process them as if they were optical signals. Similarly, the higher layers in Iris’ brain treats these nonsensical signals in such a way that she perceives them as light shows, as he describes in the following excerpt from her book. What a tantalizing glimpse into the deepest mystery of the brain, i.e. how it generates experiences, that this story hints at. Is it possible that this, what brain researchers call the hard problem, may yield some of its mystery from the clues here. Thinking about how it works that Iris perceives fantastical light shows in response to sounds, could that maybe lead to some ideas about what is happening in the brain to produce that sensation.
….When I had done something that farmor thought was very sinful and wrong she would call me up to her. Then I had to stand before her as she scolded and admonished me. This I liked. I stood totally still and stared out in space. Her words were flying around and formed shapes, it was different lights that sparkled. It was beautiful, and you could never predict how it would look. I stood there and was entranced. I flowed into the colors, shapes, patterns, let myself be carried back and forth, up and down. Everything changed shape continuously and I flowed in with it.
Three different reader reviews of the Norwegian edition of A different childhood:
FASCINATING This book is the author Iris’ own retelling the experience of growing up as an autistic, and this at a time when the diagnosis autism was not known. The focus of the book is on what it is like to be an autistic, and how their mental life differs from another person’s. The book is not abstract or hazy, but returns continually to amusing and engaging stories – together with a backdrop and family filled with warm and interesting figures. The book is also interesting in that the author’s depiction of her everyday experience as an autistic crosses the border between the normal and the supernormal, between every day and supernatural phenomena, such as astral projection and mind reading, which she experienced as what she as a child called the “real reality”. A good book, I think, and I recommend it for all who wish to extend their understanding of how fantastic the brain is and can be, and how much that (possibly?) lies hidden in our minds. And, of course, invaluable for those who want insight into autism.
BORING This was book I had great expectations for because of my work with autistic children. It was recommended to me and I figured it had to be a very good book. It could have been a good book. But the language is so bad, repetitions are unending, so the book could have been half as long with just as much information. Then you could maybe absorb everything that was said. I got discouraged when I was reading, thought I’d never get through it. Iris Johansson should have gotten help to improve the book with things like sticking to first or third person. It was exhausting when it changed even within a paragraph. This was in other words not a good reader experience. The story was great, so it is disappointing that the publisher didn’t do anything with the structure of the book.
A FANTASTIC BOOK I can as an autistic myself testify that this is a fantastic book. I notice that another reviewer finds the book boring and thinks the publisher should have helped Johansson more. But the reader ignores the fact that Johansson writes as she is to show others how an autistic thinks and functions. I can also see that to the outside the book may seem boring, with repetitions, etc, but that is an irrelevant objection. It is not a literary work, nor a textbook. It is an autobiography, and is not meant to entertain. A rewrite would have diminished its objective.
There are several places in the book where Iris talks about paranormal experiences and abilities. Several of those take us back to her school days, where she describes her ability to read teachers’ minds. According to her, it comes out in the atmosphere so she can see it or some other way pick it up or sense it. This obviously gets into controversial terrain, since mind reading, or telepathy, is not commonly accepted as a real thing. In Wikipedia we read the following:
Scientific consensus does not view telepathy as a real phenomenon. Many studies seeking to detect, understand, and utilize telepathy have been done, but according to the prevailing view among scientists, telepathy lacks replicable results from well-controlled experiments.
Still Iris tells us she could pick up what the teacher was thinking. We can exclude the possibility that she is fibbing, but maybe she is misremembering. However, her memory is of extraordinary degree. In a note at the beginning of the book titled “How this book came about” her editor/friend Göran Grip, relates how Iris thought she had lost the original floppies she created when she first wrote the book. A couple of years later when she resumed work on it she rewrote the whole book from memory, which Dr. Grip was able to verify, since he in fact had a copy of the original floppy. So how can we reconcile Iris’ story with the weight of scientific consensus? I think readers will find that this is just one of many thought provoking moments that this book provides. In the excerpt below she describes how she was able to trick and confuse her teacher by literally putting words in her mouth. This goes beyond just reading her mind and into controlling it. How did this work? Read the whole book and see what YOU think?
….I was also wont to provoke ma’am like when she had just thought of something she was going to sausage-stuff the students with. When I saw what she was about to say, before she formulated it in words, I could pick any word at all, that had nothing to do with her thoughts, and then this word came out of her mouth, “dress”, or “blue paint”, which made her really confused. If I was really mean I could get her to say a cuss word, and then she was crushed for the rest of the day. But it was risky to try to stick in a word that was too much in conflict with her own morals and values, because then she might come to a dead stop, and say nothing at all. Then she would start over, frustrated and irritated, and eventually some unfortunate child who wasn’t paying attention received the brunt of her irritation. She never connected any of this to me.
In general life consisted of Iris trying to be social, trying to go out with the girls she had grown up with, meeting boys, going to the movies and dances. She handled it very well, but she was so insensitive to all the unspoken assumptions that she often put her foot in her mouth. Jokes and irony were totally lost on her. She never even noticed it but her friends were sometimes ashamed of her and scolded her. Physical touching was also a problem. She had learned that she was not supposed to run away, but to stay and talk, which she did. As soon as somebody got too forward she would start to discuss all kinds of issues, and often the boys tired of it so she escaped.
Iris also struggled a lot with what you should like. She had learned that you should like different things. You should like being cute, and you should be delighted and smile when people said you were cute. You just had to do that. On that subject there was no choice. You should not like when young girls used make-up or wore long pants and one should not like parties and pleasures. But Iris had no opinion on any of this. The difficulty for her was that you had to express your feelings with your face and whole body. But Iris always looked unchangeably contented. So when she in order to be ordinary said she disliked something at random nobody believed her. She wasn’t received as skeptically when she asserted that she liked something. The big problem was to like and dislike the correct things. There she missed constantly.
From the book: …”My daily screaming had started when I was about three, when Father had succeeded in holding my gaze and kept me in the ordinary world. For years I screamed every day for anything and for nothing, and became an even greater pain for my surroundings. But when I was a little over six, one day a peddler came into the kitchen and addressed me, perhaps only said “hi”. My pain started as usual and I started howling. But this time, something different happened. The peddler roared at me: “God-dam it kid, nobody is trying to kill you”. This took. I shut suddenly up, the fog cleared and I stood completely still and saw a whole new world. It was like my eyes had changed in some way. That peddler had the same presence as Emma and later Fil.”
From the book: …”I was grumpy, hard to restrain, loud, and aggressive. I wasn’t interested in things, but sometimes something caught my attention, and then I could often destroy it. I often bit people and animals so hard that they screamed bloody murder, and then laughed. I laughed even more when the people around me became enraged and the air became full of crackling light tongues in different colors. I scratched myself, bit myself, licked the wounds to make them sting, tore the skin inside my lips, chewed my nails until they bled, refused to move, or just kept walking in some fixed direction, and screamed, screamed, grabbed things, dropped fragile things, bit small children to make them cry, walked in front of cars and other machines, pulled animals by the tail or ears. When I wasn’t making trouble I used to flap my hands around my face, bang my head, and hum monotonously or walked round and round and talked to myself.
I retained many of these behaviors all the way into my teens, but no new ones emerged, and one by one they disappeared as I made more and more contact with regular life.”
Amazing. An autistic girl overcomes her autism and works later in the different phases of her life as a hairdresser, nurse, teacher, psychologist, and finally as a consultant in situations where there are social difficulties amongst people. But still more amazing: this lady is able to exactly describe what was the quality of her consciousness during the different phases of development from early childhood to adulthood. The description of how her self-perception functioned, her way of communicating with the surrounding world is most interesting and fascinating. Thus Iris is able to see the aura of plants, animals and humans, has extrasensory perceptions, plays with elemental beings. At the same time she describes exactly where she really got the crucial help in her development: from her father, from one of the teachers, from a friend – from humans who tried to understand her and to love her. – The book is a ‘must’ for parents, brothers and sisters, teachers, care givers in special education, for all who are confronted with the phenomena of autism. But the reading of the book is not only a ‘must’ – it is at the same time amusing and exciting.