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.
From chapter 9, Frequently asked questions about autism
The reason is that the child doesn’t know there is any other way to be than the way she is. The child finds herself in a foreign country where she doesn’t understand the language that everybody else speaks. She views the world solely as things which surround her but which do not have anything to do with her.
When I was ten and saw that one person could say something that another person could understand, and the other person could reply with something that the first one understood, then I discovered a different reality that I hadn’t known about before. I saw that it existed but I had no idea how to have that kind of interaction with another person. What I did then was to practice by looking at myself in the mirror until I saw myself, until the state I was in changed to an interaction with myself; my appearance vanished, what I looked at vanished, and it was like something completely different was between me and the mirror image. And then my whole self-image was transformed. To start with this lasted only for a short while and then I returned to my normal way of seeing. But I had seen that the other reality existed, and I could see that the grownups were in it almost continuously. Also, I realized that I had always been separated from it. But when I was in the other state, in the real world, I was no longer separated from myself and from others.
I consider Iris Johansson the Temple Grandin of Sweden. Like Dr. Grandin Iris has built an amazing professional career starting from a very unpromising childhood. Dr. Grandin has unusual abilities in understanding the feelings of animals and developed them into a tool for designing effective and humane methods for handling cattle on feed lots and in slaughterhouses. Iris has an unusual ability to read people and pick up on what they are thinking and not saying. In her efforts to learn how to be “normal” she paid close attention to peoples’ behavior in different situations and learned how to pick up cues to the feelings that lay behind the behaviors. Thus, in spite of her inability to have feelings herself she is good at observing them in others. She recognizes the anger in the other person but it doesn’t trigger anger in her, she observes the joy in the other but it doesn’t make her joyful, she notes someone’s disapproval of something but it doesn’t cause her to disapprove of it. This almost clinical relationship to others has advantages in addition to the obvious disadvantage. Sure, in order to learn to “act normal” she had to devote much time and attention to learning and memorizing the reactions one is expected to have in different situations and in response to all the different feelings expressed, but at the same time all this effort has taught how her to read people and how they react to each other so much better than “normal” people. This is probably the reason she has been so successful in helping people with conflict resolution, communication problems, and various dysfunctions such as impulse control, addiction, and eating disorders.. In addition to mentoring care givers and parents of autistic children, she has channeled her unique ability to read peoples’ feelings into work with individuals and families, schools and reformatories, hospitals and jails. As a consultant and facilitator she has worked with governmental organizations and businesses on conflict resolution, communication issues, leadership development for women. By working with people in so many aspects of life over an international range of societies (in addition to Sweden she has worked in Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Germany, and Albania) she has arguably had a greater impact on peoples’ lives.
In November 2009 The Atlantic magazine ran a series they called brave thinkers. At the top of their list, which included people like Ben Bernanke,Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama, was Thorkil Sonne of Denmark, the father of an autistic son, who started a company dedicated to hiring AS individuals. His business model is to market services that take advantage of the particular skill sets that people on the spectrum typically excel at such as sustained focus and attention to detail. Their website is at http://www.specialisterne.com/
From The Atlantic:
Name: Thorkil Sonne
Job: CEO and Founder of Specialisterne
Why he’s brave: He launched a software-testing company and staffed it with employees who have autism spectrum disorder.
Quote: “I think normality is whatever the majority decides it will be, and in our company people with autism are the norm.”
After his son Lars was diagnosed with autism in the late 1990s, Sonne had an epiphany. Autistics tend to have poor social skills and difficulty responding to stress or changes, which makes finding work a challenge (one study suggests that only 6 percent of autistic adults have full-time employment). But Sonne realized that they also tend to be methodical, possess excellent memories, and show great attention to detail and tolerance for repetition—in other words, they might make excellent software testers. With this in mind, Sonne launched Specialisterne, in Copenhagen, in 2004. Thirty-seven of its 51 employees have autism (though most have a mild form called Asperger’s syndrome). The firm now pulls in $2 million a year in revenue and serves clients like Microsoft and CSC. Sonne refuses to run the company like a charity: he competes in the open market and aims to make a profit. This makes government support unlikely, but it may lead to a sustainable new model for companies with disabled employees: Harvard Business School now uses Specialisterne as a case study in social-enterprise business. People on the autistic spectrum are not superhuman memory machines; but neither are they incapable of work. Sonne treats them as employees with strengths and weaknesses that smart employers should respect—and capitalize on.
This is the title of a post by Kate Goldfield on her aspiefrommaine blog http://www.freewebs.com/aspiefrommaine/mybaltimoresunarticle.htm
In it she talks about how AS people have trouble knowing what to say in conversations, when to start speaking and when to stop speaking.
In her book A different childhood Iris Johansson describes how she handled this problem by memorizing conversation starters and conversation enders as well as the structure of social conversations:
…She also practiced conversation starters. A good starter is: “Where are you off to?” or “Do you want come along …?” or “What do we do now?” or “How do you like …?”
…The problem was what if she got a return question. She learned to duck such questions by starting to tell about something, anything whatever. She had also figured out exactly how long she could talk before it started to bore the other one. She used to ask if the person was in a hurry because then she had to shorten her story.
When the other person in turn began to tell her about something Iris didn’t understand a thing. Everything in her thoughtless talk was without substance to Iris with no fixed points to focus on. Then she would wait until she heard a word that meant something to her. Then, when the other stopped talking Iris posed a question about that word: “You said something about…
…People loved to flaunt their knowledge and a good starter was to say: “Do you know anything about …” In this manner she could milk the other person for talk. Some people didn’t fall for it but on some others it worked very well. She started to seek out people she could talk with this way. She gathered up everything she learned and combined it with the old stuff she knew and created images and films in her head that she could call up when needed.
If the other kept talking too long, it got awkward and then Iris used one of her pre-learned enders: “It was nice to see you” or “Apropos of nothing …” or “By the way I have to …”. That way she could put an end to it.
It helped Iris that she has a practically a photographic memory, so she was always able to retrieve the information needed for the particular situation at hand.
My 6 year old son is in kindergarten and receives services (ABA) through the Special School District in Missouri. My son is on the autism spectrum and has a para with him throughout the day. He lately has not been completing his work – so last Wednesday I learned that they withheld his lunch from him until 2:00 until he did his work. I am sick about this. My son does not perform well when hungry and I thought ABA was supposed to be a teaching method based on positive rewards and not withholding basic needs as punishment. As anyone else come across this?!
Iris Johansson’s comments:
For us who have autism the issue is that we can’t use our feelings to understand and therefore both rewards and punishments are ineffective. If we get rewards we lose the idea of what we were supposed to learn and if we get punishments we get irritable and lose concentration. It is important to realize that we want to learn everything we can, but we have no feeling for something that is new to us. It takes us a long time until we have oriented ourselves and are able to put the new into an existing context and this doesn’t work the same way as for those who have feelings to lubricate the process with. We are not like children without autism, who are imprinted at a deep level, not by what someone says, but by what someone does. It’s not like that for us, we have to figure it on an intellectual level what we should do and then the tendency is that we slip back into the known and familiar, however wrong that may be, and then both rewards and sanctions tend to bind us in our stereotypy, instead of helping us make progress.
What is required for us to learn is that we get to watch somebody else doing it and that somebody teases out our interest in it and then we eventually do what is wanted but in our own peculiar way. So you are absolutely right, using reinforcement and sanctions is not a good method.
With Son-rise where somebody joins in the autistic persons stereotypy and continually opens it broadens it, that helps us become high functioning and it is without preconditions and therefore works. That way our nervous system releases the cramp a little and we get somewhat freer impulses that can flow and we can develop. Our body will not obey our intentions unless we can get our cramp released and the great task for those around us is to make it to help us be as cramp-free as possible, and that is not possible with sanctions.