A DIFFERENT WAY OF PERCEIVING THE WORLD AND “SELF”
A fair warning – I am going to get theoretical… but also add my own lived experience to this exploration.
What I am exploring here is if the fact that I highly resonate with a way of being and functioning that seems to be aligning with some of the leading theories behind what autism is, and how I see these theories through my own knowledge and experiences of how I have been reacting to early childhood trauma and how that has formed me, and my perception of myself. But I also explore my reactions to the theories behind severe dissociation, which I have never felt explain my own experiences (like the theory of structural dissociation).
I think I ended up using the defenses I did because they came natural to me. And I have defended myself against trauma with them, but also against everything else in the world that I could not cope with, in the same ways, that is using fragmentation and dissociation. What I say is – maybe they are not only psychological defenses that I came to use through being traumatized, but part of my individual, genetic make-up?
So of course – one can wonder – does not trauma alone explain my way of being? Well. I did think that for a long time and was also told so by professionals in Mental Health, that this was the case. But I got stuck there. Once I was able to move beyond my traumas – I saw that I am very much the same on the other side… And once I could start to explore that – so much made so much more sense to me. The way I reacted to trauma, is the same way I react to any kind of overwhelm, and a lot of things are overwhelming to me.
So then one can wonder – did I truly work with my traumas? Meaning – am I still stuck in trauma mode? Or do I actually have a point? Maybe the way I function in myself, coming from genetics, predisposed me to handle trauma in a certain way? So when I go beyond my traumas, I find similar structures and mechanisms as I have been using to defend myself against trauma, being a part of who I am?
Some time ago I read about the “Intense World Theory” (IWT) – a theory that possibly explains differences between how a neurotypical brain functions and a neurodivergent brain functions. According to the IWT, this is autism:
“The proposed neuropathology is hyper-functioning of local neural microcircuits, best characterized by hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity. Such hyper-functional microcircuits are speculated to become autonomous and memory trapped leading to the core cognitive consequences of hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory and hyper-emotionality.”
“The progression of the disorder is proposed to be driven by overly strong reactions to experiences that drive the brain to a hyper-preference and overly selective state, which becomes more extreme with each new experience and may be particularly accelerated by emotionally charged experiences and trauma. This may lead to obsessively detailed information processing of fragments of the world and an involuntarily and systematic decoupling of the autist from what becomes a painfully intense world. The autistic is proposed to become trapped in a limited, but highly secure internal world with minimal extremes and surprises.” (Makram & Makram, 2010)
I read this paper, by Makram and Makram – and I felt my jaw drop (then I read several other papers on IWT, but the impact of the first has stayed with me). How could a paper on autism explain me and how I function, without me being autistic? (And I want to add, this is not the first time I react like that, I have read a lot of papers and books, most of them I do not resonate with, at all).
I am hyper reactive and hyper plastic (adaptability is a hall-mark of mine and causes internal conflicts because it leads to rigidity… what a contradiction…). I have a lot of trapped memories, literally. I have both unconsciously and consciously used these mechanisms and formed very autonomous ways of functioning within my own system of being. I have hyper-perception, hyper-attention, hyper-memory, and hyper-emotionality – and as well as using all these mechanisms in protecting myself I have also had to use protections against my own protections…
A conclusion could be – my brain is hyper. Period. To cope with it, I go into hypo (also known as dissociation).
I also have a very rich inner world. That has been, and still is my safe zone. Or at least was during childhood. Later I had to leave it, in my many attempts to “fit in” in the outer world, I abandoned it. I have found my way back to it – and that is lifesaving!
Then there is another theory that brings up another aspect of functioning that is suggested also being behind how autistic people function, the “Weak Central Coherence Theory” (WCCT). And the overlaps of the theory of “Generalization Weakness” and then of course the “Theory of Mind” (ToM) theory saying autistic people cannot mentalize (much).
But let’s start with the WCC theory. It says: “that autistic people typically think about things in the smallest possible parts. Her [Uta Frith] hypothesis is that autistic children actually perceive details better than neurotypical people, but "cannot see the wood for the trees." (Wikipedia).
There are studies supporting this, and studies not supporting this claim.
My experience of myself says I pay a lot of attention to detail, and I constantly build on the bigger picture, but since I take in so many details, it is a very slow and tedious work, and I am easily disturbed, because I am easily stressed. When I am stressed, I lose overview, and tend to focus in on small details that I find do not align with what is said. When stressed – my world literally fall apart, into fragments (details). Then get obsessed with details.
It is said to be a problem with moving between local-global. A zooming in zooming - out problem. At times it is good to be zoomed in on details, at other times better to zoom out for overview.
I can do both, with effort, but the mechanisms itself often gets stuck, especially again when I am in stress and yes, since I have also very few filters, I both pay attention to detail, but I also lack filters to shut details out. I can do it manually, filter things out, but that is tiring. So again, when stressed my functionality drops (like in any kind of test situation or a situation I am evaluated somehow).
This is how a lack of central coherence is described on a Swedish webpage (roughly translated) – as information to people working with autistic people:
“Central coherence is the theory of central coordination. That is, the ability to create context and meaning. People with autism often explain their world as detailed, fragmented, and incoherent. As an explanation for this, weak central coherence is often given.
- The ability to put details together into a whole
- The ability to use the context for understanding
- The ability to switch between details and the whole
- Lack of ability to create context = strong ability to discern details”
The lack of generalization I also recognize. I tend to see each situation separately. And with my sense for detail, I easily pick up changes (but not in people’s appearance, because I do not tend to look at them, and if I do, I keep to looking at details I like).
Is all of this impacting my ability to mentalize? Yes. And no. Stress (fear, pressure etc) significantly impacts my ability to mentalize (and yes, people is what stresses me the most).
Does it mean I have no ToM? I do have a theory of mind, meaning I do theorize and try to understand what others think, feel and experience, I love and truly value perspective taking. Too much actually. I overdo it. And I misread, due to my focus on details. If someone says they are fine continuing, but I detect tiredness – I don’t know what to believe. If someone says they are not irritated with me, but I hear irritation in their voice – I get scared and stressed. I do not know what part of their mind I should listen or pay attention to. The one they verbally convey to me – or what I pick up? This is a huge part of why I think it is so hard to socialize. The inbuilt incongruences in communication. And the social constructs that follows with them. Social codes of how you are supposed to be and behave, that often does not make sense to me, or ask of me to violate what feels okay for me to do (hence masking, dissociating, adapting, fragmenting – it all become very overwhelming).
So, I hyper empathize with others non spoken out loud emotions. Go figure… again, I get stuck in details.
What I see here – in all of this – is a way of functioning that I have, before any kinds of trauma, this is who I am. And that would be me being autistic. But then – looking at my diagnose of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) – a defense against severe childhood trauma) – it seems a lot of what DID is about – could easily come from this way of functioning. Basically, the theories behind autism above also describe how I function in DID. I fragment, hyper remember (which I need to protect myself against, so I fragmented more and have used amnesia and switching between pars of me to not remember things). I don’t do it as much anymore. I have learned to look at many of my memories and triggers and are not as scared of them anymore). In the past I have been hyper-adapting to everyone else, every situation. To the point of where I was what other people wanted (or what I understood they wanted me to be). I nowadays use my ability to hyper focus to instead focus on things, details that helps me ground myself, rather than focusing on traumatic triggers. I have learned to more and more appreciate my way of hyper perceive via my senses to also give me joy, not only distress (I am still very easily distressed by sensory overwhelm though). I am still hyper emotional but are not as ashamed over it anymore. I still fragment emotions into parts – but welcome and communicate with my parts and respect their emotions, I know they are all part of me.
What I still cannot do is understand why people do the things they do. I think my ability to process my traumas was impacted by this problem of accepting social human constructs and concepts (values, traditions, norms, rules etc – I still struggle a lot with this). It makes me rather PDA-ish (Pathological Demand Avoidance). Today I see that it is not only about breaking rules and stretching limits, but also about finding my own ways, that are often are very outside the box ways.
Hyper memory would explain the need for strong amnesia (one version of dissociation). The lack of central coherence explains both fragmentation, but also the lack of a central self, leaving me with having a more fragmented sense of self.
When I read about the WCC theory – my first thought was – how does weak central coherence impact self-image – and I googled it and came up with nothing. Did no one write about this?
Autistic people are known to “mask”, which is when done a lot is basically having “personas” or “personalities” acting on your behalf to fit in. It is extreme adaptation. So, what is the difference between masking and having parts as in DID? The sense of having lost yourself would be the same. And perhaps losing yourself is not what you do – since lack of central coherence perhaps from the start gave you another structure to “the self” – a self that is more obvious a system. A system of many details equally important, but without a “boss” (a single, governing “self”).
Why does everyone need to have a coherent, unified, single sense of self? To count as “healthy”?
So maybe I do not have a dissociative identity? Maybe I just don’t have a centralized sense of self? And the way I function with focusing on details – and building whole pictures very slowly, due to the overwhelming material – due to not having much of a filter – is delaying me – or will never lead me to have the “normal/common” sense of a unified and central self?
The theory of structural dissociation mostly looks at symptoms. The stronger symptoms of dissociation the higher you end up on the ladder, DID being on the top of it. Having DID means you do not only experience depersonalization, derealization, amnesia or having parts – but that you have it all. You are basically so dissociative that you dissociate from your own identity, ending you up with several identities (or having the perception of having several identities since you cannot (or dare not) put information together to se the whole of you. Because doing so, would mean you also need to put the whole of your trauma history together.
What I see is not me having a dissociative structure, but a not-centralized one – which I am guessing and sensing – lead me to easily dissociate and take on different personalities, as I am also highly adaptable.
I have worked a lot with my trauma history. I do not feel particularly afraid of it anymore. I can go into memories, and out of them. I don’t do it very often and am not as often triggered to do it either (meaning involuntarily ending up in them). It still happens, but not at all as frequent anymore. But I still function in the same ways… Having the sense of a full personal story – did not automatically give me a sense of a central self. Nor did it make me less sensory sensitive, or made me understand social settings better, on an emotional level, or even cognitive level.
Another interesting thing is that research found that there is a link between WCC and anorexia as well. There are also studies showing a link between anorexia and autism. Being anorexic also means prioritizing details over the whole picture.
I have struggled with anorexia since before being a teenager. I would say my relationship with food has never been good. Still is not, even if I go to great length to make sure I do not fall into using food as a way to communicate, or regulate sensory input, or to punish myself, or to structure my life and days, etc. I do still eat pretty limited and rigid.
Disclaimer: I have been thinking a lot about all of this lately. But I am just starting to formulate these thoughts more cohesively. But this thinking is in no way an end result. I write it and share it, as my head needs to have it on paper, and I feel there are so little out there that can help me understand this.
To me, looking more deeply into what autism actually is – is a door into myself that I am so happy I took seriously, no matter what other people told me about myself. But the more I read the more I started to put together also this picture, how autism and severe childhood trauma overlaps, but also quite often co-occur.
And I am not looking for additional diagnoses or labels. I am not fond of either concepst. I am looking for more understanding of myself and the world, including other people in it. I have been granted an autism assessment, and I am going to go through with it, even if I struggle immensely with the “traditional” both mental, and general health care system and their often huge lack of trauma informed ways of meeting me. And even if I react to evaluations with panic and fear. So far, looking into autism and neurodivergence in general really have opened my eyes. I know I have trauma and have been and am affected by that. But I sense a chance to find additional pieces of who and how I am. Regardless of whatever the outcome will be of this assessment, I am so happy I dove into this topic. It feels a bit like coming home, which for me is huge, home has not been an easy concept for me either.
I also believe being neurodivergent is only a disability, it is also having a great deal of abilities others don’t have or have in lesser amount. The disability have more do with how society is structured and what expectations we put on people to conform, than about being lesser abled.
I will post more about this later. But this has given me a much more stable ground to understand myself from. I am not dumb, not rude, not lacking in introspection, not refusing to work harder with my traumas, not refusing to take responsibility for my triggers and so on. I know and feel I do my best, in a world that I do not always understand and does not always seem to want to understand me.
Thank you for tagging along on my explorations!
Text and picture © Katarina Lundgren, 2021