Is knowledge too powerful?

When I was 14, my parents – usually individually – and I often read together, and one particular book I remember reading with Mum was If Cats Could Fly. In hindsight, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen – do we really want cats to be able to reach the top shelf of the fridge effortlessly? – but it actually had quite a profound theme.

Picture it: a couple of aliens who have just crash landed on Earth grant two cats the ability to fly. The cats have a heck of a time at first, but because they can go wherever they want now, it’s not long before they are exposed to harsh realities of the world such as factory farming and destruction of the environment. Not surprisingly, they quickly succumb to despair at knowing so much and being powerless to change anything.

What got me thinking about this was my participation in a toxic habit that is all too common in millenials: scrolling through Facebook. I was seeing all these posts and articles that seemed to serve no purpose but to stir up hate towards people of opposing views. Statements about what God apparently wants to happen regarding Brexit. Warnings against getting too friendly with LGBT people. Prejudice towards vegans. You get the picture.

We have more access to knowledge now than ever before. Thanks to the internet, it’s so much easier to spread awareness of issues that, up until now, people have been ignoring. We can make our voices heard, and get closer glimpses of other ways of thinking and living.

But of course, there are two sides to every coin. Now we are more vulnerable. Now it’s easier to tear each other apart over a simple disagreement about a trending topic. We can so easily become both perpetrators and victims of misinformation, because now, stories don’t have to be authentic to be made public. We read things that are toxic to our emotional wellbeing – from prejudiced articles on why people like me are sick to posts saying people in (insert minority) should just deal with it – and then we keep coming back for more.

Well, I do. No, I’m not proud of it.

Do you see the connection? Easy access to knowledge can be a great thing in many ways, but does it also expose us to the darker side of people and the world we live in? People complain that we have less freedom of speech than before, but I think the opposite is true. We have more means of expressing ourselves, and at a time when more people are being given a chance to be heard. And that’s where divisions arise.

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If neurotypicals were the minority

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about neurotypical people – people without autism or any learning difference, that is. It was satirical, it was perhaps a little patronising, and it gave a jokingly serious, article-style description of neurotypicals, mirroring many Asperger descriptions I had read. Not everybody got it though, thinking that I was describing an actual condition. I guess I need to up my game!

If neurotypicals were the minority, it would count as a condition. If they were the minority, we AS people would still have a hard time understanding them, but hey, as the majority, it would be easy to dismiss non-autistic tendencies as weird. If they were the minority, they would need to fight to be understood. So from years of observation, this is how I would explain neurotypical people.

  • Fewer touch boundaries. As a person with Asperger’s, I’m very easily startled by touch, so physical affection is something I share with people I am already close to. For many neurotypicals, patting someone on the arm while talking, or moving in for a hug after one meeting is common bonding behaviour. They’re being kind, and with that in mind, I try to let it go. It got awkward at church the other year when a woman I’d briefly met appeared to be offering a handshake, but in fact was about to kiss me. If someone catches me unawares like that, I have to explain: “I’m sorry for any awkwardness, I’m autistic, I struggle to read body language and am easily startled by touch.”
  • Not very structured. Many neurotypicals have an uncanny ability to understand what is happening and what is expected of them from vague information from more than one source, and passed around with a whole load of irrelevant details thrown into the mix. They then have no qualms about changing their plans at will without making it clear what the new situation is. Meanwhile, you’re doing your bit at the exact agreed time, only to be baffled when the rest of the plan has changed entirely. *Sigh*
  • Reliant on eye contact, body language, and facial expressions for communication. Receiving presents as a child is testament to this, as I mentioned last time. I loved presents, couldn’t wait to open them, and always said thank you to the giver. But because I wasn’t bouncing off the walls with excitement, and looking them right in the eye the whole time, they were quick to think I didn’t like it.
  • Good at physical skillsThe physical co-ordination of some people is beyond me. While I can just about clap and sing at the same time, some people can do things like dance. Or go hiking on a rocky, uneven surface. Or kick a ball around while dodging other people. Or even do any of the above while giving me a weird look for being unable to keep up. Amazing…
  • Have a high tolerance for background stimuliWhenever I have to navigate a busy city, airport, or large train station, it is beyond helpful to have a neurotypical person with me, because they can lead the way without being mentally thrown off balance by crowds of people pushing by, loud noise, too many things to look at, too much information to try to remember…you get the idea.

So on that note, it’s worth remembering this: non-autistic traits may seem confusing. But they’re not a lesser way of being; people without autism have their strengths, and these are important. And no two neurotypicals are the same. They just don’t always communicate like we do, and even though that’s hard sometimes, we are all different and that’s ok. Now go out there and spread a bit of neurotypical understanding. After a lifetime of being surrounded by neurotypicals…I still have a lot to learn!