As I walk through the doors of the restaurant, I am hit immediately by the forceful wave of sound. It blasts from every direction, people’s conversations, the scooting of chairs, clattering of silverware, dings of phones, everything blends into an impossible-to-process cacophony. Some things, such as the laughs of patrons, the occasional shattering of a dropped plate, whatever muzak they have playing, cut through the wall of sound like a red hot knife that pierces into my eardrums. There’s so much movement that my head starts to spin. I want to run, but I can’t. I can’t think straight. The whole world spins around me. I feel like I’m drowning, being pulled underwater with nothing I can do but wait it out. All I can do is sit, look down, and do my best to cope.
Camera flashes are like exploding supernovae. They catch me completely off-guard, hit me out of nowhere like a brick and completely reset my train of thought. The wrong fabric feels like wearing a cactus, and a lite touch on the shoulder I’m not expecting turns my fight or flight response up to eleven. Emotions are so strong and confusing, they’re like rip currents that want to pull me out to sea, and I feel like there’s nothing I can do but gasp for air and hope I don’t drown.
I’m autistic, which means that I do not process the world like most people do. I hear everything around me with equal presence, and some sounds and frequencies I process as literally painful. Everything is louder and brighter and I have trouble blocking anything from any sense out. My emotions are turned up as well. Others know and recognize their emotions as if they were talking to old friends. Emotions to me are strong, uncharted currents, where half the time I don’t know what I’m feeling but it’s dragging me underwater anyway.
My world is intense, and these are just a few of hundreds of examples. (Luckily, the restaurant example is extreme, and most situations aren’t as bad as I described, especially since I’ve learned how to cope). I’m having trouble finding the words to describe my exact experiences, but I hope you can understand.
Ever since “autism” was brought into the American lexicon by Leo Kanner in the late 40s, scientists have been puzzling over what makes autistic people autistic. The early days attempted to explain autism as a type of schizophrenia, and later the “refrigerator mother” parent-blaming theory was popular in scientific circles. As these ideas were discredited, hypotheses continued to persist under the idea that autistic people simply did not feel emotion. It was proclaimed that autistic people must lack empathy, because they wouldn’t be “so autistic” if they had empathy!
In all of this, one critical group was ignored: autistic people. We’ve been saying for years that we don’t lack feeling, instead we feel too much. Only recently has the general population and academic circles come around to this realization as well and has stopped thinking of autistic people as some sort of cold robots. In truth, autistic people experience the world on a very deep level, and may feel emotions more strongly than most people.
There’s a new autism theory that attempts to capitalize on this idea:
The Intense World Theory of Autism
The Intense World Theory of Autism (IWToA from here on out) attempts to reduce autism down to one simple thing: differences in sensory perception. The idea is that sensory and emotional processing differences in autistic people are responsible for what we recognize as “autism.” It explains autism in terms of sensory perception (because theories, in science, are not guesses, but are explanations of facts). So the argument goes that you too would stim, melt down, pick up special interests, and communicate differently if you perceived the world as a continuous sensory assault.
I won’t go into crazy detail, as there’s lots you can read on this with a quick google search, but I’ll tell you this: as an autistic person, the IWToA makes a lot of sense. I can easily see how much of autism in myself and in others can potentially be reduced to processing differences through all 26 (give or take) senses as well as emotions. My world is intense. That’s life as an autistic person. I’m glad this is finally being acknowledged and applied.
From a biological perspective, this makes sense too. I firstly like how it integrates sensory perception and emotional perception as the same factor because, technically speaking, emotions are sensory perceptions. Emotions are felt when your brain releases chemicals that are then picked up by receptors within your brain and processed like sensory input. Emotions are sensory. And given that autistic people have differences in sensory processing, it should be expected that we would have differences in emotional processing as well.
In oversimplified terms, autism can be reduced on a cellular level down to connectivity differences among neurons themselves. In the autistic brain, neurons make more connections with other neurons than they do in non-autistic people, but these connections are less developed. The autistic brain is hyper-connected. (And if I may take the time to refute a common misconception, this means autism is neurological in nature, not psychiatric).
This hyper-connectedness is especially apparent in in the amygdala. The amygdala is the region of the brain in which, in humans, emotions are processed. The amygdala is also the place that initiates the “fight or flight” response. In autistic people, the amygdala is significantly more active than it is in neurotypical people, and some research suggests it may even be physically enlarged in autistic people. A hyper-active and larger amygdala is also commonly seen in prey animals that exist lower in the food chain and must live constantly on the alert for predators. This data therefore backs the idea that autistic people actually do feel emotions as well as a flight or fight response more than other people, and therefore it supports the Intense World Theory.
I think the IWToA should be embraced more, because, for a single explanatory framework, I believe it is the most accurate reductionist description of autism. If more people would pick it up, I think it will be a game changer in the autism world. (Though, it’s nothing new to autistic people, who have been saying this for years). However, there are a few areas in which this theory falls short, for example some autistic people are undersensitive to many sensory perceptions, and so it’s hard to apply the IWToA to them. As such, I believe it is just a part of what makes up autism, albeit a very large and important part.
Given your personal experience and understanding, what do you think of the Intense World Theory?