What do you focus on when you look at a picture, or the television… or the world? You can go test your own perception before you read further, if you haven’t consciously thought about this before. Have a look at a photograph of some friends, or turn the TV on just briefly.
Now what can you remember of what you just looked at, and what did you see first? Chances are you looked at the faces of your friends in the photo, and can remember their emotions. Regardless of what you looked at just now, you are most likely to have looked at the foreground before noticing (if you noticed at all) the background.
There have been many times that my autistic five year-old has revealed to me the very different way in which he focuses on the world. I’m going to share a few examples, and then explain how I think understanding the difference in focus helps to illustrate some important points about the intelligence and knowledge of these children.
One of my favourite images for my blog posts, is the one on the About page – with the (wrongly) stacked blocks shapes in the foreground. My son was looking at my blog today, saw the picture, and said “Aunty’s House!” It isn’t his Aunty’s house, and she doesn’t have the block puzzle, but he said it again passionately and sure of himself, “Aunty’s House!”. Because what he had seen was the out-of-focus lawnmower toy in the left background of the shot, which his Aunty does have at her home. I hadn’t even seen it there before, let alone recognised the toy. Her house is the only place he had seen that particular lawnmower toy, so naturally he decided it was Aunty’s House.
He was recently looking at a photo of me holding his younger brother. I thought he might comment on me or his brother, as he stared at the photo, turning his head to the side, focusing intently. Then he said, “mummy’s old watch”. Again, he was right; there barely visible on my turned wrist in the photo, as I held his brother, was my old watch which I haven’t worn for the better part of a year.
A while back we were watching a TV show together and the presenter was holding up coloured objects. I asked my son what colours he saw on the TV, expecting him to name the colour of the presented items on-screen. Instead he said, very sure of himself, “purple”. I couldn’t see any purple objects, I looked and looked, and then after a while I saw what was right in front of my face. Most of the background of the scene, was indeed, purple.
There are many other instances as well, of him picking up on small details in photo backgrounds, and in people’s homes, that I am otherwise oblivious to. Not only does he notice the smallest details, he also picks up on any variations in those small details. He frequently surprises people with his amazing attention to detail, and remarkable memory. People seem to treat these as signs of how amazing his mind and intelligence must truly be, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple.
He might notice things we don’t – certain colours, objects, details. But he’s not quite noticing these in addition to the objects and bigger details in the foreground. It rather appears that he is noticing them instead of those more obvious (and socially relevent) bits of our world. (And yes, his eye-sight has been tested and is absolutely normal). He can tell you types and parts of cars and trucks as if it comes naturally, but he had to specifically be taught to meet eyes, read emotions, and answer questions about things at the centre and front of pictures when the picture has a busy or distracting background.
This has implications too for tests of intelligence and knowledge, that you might apply to these children. It’s not that they don’t learn or notice or remember, it’s that they’re learning and noticing and remembering the sorts of things that us “normals” don’t particularly notice or value.
In order to function in this world, you need to learn what those around you think is significant and meaningful. This comes naturally to most people – I see my 13 month old doing effortlessly things I’m still trying to teach my five-year old. The amount of concentration and will power it must take for a young autistic child to actively learn what comes so naturally to the rest of us, must be exhausting, and sometimes simply puts me in awe of my son. He could slip away and stay in his own world, like he tended to at times before we as his parents had the explanation of his autism. But he instead meets the challenges we present him. He learns our language, he learns our social rules. He learns our sight.