Olga Bogdashina has worked extensively in the field of autism as teacher, lecturer and researcher, with a particular interest in sensory-perceptual and communication problems in autism. Since 1994, she has been the director of the first Day Centre for autistic children in Ukraine and the President of the Autism Society, Ukraine. Olga teaches and lectures around the world. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Birmingham University and Consultant Psychologist for Services for Adults with Autism, Doncaster, UK. She has a teenage autistic son.

Here, Olga answers some questions about her new book, Autism and the Edges of the Known World: Sensitivities, Language and Constructed Reality, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, which challenges common perceptions of what it means to be ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, and shows that autism can help to illuminate our understanding of what it means to be human.

 What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been researching sensory sensitivities, cognitive and language development for more than 20 years and I’ve found that the traditional approach, which describes unusual reactions and behaviours in response to sensory stimuli was very limited – it did not provide answers to many why-questions. The search for answers should not, in my view, be restricted to the field of traditional psychology and neuroscience. Autism can help us understand how we have developed faculties and shaped our cognition, language and behaviour. And another very important point is autism helps us appreciate diversity of looking at and interpreting the world. There is no ‘correct’ way to perceive our environment. The exploration of the ways in which autistic individuals think and perceive the world assists us in understanding the diversity of our own nature and our own experiences. Autism shifts the focus of our exploration from the practical everyday activities of life to understanding what it means to be human, and the necessity of recognising the rich diversity of life. Many of us still do not trust anything that is different from ‘normality’. However, there are many different ways to see the same thing, and each of them may be correct if seen from the right perspective.

What is the ‘known world’? Where do people with autism exist in relation to it?

Everything we know about ourselves and the world around us has come through our senses. All our knowledge therefore is the product of what we’ve seen, heard, smelt and so on. As we learn to function successfully in our environment, we assume that our senses give us a true and complete picture of what is ‘out there’, i.e. our ‘known world’, – but this is a wrong assumption. The fact of the matter is, we rely on the capacity of our senses, which is, in actuality, rather limited, even in comparison with the senses of some non-human animals. In a way, humans are blind and deaf to a large part of the sensory universe available to other species, because so many sensory impressions are beyond the range of our senses.

Even if we could experience the same sensations and get the same impressions as other animals do (either via training, drugs or creating complex equipment to ‘catch’ these beyond humans’ ability sensory impressions, it does not mean we would ‘see’, ‘hear’, etc. the way the species for whom these impressions are natural do, because different perceptual systems are reflected in different conceptual systems. And as the ‘concepts’ of someone with, e.g., ‘ultrasound interpretation’ of the world are different, a human armed with the equipment to detect ultrasound but with normal human concepts still would not be able to function in such an ultrasound-conceptual environment. And in human society the role of language to ‘construct the known world’ is enormous.

We are not conscious of the limitations to our sensory systems (and our ‘normal’ perception) because we have grown up with them and do not know otherwise. In a way, ‘normal’ people have ‘reduced awareness’. However, some autistic individuals are able to perceive much more than any average ‘normal’ person. This ability comes with a price – they are easily overloaded in ‘normal’ situations and their cognitive and language development follow a different route (and, as the consequences, lead to social interaction and social communication problems), and the world they know (construct) is very different from the conventional one.

Autism and ESP… what’s the connection?

The attitude of the official scientific community is so opposed to anything conceived as supernatural that those who genuinely try to understand these (not necessarily supernatural, but yet unexplained) phenomena are afraid to speak out. However, we can look at these phenomena from a different perspective: e.g., to consider so-called ‘telepathy’ as a form of non-verbal communication. For instance, we do not see anything mystical or supernatural in animals’ ‘telepathy’: when animals use the sense of smell to ‘read’ messages about the health of their owners or pick up subtle cues to know when they are to be taken to the vet’s. There’s nothing ‘psychic’ about their ability – they have been doing it all their lives.

Sometimes autism sensitivities can be seen as extrasensory perception (ESP) as those around them not only fail to see, hear, smell or feel what some autistic individuals can, but also find it hard to imagine that these experiences are possible. Whatever we choose to make of these experiences, we need to recognise that they are part of the everyday life of many people with ASDs, and that if those people are able to participate fully in wider society we have to accept the validity of those experiences for them.

In the book you combat what you see as an existing ‘rigid and literal interpretation of autism’. What are the limitations of this narrow perspective, and what could be gained from a more open interpretation?

Autism is a spectrum condition; there are certain similarities but there are prominent differences as well. I’d prefer to view ‘autism’ as ‘autisms’ (Donna Williams calls it ‘fruit salad’). There are differences in sensory perceptual profiles, cognitive characteristics (e.g., not all autistic individuals think in pictures) and language development. The oversimplification and over-generalisation of the condition creates more problems than promotes awareness about autism. Statements like, ‘we, autistics’ or ‘my son cannot do it so it has nothing to do with autism’ are meaningless.

What are the implications of your thesis for autism treatment and awareness? For a general understanding of what it means to be human?

The book and aims to show how much we can learn from autism about the world around us, the ways we think and react to our environment, and the abilities we all possess. On the other hand, however, though the book is not a how-to guide, it contains possible explanations of why individuals ‘do what they do’ and some ideas about ‘other worlds’ that are real for them. I think, the first step in establishing bridges between the ‘worlds’ is to learn (imagine) what it is like to experience the reality of those with whom we live/work; only then we’ll be able to introduce communication tools with shared meaning and show real empathy and appreciation of their abilities while providing means to cope with weaknesses.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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