Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Autism Blog: Living with Visual Agnosias. Are You Trying To Blind Me?


Ocean Deep by Donna Williams  Having worked a lot with children with autism who display visual agnosias including object blindness and context blindness, non-standard sensory explorations are normal in those who process the part and lose the whole and for whom each part then conceptually becomes the whole.  When I got a doll’s house at age 7 I thought the roof was a musical instrument… some kind of huge angled red plastic zither thing.  I then thought the walls were blocks and disassembled them and re-categorised them by size.  I tapped and pressed the doll’s furniture them put it into two piles according to the noises each made (hard and soft plastic) and whether the pieces could bend.  This is normal in visual agnosia.  My mother helped me grasp this collection of pieces as a conceptual whole by getting wallpaper books and carpet books and decorating the ‘rooms’ in the doll’s house.  Then I could texturally grasp the relatedness of these small rooms and the larger rooms of the real house.

But it’s not easy to be context blind and have some object blindness and move from hotel room to hotel room.  But I have a system.  I always put my objects into their action-related categories (computer, cleaning, eating, dressing).  I always keep them in one room lined up by the wall.  I always keep them in their related bags.  I put things straight back after use.  I ensure good contrasts between my belongings and any furnishings, curtains, wallpaper or carpet they may perceptually ‘disappear into’.  And most of all, I DON’T MUDDY MY CATEGORIES.  In other words, placement lends meaning to things, system lends meaning to things.  And it’s almost a blind person’s world.  Except I’m not blind, I’m meaning blind, visually agnosic.

So I left one of my hotel rooms and returned to find my nightmare.  Everything had been moved and ‘put away’.   Part of the bathroom had had 2 hotel dressing gowns and coat-hangers in it as well as a rail these hung on.  I didn’t recognise this as a walk in wardrobe but the cleaning lady did.  My clothing was put into this ‘bathroom’ and my coat hung up so I now couldn’t recognise it.  To me it was now a brown hotel dressing gown.

In the main room nothing was lined up by the wall.  A piece of raised dark wood on legs had been moved in (a new piece of furniture!  ARGHHHHHHHHH!!!!!) and my laptop (yes, my other VOICE had been handled, transported, onto this foreign thing!  Blasphemy).   And underneath the laptop on a shelf were bags ofwashing things and bags of eating things and I just stood there gaping.  What was all this?  A sculpture?  Some kind of instalation art?  A sick joke?  I looked at the washing stuff… was this a wash stand and why did it have a laptop on it?  I looked at the eating stuff… was this a kitchen bench… and if so why put a laptop on it, wouldn’t it get drink and food on it?  I wanted to open the laptop and scream through my fingers via its keys but I couldn’t remember how to use it.  Something about feeling bathroomed and kitchened whilst trying to be officed was boggling my brain.  I had to boot out the washing and eating things to access the part of my brain which used PLACEMENT and category to access MEANING and MOVEMENTS… ie USE.  It was like being shot in the semantic-pragmatic department of the brain.

So I disected the unrelated foreign bodies from the wooden thing I now proclaimed a ‘desk’ and began to breath.  Then, next to the new ‘desk’ were things blending into the carpet patterns and blending with the side of the wardrobe beside me (well, the wardrobe thing had a TV in it so not sure what that is).  Next I discovered some of my paintings ‘stacked’… STACKED?  They had been comouflaged.  And something else I picked up as if giving it a carpet-ectomy and I stared at it, shaking it a bit to work out what it once was that moved like that last in my hands.

Finally I sat chilled, afraid someone could have taken half my stuff this way and I’d take hours to work it out.  I felt like a freak.  How on earth could I complain that someone had CLEANED UP my room!!!  I went around reclaiming everything and recategorizing it and lining it up against the wall in a place of good contrasts.  Then I asked my hosts to have a word with the hotel staff and ask them to please not ever clean my room again until I left.  The manager looked perplexed.  I’m meaning blind, I explained.  You don’t move things on a blind person and I’d be so grateful if you don’t move them around on me.  She smiled and nodded, no problem.  I went to dinner, rattled at how easily those with different visual perception can so easily create disabling chaos through their intentions to be helpful.

At dinner I said to my host ‘this doesn’t happen at my other hotels’.  ‘Oh’, she replied, ‘this is a rather upmarket hotel’.  I replied, ‘then from now on I want the cheap ones’.

Donna Williams, Dip Ed, BA Hons

author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter