by Dr. Sinéad Murphy
I have two boys going to school.
One spends his days more or less lost in a strange crowd, struggling to understand what they mean, unable to read their faces. The other also spends his days more or less lost in a strange crowd, struggling to understand what they mean, unable to read their faces.
Only one of my boys is autistic.
The other negotiates the would-be social periods of his school day in a faceless herd in which meaningful experience is severely impeded and only the most pared down, loudly spoken, rigidly predictable interactions can make it through.
Dearth of meaningful experience and rigidity of interaction are the classic symptoms of autism. My younger son began to exhibit them at the age of two; my older began to endure them at the age of eleven, when, at the end of November the U.K. Government advised all secondary schools to re-mandate the wearing of face masks in their communal spaces.
Of all descriptions of the condition of autism, a want of orientation may be the most accurate. Children with autism cannot find their place in the world by the usual landmarks. Words and objects that would normally be salient and around which meaningful experience would cluster do not stand out for them even in familiar interactions and environments; there really could be an elephant in the room.
The world, it seems, is not for children with autism; they cannot make themselves at home in it.
This lack of orientation of those with autism is sadly echoed in a condition that is also remarkably on the rise and into whose terminal fog so many of our old people now wander and get lost: Alzheimer’s Disease, and the other forms of dementia.
Indeed, life now is increasingly book-ended by these conditions of disorientation, by autism and by dementia; the one affecting those youngest amongst us who cannot get a foothold on the world; the other affecting those oldest amongst us whose fingertips are losing their grasp.
It is uncertain which condition is the sadder; whether a child’s struggle to be at home in the world is more affecting than an old person’s struggle to stay at home in it. Either way, they describe a growing phenomenon of disorientation in our young and old people, a rising tide of bewilderment.
Whatever their cause or their cure, there is no doubt that the only way to treat those with autism or dementia is to establish and maintain familiar environments and regular routines; changes in the places where they live or in their daily schedule are fatal to their stability and to whatever understanding that they have established or retained.
It is in this context that we must contemplate the effect of government Covid restrictions on those with autism and those with dementia, when the most vital landmarks by which we get our bearings are suddenly obscured or obliterated.
Already in April 2020, in response to a petition by parents, a court in London judged that some of the U.K. Government’s Covid rules did not apply to those with a diagnosis of autism on account of the extreme distress that they were causing. And through almost two Covid years, ‘with COVID-19’ and Alzheimer’s Disease have jockeyed for pole position as the leading cause of death in England and Wales, as old people whose grasp on the world was already fragile have succumbed under a cruel banishment from their usual people and places.
For those young and old amongst us whose ability to understand the world and their place in it was already impaired, Covid restrictions have been and continue to be a tortuous exacerbation of their native disorientation.
All the while, albeit less dramatically, the rest of us who do not normally struggle to find our place in the world have been gradually growing disorientated too. When my two boys come home from school now, they have both had an autistic kind of day.
Are all of us being sucked onto a spectrum of disorientation? And, if so, by what means?
In his work on how we see the world around us, the philosopher of science Patrick Heelan gives an account of our lived perception of space.
Taking as illustration Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, Heelan explains that the apparently distorted nature of the space represented in that painting is a faithful – and geometrically meaningful – representation of how we tend to see the world as we move about in it with our everyday concerns.
Bedroom at Arles looks ‘wrong’ because we are used to spaces being represented neutrally, according to a model in which the perceiving subject is not involved in the scene and in which his activity has no bearing on the experience of it.
What Heelan argues, however, is that our lived perception of space is most often not neutral in this way but rather ‘hyperbolic’, with our position in the field and our relationship to the objects in it being primary.
To say that this hyperbolic mode of perception is biased and therefore not accurate is to belittle the reality that it is in the hyperbolic mode that we mostly do perceive the world, and that the world is largely meaningful for us to the extent that we do so.
Hyperbolic perception – in which the space perceived is finite and local, in which our place is central, and in which objects are significantly sized, shaped and tilted –facilitates and reflects our orientation of ourselves in our world much more commonly and more vibrantly than the highly sanctioned neutral mode of perception.
This is not to dispute the accuracy and significance of the neutral mode, in which, even if I feature in what is perceived, I do so only as another neutral object. It is only to point out that we do have another way of perceiving the world around us, and that this other way is the key to our being part of the world, to our being at home in it.
We can certainly plot our position in the world by perceiving space neutrally, as if from the outside, but we can only orientate ourselves in our world by perceiving space hyperbolically from within.
When we come into the kitchen at home and there is a chair missing or a stranger sitting, the feeling of being pulled up short reveals how our perception of the room had been premised upon our familiarity with it, how the room had been for us. When this everyday spell is broken, the room retreats from us if only momentarily. The walls straighten and cease to hold us in their embrace. Our involvement is interrupted; our orientation skewed.
Van Gogh’s painting of the bedroom in Arles is not just of a bedroom but of his bedroom, his refuge, in which the bed occupies more space than it ‘should’ and the convex walls offer safety and solace. Van Gogh painted the bedroom as he saw it, as it was for him. In doing so, he showed us that and how we see the world for us.
In accordance with Heelan’s analysis of how we see the world around us, we might speculate that the disorientation characteristic of children with autism and old people with dementia may be understood in terms of Van Gogh’s painting.
We may consider that the world does not curve around those with autism and with dementia, or that it is made to do so only with difficulty. Small changes cause great upset because they likely dissolve whatever of hyperbolic perception had been achieved with immense effort, peeling back the world so that it is an impersonal, an abstract, a neutral space and not like home at all. How dispiriting, how terrifying sometimes, that peeling back must be.
If any of this is so, then Government restrictions, allegedly to stop the spread of a virus, have attacked the already fragile capacity of those with autism or dementia to see the world around them as a place that is for them; Covid rules have further disorientated those young and old who tend to be disorientated anyway, interfering with them at the level of their perception of the spaces around them so that they have no chance at all of making the world their home.
And what of the rest of us? Have Government restrictions so dialled up the neutral mode of space perception that we are all now struggling to orientate ourselves and to feel that the world is for us?
One of the motifs of the Covid era has been what is miserably termed ‘social distancing’. The distance has varied from place to place and time to time: the UK government went from two metres to one metre sometime in the summer of 2020; there is a one-and-a-half metre rule in the Netherlands as I write. The science about spread does not matter much, it seems. What matters is the interruption of our hyberbolic perception of the world and, thereby, our chance of orientating ourselves in it.
Consider the effect of telling people to stay two metres from one another, or one metre, or one-and-a-half metres? Consider how it imposes, and constantly reimposes, the neutral mode of perception. We used to shuffle along in queues, absent-mindedly, with confidence. Now that we must ‘keep our distance’, we train our attention on the scene, aware of it as if from the outside, excluded from it other than as just one of the many items positioned in its grid. It is exhausting, it is demoralizing, it is dehumanizing.
One of the most memorable images to capture the cruelty of government Covid restrictions depicted children in a school yard, each situated in one of the small circles drawn onto the ground at regular distances. The prospect was horrific. And yet, viewed from the outside, its real horror was in danger of being overlooked.
What were these children seeing who were positioned so carefully in their grid of safety? They were seeing the world and themselves in it as we were seeing it while looking at its photographic record: from the outside, neutrally, without proper feeling or stake. Sadder than the little match girl, who peered in at a human world in which she had no place but where she wished to be at home, these children peered in at an inhuman world in which all they had was their position and which could not be their home.
I have seen footage of police in Germany patrolling a public square with wooden rulers, conducting spot-checks of the precise amount of distance that people are maintaining. Can this be true? It hardly matters. Already, the requirement to stay a specific distance from one another so forces us to second-guess how we see the world around us that our native powers of orientation are neutralized. We are not ourselves and the world is not our world.
And then there’s the masking. How many of us have come into a room and reorientated ourselves by the crestfallen or angry or sad expressions on the faces of those in it. And how often have we been drawn into a space by the mere sight of a cheerful smile. The human face is crucial to hyperbolic perception. The human face can change a room.
During his swimming lessons, which are the only times when I am with my little autistic boy but not right next to him, he looks up to see my face regularly and anxiously. There may be a new teacher in the pool, or more swimmers or fewer swimmers than usual, or one of the lightbulbs may be broken or the door to the gym may be half-closed – it does not take much to break the world’s spell over him. He looks to my face to recast that spell, to stop the world from peeling away from him, to try to keep himself at home.
Masked faces are a direct assault upon our chances of orientating ourselves in the world. They leave us little to go by, and only scanty landmarks to get our bearings with. The space in which a face is masked is a space that is not for us.
My older boy is flatter than he used to be when I pick him up from school. Deadened. As if not very much has happened that day. Or as if not very much has happened for him. As I look across at him in the passenger seat and behind to his younger brother, I can hardly believe that my two boys must strain so desperately now to find their way in the world I brought them into.
Next week is Christmas, one of the few festivals remaining to us in our calculating world. It is, or should be, a festival of the hyperbolic, with cushioned sofas tilting towards us in welcome and tinseled walls wrapping round us with good cheer, with faces, long loved, dotted here and there, and nothing – nothing at all – to break up our happy home.
Christmas is a chance to recharge, to suspend the dispiriting experience of a world in which we have a position but not a part. If ever we needed this recharge, it is now, having dragged our weary feet so long through such a bewildering scene, having been so disorientated that we hardly know whether we are coming or going.
This Christmas do please take the chance to recharge. Do grab the world by its corners and gather it about you as best you can, and about your children and old people who need it most of all. Surround yourself with familiar faces and treasured things. Light the fire if there is one and shut the door. And do not let them peel back the warm walls. Do not let them neutralise your home. At Christmas, nobody should be outside looking in.
Dr. Sinéad Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.