About Humans

Humans. When I was born there were about 3.4 billion of us. Today, we number more than double that. Between us this year, we will exhale about 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2. Not consuming food or driving or burning fuel, just sitting there breathing. Lots of humans. Lots of hot air.

Since my father was born during the summer of 1938, the world population has grown 3.5 times over, despite the intervention of World War 2 which eliminated about 3% of the global population. That war had many consequences. One is said to have been a ‘baby boom’ between 1946 and 1964, though in truth our population grew most rapidly between 1965-1970. The labels we assign to our world and to ourselves do not always reflect reality. The idea of what ‘reality’ is, when based on and around those labels, is equally suspect as a result. That is worth remembering.

When my father was five years old, with that World war in full flight, an Austrian psychiatrist living in the USA by the name of Chaskel Leib Kanner, more widely known as Leo Kanner, published a paper in the journal Nervous Child titled ‘Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.’ It is quite important and I will talk about this at length elsewhere.

Moving forward again by five years, the world had gained a kind of peace, and a new global organisation, the United Nations, was in its third year. The United Nations at the end of that year, 1948, ratified Resolution 218, more widely known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, 71 years later, it is available in over 520 languages and dialects, the most translated document in human history.

Here are some excerpts to think about.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation
Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association
Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country
Everyone … has the right to … the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family
Everyone has the right to education
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community
Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible

Everyone has the right. Many rights. All those rights and more. Suffice to say, no nation on earth has ever fulfilled the responsibilities defined in this text. It is, some might say, merely aspirational. But, we can also see that aspirational nature as a call to action, an urging to all humans to reach for these rights, not to wait passively for them to be provided. That is a powerful thought.

That last one, however, does not seem to refer to rights, but to duties. The wording is somewhat awkward but it is one of the most important articles in this document and has had significant influence on other, legally binding, conventions and laws that have followed. Its purpose is to establish that rights come with responsibilities, that enjoying the freedoms of a community brings with it a duty to uphold those rights within that community. We reap what we sow. We can also view that duty as a right: the right to pursue the common good. That, too, is a call to action. Not only are we entitled to seek our individual rights, but to seek the rights of our community. We have the right to act collectively for the betterment of all. That is also a powerful thought.

This also introduces the word Community for our attention. The openness of that term is not accidental. Even communities that lie within national boundaries, overlap them, or are invalidated by states are included. A community, even, of those who share neurological characteristics and an aligned worldview as a result. For example.

These three events spanning a decade – the birth of a boy in Dublin, the publication of a paper in a scholarly journal in the USA, and the publication of a non-binding declaration in France – are the driving forces behind the material on this site, and in ways that are not necessarily obvious. What I will say is this – Each has relevance because of one word: Human.

What, then, is the focus on the word Human all about?

We are humans. There are an awful lot of us on this planet, with a multitude of nationalities, beliefs, cultures, ethnicities and so on. We are defined by these things – humans both recognise immediately others of our species and simultaneously seek to categorise those beings in all manner of ways. It is something we do from infancy, distinguishing caregivers from strangers. It is also something we do throughout our lives, both in positive and negative ways, to understand and to oppress, to support and to exclude, to embrace and to harm. Our own sense of our individual existence, indeed, is built on categorising in this way, defining the boundaries of our bodies, of our family, our community, our rights and responsibilities, our aspirations, ideas, fears and desires. Our lived experience is defined, circumscribed and filtered through awareness that we are both part of this species and also an individual.

We understand, as infants, something about the body we occupy and how its parts operate. We do not have a frame of reference for this process – it is an adventure without a guidebook. What we learn relies on experimentation and curiosity, but it also relies on our ability to experience, to think about those experiences, and on our environment, including those other humans we encounter.

Depending on our available senses, we come to be aware of things like the scent of our caregivers, the sound of the mouth noises they make, and the shape of their faces becomes familiar. We learn from them, and also come to realise that when we, too, gesture or make sounds they will respond in certain ways. We can signal we are cold or hungry or afraid. But we achieve this only through experimentation and analysis. There is, as already noted, no guidebook we can refer to. This was the case for me just as it is for a tiny infant today or for a little human 8,000 years ago.

In time, we assign roles to the humans we encounter, and develop a suite of responses we have come to settle on when we encounter them. We also observe them and their ways, learning a little about how they interact with each other as well as with us. We also come to realise that we are of one kind with those humans, separate from each other but, as a group, more separate and more different from that furry purring being that occasionally appears, and from the objects around us that do not seem to just exist.

As years pass, we discover the vastness of a place called Outside. We find it is jammed full of lots more humans, each of them particular and with whom we have, we find, different kinds of relationships – or none.

There are among them some little humans quite like us, and we find ourselves placed in proximity to them more and more. That creates an opportunity to interact with them, a mutual project in discovery. Sometimes they are displeasing, sometimes they are pleasing; some, indeed, are consistently displeasing. We come to realise that not only do all sorts of humans exist, but we need to find ways to interact with them and respond to them.

One thing we come to realise is that humans can use their actions and these cool things we are learning to use called words to give the impression that things are one way when, in fact, we later discover, they are not that way at all. This may be a trick we have encountered already thanks to our caregiver humans. In any event, the potential of this technique rapidly reveals itself. It is, we find, possible to conceal an object we like in order to prevent another human taking possession of it.

The possibilities, the possibilities.

We are stepping on board for a journey we call ‘growing up.’ Most of us do not look back. Ever.

But at this point unexpectedly and with no prior notice a disembodied voice interjects. These are the words it utters.

“In 1926, the Anglo-Irish author Lord Dunsany published a seminal volume in the as-yet unnamed fantasy literary genre. Titled The Charwoman’s Shadow, it makes use of a simple device – if we take an internally-consistent world and change one basic rule or circumstance, what happens next? In this case, the rule change was this, that a sorcerer can separate a person’s shadow from their body, keep it captive, and use its captivity for selfish purposes.”

The current tale also requires a key change in the rules of play in order to progress. In our case, we ask: What happens if the above account in which an infant discovers themself and their environment does not play out as expected? One important factor in this process is the ability to experience the environment through a collection of senses. If we remove one of those senses, how does that alter the course of events?

In particular, given that social interaction comes to play a significant role in the adventures of our young human, as it does for us all, how might the exclusion or limitation of one of those senses affect the way our infant experiences, understands and learns how to engage in interpersonal relations?

Fortunately for our purposes just such a circumstance occasionally arises, and we will not need to resort to tales of wizards or dukes, spells and magical entrapment. When a blind child is born, their experience of this world differs distinctly from sighted infants. Vision is, for most humans, one of their primary means of experiencing and learning about and from their environment. Vision enables a child to determine if a caregiver is focused on them or not, provides an instant and constantly updated information flow about the environment and the people and objects that are present. It can inform about not just what is happening and where but provide clues as to what is about to happen. It also facilitates the connection of information from other senses with concrete objects and people. Modelling that environment, linking sounds or textures or smells to physical objects, is a process that of necessity takes a different form and produces an outcome that appears to have distinctive differences.

The example of a blind child is chosen here for a reason – differences could be outlined as easily using the example of a deaf child. Vision plays a very particular role for most humans during the development during early childhood of a range of abilities that are then used as integral elements in social interactions throughout the course of life. A very obvious example is the ability to recognise and read body language. In particular eye contact and reading microgestures in the eye region to both convey and detect intention which holds such an important place in interpersonal communication in many cultures is of necessity absent from the repertoire of a blind person.

We are now a full two thousand words into this piece (as of the word ‘full’) and it would not be at all surprising were the reader, who has reason to expect that this would be a discussion relevant to the Autistic Community, to begin to wonder where all this is heading and whether that destination does in fact have any relevance to the world of Autistics.

This is the point where the connection arises.

A person does not need to be blind to find that signals and learning which most humans obtain through vision are unavailable to them. Indeed, as noted earlier, no infant arrives in this life with a guidebook and thus are provided with no prior knowledge regarding the possibilities certain uses to which vision might be put.

It requires only that a sighted infant use their vision in ways that differ from the majority of their peers for the information received through vision to differ from that gained by those peers. Here we will introduce a triad which will reappear on several occasions elsewhere on this site. In order to carry out an act a person requires an opportunity to do so, the ability to do so, and the inclination to do so. Opportunity, Ability, and Inclination. Without the ability to use vision, because a child is blind, kept in an unlit room, or has their eyes covered for example, information cannot be obtained through vision. Equally if a child has no opportunity to view other humans, perhaps because they are in a coma or are tended to solely by robots in some eerie futuristic scenario, all the ability in the world will avail them not a jot.

And now we come to the third possibility, and one somewhat more relevant to our purposes. While opportunity and ability as regards vision are factors that we should expect lie outside the ability of an infant to control, inclination certainly is not. Its defining feature is that it is driven by the person themselves, not by others. It is the outcome of decisionmaking, not of circumstances.

That makes for some interesting thoughts. The most important word on this site will now make an appearance: Why. Why might an infant decide to avert their gaze?

Why indeed.

This is one of the defining characteristics of almost all Autistic people, and it has been shown to arise from infancy. Distinctive and unexpected direction and course of gaze was identified from the outset by Leo Kanner and noted in his 1943 paper ‘Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.’ It has remained one of the core identifying characteristics associated with Autistics for 70 years.

Despite the prevalence of this characteristic, and the efforts of so many people to coerce Autistic people to act otherwise and use their gaze as other humans do, almost no thought appears to have been devoted to inquiring after the reasons.

There must be a reason. Indeed, there is a reason and every gaze-averting Autistic person is privy to that information. It should then be a regarded as extraordinary that non-Autistic researchers remain oblivious not just to this non-secret, but that they should even now repeatedly fail to ask, and when – as happens daily – Autistic people openly and publicly explain exactly why, they somehow appear unable to register this information.

This is all the more puzzling (and yes we will use that word) considering those same non-Autistic researchers make it plain that they are quite aware of the significance of this characteristic in shaping the Autistic worldview, how they interact with their fellow humans, and how those fellow humans respond to Autistic people in their midst.

It is a puzzle indeed. Humans. Sometimes the picture of ‘reality’ humans build is not a particularly accurate representation of the world. Sometimes humans avert their gaze, inexplicably, and miss otherwise readily available information. We might indeed ask why. Particularly so when the very question to hand relates to the inexplicable averting of gaze and the failure to detect readily available information. We are justified, it seems, to ask why so many do not ask why.

___________________________________________________________

Today’s words were brought to you with the assistance of:
The 13th Floor Elevators, Easter Everywhere, 1967
Swingrowers, Outsidein, 2018
X-Ray Spex, Germfree Adolescents, 1978
Wolves In The Throne Room, Two Hunters, 2007
Wolves In The Throne Room, Thrice Woven, 2017
Wolves In The Throne Room, Black Cascade, 2009
1349, Hellfire, 2005
Violent Femmes, Why Do Birds Sing?, 1991
Violent Femmes, Viva Wisconsin, 1999

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