Patrick Jasper Lee has given The Art of Autism permission to reprint his latest blog “Living in a Geometric Universe – On Being an Autistic Synaesthete.” He has a new book coming out My Signals: Autistic Reflections of a Man Who Thinks in Circles and Dreams Like a Stone, Ravine Press, September 2013. Available in both print and digital forms.
LIVING IN A GEOMETRIC UNIVERSE – On Being an Autistic Synaesthete
Patrick Jasper Lee
Imagine living in a world where geometry dominates your life, where squares, circles and triangles form a mental language that you use every day because it provides you with clues about the people who surround you, and what goes on around you in the world. Imagine knowing that everyone and everything you meet throughout the day will be converted to a shape: someone’s hand, a passing bus, a bird in flight. The hand may become a square, the bus a triangle, the bird a circle, and these will give you specific psychological and emotional information, which others might not have access to.
It is said that there are six geometric shapes in nature: the sphere,the polygon, the spiral, the helix, the meander and the branch, and if we look around we see most of them contained within our environment. Perhaps you may notice the square stone in a wall, the circles a buzzard makes in the sky, the darting triangles of a small fly when it is in the room. But the shapes I see as an autistic synaesthete are by no means regular physical ones. These shapes are in my mind, as well as being out in the environment, and I affectionately call them ‘my signals’.
Synaesthesia is defined as a condition in which extraordinary experience occurs in response to ordinary sensory input: for example, sound evoking sensations of colour as a sense that is extra to the one that is being naturally stimulated. And when a synaesthetic sense partners Asperger’s syndrome within an individual, it can produce a life that sets you apart from the rest in many ways.
However, the two conditions complement each other well. When I find myself having to assess a social situation as an ‘aspie’, which can be stressful, it is alleviated the minute my geometric universe kicks in. I then enter a state of mind where a language only I can understand is spoken. This means that I will be doing what most other people do – respond to everyday banter, but I may end up (with a bit of luck) doing it just like everyone else: with a degree of smoothness. Exchange of greetings, such as ‘How are you?’ with a fitting reply, is something people with Asperger’s regularly find disturbing. But if the person performing the ask becomes a square, circle or triangle, I will be able to offer a square, circular or triangular response, which may sound odd and somewhat mechanical, but for me it’s geometric simplicity, or communication, at its best.
Square is earthy, which means I will be able to give a person a straightforward reply; circular is flowing, which means I can give someone a slightly more detailed reply; triangular may be a little confusing, which means I may be likely to run away, if I don’t seize up altogether and resort to staring! The bottom line is that I have to know what an individual is made of, geometrically, before I can ever feel safe enough to engage with them.
I first became aware of the geometric shapes and their corresponding meanings as a teenager. They were there when I was a child, but I never took much notice of them, at least not consciously. Having been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 1996, it took a lot of time to talk openly about a geometric universe I was fated to live entirely alone with. It is somewhat easier today, and I can be invited to speak about my signals in various places. People are understandably curious about how much I am able to glean from their psychological make-up when they have hardly even spoken to me. When they understand that I am reading them solely from the geometric shape they are likely to produce, it naturally comes as a bit of a shock.
The signals tell all. I fully discovered the unusualness of this process when I once said to a man in a bar, ‘You have fear.’ I learned that people do not say such things to each other, least not as strangers. The man, fortunately an open-minded one – he was not offended by my directness – was at the time firing triangles into the air, cold icy circles, and giving off intensely cryptic sensations with his sharp triangular movements. Imagine the feeling of right angles; it might cause you to feel extremely tense.
Conversations with strangers are likely to produce signals in abundance, especially if the signals begin stepping in to help me. I liken myself to a computer when it is uploading. I see information streaming in whenever an individual engages with me; I see individuals as files and their thoughts as formats. I believe they press ‘save’ far too often for their own good when most are suffering from what I call ‘information overload’. Humans, as I see them, are heavy with information, which they cannot process, and I believe this is the cause of so much stress and anxiety in the world.
Seeing people as shapes is uniform. The man who has fear has become a collection of triangles as he stands at the bar, but then he may change to circles or squares should his fear dissolve. No one might be talking openly about this, but I see it all going on from the safety of my parallel universe. I can be conversing in a regular manner, and a shape can be showing up on the screen of my mind, contained somewhere to the right, or to the left, at the front or at the back, and it can be traveling from left to right or from right to left, but a shape can also be attached to an object at any time, which means that if I am in the presence of a woman who has pink circles dripping from her painted nails, I am likely to experience her excitement, her enthusiasm, all of which can cause me to stare at her nails (a regular aspie habit) because her excitement will be contained in her fingers, and yet, strangely, her circles will also have entered my mind, settling to the right or to the left.My geometric shapes and their signals sometimes provide liberal splashes of colour, but this is rare. Red and pink usually feature, on the right side of my mind, while grey-blue features on the left. Signals are constantly traveling with me: to the supermarket, for a walk in the park, getting up, going to bed, eating dinner, at work writing, or even when watching TV – yes, shapes appear there as well, surrounding newsreaders, politicians, performers, and people in the advertisements.
Is it strange to live an entire life in a geometric universe? Perhaps not if you think that our whole environment is composed of shapes: I am sitting on a square cushion at the moment, I am drinking coffee from a round cup; my bookshelf beside me contains a wooden triangular structure, full of right angles that hold it together.
I am really quite straightforward, I tell people. I have a square, structured mind in which all my thoughts are contained and laid out to order. When my thoughts flow, they look like watery circles: clear if people and situations are concise, but murky and thick if messages are incomprehensible. A circle can even take the form of sticky treacle if someone overly sentimental or doting interacts with me. Even though the particular signal will inform me that sentimentality is taking place, I will only know how to respond to it because I know how to respond to sticky treacle! If the treacle becomes too thick, congealed, brown, gluey, and ugly, I won’t entertain such a person for very long; I simply won’t understand what they are trying to communicate to me.
As a somewhat prolific writer, artist and composer of music, I am constantly fitting squares and circles together as words flow out across the page, paint flows across the canvas and notes flow out into the air. Words are performing this action at this moment. Writing is an enjoyable puzzle. I might say that this is a circular blog that I am writing, with squares mixed in. In a moment I may pick up today’s post from the mat and see triangles because I won’t know what is contained within the letter I am about to open, or I may look out of the window and see rain falling, which will be square and stony, even though I am seeing water; I may sweep the stone floor and see the motion emitting circles because I am performing a watery activity.
Someone once said that I ‘think in circles and dream like a stone’. It became the subtitle of my book, and I consider it to be a compliment. I enjoy living in my geometric universe. Were I to be told that my square nose is capable and sturdy, or that my circular thumb has clear water dripping from its tip, or that my triangular foot is swathed in mist and therefore highly adventurous, I would not be offended.
I am now used to the ‘strange’ and ‘odd’ universe I occupy, and if it can make people smile and encourage them to use their imaginations a little more, that will be a compliment too.
Several artists post on The Art of Autism facebook page using geometric shapes. A gallery follows below.