When you read about autistic traits, you somehow read a lot about lining things up. Apparently autistic kids tend to line up their toys instead of playing with them. One blogger describes an a-ha! moment when reading Tony Attwood on how girls line up their dolls and recognising that that’s what she did (sadly I don’t remember who it was – I can’t find the post again). Other bloggers have described similar moments. (I read a post on lining up just a few days ago, and I cannot find that either, despite prolonged efforts! It had a picture of lined-up M&Ms at the top. If you wrote that post or know who did, please let me know so I can link to it!)
(Edit: I found it! It’s on Mamautistic’s blog here )
Me? I don’t line things up. Don’t think I’ve ever done it. Can’t be autistic then…
Okay, let’s unpack that a bit. Let’s go into a bit more detail. First up, I definitely did not line up my dolls. For starters, I only had three, so lining them up would have taken me all of 30 seconds. Doesn’t keep you entertained for long, does it? Ditto stuffed animals. I had a few more of those, but they lived in a plastic laundry basket, and that’s where they stayed, unless they were taken out to be played with, or cuddled, or they were temporarily promoted to a bed position. A few privileged animals got to share my bed all the time, and those, it is true, were always arranged in the same fashion. If they got jumbled up during the night, they were re-arranged in the morning. At the bottom of the pile was Moon (basically a flat, yellow smiley face made of terrycloth), then Honeybear (a bear face of the same construction but with felt ears). First against the wall was Bäri (an orange terrycloth bear), then Duck, then Cat (those two were friends), then Mouse and Guineapig (those two were also friends). Most of these were sitting on top of Honeybear. And that’s how it had to be. But lining them up? No.
It got me thinking though. Was there anything I might have lined up or grouped together? What things was I playing with that might have lent themselves to lining up?
My memory presented me with an image of my plastic figurine collection – a bunch of tiny plastic figures, mostly animals, most only an inch or two in size. I remember two pigs in particular, and two footballers which I called Ernie and Bert, because one was tall and the other short and squat (in reality they were the logo of the 1974 World Cup). They were kept in a small plastic box, and I loved to take them all out, look at them, and then pack them away again. Did I line them up? I don’t think I did. But I do remember the pleasure I got from looking at each of them in turn. I spent quite a bit of time doing this slowly.
Next I remembered my mother’s button box. This was a round box full of buttons, and I remember how it felt sticking your hand into it, and the smell of them. I loved turning them all out, and I did probably group them together so that like was with like. But again, what I remember is looking at them and basically enjoying their presence, I don’t know how else to describe it.
When I was a bit older, about eight or nine, I got my own sewing kit. I had asked for one for Christmas, and for some reason I had specified that it should come “in a suitcase”. What I got was a plastic box with two tiers, a hinged lid and a handle – suitably suitcase-like, in reality probably a toolbox for keeping screws, nuts etc. Plastic dividers created various compartments, which housed all manner of exciting stuff: thick spools of black and white thread, thin spools of thread in six colours, pink velvet ribbon, embroidery yarn in several colours and two varieties, three thimbles, a small pile of fabric remnants, and best of all, my own button box. I didn’t do much sewing at that age, but again what I do remember vividly is taking everything out of the box, looking at it, rejoicing in possessing it and putting it back in its particular place. And everything in the box had its particular place, you couldn’t just put stuff anywhere! Of course the three shades of blue tread had to go together, and the red, yellow and brown thread in the other thread compartment. How could it be otherwise! I think it’s clear to everyone that mixing them up would have been just wrong! Same as it would not have done to disturb the perfect spectrum of colours in my 30-piece felt pen set. The horror!
I’ve always had a “treasure box”, a shoe box full of those little things that accumulate in your life – they don’t serve any particular purpose, they’re not even proper toys, they’re just stuff you can’t bear to throw away: plastic tat from a Kinder egg, a miniature notebook and pencil, a few marbles, a pig made out of a conker, pebbles picked up on the beach. It just sits in that box and occasionally gets looked at. My brother and I also used to have a “secret box”, which we often opened and looked at after going to bed. I think it contained mainly batteries. I’m not sure what was so special about batteries. Maybe it was the mystique of electricity that clung to them.
I still have no clear memory of lining anything up. Of course, I do the thing where you take a bag of, say, four flavours of sweet, group them in four groups, eat them so that the numbers are evened out, then eat them to that the numbers stay even, least favourite to most favourite in each round (I’m the queen of delayed gratification!). Still, no lining up, though, I’m quite content to keep them in little heaps. I don’t do that every time. I’m not fond of big surprises, but I like little controlled surprises, like reaching into a tub of jelly beans without looking and surprising yourself with what you get.
I do have many more memories though of taking things out of their box, looking at them, maybe sorting them, and putting them back. My coin collection. My erasers. Especially my Hello Kitty erasers, little rubber cylinders which lived in a tiny plastic house and which of course could never ever be used. Other stationery items – I absolutely love stationery to this day. My jewellery. My mother’s jewellery. My mother’s spice rack (I would sniff each one in turn and put it back).
I still do it. I do it with my coins (they’re just in a box, not properly organised). I do it with my picture postcards. I still have a treasure box.
Take things out, look at them, put them back. It’s quite meditative. Is it an autistic trait? I have no idea. I’ve never seen it mentioned. But it’s what I do.
At first I was going to end the post here, but then I realised that that would leave questions unanswered. The first is, why did I enjoy looking at things so much?
Obviously, because it gave me pleasure. But where does that pleasure come from? I believe the answer has two factors. Firstly, my engagement with these objects was not confined to looking. I was touching them, feeling them, possibly sniffing them. I can remember a number of different plastic smells from my childhood.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least in the autistic community, that to be autistic is to process sensory stimulation in a way different from neurotypicals. This often takes the shape of sensory overload, when the intrusion of noise, light, smell etc. becomes too much. But isn’t there a flipside to this? If the unpleasant sensations are magnified, is not sensory pleasure magnified as well? I think that the engagement with my things afforded me sensory pleasures which went far beyond a simple revelling in the possession of them, particularly since many of the objects I remember were not actually mine. The taking out, looking/feeling/smelling etc. and putting back was just a way of getting close to these objects. The putting into a particular order was only a secondary pleasure, and often didn’t even apply.
There is a second factor at play, which seems to be an autistic trait, and that is the emotional involvement with objects. Many people have written how they feel that things are in a way alive somehow, that they have feelings or personalities. It’s not just dolls and teddy bears, but e.g. cars, which have to be played with for equal amounts of time so none will feel left out. I, too, feel that many objects have, well, not quite a soul, not quite a personality, but something akin to it, a kind of aura, a character. How else can I tell which mugs only want to be used for coffee, which only for tea and which are happy to take both? How do I instinctively know, out of five toy frogs in the museum shop, which one wants to come home with me?
Where I was a student, sometimes a stall would appear on the market, selling crystals. My aunt once asked me to buy a crystal for her. She had specified the kind she wanted, but then she said “select the one that speaks to you”. I didn’t find this strange, I knew exactly what she meant. I was only worried that if it spoke to me, it would not necessarily speak to her, but she wasn’t worried about that. I went and bought her crystal. And yes, one of them did speak to me (not audibly, but I could feel it holding it in my hand).
These two factors explain why closely engaging with my favourite objects evokes pleasant feelings. It’s not that they bring back certain memories, or that they are in any way valuable, it’s the thing itself in its thingness that makes me feel nice inside. It’s as if the objects vibrate at a certain frequency, and that will set off a corresponding vibration in me. (I’m talking metaphorically here, not of actual physical phenomena.) The feeling is similar to that evoked by engaging with a “special interest”, if not exactly the same, and certainly not as intense. But this is why I enjoy taking things out, spending time with them, and putting them back.
Which leads me back to the issue of lining things up. The DSM-V criteria list this under B1: “Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g. simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).” Nowhere do the criteria ask the question, though, why people might engage in these behaviours. As far as the lining up of toys is concerned, it could be a desire for order, or a drive towards systemising that autistic people are supposed to have (I’m quite the systemiser myself). But is it not possible that something else is at play? Some of the time a desire for order, routine and repetition might well be the reason. But think about it: what else is the lining up but a close engagement with favoured objects? Is it not possible that those children lining up their toys are seeking pleasurable sensory and emotional experiences through doing so? Think of the action of lining up: you pick up the object, feeling it, you look closely at it in order to put it exactly where you want, you enter into a relationship with it. Perhaps the lining up is an important part of the action. Perhaps, though, the lining up is only secondary, although I’m not unaware of the pleasures of an orderly line or having everything in its place.
Seen in this light, my taking out/looking/putting back and other people’s lining up are in principle the same thing. With a bit of squinting, my actions could also be filed under “repetitive motor movements”, in which case I get a big tick for an autistic trait. (The whole mess of the diagnostic criteria is something I leave for another post – just go with it for now.)
So – am I onto something? Or are my actions entirely typical, something everybody does, and different from the lining up thing? I don’t know, I can’t look into other people’s heads. But by putting my experience out there, I hope someone will recognise what I’m talking about.
If I had to draft the Diagnostic Criteria of Me, “enjoyment of things” would definitely be in it!
(Image: tiny figures representing the animals of the Chinese/Japanese zodiac, sitting in a row – a present from Japan)