“In their own world”

People on the autism spectrum are often described as being “in their own world.” As far as I can tell, it’s quite common and more or less accepted without much, or any, question. I’ll be honest – I find this phrase (and various connotations I find connected with the phrase) really annoying. It leaves me twitchy.

Of course, there are times when it is the best phrase to describe me. I can, and do, sometimes wander off in my own head and am completely disconnected from everything around me. At those times I could certainly be said to be in my own world and I would not deny it. However, the phrase seems to be used for much, much more than that.

In this blog post the author mentioned an autistic man he saw in a record store. The man was dancing and singing to himself at a listening station and, I guess, not really paying attention to anything else around him, so the blogger referred to him as being in his own world.

This is where I start to get twitchy. He was connected to the music and actively emoting (which is a form of interacting with the world). How, exactly does that mean that he is in his own world? Increasingly I think it only means that “not connected to the world in the way I connect to the world.” Which is maybe not so good. Why is your way correct, but my way is “in my own world”?

Hypothetical situation! Let’s say I went to a party (I know, this is so unrealistic already). There is a stereo with music playing, but at the moment everyone is doing the social butterfly dance and standing around chatting in whatever way it is that people do. Since I don’t like that dance and couldn’t do it even if I wanted to, I am not participating. So instead maybe I go near the stereo and start dancing by myself, because fun! I gather this would mean that I am in my own world, because I am not in the same “world” that everyone else is in. I mean, we’re in the same environment. The same stuff is happening around us. We’re just interacting with different aspects.

Now let’s say that I wasn’t the only person dancing. Maybe lots of people are dancing! Now I’m not in my own world anymore, because I’m doing something with people. Which leads me to my next point – I have been starting to think that “in my own world” only means “not in the social world.” Which really seems to privilege socializing over, well, everything else. I can be interacting with the world – you know, the actual thing we live on, our surroundings, etc – but if I’m not doing it in various socially-approved ways, I must be in my own world.

Which is kind of related to some other things about interacting with the world in non-approved ways. Like, say, smelling books. From what I can tell, book lovers in general enjoy the smell of books (new book smell – so nice). However, since books are for reading, that seems to negate using books for anything else. Sometimes when I get a brand-new book, I’ll go into my room and just sit and smell it for a while. Not enjoy the smell while I’m reading – just smell. It’s an end unto itself. I do it privately because I fear that if someone saw me, they would tell me that I’m doing it wrong, and I need to stop. Because books are for reading, and not for smelling. To which I want to know – why can’t they be for both? I like to read. If I get a new book, it’s because I want to read it. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to spend some time focusing on other ways I can use my senses to interact with it. Books smell good, books feel good on my fingertips, sometimes I want to experience that.

Going back to “in their own world” – I do believe that when people say that, they are (generally) not being negative about it. I certainly see it used affectionately. The problem is that however affectionately it is said, I find it othering. I am in the same world you are, I just experience it differently.


Filed under opinion, social skills

2 responses to ““In their own world”

  1. Possum

    As usual, I find, in the ways you shift perspective, a lightning flash of insight. Yes! When I read your opening, how the phrase “in your own world”, annoys you, I thought “I am in my own and I like it there. What’s wrong with that?”. Until you shifted the frame. At those times, I’m in the larger world. Just not the social part. A big problem is that the bulk of humanity blatantly privileges social over just about any other way of interacting with the world. Even when they are made aware of what they’re doing.

    On another note, sometime in the 80’s I went to my first public Wiccan ritual. Two things from that night stand out as peak experiences. One was being mercermised (sp?) by a bowl full of candle flame. The other was dancing, freeform, by myself to the Celtic music on the tape. It was a big crowd full of women interacting with each other and nobody paid attention to me. I felt so free! And good in my body! Ended up getting involved with with the group and staying far too long on the basis of that experience. Never had that set of circumstances again.

    And yes, my unmediated experiences with the music and the fire were AT LEAST as much in “the world” as were the word-led experiences of those around me.

  2. I am going to be fairly cynical here and say that “in their world” doesn’t just mean “not in the social world”, it means specifically not interacting on a social level with the person who’s saying it. People want to be noticed. When you fail to do so, there must be something wrong with you.