Because of the success of my “recognizing people by the hands” description to try to help people understand prosopagnosia, I was inspired to another “Imagine that you are in a world where…” style of post for a different condition. Well, and because I just love to handle things by way of analogy, as anyone who’s ever fallen victim to my repeated attempts to make myself understood knows :).
So bear with me for a bit… imagine that as you are growing up, you start to have small incidents setting you apart from those around you because you can’t see the same colors they can. But in this world, NOBODY around you has ever heard of color blindness, including yourself. So you start out with little problems… you are coloring and you color the sky a lovely shade of violet, just like it looks (to you)! You don’t understand why the other kids make fun of you. When your parents ask you to bring them a green apple, they are confused when you bring the wrong one. You don’t understand why there are so many pointless “color” names that everyone makes a big deal out of for minute shade differences. When you go out with your friends picking berries, they pick handfuls of red huckleberries while you search amongst the green leaves, scoring only a few since they really blend in, and your frustration grows. You can’t understand why you are unable to do some simple things that other people seem to manage with ease.
A little older, your parents ask you to cook dinner and are appalled when you serve everyone undercooked chicken. Why do they keep going on about it being pink in the middle? What exactly are you supposed to be looking for, anyway? Eventually you learn how to check the texture more carefully, to determine doneness in other ways. To feel and smell the apple or strawberry more carefully than the other people do, to be sure it is ripe. You feel like you are putting in a lot of extra effort, but nobody else seems to notice, and when you mess up, it’s like you weren’t trying at all. Nobody understands what you are challenged with.
In school, you struggle with interpreting red correction marks that just jump out at everyone else. People talk about your odd clothing choices or “fashion” sense in a mocking way, although everything looks perfectly coordinated to you. In drivers ed, the other student’s ability to immediately distinguish between red and green again calls up the age-old question, how is this so obvious to everyone else? Sure, they look slightly different but why in the world didn’t engineers chose more contrasting colors for something so important as a traffic light? You could easily pick more appropriate colors to use, in your mind. You begin to seriously wonder what is wrong with you that you struggle with learning so much, what is the missing gap? It’s begun to dawn on you that it has something to do with “colors” but whenever you try to talk to anybody about it, nobody has any idea what the problem could be.
Finally you get an earnest ear, a friend, a parent, and break down about how frustrating it is when people talk about your fashion sense or tell you that you chose the wrong color item when they look so similar! Why are people so picky and unforgiving about this? It at last comes down to you telling this person, “to me, these look the same!” Or almost the same. When the other person responds with a blank stare, followed by, “how can they look the same? They’re completely different!” you just have that sinking feeling in your stomach, something is not right, why can nobody understand what you are going through? What is wrong with you? Why does everyone else seem to see things differently and expect you to do the same? Nobody cares about or acknowledges your struggle or even seems able to comprehend that you seem to see things differently. Even the sympathetic ones have no idea how to explain what it is that they are seeing, that you are not seeing. You have no idea what they’re gleaning from that color that makes it so crystal clear. It’s like there is another dimension of information out there that you are not privy to.
Most of the time, due to the shame and ridicule you’ve experienced, and your realization that this is related to the horrible thing called color, you pretend to be normal, like you can readily see the differentiations they talk about. With your few confidantes, who have realized that something is “off” but aren’t sure what it is, you ask them sometimes to tell you which ones are which, trying not to appear completely alien as you do it. But no matter how many times they tell you, they look so similar you still continue to mix many of them up, or you miss things that are printed in colors that apparently stand out to other people but not to you. You are forced to rely on other contextual clues to navigate these areas of life, and you feel alone. Your close friends tell you you’re just “different,” and they love you, but it doesn’t help, they don’t understand what you are going through and they can’t help you deal with it except by pointing them out to you in a subtle way, which they usually forget to do because it’s SO obvious to them.
At the best times, you feel a certain acceptance of this, and you don’t feel that being different is ALL bad. After all, you know that you are using tools the other people never even think about to navigate the world and get around the fact that these “colors” look similar to you, and you feel you have achieved something in that sense. Plus, maybe it’s not so bad all the time to be unique, though it can be lonely most of the time. It’s something to hang on to though, to feel a little special when most of the time you are made to feel so inadequate.
Then one day, you meet another seemingly random person and become friends. You mention some of your struggles offhand, and for once in your life, this person seems to understand what you are talking about! Yeah, some colors can be really hard to distinguish for them too, they say, because they are color blind. Color blind? You think. What is that? You talk to them about it, and for once somebody seems to grasp the trouble you are dealing with and the frustration of having to operate with people who have no concept of your different perception or any interest in understanding it. But on the other hand… you can’t be color blind yourself, right? You aren’t blind after all. You see colors, of course you do. They just don’t seem to be the same colors that other people see….
After further research into the condition sparked by your friend, you have an epiphany. All signs point to the fact that in fact, you ARE colorblind. It’s not about being blind in any way or not being able to see color for you, or even for most people with the condition, you just see different shades, and the colors you see look different than the colors most of the world sees, at least some of them. On the one hand, you feel a huge sense of relief that you’re not a complete freak, there are other people who understand! There are forums and groups who have worked out solutions to deal with the problems you encounter, and share ideas! Now that you know the name for your condition, you can do more research, pick up more tips. There is no cure, but it seems like the knowledge has opened this huge window of information for you.
On the other hand though, you feel a little like you have lost something, and scared. Suddenly, you’re not just super different and some people like it in you because it’s different even though it seems to weird out the rest of the world and can be highly inconvenient. You’re not ‘special’, you actually have something WRONG with you. It appears this condition is not just a different way of seeing the world (maybe a better way, you have sometimes thought, if everybody else didnt’ have such a problem with it), it’s something LACKING in you. Yes, you’re unique… just like everybody else with color blindness.
But for the most part, the knowledge is a relief and you no longer feel so alone. It’s with an enlightened heart that you inform your friends and family what you’ve figured out. But their response is overwhelmingly negative! In this world, as I mentioned before, nobody around you has ever heard of this. “Color what? they say. You’re not blind. You can see colors. Why, just the other day you pointed out this and that different color. Your paintings are beautiful. They’re even more beautiful because of the unique way you interpret things. You’re just a little… different. There’s nothing WRONG with you. ”
“But that’s not what it means,” you protest. You try to explain what the condition really means, but you can tell they still don’t understand because on some level, they can’t fathom a world where colors look different to some people as a medical condition. They mix it up with other conditions, they point out differences in your condition versus the other examples that you find as if that negates everything, even though there are different kinds of color blindness. And for all the protest about how it’s just you and there’s nothing “wrong,” they’re the same ones who’ve been frustrated with you over and over again all your life for exactly these reasons!
In time, some people close to you are willing to learn more about color blindness. Some of them even try to help you out after you explain what you need, giving you the color info you need when you can’t see it, though it can be difficult to receive the “help”, often clumsily given, and hard for them to remember or understand… on some level you feel they’re still a bit incredulous that you don’t see what they see (“Maybe if you look more closely… that really doesn’t look different to you??”).
For most people though, you don’t bring up your color blindness. There’s so much misunderstanding. But inside, you are growing with the newfound information. You are able to learn more coping tips from the contacts you’ve found, you have learned new ways to brush off your mistakes with other people, without going into a big explanation. But if you need to go into an explanation, you have the words to do so now. You’ve found research showing that some types of color blindness might even be considered an evolutionary advantage! You have knowledge, and you have a path to further learning, and that helps, even if the world as a whole doesn’t seem that much more understanding about it.
Back to the real world now, my dears :). Is it hard to even imagine a world where you and everybody else has never heard of colorblindness? I’m sure you’ve heard of it though so maybe you didn’t have that much trouble picturing yourself in our imaginary character’s shoes, and maybe you thought of some new things that you didn’t realize somebody with this condition would struggle with. I certainly hope in our “modernly informed” world that nobody with color blindness has to struggle with quite this level of misunderstanding, but I’m sure that it was true at one time. The analogy here, is Asperger’s. Maybe you’ve never heard of this. Maybe you’ve heard a few things about it… (something to do with Autism? Is it a learning disability?). I picked colorblindness because I feel it’s better known and it’s something people can imagine because they know a little about it, but it also deals with a different way of perceiving the world.
Though a person who can see the standard colors and has NEVER encountered the idea of color blindness (like the outsiders surrounding our main character in the story) might have a lot of trouble putting themselves in a colorblind person’s shoes, you probably found it much easier to do so because you know something, even a little, about color blindness. You’ve heard of the condition, you’re aware that some people see color differently. It probably doesn’t seem like that big a deal to you. The real challenge in this “imagine that…” scenario might be to imagine other people being so unsympathetic and unable to grasp the concept of color blindness.
This is exactly what people with Asperger’s often face. There is very little knowledge out there amongst people who are untouched by Asperger’s, and they don’t know much about how the condition affects people. When the uninformed (that’s almost everybody!) deal with someone with Asperger’s, like the full-color-vision people in my story, they have a hard time even grasping how someone with Asperger’s “doesn’t get it” or views the world differently, especially if they don’t know that the person has this condition and wouldn’t accurately know what it meant if they did hear the term!
I hope this helps open your eyes to how people can see the world differently, and not even through something as literal as color blindness. I don’t think the analogy is even that far off, either, even when it’s not about literally seeing something differently. Many people theorize that the varied symptoms of Asperger’s are all or mostly related to a different way of sensory processing (not just visual) than from “neurotypical” individuals (which is most of the population!).
It’s easy to see in comparing to the “imagine that…” story how a little knowledge makes it so much easier to accommodate a condition like colorblindness, or like Asperger’s, which to the person who has it, is simply the way the world is! They eventually realize that other people see things differently, and that they have to fit into that world of the majority. But if you think about encountering a person with colorblindness in your life in the real world, and think about how you might react with normalcy, you realize you’d maybe even guess it immediately when you saw them make a mistake, and even immediately sympathize and grasp the issue right away (especially compared to the people in the analogy). I hope that shows you how a little knowledge and understanding can go a long way to making things easier for people with different perceptions, things like a little knowledge and understanding of a condition like Asperger’s. For all you know, you may already have people with Asperger’s in your life, or other conditions that could use a little understanding. Maybe it’s time to seek some knowledge.