Last week, I read Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men, in which the young main character, Tiffany, is a budding witch. One of the main characteristics of being a witch, according to Pratchett’s rules, is the possession of First Sight. It is explained to Tiffany by a pictsy (not to be confused with a pixie) headwoman thus:
“…Ye have the First Sight and the Second Thoughts, just like yer granny. That’s rare in a bigjob.”
“Don’t you mean second sight?” Tiffany asked. “Like people who can see ghosts and stuff?”
“Ach, no. That’s typical bigjob thinking. First Sight is when you can see what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there… Second sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see. Most bigjobs ha’ that…”
As it turns out, the pictsy woman was exactly correct about human perceptions. Shortly after I finished Wee Free Men, I started reading Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation at work. In her chapter about animal perception, she talks about inattentional blindness in humans.
Being able to filter out distractions is a good thing; just ask anyone who can’t filter things out, like a person with [ADHD]. It’s hard for humans to function intellectually when every little sensory detail in their environment keeps hijacking their attention. You go into information overload.
But humans paid the price for developing the ability to filter out [distractions], which is that normal people can’t not filter out distractions. A normal brain automatically filters out irrelevant details, whether you want it to or not. You can’t just tell your brain: be sure and let me know if anything out of the ordinary pops up. It doesn’t work that way.
Autistic people and animals are different: we can’t filter stuff out. All the zillions and zillions of sensory details in the world come into our conscious awareness, and we get overwhelmed. There’s no way to know exactly how close an autistic person’s sensory perceptions are to an animal’s. There are probably some big differences, if only for the reason that animal perceptions are normal for animals, while autistic people’s perceptions are not normal for people.
But I think many or even most autistic people experience the world a lot the way animals experience the world: as a swirling mass of tiny details. We’re seeing, hearing, and feeling all the things no one else can.
Or, in short, people literally cannot process seeing things they don’t expect to see, because their brains are filtering those things out as unimportant, extraneous, distracting minutiae. So, by this measure, does it mean that Pratchett’s witches all have autistic-like traits? Tiffany does note, at the end of the book, after a moment of true First Sight clarity, that it would be extremely difficult to live that way all the time, and is rather relieved when the clarity subsides to more manageable levels.
Wouldn’t it be handy if we could control our ability to see all the things that are there, though? Alas, so many things about our bodies are still out of our control. I suppose we can dream. There’s a reason such abilities are an often recurring theme in so many sci-fi and fantasy books.