I haven’t a strong a sense of self; I have a strong sense of spirit.
Apparently, it’s common for autistic people to hold a “weaker” (Jawer, “Sense”) or “atypical” sense of self (Lyons and Fitzgerald).
Neuropsychologists Lyons and Fitzgerald, in their review, found some studies which attributed this to, among other factors, autistic individuals’ challenges with autobiographical memory and the narrative self. This isn’t my experience: I have an excellent autobiographical memory, and I can recall vivid details from the age of six months on, including the following snippets: lying on my back on my crib while the sunlight poured through the window, grasping my toes, and my brother, sister, and their friend coming into the room to giggle with me; watching dust motes in their golden swirl through the sunshaft that pierced the room when I was three; putting up the hood of my sweatshirt when I was five so that strangers would think I was a boy; and so on, with dozens of tiny moments sprinkled throughout my 59 years on this planet.
I can tell stories about each of these moments, too, and I can weave them into narratives.
My autistic friends have this ability, too: ask them about past moments, and you might be astounded at the detail of their memory and their skill in telling the story.
What’s missing for me, though, is a sense that this happened to me, whatever “me” means, for though the sensory and emotional details of the experience are vivid and easily accessible, the felt-sense of being the same person on the inside is not there.
I attribute this to an increased sensitivity to my internal environment, including the neurochemicals, hormones, emotions, and other responses happening within my body. That internal stew shifts and changes. It is affected by so many external factors: weather; external stress; the feelings and emotions of others; astrological factors; social and political events; noise; light… the list goes on. I feel my internal states acutely, and they shift.
So how I feel inside, which constitutes my own understanding of “self,” shifts and changes and varies in response to a myriad of internal and external influences.
Lyons and Fitzgerald grounded their study of autistic people’s sense of self on Kircher and David’s definition of “self”:
the commonly shared experience, that we know we are the same person across time, that we are the author of our thoughts/actions, and that we are distinct from the environment(Kircher and David, as qtd. in Lyons and Fitzgerald)
This definition is problematic for me in a few ways: I don’t know that I’m the same person across time. I can conceive that this body, which continually and gradually shifts and changes in form from conception through the present moment, provides a container, a vessel, for the experiencing self–the conscious self–which moves and experiences through time. But I cannot hold that this is “the same person across time.”
I am not convinced that I am the author of my thoughts, or even, always, of my actions. Some thoughts simply appear. Some thoughts seem to be the result of specific processes. I have learned, through time, not to always pay that much attention to thoughts–I enjoy watching them. I enjoy considering whether they may have something informative or insightful to share. And I very much enjoy not identifying with them.
I certainly do not see myself as distinct from the environment. My experience of life–of being–is that I am an integral part of the environment, of all-and-everything. I am a cell in the greater being that is everything.
I am a cell, and I am a conscious cell.
I don’t have a strong sense of self; I have a strong sense of spirit.
For a while, it felt uncomfortable to me that I didn’t have a strong sense of self, that I would wake up sometimes, especially once I’d entered menopause, with its very different hormonal and neurochemical mix, with the feeling of “I don’t know who I am. I feel different inside.”
Learning about anatta and the concept of “no-fixed-self” in Buddhism helped to some degree, though I still felt some discomfort. And there’s the issue of agency, too, which can be problematic without a strong sense of self.
But the other morning, I came to a sense of peace with not having a fixed self: I realized that not having a strong sense of self is part of my personality–it’s part of who I am. So rather than being confused when I feel differently inside, I can realize, OK. This is just part of my experience. This is how I experience being alive.
I don’t have a strong sense of self: I have a strong sense of spirit.
I also realized that the “sense of self,” as most neuropsychologists present it, hinges on functions of the brain. This means that when the brain stops functioning, this particular understanding of “self” would also stop.
My sense of spirit is not connected to brain functions. (I know some neuropsychologists and philosophers will disagree, claiming that “consciousness” is a function of the brain. I disagree with them.) There is, within me, within each of us, within each cell, within each living being, within, even, the crystals of rock and sand, consciousness. Spirit. This infusion exists outside of the function of the brain. It was there, even in individual form, before the formation of the specific brain cells within our current bodies, and it will be present outside of our current forms, too, when those forms cease to function.
Jawer, in a series which explores connections between autistic people’s weaker sense of self and their gifts, writes that “synesthetes, savants, those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the highly sensitive, the gifted, the prodigious, the psychic… have a degree of access” to “the ‘seed ground’ of where we all come from.”
A sense of spirit, a sense of being connected to the greater consciousness, while embodying my own unique and individual portion of consciousness, the divine bliss of being a part of everything and all-that-is, the experience and memories of lifetimes before and lifetimes yet-to-come, that is a gift.
If having this gift means that I haven’t a strong sense of self, I will take it. Even if this were something I could choose–and it’s not, it’s simply who I am–I would choose it. I would choose energy, spirit, the infinite, over the limited sense of self.
Jawer, Michael. “Sense of Self in Autism.” Psychology Today. 7 Aug. 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-too-much/201408/sense-self-in-autism. Accessed 1 Jan. 2019.
— “Sensitivities as Markers of an Infinitude.” Psychology Today. 16 Dec. 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-too-much/201412/sensitivities-markers-infinitude. Accessed 1 Jan. 2019.
Lyons, Viktoria and Michael Fitzgerald. “Atypical Sense of Self in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Neuro- Cognitive Perspective.” IntechOpen. 21 Sep. 2012. https://www.intechopen.com/books/recent-advances-in-autism-spectrum-disorders-volume-i/atypical-sense-of-self-in-autism-spectrum-disorders-a-neuro-cognitive-perspective. Accessed 1 Jan. 2019.