911: An Autism Parable
A dream demonstrates the autistic experience.
Posted Jul 12, 2013
The other night, I had a dream. I came home to my house to find the front door wide open. A half-drunk bottle of water stood on the floor in the doorway, and all the lights in the house blazed bright.
Alarmed, I looked inside, only to surprise a stranger in the front hallway. “Hi!” He greeted me in a friendly fashion. I was taken aback that someone who had been found so blatantly in violation of the law should be so blasé about doing so. “You’re a burglar!” I exclaimed – a fact which he cheerily confirmed.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to trust him, so I grabbed the phone and pinned him into a closed in corner of the kitchen as I dialed 911. But, when I put the phone to my ear, what I heard was not the police station, but an advertising message. I looked down at the phone. The readout said, “822.” I was sure I’d dialed “911” – but I guessed perhaps my finger had slipped. I checked to make sure the crook was still in place, hung up the phone and tried again. Again, the same thing.
I heard voices out in the hall, and saw a co-worker walk by – suddenly it seemed that my house was bustling with people, co-workers, friends and family all there for valid reasons. One person was packing for a long weekend trip. Some were there to work, and others were there to hang out. Yet, at first, they didn’t seem to notice the strange situation I found myself in – guarding a dangerous stranger in a corner of my kitchen.
I was still attempting to dial, slowly and deliberately pressing the letters. 9….1….1—yet when I put the phone to my ear, I found myself talking to directory assistance. I’d dialed 411. I sensed my unwelcome guest watching me – and I saw him edging away. “If you’re not going to call,” he said snappily, “I really need to go. I have somewhere to be.” I made it clear that I was not willing to let it go, and moved further to the left to block his escape.
The interloper was getting annoyed. “What’s wrong with you that you can’t dial a #*&@* phone!?” He burst out…and re-iterated his intention to leave. “I’m autistic!” I yelled, “Give me a break, OK!”
This uproar drew the attention of another co-worker – “What’s wrong!” she exclaimed, approaching us from the hallway. I told her, I’d caught this burglar attempting to steal my things, and was attempting to call 911 for help, but was struggling to do so. I was becoming more and more agitated as I thought of what things he might have taken. What was on his person? I didn’t think it lawful for me to search him myself, but every moment I couldn’t dial he was becoming more anxious and able to leave – maybe with my things.
My co-worker agreed that contacting law enforcement was the right thing to do, and seeing my struggle and distress, she left the room and came back with a piece of paper. “Here,” she said, “That’s the main branch number – maybe that will work.” Then she went on about her business.
I stared at the paper in disbelief. I recognized an attempt at help, yet I was flabbergasted at it as well. If I was having trouble successfully dialing three digits – how in the world would I be able to accurately dial more than three times that many characters? As I gaped at the paper, the burglar made another attempt to leave and I found forced to drop the paper, in my attempt to corral him and keep him from leaving.
Now I didn’t have the alternate number. So I was back to the same task – trying to dial 911 again. And again. And again. And again. On cell. On landline. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it right. No matter how carefully I dialed, no matter which phone I used, it seemed I could dial everything EXCEPT 911.
And no-one came back to help.
You discover someone is doing something that would hurt you. You try to stop that action by reaching out to those who can help you…those who can protect you. Yet somehow, you just can’t reach them. Your equipment just doesn’t seem to be working the way you want. The people around you go about their business, and don’t seem to realize the dire nature of your circumstances. They do nothing. The situation escalates.
Finally, you get someone to notice you’re in distress – and they offer you an alternative, which seems straightforward to them, but you can’t execute it. The issue isn’t the number you’re dialing, it’s the functioning of your hardware. They don’t learn the error of their assumptions, because they don’t stick around to see.Or if they do, the judge you, thinking, “I gave her the number! Why doesn’t she use it! She must not care to get help.” They sneer and turn away.
The situation goes on unimpeded. The more time goes on, the less likely it becomes that you’ll be able to extricate yourself from danger, or mitigate the damages. People go about their daily lives.
Everyone was around. Nobody noticed. Nobody warned you.
And you wonder why.