• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
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Your Other Left: Spatial problems in autism

 “You need to make a left at this corner. No—your other left” ~ Mr. Aspie Writer
 
Spatial problems in autism
It doesn’t happen every once in a while; it happens all the time.
Whenever I am asked for direction (I am great at giving directions because I remember street names) I stumble over which way to tell the person to turn. I will point to the left and say right, or point to the right and say left—without fail.
I literally have to pick up my hands, look at them, and remember which one I write with.  I write with my right hand.  When I get those inevitable odd stares, I just laugh and say, “38 years old and I still can’t tell my left from my right.”  Ha-ha. But it wasn’t funny, it was embarrassing.
When I am told, “it’s the first door on the right,” I automatically turn left when I get there.  It’s in the right drawer, the right cabinet… I open the left drawer and the left cabinet every time.  I always thought I just had some strange mental block or something. I mean with a 50/50 chance of accidentally turning the right way (left or right) I get it wrong 100% of the time!  What are the odds?
It never occurred to me that there might be a reason, other than my own stupidity, for my difficulty differentiating right from left.  It never occurred to me that autism could be the culprit; that I was having spatial perception problems.
When I was younger (early twenties) I taught ballroom dance at Arthur Murray Dance Studios. I needed to call out which foot my partner had to use, and in which direction he needed to move. If my partner was taking a step with his left foot, then I was doing the opposite with my right foot.  I never got tripped up.  My movements had to be a mirror image of his—always backwards, so I blamed that dance experience for my difficulty with right and left.
After all, since I taught that way for a few months, it must be the reason I still can’t tell right from left almost twenty years later.  Right?
I never did come up with a good excuse for why I had difficulty before I worked there.
Autistic children often have spatial problems; of which telling left from their right is only one of the aspects. I don’t know why this surprises me anymore, at this point nothing should.  It just seems like every day I am learning something new about myself; my autistic self.
Things that never made any sense, had no good explanation, made me feel silly, stupid, less-than or alone can now be explained. I have a new set of eyes with which to see myself.
Does anyone feel embarrassment over a seemingly simple task? Fumble over left vs. right? Are there any tricks you come up with to help you come to the correct answer more quickly so no-one notices? Unfortunately, my looking at and comparing my hands, often mimicking writing to remember is not exactly inconspicuous.

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Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.