Autism and Animism

Animism, n.  The belief that natural objects, phenomena, and the universe itself have desires and intentions.

– World English Dictionary

A question in the “How We Experience the World” survey at Musings of an Aspie reminded me that I’ve wanted to tackle animism and autism for a while now – ever since i produced a seminar paper last spring on animism in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.

For me – and from my reading it appears I share this trait with many other autists – so-called “inanimate” objects have personalities, feelings, and intentions just as strongly as so-called “animate” creatures and people.  In fact, a lot of objects have stronger personalities than a lot of people, in the sense that they “jump out” at me more intensely during interactions, I can remember them more clearly, and I can differentiate among them more readily than I can with the personalities of human beings.  I frequently classify “things” on the basis of their shared personalities.

I was raised neo-Wiccan, so animism in a religious context is hardly new to me, and I’m familiar with the ethnocentric exoteric claptrap that claims animism is a “primitive” form of worship and understanding of one’s environment (claptrap surely conceived by neurotypicals).  I don’t have much use for this debate – neither the “look at the primitives and their adorable proto-knowledge” side nor the “talking the talk but doing the animism anyway” approach found in a lot of neo-Pagan circles.

The reason I don’t have much use for it is that the livingness of objects isn’t a belief for me.  It’s an experienced reality.

When I was a kid, and I would get angry at people for perceived or actual injustices, etc., my mother would tell me that I wasn’t allowed to hit the person who angered me, but I was allowed to hit my pillow.

This whipping-boy version of justice appalled me.  My pillow wasn’t the unfeeling squishy object my mother thought it was when she gave me this generally-accepted advice.  My pillow was a friend, a tangible presence that moreover was one of the few truly friendly, accepting, nonjudgmental presences in my life.  My pillow kept me safe at night and listened to me without scolding, “correction,” or judgment when I cried.

To punch my pillow instead of punching someone who actually hurt me seemed a triple injustice.  First, it took out what seemed like due vengeance on an innocent bystander.  Second, my pillow couldn’t even be considered a mute accomplice, as it lived in my bedroom and thus was almost never present when someone else hurt me (I’m talking mostly about toddler injustices, like another kid taking my toy on the playground – the sort of thing I was dealing with at the time I got this advice.)  

Finally, if I were to barge in and slug my pillow, presumably interrupting whatever it is pillows do when they want you to think they’re not doing anything, wouldn’t it be furious with me for hitting it out of nowhere?  Wouldn’t it then want the same kind of revenge I wanted, that was driving my impulse to hit in the first place?  And, surely, would it not enact this revenge by denying me the very unjudgmental acceptance I so badly needed – and that not getting probably had a lot to do with why I wanted to hit things so badly at that age?

In short, I could not imagine punching my pillow as a kid because I could not imagine a situation in which someone angrily interrupting my quiet alone time to punch me in the face, because they were angered by someone else’s behavior, would be okay with me.  Would I want to be someone else’s whipping girl?  No; so why would I do it to someone I liked?

(So much for “autistic children have no theory of mind.”)

Now, thirty years later, my grown-up world-facing brain knows that one can in fact hit pillows.  My practical “let’s pass for neurotypical” brain would deny even thinking my pillow had a personality.  And this would make sense to most people, particularly in the context of the fact that I do, now, punch my pillows when I get angry.

But I don’t punch my pillows when I get angry now because I’ve “outgrown” the idea that they’re possessed of feelings or a personality.  I punch my pillows now because my pillows and I have come to an agreement: being punched “out of nowhere” is okay.  They’re willing to accept that and still be accepting of me.  It’s part of their job as my pillows, part of their willingness to “just be” with me when I work through still-overwhelming emotional states.

This sense of animism in my life is pervasive.  (In one paper on autism and poetry, Ralph James Savarese calls such animism “persistent,” which I like the sound of – persistent animism, persistent animism – but which bemuses me: do neurotypicals engage in “sporadic” or “perfunctory” animism?)  And, while it makes me damn good at some things, like keeping track of our personal possessions – I know where things are because I know where they like to hang out or where they are likely to “wander” within the house, which has its own personality “zones” – it makes me terrible at others, like getting rid of objects or letting them go.  

Our dishes, for example, are literally crumbling beneath each meal we eat out of them.  I have literally bitten down on shards of plate or bowl more than once.  But I can neither bring myself to get rid of them, because I grew up with them (they’re the remnants of my parents’ wedding dishes), nor to buy the same pattern secondhand and work it in (Pfaltzgraf “Village”), because I can tell the difference.  (I have tried this with a few pieces and it’s infuriating.)  Other people’s dishes are other people’s dishes; new dishes have little personality at all.  And so on.


4 thoughts on “Autism and Animism

  1. oh my gosh, I was confused when I read that you punch your pillows now until I saw that you have reached an agreement with them. I’m glad.


  2. Almost as if there are added qualities of a numinous nature – senses and sensations difficult to put into words, because words are so ‘paltry and inadequate… The picture I have is of tenuous ‘lumps’ exuding OUT OF the surface of things, sort of squishy almost, that can and do clasp your hands and perhaps other sensical capacities that you have and most people lack.

    It’s like having your natural hearing (and the other commonplace senses) – and then other, added senses. In some circles, this was explained as ‘seeing into the spirit world.” It is the best current explanation I have for what I experience.

    What you describe sounds like it, at least to some degree. I must confess that I’ve never experienced ‘inanimate objects as alive, even if I have discerned them having unusual aspects – and possibly having spirits bound to them by some arcane means.


  3. I enjoyed your essay! I think you have it exactly right about neurotypicals and animism — perfunctory and sporadic. When a machine we rely on for important parts of our lives, like an old car, is working properly, there can be a background sense of it being helpful and reliable. Then, when it develops a noise or a quirk that makes its functioning less reliable, it’s perceived as having a personality beyond that of a helpful servant, like wilfulness. And if it breaks down entirely, it’s either exasperatingly defiant or, if we’re more ethically oriented towards machines, maybe we feel guilty for not having taken better care of an old friend.

    As someone who named her pillows as a child, I’d be interested in reading more on this topic!


  4. I feel like you psychically knew that I would have things to say about this. I actually initially saw this post when you posted it, and then was like “I have too many things to say about this and not enough energy to say them so I will say them later.” And now is later, it seems.

    I think it’s important to clarify that the nature of “animism” as understood in this post–and in the more day-to-day animistic tendencies of most NT adults who yell at their computers and cars and such–versus the nature of animism as understood/described by indigenous peoples. (This is indigenous studies/cross-cultural ontologies nerd Emma speaking). Because attributing emotional states and animacy to commonplace “inanimate” objects is not really something that would be considered “animism” in the anthropological sense–the only more accurate term I can (begrudgingly) come up with is “personification.” [Cue literary groan]. And I’m speaking as someone who talks to, apologizes to, feels lots and lots of guilt about, and generally attributes wayyyy to many emotions to the inanimate objects around her.

    That’s not to say that the way many autistic people experience the world is nothing like the experiences described by indigenous peoples…it’s only to say that, in a manner somewhat similar to our own society, so-called “primitive” indigenous peoples also attribute “animacy” and consciousness to places, forces, plants and animals in ways specific to and defined by their own cultural context. Additionally, this kind of animacy often has less to do with day-to-day interactions with objects, and much more to do with long-standing and cyclical relationships between people, the non-human living things around them, and their physical environments.

    Animacy in these contexts is not necessarily an individualized, or emotion-centric way of understanding non-human things: it’s generally much broader and more socially self-sustaining. In the stories and knowledges of indigenous peoples, you don’t hear about “Tom the Fox” and “Joe the Fox” and like all the different foxes people have met. You hear about “Fox.” In these situations, the purpose of “animistic” thought is not to make people presume that human-like individual personalities and emotions are present in every object they meet, but rather to provide interaction norms and understandings based on a longer term relationship between that “kind” of being and the humans belonging to a specific group.

    At least in my head, I distinguish between animacy attribution and personhood attribution. Because I think that NT people have a lot less difficulty attributing animacy than we might think–they just learn to de-prioritize and ignore those impulses because that’s what social expectations dictate. I think what definitely differentiates many indigenous cultures from our own culture is levels of “personhood attribution” so to speak–the idea that different beings have life-ways and livelihoods as valuable and valid as human life-ways and livelihoods, though they may appear different. Indigenous cultures consider any variety of organisms and things to have their own “culture” and custom, so to speak, and their social expectations are based on principles of mutual respect and co-existence. Whereas in our culture, personhood is unequally distributed based on varying norms and structural inequities, so that some cultures and individuals are assumed to be inherently less “complex” or “valuable” in comparison to a dominant culture/group.

    Sometime, you should ask me to talk about my feelings on Savarese’s stuff. I have…a lot of opinions. (If you ever thought that my annoyance with the very ‘indigo-child,’ ‘pure, innocent sensory language’ tropes of autism-thought might be underhanded jabs at “neurocosmopolitanism”…it’s probably because they totally are.)



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