The Colour of Notes

Positively Autistic is a fascinating CBC Newsworld documentary about autism. Its premise is that people with autism do not really need to be cured, and that society should just accept them as they are, in the same way we accept differences in race, religion, sex and other innate characteristics.

One of the individuals profiled is Amanda Baggs, an eloquent autism-rights activist who runs her own blog. She does not speak, at least not directly. Instead, she types out what she wants to say, and then a voice synthesizer does the talking for her. Baggs also posts videos to YouTube that describe how she experiences autism. One of her videos, In My Language, has been viewed about 700,000 times.

Baggs describes how she perceives sounds, and in doing so shines a tremendous light on how all of us perceive things. Incredibly, she is able to identify various musical notes as easily as you or I can identify colours. In other words, she is able to see the exact “colour” of the note.

All this raises an interesting question: who exactly has the disability? On what basis do we say that the inability to recognize musical notes is acceptable, but the inability to socially connect with others (a characteristic of many autistic people) is unacceptable?

Clearly, the ability to identify musical notes is a gift. In fact, it is one of many gifts that autistic individuals have. Other gifts include the tremendous ability to focus on specific details, an incredible memory, and extraordinary technical capabilities. Many of the technological advances in society (from computers to cell phones) would not have occurred had there not been people at least partially on the autistic spectrum to develop them.

I’ve often said that technical writing requires a somewhat autistic personality. Technical writers are hyper-sensitive to specific words and text, just as some autistic people are hyper-sensitive to sound or colours. Whenever I see poorly written instructions, or, worse, discover that the instructions are missing altogether, it stresses me out. (Not to the point where I need to be severely medicated, but pretty close.)

As writers, we obsess not only over the words we write, but their appearance. Take the following instruction, for example:

It is important to back up your files.

That’s true, but this doesn’t really tell you what to do. How about:

Ensure you back up your files.

This is better, but it doesn’t tell you how often to do it. Let’s try:

Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

That’s specific enough for our purposes, but how can we make it stand out a bit more? Adding one word helps:

Note: Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

We’re getting there, but we need additional emphasis:
Important! Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

Finally a dash of colour to this note to make it really stand out:
Important! Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

Now, dear reader, do you honestly believe that most people would pay so much attention to a single line of text? Of course not – they have other things to do with their lives. Technical writing is a mental condition like autism, and like autism, it can be a positive thing. Learn to embrace your insanity: it positively colours everything you do.


One thought on “The Colour of Notes

  1. Schwevy

    marc and i are almost certain that the autistic brain is just way more highly evolved than a regular brain. if the average brain uses 10% of capacity, the autistic brain uses 50%, for example. for some people, that makes living in the rest of the world very difficult, however for some, it means abilities way beyond those of the average or typically developed brain.

    we think that all of our brains will evolve and we will use more and more of our brain capacity. in the meantime, autism is part of the evolution process. this is neither good, bad or indifferent, it just is.

    we got lucky with our kid, because he is one of the ones where his spectrum brain makes him 'most beautifully brained' and capable of insanely cool savant skills in addition to general brilliance across the board. whatever his challenges, we know we are seeing the future with him….

    marc and andrea

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