Camilla Pang is an accomplished scientist who studies the wildly chaotic lives of cancer cells. She also is an advocate for neurodiversity who manages her own autism, ADHD, and generalized anxiety disorder. An Outsider’s Guide to Humans is the culmination of a project that started when she was a child. It shares ideas from science to deal with extreme fear, anxiety, and life as an outsider.
KIESLING: Let’s start when you were eight years old and diagnosed with autism. That’s essentially when you started creating your manual for humans.
PANG: Well, yes. But I didn’t realize for a very long time that I was creating a manual—and certainly not one for anyone else. When you’re creating something to survive, you’re not looking toward an end product.
I was diagnosed with autism at eight, but all I knew was that I desperately needed something to structure my days and to leverage some understanding of the world. For me that was collecting piles of objects, trying to mimic what I was experiencing in the world with what I read in books and what I saw in my mind. To start, I had to make up my own language, and it didn’t look like a book. It looked like chaos in my bedroom and like tantrums.
Over time I started to narrate the things in my head through drawings on paper and objects that were ordered in a specific way. I needed to keep it all somewhere, and so, as I learned to write, I was like, okay, now I can put it all in this form. It took me awhile because I needed to draw a lot.
I’m a visual thinker. But when I put it down on paper, I felt an immediate sense of release. It felt great! So I carried on doing it. Over time it helped me understand and layer my different understanding of human behaviors beyond my family and the playground, so I kept working on it. But even when I was an adult I didn’t tell anyone about it. It was a bit of a guilty pleasure—something I was quite embarrassed about. Who creates a manual for humans when you are one?
And part of this manual came about through studying science.
I am a scientist. I tell people that and they say, “Okay, cool. That’s nice.” And I’m like, “You don’t get it, do you?” I want to shout my love for science from the trees and the rooftops. This book is my attempt to understand humans, and to teach some things to other humans who don’t understand humans through science. It’s also a love letter to science.
It’s a beautiful letter. When did you realize other people might want to read it?
Over time I realized that there was a need for it. For example, my sister would say, “Oh, I wish I could prioritize things like you do, Millie.” And I said, “Graph theory, of course.” And she gave me a blank stare, like what?
And then I thought, wait a minute, if someone who’s so well-respected by me and others doesn’t know something like graph theory, then that means I know something that other people don’t. People who are autistic like me presume that everyone knows more than we do, but over time I realized that no one knows what they’re doing—and that maybe I have something to offer.
One of the stories that really resonated for me was your description of the blinding fear that had you hiding under a desk.
Yeah. I have been so paralyzed by fear that I don’t know how to move or what to do or what to think or what to say. I don’t trust anything that I see or hear. I don’t trust my senses. And when that happens, I need to be under a desk or in a dark room to just zero my senses—to start fresh. That really soothes me.
A lot of people would say, “Oh, it’s a sign of suffering.” I’m like, “No, I just need to get out of here.” I just need some darkness for a bit—to be alone with nothing else but myself and the sound of my own breathing. And over time I realized that when you feel paralyzed by fear, it can often be from having to process too many different wavelengths in one go that it becomes blinding.
You write: “My anxiety attacks were like a beam of white sunlight, overpowering, impossible to look at directly, and something you can only turn (or run) away from. But within that sat a whole spectrum of emotions, some stronger and more immediate than others, all interplaying and tangling together to create fear.” Tell me more.
Yes. My mum had a crystal oyster duck shell on a window sill, and every morning when the bright sun shined, it refracted all these beautiful opalescent rainbows onto the ceiling. And I was like,“Oh, that’s beautiful.” And it felt so good. And I realized that I needed something that changed the blinding light of my fear into something that relaxed me. I needed a mental prism to be able to see the component wavelengths of my fear from red, yellow, to blue.
I took the prism very literally, and it works. I think I’ve got my autism to thank for that.
So, for you, hiding under a desk or putting yourself in a dark room is the same as being on a retreat. People, especially our audience, understand the need for retreats.
Yeah. I’m really glad that you brought that up because I went traveling with friends and they were like, oh, let’s go on a silent retreat. I said I would give it a go because you only live once. But I’ve got ADHD as well as being autistic and so the retreat was a weird mix of being understimulated by the loss of speech and at the same time being overstimulated by still having to process the interactions of others in a nonverbal way. So, the retreat had me literally shaking and going nuts.
But it was also quite interesting. When you are in a place where you have to be silent, to not use one of the main senses you use to communicate, it can be very peaceful. Time starts to slow down because you have to read between the lines of what people say, their expressions, their movements, their energy. And that helps you tune into your own energy. ... I do sense that, and it’s a very important aspect of communication that we often take for granted.
You learned to read movements and expression and energy early on.
I had to. I think many people doubt whether I’m autistic because I’m so good at reading other cues. People say, “Oh my God, you understand me so well. You can’t be autistic.” And I’m like, well, that’s your ignorance. I need facial expressions to interact. And I do rely on a lot of nonverbal cues as well to communicate.
You’ve learned to connect through cues that most neurotypical people don’t see or at least don’t concentrate on. And that means that your framework is different.
My framework is different. So basically, I’ve got like a weird intuition I pick up on. I’m not just interpreting the communication between me and another person, I pick up their energy. I create a context of how a person feels in an environment by detecting tiny movements that are in between what they say and do. You might say I mimic empathy so that I know how to interact with them and what to say and what not to say—and the result is that some people find my ability to read others uncanny. So I think you’re right. I’ve got a more intuitive approach to trying to decipher the context of someone when they walk into the room.
There are people who are labeled psychics, but my own sense is these people are differently sensitive. Exactly what you’re talking about. They can see things a mile away that other people miss.
Yes. If you have a dog, it’s sense of smell is a lot better than yours, but it sees less. So it’s literally tuning into something different. And I think when it comes to being sensitive, especially when you have autism, you have to teach yourself to really tune into the senses that are around you and what you’re sensitive to, because there’s so much that we miss. It’s a compensation mechanism. I didn’t quite get the social cues, but I knew how to read body language very well. I had to.