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Delaine Swearman

April 18, 2018

Thinking Autisticly

As an autistic individual, I sometimes feel like I am misunderstood in conversations, actions, and motives; I am expected to “be more flexible” when considering the other person’s point of view. I often wonder, however, if the other person truly understands my point of view--how it makes perfect sense from an “autistic” viewpoint. If others understood autistic thinking, maybe there’d be fewer misunderstandings.


Autism is recognized and diagnosed based upon what other people observe, but it really stems from the way the brain works, starting with a completely different operating system. That operating system isn’t wrong, just different, and it affects everything about how I perceive and interact with the world. I’d like to explain a bit of my “autistic operating system” and give a few examples of how I think differently because of it.


Imagine being given a large picture with tiny hidden objects inside.  The neurotypical brain might initially see a large picture of a horse standing under a tree and then maybe notice that there are other hidden objects.  My brain immediately spots a spoon, a cupcake, a rabbit, and two horseshoes, even before I realize that I’m looking at a picture of a horse standing under a tree.


If this wasn’t just a picture, but a real world setting, I’d notice not only the vast array of visual details, but also the high pitched chirping of the birds, the sound of the horse’s breath through its nostrils, and the fresh smell of grass along with the pungent smell of manure. I’d experience the bright rays of sunshine piercing my eyes and the intense heat of midday beating down against my head, face and shoulders. If I continue standing out in the sun, I’d start to feel my body temperature rising and sweat creeping its way down my face, and I’d taste its saltiness as drops of the liquid fall onto my lips.


If someone came up to me while standing by the horse and asked if I was an experienced rider, I might respond, “Yes, I rode a pony when I was five.”


When I hear the words “experienced” and “rider” in the sentence, I will respond, giving an accurate response to those specific words. I did have an experience of riding a pony at the fair when I was five years old, so that makes me an “experienced rider.”


Some autistic people would simply say, “yes,” in response to the above question, but I find myself going into a lot more detail when I get excited about something.  So in this instance, I’d probably be eager to continue talking at length about my pony ride as I remembered it in vivid detail.


First of all, my brain focuses on all the details. Whether they are sensory details or the details (words) of a sentence. I have a detail-centered “operating system” and it affects everything: how I perceive the world, my memories, how I understand others, and the way that I respond to them in communication.


My brain also thinks logically. Logic is predictable and orderly. Having a set of guidelines or rules, keeping to a schedule, following a routine, and knowing the “specifics” are calming and reassuring. On the other hand, chaos around me causes chaos within me. Unexpected events, changes in my normal routine, having to wait for unspecified lengths of time, inaccuracies of any kind, illogical arguments, or unjust decisions by others are all very unsettling and create enormous amounts of anxiety.


If I invited a guest to my home then I’d want to know in advance exactly what time he was coming. By knowing the specific arrival time, I can schedule that time into my day’s routine. Even if a person can’t promise me a specific time, then at least giving me a timeframe, such between 3:00 and 4:00, and then sticking to it, is much better than giving me wrong information, no information, or telling me something very vague, like “later today” or “in the afternoon.”


And if a person said that he’d arrive at a certain time, then I’d expect him at that time, not earlier and not later.  I’d take his words at face value and that time would be “the time” that I’d plan for his arrival. Logic dictates that one should give me accurate information regarding an arrival time and then arrive at the appointed time.


If a guest surprises me by arriving early, I may begin to panic because it throws off my internalized schedule.  On the flip side, if a person has not arrived by the appointed time, then I am left in an unsettling state of enormous anxiety, not knowing when or if the person will be arriving. This state of “not knowing,” of not having definitive answers, of waiting for what seems like “forever” in a state of limbo, is far worse than if the guest called to cancel.  


When plans change at the last minute, however, I feel a bit paralyzed, stuck in a state of turmoil, not knowing what to do with myself during the time that I had previously carved out of my schedule for an activity.  Even when I have a long “to-do list” I’m usually not able to do much of anything unless there is an alternate activity that can replace the cancelled one in the exact same timeframe.


I always try to gather as much specific information and get definitive answers to all my questions in advance, especially when it comes to new situations and unfamiliar destinations.  Advance preparation greatly reduces last minute surprises and also makes me feel calmer and less overwhelmed because I have a “reference” or “map” of knowledge to go by.


I’m very good at research and gathering information in general, especially whenever I come across a topic that sparks my interest. I am also eager and excited to share useful and interesting information with others. Whether it’s a general observation, in reading, or even in conversation, my focus on details and logical thinking also means that I easily notice inconsistencies or inaccuracies and can point out or correct them immediately, many times even unconsciously.


Someone might say, “I’m going to XEROX page 25.”


And I might immediately respond without even realizing it,“You mean make a copy.”


I hear the word XEROX and my logical brain notes the inconsistency between XEROX which is a brand name and the actual desire of making a copy on a Kodak machine. My response is simply an attempt to correct the inconsistency so that it makes sense again in my logical brain. It is no different than automatically circling the 7 that “jumps out at me” if I would read the following string of numbers: 3333333733333333.


I do believe many of the miscommunications and misunderstandings between autistic individuals and others stem from differences in thinking like the above examples. People might think I have a hidden motive or negative intentions when often I do not. On the other hand, I am often frustrated when I feel like others are withholding vital information that I need, if they expect me to read their minds, or when they say exactly the opposite of what they really mean.  I hope this article is helpful and gives some insight into what it’s like to “think autisticly.”

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