Category Archives: Cognitive Function

Chronoception

Chronoception

chronoception: the sense and perception of time.

Time perception is one of those things that’s so taken for granted, it’s really difficult to actually explain or talk about. Time doesn’t seem like something we perceive or interpret, it’s just seems like something that is. But of course it is something we interpret, because we interpret everything, because that’s what it means to be a brain living inside a meatbag.

Chronoception is also strange because no-one can really agree on whether it’s a neurological sense – along the lines of sensing temperature and balance – or something more psychological.

Time problems

I’ve always known I had a weird ‘Thing’ about time. The first example I usually think of is that I always find it really stressful and anxiety-inducing to know that I have a fixed period of time ahead of me, like “I’ll be in school for six hours from 9 until 3”. I’ve never been able to properly express why it’s so stressful. It’s not simply that I didn’t want to be in school, or that I didn’t want to be there for so many hours – it’s something inherent about a fixed time period, regardless of what or how long.

I’m similarly stressed by things like, knowing that I need to leave the house at a certain time to catch a bus. When that’s the case, I veer between being over-prepared and ready unnecessarily early, and ignoring the time limit (as a way of avoiding the anxiety) and ending up rushed or surprised. Often I go between those extremes more than once in a single period of preparation.

I’m not very good at keeping track of dates in the future. I’ve always had a tendency to anticipate things a really long way in advance. But I also quite often find myself surprised when a certain date arrives even though I knew about it.

Just recently I’ve come to the conclusion that all of these ‘weird time things’ I  have actually do all relate to each other, even though they seem very different at first glance. They relate to each other because they all arise from the fact that I have very poor chronoception. I’m bad at sensing time.

Outsourcing

It sounds weird to say, because like I said above – time doesn’t feel like something that you sense. Time just happens, and I know that. There’s a certain number of minutes in an hour, hours in a day, days in a year, and so on. I know all of that, rationally. But I know it in the same way that I know the earth is rotating. I know it, but I don’t feel it. And so, in the same way as a scientist keeping track of the earth’s rotation through calculations and measurement, I have to outsource my sense of time in order to understand it.

That outsourcing is mostly in the form of checking clocks and calendars a lot. I carefully plan times and dates and always try to get an objective estimate of how long something will take or last. Because of all that, I probably seem like I’m good at time perception. But it’s all just overcompensation, like someone who acts arrogant because they lack self-confidence.

In fact most of the time now, I try to arrange my life so that there’s little need for that compensation at all. These days most of my time is pretty unstructured. I avoid commitments that have a set time or deadline, because commitments like that require me to put a lot of effort into keeping track of the time manually and trying to understand it. If I don’t bother with that, then sure I do lose track of time sometimes and forget to go to bed or don’t notice that I haven’t moved in hours – but at least I’m not under constant stress .

Explanations

My lack of chronoception neatly explains all of my weird time problems. I’m stressed by things like fixed time periods and deadlines because I know they’re important and meaningful, but I don’t have an instinctive sense of what they mean. So I have to put lots of effort into consciously trying to understand and keep track of something that’s inherently totally abstract and confusing to me.

I unpredictably veer between being under- and over-prepared because I don’t have any natural ability to judge the ‘correct’ rate to do things. Where someone else might easily be able to think “I have half an hour to get ready, so I know what things I have time for and how quickly I need to try to do them”, I just have to guess and hope for the best, and constantly check how I’m doing to try and adapt as I go.

I can’t keep track of dates in the future because everything in the future is just in one big amorphous ‘some time other than now’ category in my brain. An appointment next week, and my birthday next year, both pretty much live in that category together. So although I can intellectually know which will come first by thinking about dates and years and numbers, it always feels like something of a surprise when any given date actually arrives.

This also explains why I intermittently come across as either very patient or very impatient. If I want something to happen, then I want it to happen now, because now is the only thing that really means anything to me. But if something isn’t happening now, then I usually don’t care much when it is happening – because next week and next month and next year all feel more or less the same.

My systems of overcompensation paradoxically mean I’m generally really good at meeting deadlines. I talked to my brother who does seem to have a decent sense of chronoception about how he handles deadlines and he said “I just work at a fairly steady rate until the deadline”. Because somehow he has the ability to know what rate he needs to work at in order to correctly meet the deadline?! I don’t have that, but I do still have a strong feeling that deadlines are important and missing them is bad.

So my solution is to pretty much always do things as soon as possible and as quickly as I reasonably can. I work on a university assignment at the same rate, whether the deadline is tomorrow or next month. I never have to try to make decisions about how quickly to work or when to do something, because I just have one setting – ‘now’. As with many things, that system has its pros and cons. The upside is that I pretty much never miss deadlines. The downside is that I sometimes cause myself stress even over things which don’t have deadlines (or which have very distance ones), because I still have the feeling of ‘must do it now’, even if I actually don’t need to do it for months.

Realisation

Chronoception is now another in my very long list of things that made me go “…you mean everyone isn’t like that?”. There’s been some little pieces of research into the link between autism and time perception, but it doesn’t appear to be something many people are interested in. Anecdotally I know quite a few autistic people who have similar chronoception problems to me. It feels like an autistic thing, because it’s to do with processing and instincts and all those subtle things that are different for us.

It’s also on my long list of things that I don’t (yet) have any solutions for. But it’s always interesting to have a new word and a new concept to apply to my experiences.

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Swimming pool theory

Autistic people are often stereotypically described as being detail-focused or unable to see the big picture. But to me it’s always felt like an unsatisfactory description to call someone either detail-focused or “big picture”-focused. It’s impossible to do one without the other. I think the more significant factor is about how naturally or easily a person can go from one to the other, and how they use them to learn. Me and my dad have been working on a theory to describe the different learning styles that arise from this – it starts with an analogy.

The swimming pool

Imagine that the system of knowledge you want to learn (say, the rules and applications of a certain mathematical method) is a big, oddly-shaped swimming pool full of water. You get dropped in the middle of the pool, and the aim of learning is to map out the entire area – to find out where all the water is and where it ends. There are two main ways to go about this, which I’ll call the extrapolation method and the interpolation method.

Extrapolation
You start your map of the swimming pool by taking note of the spot you’re in when you start. You can map a certain distance around you that you can see – say, a few feet away from you in all directions. You start to paddle around, gradually mapping the new areas that you swim to. Your map grows from the place you started, in whatever shape you decide to paddle.

Gradually your map expands at the rate that you swim around. Eventually, you will have paddled around enough to have a pretty accurate map of the pool. You’ll probably have the odd patch which isn’t mapped, but you’ve got most of it recorded accurately.

Interpolation
The interpolation method is like being extremely short-sighted. You can’t just add the surrounding area to your map. You might be able to keep track of the path you take, but you can’t map a large enough area around you for that to be an efficient way to learn. You can barely “see” beyond the end of your nose. You’re not aiming to map whatever area you swim to. Instead, you have one clear goal: you swim around, looking for the edge of the pool.

Once you find the edge, you stick to it, and start making your way along. You carefully map out the line of the edge, all the way around. Eventually you get back to where you started – you’ve got the entire outline of the pool mapped. In one instant, your map of the entire pool fills in. You know that the pool is a solid body of water, so you immediately know exactly where the rest of the water is.

Beyond the swimming pool

In case it’s not obvious, the swimming pool part is largely irrelevant – it is nothing but an analogy. The point of the theory is that there are two main ways of learning. The difference is which “direction” a person can most easily move in – from details to general ideas, or from general ideas to specifics.

Extrapolaters are good at starting from one particular spot and finding nearby information (they can see a reasonable distance out across the water from wherever they are). They can create a fairly complete knowledge system just by moving from specific to specific, and example to example. But they have less ability to fill in gaps just from finding the edges of the system.

Interpolators can’t easily see from one specific to another or learn lots of details in one go. But they are good at finding the outlines of information and filling in from there. Their instinct is to find the edges of what they want to learn, which makes them good at getting systems of knowledge without any gaps.

Neither of these methods is better than the other, of course. They both have different perks. The extrapolation method increases your knowledge gradually as you go along – if you stop halfway through the learning then you have half of the knowledge. The interpolation method ensures that you have 100% of the knowledge once you’re finished – there’s no chance of any unmapped patches by the end.

But I don’t think the method a person generally uses is a just a choice every time. I think it’s mostly defined by innate traits like how much a person can “see” around the details they are focused on, and how easy they find it to fill in an area that they’ve outlined. Based on those abilities, each person will have an instinct for how they learn best – and might not even realise that other people do it differently.

There’s also no clear binary distinction between the two methods. Each person just has different preferences and tendencies – some people might have a strong drive towards one method, some people might find it easy to switch between the two. And I’m sure I’ve oversimplified my explanations of these learning styles, and not everything fits into them anyway.

Teaching and learning

Most teachers start a lesson by giving examples of the problem – challenging students to find the “big picture” themselves is supposed to be an effective way of teaching. And it must work well for a lot of people, otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular. Extrapolators can instinctively generalise from being given examples, and find it easy to add new knowledge in little chunks at a time.

But I’ve always found it difficult – if not impossible – to learn general concepts from examples. I can’t work out the “big picture” if all I’ve been given is specifics. When I’m taught in this way I end up frantically paddling around, barely able to see where I’m going, and desperately hoping I’ll find an edge that I can stick to in order to teach myself the rest – all while I’m expected to have already started filling in a map of the places I’ve passed through.

 

Extremes

I don’t know whether this is an autistic trait. My instinct tells me that it could be, but I also have a strong suspicion that my instinct will turn out to be wrong. Both me and my dad are extreme systemisers and extreme interpolators, and so my clearest idea of an autistic thinking style is based on that. But I have no idea whether it’s accurate for other autistic people, or if I’m just assuming there’s a connection because they happen to coincide within my family.

My secondary hypothesis is that the learning style (interpolation or extrapolation) is not the autistic trait in itself, but that it’s an autistic trait to have an extreme preference for one or the other. That would correspond with the way that autistic people often seem to be at one end of a bell curve or the other, in things like sensory preference and various other traits.

I’m really interested to hear input from other people on this. Are you an extrapolator or an interpolator (or maybe you think my distinction is meaningless)? Do you think a preference for one or the other is an autistic trait? Or that a strong preference in either direction is? Do I have completely the wrong idea trying to describe things this way?

Real-time interactions

Real-time

I have trouble with real-time interactions. By ‘real-time interactions’, I mean the kind of situation where people are responding to each other directly and immediately. That means things like: talking face-to-face, on Skype, on the phone, and (sometimes to a lesser extent) using text or instant messaging.

I have trouble with them because they are not well-suited to my communication style. I am slower to process the things other people have said, and need even more time to formulate my own responses. I prefer delayed interactions, like emails, because you are expected to make a slow and thoughtful response, rather than an immediate one.

My trouble with real-time interactions is not obvious though. If you were having a face-to-face conversation with me, you probably wouldn’t realise I have difficulty. In fact, you’d probably say that I was very articulate (people have described me that way before), and be surprised that I’m saying this.

Automatic speech

The truth is that my mouth is a lot better at real-time interactions than I am. That means I’m good at automatically responding to communication, using words and phrases that really sound like they mean something. If someone says hello, I say hello back – I don’t think about it, it’s practically a reflex. Automatic speech like that is probably familiar to everyone to some extent.

But for me it can extend to much more seemingly-complicated speech. In an unplanned conversation, I often end up feeling like I’m just watching myself and wondering what on earth I’m talking about. I’ll find myself saying things which I don’t agree with, which don’t make sense, or which actively contradict things I’ve said before. And I say them because my brain is just mashing together elements of the context (like whatever the person before me just said) with an appropriate inflection and hoping that it sounds about right.

For whatever reason, my brain taught itself to make me look like I’m communicating whenever I am having trouble. Someone with a similar level of communication could have easily developed such that they just didn’t speak, instead of making non-communicative speech like I do. I don’t know why I do automatic speech and some people don’t, but I think there’s a lot less difference between us than there might seem.

Bad odds

I’d estimate that in an unplanned real-time interaction with a person I don’t know (I cope better with more familiar people), my apparent communication is about 20% accurate. That means that about 20% of the things I say are things I actually mean, and that only about 20% of things I want to get across actually do get across.

Imagine a person who could only speak about 20% as much as most NT people – that’s how effective my communication is some of the time. Don’t seem so articulate now, do I? In some ways, it’s handy to be able to ‘pass’ as NT in that kind of situation. It’s a lot easier to make it through a brief and inconsequential encounter if I can smooth things over with automatic ‘NT-speak’.

But in other ways, I sometimes imagine it would be better if I actually did only speak 20% as much in that kind of interaction. At least the things I did say would be accurate, so I wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally lying or talking nonsense. It would also mean that my communication difficulties would be a lot more obvious to people, and so they would be more likely to believe me when I say I can’t cope with real-time conversations.

Solutions

My usual solution is to try and make interactions as favourable to me as possible, to prevent automatic speech from kicking in at all. It’s worse if I’m in a busy or stressful situation, if there are a lot of people around, or if I’m talking about something that makes me nervous or uncomfortable.

The biggest single factor is that the interaction is unplanned or unexpected. I can handle scripted situations like buying something from a shop, because I can plan exactly what I need to say and I know what to expect. Some of my most memorable disastrous conversations have been answering unexpected phonecalls, or being abruptly taken aside for a ‘chat’ by someone. Most of these things are made worse in conversations with strangers, which are generally unavoidable.

But there are also situations when automatic speech happens with people I know, like family. Things like parties and gatherings, or difficult and uncomfortable topics can trip me into NT-mode even with people I really trust. I don’t know if it’s obvious from the outside, but it feels quite obvious from the inside. If you’ve known me at my most comfortable, then my NT-mode will be conspicuous, because I will seem much less autistic than usual! If my responses are as snappy and expressive as NTs’ usually are, it’s a good bet that I’m not in full control of what I’m saying.

The ideal way for other people to react to that would be to change the situation so it’s closer to my communication ideal, but that’s not always possible. If that fails, then my only advice to people interacting with me is: don’t take anything I say too seriously! I am very happy to be asked “Did you mean that?” if I say something that’s out of character or doesn’t make sense. It gives me a chance to actually process what I said, and a chance to take it back or correct it if I need to. I think it’s counter-intuitive for NT people, but anything I communicate in writing is always more reliably accurate than anything I communicate through speech.

Choices

Recently I’ve been thinking about my academic future. I started a distance-learning degree in October, and I quite quickly decided to switch from part-time to full-time. Which means deciding which course/s to add to my workload, because the degree is totally open – so every course is optional.

The course I’m already doing is in science. The main things I was torn between for my next course were maths and psychology. Maths has always been my best and favourite subject. But psychology is important to me because I want to learn about how people – and especially autistic people – work.

At first glance, it seems like maths should be the first choice. It’s been my strongest subject since before I can remember. Anyone who knew me as a kid would always say maths is what I “should” be doing. And I can understand that. It’s even what I think instinctively. But when I think about it a bit more carefully, that’s not the case.

Maths is really important to me. It’s pretty much the first language of my brain. When I reach for an analogy, I reach for mathematical concepts without even noticing. When I’m trying to find a way to understand something, I’m really finding a way to turn it into maths so that it can fit in my brain.

But that doesn’t actually mean that I should be studying maths, or that it’s necessarily my favourite or most important subject. A person who thinks in words does not assume that they want to study language. They use language to process whatever they do study. It’s the same for me, with maths. No matter what I learn or think about, I will be using maths constantly. So I don’t need to worry that, if I don’t study maths, I might lose one of my favourite subjects.

Whereas that is more likely to be the case with psychology. I think about autism a lot, but it’s the subject of my thoughts – not the language of my thoughts. Which means that if I do want to think about autism, I have to actively decide to.

So, I’ve decided on a psychology module. Part of the reason I’m posting this is so that I can read back over it if I start doubting my decision again. But I don’t think I will!

Inertia

Inertia

inertia: a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

Autistic inertia is common but little-known and poorly understood. It lies somewhere on the borderline between catatonia and executive dysfunction.

Inertia doesn’t mean laziness, or not wanting to do things, or procrastinating – although it can look like all of those things. But sometimes it also looks like mania, obsessiveness, or even a burst of motivation. Because inertia just means difficulty changing state, and that original state can be anything. The simplest explanation for how inertia looks and feels: sometimes an autistic person ends up doing something they don’t want to be doing, or not doing something they do want to be doing.

Causes

There are a lot of different possible causes and contributing factors for inertia, and they can be different for everyone.  Part of what makes it difficult to understand or explain is that there can be endless possible causes, which can all lead to apparently the same result. I’ve been thinking carefully about this for a while, and I’ve come up with a list of the most common causes for me.

Energy levels. This is the most catatonia-like one. It’s hard for me to switch from low-energy to high-energy activities, or vice versa. This is part of what’s happening when I’m sitting at home and I need to get up and go out. My brain is stuck in low-energy mode and I can’t properly imagine or work out how to switch into high-energy mode. It’s also what happens when I start doing something like tidying up my room, and I end up spending hours frantically cleaning and organising things. In that situation, I’m stuck in high-energy and it’s easier for me to switch to a brand new high-energy activity, than switch to low-energy mode and take a break.

Time anxiety. I have trouble describing this, but it’s a really big thing for me. I think I have trouble with medium-term time perception. I can abstractly imagine periods like months or years, and I can instinctively understand very short times like minutes or seconds. But in-between lengths of time like hours or days are difficult for me to get my head around. So if I need to start an activity that is going to last for a medium-term amount of time, I can’t properly imagine how long that is. Which makes me really anxious and confused, and so I can’t start the activity because I can’t imagine it.

Decisions. This is probably the most obvious executive function-related cause. Sometimes it’s just really difficult for me to make a decision. Especially if the choices are arbitrary, or uncertain, or I feel like I’m missing information, or any number of other things. One obvious example of this is when I have a chore to do which has an unspecified time limit. For example, I know that I need to wash some laundry at “some point today”. But because it’s not specific enough, and there’s no other way to make the decision, I end up not doing it at all. I can be thinking “I need to wash laundry today”, and sitting around doing nothing, but it’s still difficult to actually make myself do it even with nothing else in the way.

Memory. Another definite executive function thing. My working memory is disproportionately weak, considering my long-term memory and general abilities. If there’s nothing to prompt or remind me about a task, I will often completely forget about it. This can even happen with things that I really want or need to do. It’s not that I deliberately ignore it or pretend not to think about, so that I can avoid doing something. It’s just that it genuinely doesn’t cross my mind unless there’s some kind of external cue.

Hindrances

The simplest and most obvious thing that affects my susceptibility to inertia is general stress. Stress from overload, anxiety, tiredness, or any of the millions of things that can bother me. When I’m stressed for any reason, I’m more likely to have trouble with all of the contributing factors to inertia. Executive function and memory gets harder because I have less cognitive resources to spare, it’s harder to handle any additional anxiety because I’m already anxious, it’s more difficult to override my instinctive energy level sticking when I’m busy stressing about other things.

Having other people around can also sometimes make things worse. I’ve written before about how other people overwrite my edges very easily. When I need help to get something done, that’s great. But when I need to do something a specific way, that’s a problem. If I want to do some university work on the dining room table, and someone else is tidying up – I can get ‘stuck’. Instead of my own energy level getting stuck, the other person’s energy level gets in my way. I have trouble doing a low-energy activity like sitting and working, if there is someone doing high-energy things around me.

Workarounds

I don’t have any easy solutions (sorry, if that’s what you were hoping for). The first step is to accept that inertia is a thing that happens and can’t be completely solved or taken away. But there are two main things that help stop me getting stuck, or get me un-stuck if it happens: prompts, and planning.

Prompts. This one can help with all the causes to varying extents, but most significantly problems with memory. I leave reminders for myself when there’s something I need or want to do. I write lists of things I like doing, to check on when I’m bored. I conscientiously keep a to-do list for even minor tasks. I am in the routine of automatically looking at the calendar when I go into the kitchen. All of these help me dodge around the fact that my brain isn’t very good at remembering things by itself.
Other people can be very valuable prompts, too. They can remind me of things, and can be very helpful when I’m stuck on a decision. If a decision is completely arbitrary, then often the easiest solution is to just get another person to make it for me. It’s not mentally taxing for them, and it makes whatever I’m doing much easier.

Planning. This is really important to help with making decisions, and also the mysterious ‘time anxiety’. When I need to make a decision, I work through it as systematically as possible. I break things down into small parts and logically figure out the pros and cons and the best solution. Doing that helps me avoid the fact that I’m not very good at: a) knowing what I want, or b) instinctive or common-sense decisions.
Planning helps with time anxiety by breaking things down into small enough parts for me to imagine. If I’m going to be spending five hours at a family gathering, I get as much information as I can about exactly what will be happening. That allows me to imagine things in smaller parts, like “half an hour in the lobby with drinks”, and “the speech will last ten minutes”.

Recognising

Inertia is a weird and subtle thing. It was yet another trait that I didn’t initially realise that I had. But realising and accepting that I do experience it has helped me deal with it. It’s never going to go away, and I probably wouldn’t want to – sometimes it’s handy to accidentally spend all day cleaning! But at least I can now understand what’s happening when I don’t seem to be doing what I want to be doing.

My special interests

What is a special interest?

A special interest is like a lens through which the whole world is better. It’s not just really liking something, or even constantly wishing I could be engaging with it when I’m not. When a special interest is active, I actually am engaging with it all the time, no matter what I’m doing. It’s constantly on my mind and everything I experience is processed through it and related to it. And that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m distracted all the time (although I might be). Sometimes it can actively help me concentrate, understand, or enjoy something.

It’s absolutely not voluntary, I don’t choose what they are or how or when they happen. I think finding a new special interest is a bit like getting to know a person. It’s different every time – sometimes the first moment you meet them you know you will get along. Other times they seem unremarkable at first but every new thing you learn about them makes them more interesting. And you can’t decide who you will become friends with and who you will dislike, it just happens.

For me, the key feature of a special interest is about learning. I have an insatiable desire for information about a subject, and the joy of absorbing and organising that information is unparalleled. The more information I find, the more fascinated I become – like a feedback loop. If something ‘gets me started’, then I can easily end up excitedly infodumping everything I know about an interest to someone. But most of the time, I don’t have any need to share my interests with others. In fact, it sometimes surprises people when they learn just how much time I spend thinking about something which I rarely talk about.

I didn’t quite ‘get’ the idea of a special interest when I was first learning about autism. The only information I could find was the stereotype of the autistic kid being obsessed with memorising train timetables. I’m writing about some of my special interests here, in the hope that others might learn something, or find something to relate to. Mine have varied widely throughout my life, and most of them don’t have any connection to each other – so I’ve chosen a selection!

Horses

This is probably the oldest interest. I collected books about horses and learnt everything I could about them. I wasn’t interested in the idea of riding them, or even having much to do with them in reality. I loved the amazing way their legs moved and the sound of their hooves on the road. I spent so much time drawing and re-drawing horses, perfecting individual features like the shape of their faces and the feathering on their hooves. Nowadays pretty much any animal I try to draw will be based on the horse ‘template’ because it’s so fixed in my head. I still get incredibly excited when I see horses walking down the road, and I’m still fascinated by the way their legs work and the way they look.

Stationery

I’d say this is the longest-running interest. For my entire life I’ve been fascinated by stationery. The most exciting part of school was buying and organising all the stationery I was going to use. I spent hours planning my filing systems and organisational arrangements, deciding exactly which folder to use for what and preparing refill pads and dividers. Even way back before I actually needed to use my own stationery for school, I would collect and catalogue it. I’d plan out elaborate systems and projects just so that I could buy and arrange stationery. This interest is just as active as it’s always been. I still get a thrill from planning a new system, and buying stationery is one of my main sources of ‘retail therapy’.

Chernobyl meltdown

This one is a lot more recent. It started very suddenly when I came across an article about Chernobyl. I got ‘sucked in’ and immediately started devouring everything I could find on the internet. My trek through the Wikipedia article led me on to related information about nuclear reactors, other meltdowns, the dangers of nuclear radiation. It was an intense few days and then dropped off fairly quickly. But I’m still fascinated by it and could easily find myself ‘sucked in’ again. If anyone were to bring it up in conversation it would probably be difficult for me not to infodump everything I’ve ever learnt about it.

Baking

Another recent one, this started a few years ago. I became obsessed with figuring out the fundamental ratios that defined recipes, and working out exactly how the chemical processes in baking worked. I spent a lot of time doing research online and from books, and a relatively small proportion of time doing actual ‘experiments’ with baking. This became dormant when I sort of ran out of basic foods to learn about. Once I’d figured out the definitions of ‘muffin’, ‘cake’, and ‘bread’, I wasn’t particularly interested in customising or perfecting them.

Gerbils

This is the most recent, starting just over a year ago – when I got my pet gerbils! I spend a lot of time arranging and rearranging their cage, planning and making toys, playing with them, training them, thinking about what to feed them, and just watching them. I find all animal behaviour fascinating, and gerbils especially. I like seeing them interact with each other, dig burrows, and chew cardboard – it’s fascinating to wonder what is going on in their minds. Not to mention they are absolutely adorable!

Autism!

This is probably the most obvious one, because… I’m writing it on a dedicated autism blog! It started around two years ago. At first, I just thought that I had an inexplicable fascination with it. Eventually I realised there was a reason for that: when I realised I was autistic. After that the interest just got stronger and stronger, and even moreso after my diagnosis. It might one day become dormant like many of the others, but I can’t quite imagine it.

 

Defining stimming

I’ve written about my own stims before. Even when I wrote that post, I was a bit doubtful about the idea of a defined concept of ‘stimming’. And since then, I’ve become even more unsure.

Everyone defines stimming differently, and gives it a different purpose. I think the reason it has such a vague non-definition is that it’s a word coined by neurotypical people to describe whenever an autistic person did something they thought was ‘weird’. From the outside, it’s impossible to know what someone’s thinking or why they are doing something. So that means that a whole lot of different things end up being lumped together under the word ‘stimming’, making it not very useful.

Here are some of the reasons I do things which would be classed as ‘stimming’:

  • I actively enjoy it – e.g. pressing something that makes a clicky sound.
  • I don’t know why I do it, it just happens without me noticing – e.g. I rock automatically when I’m sitting down in certain positions, and it requires active concentration to not do it.
  • A kind of in-between of the previous two: I feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing it – e.g. folding up my legs when I’m sitting in a chair.
  • To release nervous energy – e.g. I pick my fingers and click my jaw much more frantically if I’m anxious or excited because I have twitchy energy that has to go somewhere.
  • To block out or process bad sensations – e.g. when I’m somewhere loud I often tap my hand rhythmically to give me something to focus on.
  • To express myself – e.g. when I’m excited, freaked out, confused, (or… pretty much anything now I think about it), I sometimes do a single very quick hand-flap.
  • To handle bad emotions – e.g. when I’m very anxious or upset I sometimes punch my leg because it feels grounding.

And I’m pretty sure there are others too.

Looking back at that list, I think it can be divided into categories (nothing like a bit of categorisation to help me understand something!):

  • For the sake of the sensation. This includes things which are enjoyable, things which are automatic, and things which make me feel more comfortable.
    I’d say that this category is entirely the result of a weirdly wired autistic sensory system. Everyone has sensations they find enjoyable, some of mine are just a bit more unusual. Most people find themselves moving automatically every now and then, it just happens more often and in different ways for me. And a lot of people feel more comfortable in certain sensory situations, they just maybe have a wider range of what’s good for them.
  • To deal with bad stuff. This includes processing my own emotions, bad sensations, or anything else which causes me stress.
    I think this category is the intersection of an autistic sensory system and an autistic brain. The autistic brain part is what causes us to get more stressed or bothered by things which NTs can handle (like an unpleasant sensation or a negative emotion). The sensory system part is what allows us to be comforted or calmed by specific sensations or actions.
  • Body language. A lot of my body language is similar to NT people’s, but a lot of it isn’t.
    I would put this category firmly in the autistic brain section. Whatever it is that’s different in my brain, it give me different instinctive ways of expressing myself.

I’d be interested to know whether these categories resonate with other autistic people.

Asking for help

When I saw people talk about having trouble asking for help or accommodations, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I assumed I was good at asking for help. I can be assertive, I can clearly and explicitly state my needs, I can follow rules and instructions to do exactly what I need to in order to get help. It all sounds pretty simple.

But I’ve recently realised it’s actually not that simple. Asking for help has a lot more steps than just “Use words to tell a person what I want them to do”.

  • Recognise that I’m having difficulty with something.
  • Recognise that the difficulty can be solved or improved by a specific thing.
  • Recognise that another person could provide that specific thing.
  • Decide which specific person can provide the thing.
  • Decide how and when to ask the specific person.
  • Actually ask the person.

It turns out I might be good at the very last one, but every step before that is difficult. I’m going to use the fictional example of being in a hot classroom to illustrate the steps.

  • Recognise that I’m having difficulty with something

This is hard because I’m never sure how to define ‘difficulty’. How hard or unpleasant does something have to be before I can consider it difficult? How much worse does it have to be for me compared to other people for me to justify asking for help?

There’s also the fact that I sometimes literally don’t notice that something is difficult or unpleasant. It was only in fairly recent years that I realised loud and busy situations are inherently stressful to me. Before that I would be inexplicably miserable and exhausted, and with no idea why or what to do about it.

In my example, this stage would be recognising that I feel too hot and it’s making me uncomfortable.

  • Recognise that the difficulty can be solved or improved by a specific thing

This part is difficult because it requires going from an overall feeling of “something is wrong”, to a specific idea about what can be changed and how. It also needs me to imagine how a certain thing would change the situation in order to work out whether it’s a suitable solution.

In my example, this stage would be to recognise that I’d feel better if the room was cooler. It also means discounting impractical or impossible things which would solve the same problem: leaving the classroom would get me out of the heat but should only be a last resort; I could change into cooler clothes but don’t have any with me; etc.

  • Recognise that another person could provide that specific thing

This means figuring out which aspects of a situation can be controlled by people and which can’t. It can be difficult because when I’m stressed it’s hard to separate out different aspects of a situation to define them.

In my example, the weather: can’t be controlled. The air conditioning: can be controlled. So another person could change the temperature of the room by turning on the air conditioning.

  • Decide which specific person can provide the thing

This needs me to work out who is the best person to ask for help. Who is the mostly likely to understand my request, who has the power to do the thing that I need, who will want to help me, etc. This is hard because I have trouble working out how people will respond and who is the best person to ask.

In my example, I might have to decide whether to ask the teacher or the teaching assistant. The teacher probably has more authority, but the teaching assistant might be more friendly or approachable, for example.

  • Decide how and when to ask the specific person

I have to figure out how to ask for what I want in a way that expresses my difficulty and also gives clear information about what would help. I have to decide the right time, place, and situation to ask someone, and exactly how to approach them and initiate the interaction. I have trouble interacting with people at the best of times, and when I’m already stressed it’s much harder to know what to do.

In the example I’d had to decide when was a good time to ask the teacher to turn on the air conditioning. I should wait until they’re not addressing the class, but I should also try to get their attention early on in the lesson so that I’m not suffering for too long. I have to know how to get their attention and ask them without overstepping my boundaries as a student or seeming like I’m demanding rather than requesting.

  • Actually ask the person

This is the bit I can usually do, once I’ve worked out everything else!

In practise

Last weekend involved a short but very busy trip – meals out, socialising, and all without any real gaps in between. I was miserable and exhausted by the end, even though it was a happy occasion.

And I failed horribly at asking for help. I just tried to put up with being overloaded, because I didn’t think I had a choice, or didn’t realise anything could be changed, or that anyone else might be able to improve the situation. So, this is my formal challenge to myself to try and get better at it. Next time I recognise that I’m having trouble, I will work on the steps after that so that I can try to improve the situation.

 

 

 

 

“I don’t have a preference”

“I don’t know”, “I’m indifferent”, “I don’t mind”. I say these things a lot. Sometimes it irritates people, because they think I’m holding back my opinion for some reason. But when I say things like this (well, when I say anything!) I really mean it.

I have quite strong opinions about some things. Even some things which people think are weird or silly, or things people think are too big and complicated to have a simple opinion about. Put it down to ‘black-and-white thinking’.

Because of this, I’m also really good at knowing when I have an opinion and when I don’t. I don’t really have to pause and think about something carefully before working out whether I have an opinion. I might have to think for a while to work out what my opinion is – especially if I have to make a decision. But otherwise, I can answer very quickly when my answer is “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”.

It’s as if my ability to have an opinion or preference about something is digital – whereas for most people it’s analogue.

I don't have a preference 1

 

The red line is me, and the blue line is most other people. I go from “not caring at all”, to “caring completely” in one big jump. Whereas most people have a gradual progression from “not caring at all”, to “caring a little bit”, “caring a fair amount”, and so on.

This graph explains why there are some things I don’t care about at all, which most people do care about a reasonable amount. And also why there are some things that people think I care too much about. And it explains why it’s very easy for me to work out whether or not I have an opinion on something. Which side of the line does it fall on? Whereas other people have to decide what level of opinion is worth expressing or worth doing something about – halfway up? A quarter? Three quarters? It must be a nightmare!

Of course it’s sometimes annoying to have a digital experience of opinions and preferences, too. Sometimes people ask what I’d prefer and I say that I don’t mind and they just refuse to believe me. “You must have some preference!”, “Even just a little bit?”, “It’s OK for you to choose what you want!”.

Sometimes not having a preference makes decisions a lot harder – maybe this is why it takes me a long time to make decisions in the first place? It would be a lot easier to decide how to do things if I had some kind of emotional response to the options. That’s probably part of the reason that I rely on habit and routine, too. It’s a lot easier than contorting my digital thinking to try and formulate an opinion about something minor.

And then there’s all the things on the other side of the line – the “caring too much” side. Because I often don’t express an opinion, it sometimes surprises people when I do. And they think I’m exaggerating or joking or being silly for caring so much about something.

It seems like the ‘conclusion’ for this is going to be much the same as usual: communication and acceptance will improve anything! If people understand and believe me when I say that I do or don’t care, then… everything would be fine, I guess.

Learning in patterns

I wrote a post about ways of thinking a while ago, referencing Temple Grandin’s “thinking in pictures” quote. Since then, I’ve read her book, The Autistic Brain. I was really excited to find there was a section about thinking styles. She mentioned that lots of people had criticised her claim about all autistic people thinking in pictures. Then she went on to talk about a third thinking style. Words, pictures, and patterns. Patterns is very clearly the way I think – I’m really excited to find that I independently came to the same conclusion as a well-respected researcher! (albeit using slightly different words).

I’ve talked before about how I’m not very good at generalising. I can’t learn from examples, because I can’t turn the example into an overall concept in my head. I either need lots of examples (and I mean, an impractical amount of examples: too many to be reasonable), or I need the overall idea explained first. Examples are a way for me to check that I’m understanding right, but nothing more than that.

The combination of these two things: thinking in patterns, and having trouble generalising, means I learn in a bit of a strange way compared to some other people. Other people’s understanding will gradually increase in little steps as they gain more examples and information. Whereas my understanding will stay at absolutely nothing for a long time, and then suddenly jump up to ‘completely understanding everything’. There isn’t any in-between. If I there’s even one small element of a topic that I don’t understand, then it means I don’t understand any of it.

This has confused teachers (as well as other people), because I can seem to get irrationally upset when I don’t understand something very minor. Because for me, it’s not just “I don’t quite get how to do this specific type of equation, but I have the general idea of most of the rest of the topic”. It’s more like “I don’t get this specific type of equation, so I have no overall system which encapsulates everything, so I have no way of understanding any of it”. It’s not me being over-dramatic or exaggerating, it’s a genuine difference in the way I learn. I am unable to understand something bit by bit, it’s all or nothing.

This does have its benefits when I want to explain something to someone else. If I understand the whole topic, then I have it fixed in my head. There’s a complete system which contains every part of it connected together. So I can give an overview of the ‘shape’ of the whole system, and I can also focus on smaller parts if someone has trouble with a specific bit. And I can look at it from different perspectives to try and find new ways of putting it if someone doesn’t understand at first.

I have only known a few of people who explain things in the way that works for me. Those I can remember: my secondary school science teacher, my A-level maths teacher, and my dad. They are all people who either ‘get’ that I need patterns to understand, or who naturally think in patterns themselves. Any time I’ve tried to learn something that hasn’t been from these people, it has involved me working desperately hard to process all of the information at once and distil a pattern from it myself. It’s inefficient compared to the way most people learn things, but I’m pretty good at it by now.