Category Archives: Cognitive Function

Communication

Problems with communication are universal among autistic people, but they can be expressed in very different ways. One thing that seems to be quite common is a temporary inability to speak – sometimes called selective mutism or being nonverbal. I don’t think this has ever happened to me in the simplest sense. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I now realise it sometimes does happen, but gets expressed in more subtle ways.

Specific topics

Sometimes I have trouble putting a certain thought into words. Probably as a result of my not-words-or-pictures thinking style. This is most likely to happen when I’m trying to talk about an emotion or something related, and when I’m trying to think as I go along (rather than explain something I’ve been thinking about before).

My response to this depends on a lot of different factors. I might be able to push through it, find a way to express myself with disjointed words and diagrams. I might just give up trying, and tell the other person that I can’t work out how to say it. Often I can ruminate on something for a while and eventually be able to write down the words, because there’s much less pressure than speaking.

Overload

This is a major aspect of shutdown – my way of recovering from an overloading experience. In this case, it isn’t finding the words themselves, it’s all the other aspects of conversation. The social stuff like body language and tone and thinking about the other person and figuring out the meaning of ambiguous questions… When I’m already low on energy it becomes very difficult and very unappealing for me to waste the effort on non-essential interactions.

Most of the time when I feel like this, I’ll just isolate myself while I’m shutting down so that I can recover. But if I’m unable to do that and people try to interact with me anyway, then I will be very withdrawn. I’ll probably be slow to react, and respond to questions very briefly. I’ll definitely make no effort to continue the conversation, and end up seeming irritable if people don’t leave me alone.

“NT-passing-mode”

This is probably the least noticeable form of being ‘nonverbal’, but also probably the most significant to me. When I’m in a social situation, a lot of my behaviour becomes automatic. I suppress natural behaviour and change the way I act without even consciously realising it. The extent of this varies depending on the situation. If I’m with just my close family, then I act pretty naturally and consciously. If I’m in a big party full of people I don’t know, I’m barely controlling my actions.

This also includes speech. I say things quickly and automatically, and without actually meaning anything. I often have strange experiences where I hear myself answering a question and inside I’m thinking “that thing I just said is the exact opposite of my real opinion”. I also find myself trying to backtrack when someone is bothered by what I just said, but it’s very hard to explain! Most people don’t really understand that my mouth can just say words and they sound like they mean something but it has nothing to do with what my brain is really thinking about.

Internal – External

When I think about those last two types, I’m realising they are pretty much the same response internally. The only difference is what external context I’m in. They are both caused by being socially overloaded and make it hard for me to spend energy on processing social speech. If I can get myself into a fairly safe situation, I can voluntarily shutdown and stop trying to do the speech thing.

But if I’m in a social situation when I’m already low on energy, then I get stuck in “NT-passing-mode”. I still don’t have the energy to properly work out what to say or how to say it. But some part of my brain has this instinctive skill (probably learnt to try and stop myself seeming ‘rude’ in social situations) of making it look like I’m socialising normally. It only becomes obvious if you look very closely – you would realise I’m saying things I don’t mean or that don’t quite make sense. It’s like a robot that can put together words and phrases so that they sound plausible, as long as you don’t try to think too carefully about what they actually mean.

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Decisions

People often tell me I’m a very decisive person. My parents say that when I was a kid, I would carefully choose the toy I wanted to buy, and then that was it – decision made. No further questioning or deliberating, and I would never change my mind.

I’m still much the same now. I sometimes take a long time to make a decision – especially if it’s something very important, but also for seemingly small and insignificant things. I take great care to weigh out pros and cons and work out the logical reasoning to make the right choice. But once I’ve made the decision, it’s final. The other possibilities get deleted from my thoughts and are no longer up for consideration. I never wonder whether I should have made a different choice, or what might have changed if I’d decided differently.

I think this could be something to do with imagination. I have trouble making decisions because I can’t imagine the outcomes very well. I can’t just ‘intuitively’ know what I want or what is best, I have to use logic to work things out. But that means that once the decision is made, I still can’t really imagine the alternative outcomes. Obviously I can think “If I’d chosen to cook pasta then I would be eating that instead of noodles right now”, or “If I had applied to Bath University then I would be searching for accommodation in a different city”.

But beyond that, I can’t really imagine myself in the alternative situation. That means there’s no real way for me to imagine how the present or future would be different if I made a different choice in the past. There’s nothing to regret, so I can’t really worry about it.

Unfortunately this doesn’t translate into being free from anxiety. The fact it’s hard for me to imagine myself in future situations means I worry about them more. I try to plan and prepare for all eventualities, but I can’t actually put myself in the future in my ‘mind’s eye’, so I never feel like my preparation is sufficient.

Ways of thinking

There’s often a lot of talk about the way autistic people think. Anyone who’s heard of Temple Grandin has probably heard that she describes ‘thinking in pictures’ – her thoughts flick through her mind like photographs. Other autistic people say they think in words – with no visual element at all.

I’ve thought about this a lot, because I wasn’t sure whether I was a words or pictures thinker. I eventually decided that the reason I had trouble figuring it out was because I’m not a words or pictures thinker. I know that I don’t think in pictures, because I don’t visualise photo-real images of things. Not every thought has a visual element attached. I know I don’t think in words, because I have to translate my thoughts in order to communicate using words  – which is sometimes difficult to do.

I guess the best way to describe my thoughts would just be… concepts? My thoughts take the form of maths, logic, spatial relationships, sets, diagrams, graphs, and other non-verbal things. They aren’t visual in the sense of being perfectly accurate or precise images. The visual element (when it’s there) is just a way of representing the relationships between things.

This is why my thoughts are sometimes easy and sometimes difficult to translate. Certain types of concept are a lot easier to express in words. For example, we can easily say something like “there is more of this than of that”. Others are almost impossible to translate – at least not with any language I know (perhaps if I was fluent in advanced mathematical logic I would be able to express myself better!).

When I was first talking to my dad about autism and the inaccuracy of the linear spectrum, I ended up drawing endless graphs and diagrams to try and make my point. It took weeks before I was able to find the words to really explain myself, and even now I’m not sure I’ve quite said what I wanted to.

I often resort to using diagrams to express myself. Sometimes it works well enough to communicate my point to someone. Other times, just making the diagram concrete allows me to ‘read’ it and form a verbal description. And sometimes the thoughts are so abstract that I can’t find a way to visually represent them – it would require a four-dimensional graph or a moving animation or something else I can’t do with a pen and paper.

Sense of direction

Or rather, lack of it. Contrary to what you might expect, this doesn’t mean I get lost a lot. I have absolutely no innate ability to tell where I am or what direction I need to go to get somewhere.  So I’ve learnt to compensate extremely well by doing two things:

1. I memorise routes to important places.
2. I read maps well.

I have a mental catalogue of routes: home-college, home-town, town-therapist, etc. If I need to go between two places which don’t already have their own route (e.g. from home to therapist), I ‘hop’ between existing routes (first home-town, then town-therapist). I do that even if it means I end up going out of my way and a much more inefficient or illogical route overall. If I tried to go the shortest way and ignore my memorised routes, I would definitely get lost. I’d end up wandering aimlessly until I found myself back on a familiar route, and then I’d track back along them until I got where I wanted to be. I know because I’ve unwisely tried it on a handful of occasions.

My mental route catalogue could be compared to bus routes. Buses only go between defined locations. If you want to get to somewhere further away, you have to hop between buses on those defined routes, even if it means you end up going a roundabout way to get to your destination.

My other method of compensation is map-reading. I look at maps before I go anywhere new – even if that new place is a five-minute walk from home. I really like maps, and I’m good at reading them. I’d much rather be the person looking at the map than the person driving the car (even if I could drive!). Because when I’m reading the map, all I have to do is decode the map itself, which is designed with very strict and clear rules. The person driving the car does the more difficult job of converting the map code (“There’s a church on the left and then you take the next right turn”) into the real-world navigation.

If I’m travelling on my own and have to do both jobs, then I usually use ‘Google Street View’ to virtually follow the route I’ll be taking in advance. That allows me to remember the exact images of important parts of the route – like knowing what that particular church looks like so that I can easily identify it when I get there.

When I read Musings of an Aspie’s post about learning her way around a new place, I was amazed by how much I related to it. I’d never considered myself a particularly detail-oriented thinker before reading it. But now it’s pretty obvious that my problem with navigation comes from seeing details first and having trouble connecting them into an overall concept. It’s the same kind of process that makes me bad at generalising.

This is really just another area that justifies my use of planning and preparation. Some people might think that it’s unnecessary or overkill to carefully study a map before a five-minute walk from my house. But it’s just my way of learning to compensate for something most people can do instinctively. And, hey, it means I’m really good at map-reading.

Generalising

For a person that’s supposed to be really smart, I sometimes seem to miss the exceedingly obvious.

I am usually surprised by the twist at the end of a children’s film. I never realised that an episode with two separate storylines is supposed to draw attention to the parallels between them. When I learn a new technique in a video game, I often fail to identify future situations which require the same technique – even though I probably learnt it very quickly in the first place.

I guess I have problems with generalising. This often looks like problems with learning in the first place, but it’s very different. I’m a fast learner, and it usually only takes me one ‘try’ to get something into my memory. My difficulty comes in recognising future situations where that new knowledge is relevant or useful.

My brother and cousin found it hilarious when I played the game Antichamber. Every time the game demonstrated a new technique, I would learn it quickly. And then completely fail to use it in the challenge that came immediately afterwards. They’d ask “Don’t you remember that thing you just learnt to do using eight blocks?!”, and I’d answer “Yes, I remember! But there are ten blocks here, so obviously I don’t need to use it now.”

During the climax of every children’s film I ever watch, I am convinced that the main character is about to fail. If you stopped at that point and asked me suggest how the story would be resolved, it would take a lot of concentrated effort for me to make a guess. Never mind that every other children’s film in existence has the protagonist succeed with a ‘happy ever after’.

In fact, it’s difficult for me to even identify the ‘climax’ or ‘build-up’ or ‘resolution’ of a story of any kind. I learnt about the basic story arc in primary school when we were taught how to write our own stories. But it’s very hard for me to actually apply that information to other experiences. Even now, I can do it – but it doesn’t come instinctively. Unless I am actively prompted or reminded to try and consider a story in that way, I am unlikely to do it.

Maths is my absolute favourite – and strongest – subject. But I’d often have trouble with the mixed tests that came at the end of a chapter. Suddenly I was no longer doing exactly the same process with different sets of numbers. Now I was expected to look at a question and somehow figure out which processes needed to be done. I have frequently had to ask a teacher for help on a question only to be told something along the lines of “Just use Pythagoras’ theorem… you learnt about that years ago.” And of course it’s obvious when they point it out. But if the question was in a chapter that made no mention of Pythagoras, then my brain simply would not make the link to tell me what information was relevant.

This is also why I often forget things which should be easy to remember.  “Don’t forget to empty the dishwasher tomorrow”, and I nod and agree as mum tells me it when I’m going to bed. Then the next day, the knowledge is just gone. If someone asked me “What did your mum ask you do last night when you were going to bed?”, I would remember immediately. But of course no-one does ask me that, so the information never gets recalled. I can walk past the dishwasher overflowing with plates and still not process the fact that I have an important piece of information about that.

And this is why lists, notes, and reminders are what keep me on track. Without external help to recall and use the right information in the right situations, I would never get anything done.