Tag Archives: autism

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.

Scripting

When I’m with same-age friends, I often end up being the one who interacts with the ‘adults’ and strangers on behalf of the group. It’s usually me who talks to the person at the checkout, or the waiter, or whoever seems to be in charge and know what they’re doing.

It’s strange, because I’m not very good at interacting with people. I can’t really keep up with smalltalk or start a conversation with a friend. And yet I’m much better at those kinds of stranger interactions than my peers.

I think it’s to do with scripting. For a lot of autistic people, scripting is important. It lets us plan out what needs to be said, and prepare for all eventualities. We can use scripts to make sure we know the right thing to say in a certain situation. I’m good at purposeful conversation with strangers because I’m good at scripting. I plan what I need to say and make sure I get my point across with the most efficiency.

But I’m bad at non-purposeful social interactions, for the same reason. When there’s not a specific piece of information that needs to be exchanged, it’s impossible to plan out the interaction. What am I supposed to say? How do I say it? What do I expect them to say in response? It’s a nightmare.

Neurotypical people my age are generally good at that stuff. They seem to like improvising and playing with social dances and games. But because they’re good at that, they also tend to be bad at scripting – because they don’t generally need it. So when they do need to have a functional interaction, it’s difficult – because their usual social skills are less relevant. Tactical dishonesty and subtlety is not very useful when trying to get a specific message across.

I always used to be confused when my outgoing friends became suddenly shy and awkward when trying to interact with a stranger like a cashier or waiter. Over time I learned that their social skills were better suited to social relationships. While mine are better suited to functional interactions.

I think this is quite an interesting example of how autistic people don’t have worse social skills, but just different skills.

Neurodiversity, language, and the social model

Neuro-what?

neurodiversity the diversity of human brains and minds.

The neurodiversity movement is an approach that recognises neurodiversity as natural and positive, similar to natural diversity in gender, sexuality, race, and more. The approach also states that the idea of one ‘natural’ or ‘right’ form of neurology is socially constructed and inaccurate.

Note: people who support the neurodiversity approach (like me!) still use the word ‘neurotypical’. That’s because there is a societal idea of a normal or natural neurology. Yes, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be. But most people see it that way, so neurotypical is an important word to describe someone whose neurology is considered normal in current society.

Models of disability

A disability is something which limits or reduces a person’s abilities in a certain area. An impairment is something which is different about a person’s body or brain that means it cannot function so effectively. There are several different models used to define and describe the relationship between disability and impairment.

You are probably most familiar with the medical model of disability. The medical model states that a person is disabled by their impairment (for example, a paralysed leg). The way to fix that disability is to ‘fix’ the impairment. The disability is seen as inherently negative, and should be eradicated however possible.

The social model states that a person is disabled by society. The person might have an impairment (e.g., a paralysed leg). But that impairment only becomes a disability when society fails to accommodate them (e.g., not having a wheelchair-accessible entrance). An example of the social model in action is short- or long-sightedness. These impairments are not considered disabling, because glasses are so readily available and accepted.

The social model states that the way to improve a disability is to improve the way society treats a person’s impairment. Note that it doesn’t say people’s impairments must not be cured, simply that cure is not the only option and should not be forced or expected.

Neurodiversity and the social model

The neurodiversity movement is heavily based in the social model. Impairments in human brains (for example, epilepsy, or depression) are not inherently flaws. They become a disability when society does not accommodate them, or discriminates against people for them.

Neurodiversity also adds another complicating factor, though. The social model of disability makes the distinction between impairment and disability, but the neurodiversity approach also includes things which aren’t necessarily impairments at all.

Autism is an example of that. Autism is pervasive and incorporates a person’s whole existence. It consists of a wide variety of different traits, some of which are impairments and some of which aren’t. For example, I consider my predisposition to anxiety to be an impairment. It’s a fundamental problem in the way my brain works, that makes it harder for me to function effectively.

But I don’t consider my atypical communication to be an impairment. That’s just a difference, which is pathologised because autistic people are a minority. If autistic people were the majority, then neurotypicals would be diagnosed with “inability to use concrete language” and “excessive reliance on other people for happiness”.

The key feature of neurodiversity and of the social  model is that the impairment or difference is not the problem. People are diverse in all kinds of ways, and treating those differences as inherent flaws is just a result of society’s harmful views. The neurodiversity approach doesn’t say that impairments shouldn’t be cured, or that people aren’t allowed to want treatment for them. If I could take a magical cure that would put my anxiety on a level with neurotypical people, I would do it in an instant.

The point is that being cured or treated should be our choice , and that if we don’t want to or can’t be treated then society should accommodate us. I can’t cure my anxiety, and so I need other people to help me deal with it. I wouldn’t want to cure my communication differences, and so neurotypical people will just have to meet me halfway when we’re trying to understand each other.

Language

The neurodiversity approach has important implications when it comes to language. A lot of people (typically neurotypical people who are helping or caring for autistic people) support ‘person-first language’ to describe autism. This means referring to someone as a person before stating their disability, a “person with autism”.

You might have noticed that I do not use person-first language. What I use is called ‘identity-first language’. This means referring to autism as an aspect of someone’s identity, an “autistic person”.

People who support person-first language say that no-one should be defined by their disability, that they are a person before they are anything else. It sounds like a noble aim, and they generally have good intentions. The trouble is, the very idea that person-first language is necessary comes as a result of the medical model of disability. It’s bad to define a person by their disability if you think a disability is inherently a bad thing.

Identity-first language accepts that neurological differences and impairments are not inherently positive or negative, they are just aspects of a person’s identity. You wouldn’t dream of saying “a person with homosexuality”, would you? Because that implies that being gay is negative, as well as something that could even theoretically be separated from the person.

The neurodiversity approach says that being autistic is comporable to being gay. It’s an identity, and a natural and value-neutral aspect of human variation. And autistic people should be accepted and accommodated in the same way as gay people. If there are problems associated with being autistic (or being gay), like finding it difficult to communicate (or finding it difficult to get married) – those problems should be accommodated by society.

When you use person-first language, you are saying “Being autistic is entirely and inherently negative”, and “Being autistic makes you less of a person”, and “I have to be reminded that autistic people are human”. Please stop saying those things to us.

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.

Sensory sensitivities

Sometimes having sensory sensitivities makes me more able to deal with unpleasant things than most people. I’ve had to learn to handle bad sensations my whole life, so it means I’m better at ignoring things that other people find intolerable.

Most of my sensitivities are to do with either smell or eating. I get easily stressed out by loud and bright things, but there aren’t any specific visual or auditory sensations that bother me in the way some smells and foods do.

One of the worst smells for me is a specific “car smell”. A lot of people would probably say that cars don’t have a smell, or at least they don’t all smell the same. But, they do! It does vary from car to car, but they all have a very particular combination of a few things: a hint of petrol/diesel vapour, the musty and usually damp air, and the plasticky materials of the interior.

That smell feels like a physical threat to me. It makes me feel ill, it gives me a headache, and I get stressed and anxious. I’m more used to the smell of my family’s own car, which is one of the reasons I don’t like going in other people’s. When I was little I tried to explain that the smell of my aunt and uncle’s car was the reason I didn’t want to drive with them. But no-one really understood, because most people don’t notice or care about the “car smell”.

So, all my life I’ve had to learn to tolerate something which feels intolerable. Depending on the situation I just try to avoid the smell by breathing with my mouth, or I reduce it with open windows and air conditioning, or I just get used to it – some days it seems less strong than others.

It’s pretty clear that I have a reduced neurological tolerance for some sensations. My brain and senses get frazzled by certain things much more easily than most people. But as a result of that, I’ve developed an increased conscious tolerance. I’ve had to teach myself to push on even when my brain is telling me to freak out about a sensation.

Which means that when a sensation arises which is equally unpleasant for me and other people, I often handle it better. If there is a mysterious drain smell coming from the sink, everyone in the household freaks out more than I do. Because, what’s new? There’s a bad smell – it’s not a rare occurrence for me. So I assume that I’m being oversensitive as usual, and that I should put up with my discomfort because other people won’t care. Then when other people do care, it’s quite unexpected.  I find myself wanting to reassure them that they can handle the bad smell, because I feel so much more experienced with that than they are! Which is pretty strange when I’m the youngest person in the family.

 

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.

Anger

When I was little, I was told that I had an ‘anger problem’. It was quite an understandable thing for people to think. I frequently got into aggressive screaming meltdowns for seemingly minor reasons.

Of course, the causes didn’t seem minor to me at the time. Even when I look back now, I feel myself getting angry about the situation as it happened. Mostly,I got angry when things weren’t fair. That covered a lot of possibilities:

  • My ‘friends’ (and they are a story for another day) decided they didn’t want to play with me for no apparent reason.
  • I had to do chores that my brother didn’t have to do.
  • I didn’t get a say in a decision about something.
  • I was punished  for breaking a rule which served no purpose.
  • I was told to do something without explanation.

As you can probably imagine, those are all things that happen quite a lot in the life of a small child. So, I got angry a lot. In the worst periods of junior  school, teachers put me on a system where I got a reward if I managed to go a whole week without hitting anyone.

But being punished just made things worse – because I believed my behaviour was justified and so I was being treated unfairly. If my friends picked on me and I hit them in retaliation, I would get in trouble and they wouldn’t. So what was I supposed to do the next time it happened? I already knew that teachers wouldn’t punish them for picking on me, so I had to take justice into ‘my own hands’ (literally).

The problem with the way teachers treated me is that they didn’t look for an underlying cause. They didn’t even consider that there might be one. To them, I was just a mindless little kid who was acting out for no reason at all, and the only way to solve the problem was basic classical conditioning and punishment. But that wasn’t the case at all. In my small but extremely rational mind, my behaviour made absolute sense. Punishing me for it wasn’t going to change the fact that I had perfectly logical explanations for what I did – in fact, punishing me just contributed to my own reasoning.

I don’t remember if teachers ever really asked me why I’d hit someone. Probably even if they did, I wouldn’t have been able to express my logic in a way they could understand. But that’s not the point. Just because it’s difficult to understand a person’s communication, doesn’t meant you should assume they aren’t communicating anything. Can you see where I’m going with this, yet?

Yeah, it’s about autism. Autistic people – especially children – are assumed to be unable to communicate. Or worse, assumed that they don’t have anything to communicate in the first place.

I wasn’t a very ‘obvious’ autistic kid (otherwise I probably would have been diagnosed earlier!). But when I look back, it’s clear that a big chunk of the problem surrounding my behaviour and treatment at school was autism-related. My thought processes were different: that’s why I was bothered by things that seemed inexplicable or minor to other people. My emotions were different: that’s why I didn’t really have ‘degrees’ of anger which I could use to cool down. And most significantly, my communication was different: which is why teachers thought I was lying when I was telling the truth, and thought I wasn’t communicating anything even though I was trying my hardest.

When I look back, it would have been pretty simple for people to help me if they knew what to do. This isn’t necessarily advice for helping angry autistic kids (although if it helps, then all the better) – but it’s my thoughts about what would have helped this particular angry autistic kid.

  • Ask me why I’m angry. Give me time to answer. Encourage me to think about it carefully and write it down in my own time. Believe the answers I give, even if you don’t think they make sense. Take them seriously, even if you think they’re silly or minor.
  • Work with me to figure out why these things bother me. Can I find ways to understand them which will make me less angry? Can the situations be changed overall? Can they be prevented entirely?
  • Explain the situation clearly. Explain if and why I’m being punished, and exactly how I can avoid being punished in future similar situations. Explain other people’s reasoning behind the things which are making me angry, even if you think it’s obvious.
  • Tell me specifically what I should do when something bothers me. Tell me exactly why it’s a better option than my previous response of getting angry – for example, the problem will be solved more quickly and easily if I tell a teacher than if I try to deal with it myself. Then follow through on those promises, every time, no matter how seemingly small the things that’s bothering me.
  • Give me a break. Being angry really takes it out of you. Don’t push me to join in with activities again quickly. Accept that I’m going to be tired and upset for a long while.

The funny thing is, I don’t get angry much these days. But it’s not because I learnt amazing anger management techniques from my teachers (hint: that didn’t happen). It’s because unfair things don’t happen to me much anymore. Because most of the time, people explain things to me, and assume that I can understand them, and believe me when I tell them things, and trust my reasoning. Those abilities haven’t changed much in the last ten years for me. Kids are clever and thoughtful and self-aware long before most people think. And I reckon that acknowledging that would solve a whole lot of problems in one go.