Autism and Decentralized Thinking
by Eden of @the.autisticats
Autistic people are exceptionally creative and original thinkers. Some might view this as a paradox, given that we can also be quite rigid and particular. Our routines and perseverations may appear rather uninspired to the average observer; one might assume that eating the same thing for lunch every day is anything but a hallmark of creativity. Upon further investigation, however, both our originality and our rigidity have a common basis in our decentralized, sensory-based thinking process.
Neurotypicals, when in a given environment, use the information they’ve gathered from previous experiences to inform their perception of the current situation. They start with concepts and apply them to circumstances, rather than starting with circumstances and linking them to concepts. As details filter in, neurotypicals fit them into a pre-formed hypothesis about the environment. They apply concepts learned from past experiences onto new experiences, which saves them the trouble of having to learn new concepts every time they experience something new. This process is efficient, but because neurotypicals only gather a few details before filling in the rest with their pre-formed mental schema, they often miss important details, or end up applying generalized concepts to situations where those concepts don’t actually make sense. This top-down, centralized way of thinking is quick and efficient, but it can stifle creativity by relying too heavily on past experience.
Autistic people, in contrast, cannot help but start with our immediate circumstances and build our way out from there, because of the way our sensory processing system works. Rather than coming into situations with preconceived notions of what’s supposed to happen and then acting on those notions, we never have a concrete idea of what’s “supposed to happen”, because every new situation is a new situation. We just have to feel it out. We absorb and sift through hundreds of details, parse out the patterns that link them, then draw our own conclusions from those patterns. That process takes longer, but is often more accurate and yields more novel conclusions. Autistic people see the environment for what it is, and while our pattern-finding technique is no less subject to bias than neurotypicals’ generalization technique, it does tend to take more aspects of concrete reality into account.
Our decentralized approach, linking together different senses and aspects of our circumstances until they create an understandable concept, is more labor intensive than the one-size-fits-all method neurotypicals employ. It becomes exhausting to constantly sift through new stimuli and new situations, never knowing quite what to expect. Autistic people cope with this by creating routines for ourselves. That way, even though much of our day will be spent figuring out new things and discovering new patterns, we will always have something to fall back on, a break, where we know what to expect and everything is the same for once. Routines are the one area of life where autistic people can apply generalized concepts to the environment and acheive specific, expected results. Without routines, we become lost in an ocean of tiny things we’ve never seen before, each one demanding our attention.
Autistic perception can be overwhelming because it incorporates a much larger data set than neurotypical perception. It is also inherently decentralized and non-hierarchical. No detail is more important than another. This non-hierarchical processing extends to much of the rest of our concept of the world. It is difficult for autistic people to understand social hierarchies and power differentials, because we tend to perceive every person in our environment as equally important, and equally deserving of our attention. This can give us an anti-authoritarian edge, and is perhaps why autistic people don’t instinctively defer to those older or more powerful than us. We are often labeled delinquent, disrespectful, and uncooperative by teachers and other authority figures. I believe this is because we don’t see why we should listen to them any more than we should listen to ourselves. We are people, after all, and no person is more important than another.
We also tend to be quite confident in our assessments of the environment. Once we reach a conclusion, by connecting the webs of dozens of data points, we are very assured of the validity of our conclusion. This is because we have taken multiple aspects of the environment into account, evaluated how they overlap, and deduced their meaning from there. So when our conclusions are challenged by neurotypicals who are glossing over details we know exist, we see no reason to go along with their view of the situation. Autistic people, therefore, have an “emperor has no clothes” quality about us. If I am sure about something, it doesn’t matter if others disagree or disapprove, I go ahead and say it.
I think these are positive qualities that should be celebrated, not punished. Every situation is unique, and instead of relying too heavily on our past experiences and preconceived notions, we approach every challenge with fresh eyes. Our solutions to problems and our ideas about them are therefore more novel and creative than those of neurotypicals. It takes us longer to reach those solutions because of how much data we have to sort through, but the solutions themselves are often valuable enough to make up for that lost time.
Right now more than ever, humanity needs autistic people’s help to solve the greatest crisis that has ever been faced by our species: the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg has already stepped up to the plate as a clarion voice calling for the rich and powerful to start listening to scientists that know more than they do. She doesn’t care how powerful they are, because they’re wrong and science is right. Autistic people around the world have a unique opportunity at this moment, to showcase our strengths when they are most needed. It is time for us to start ruthlessly calling out the inequalities and unjust hierarchies we see around us. We must relentlessly challenge the status quo, speak truth to power, and envision a new reality where humans live in harmony with each other and the earth. Utilizing our creativity and sensory-based processing, autistic people have a key role to play in building this new world. So let’s get to work.
Autism and Ego Boundaries
by Eden of @the.autisticats
I stare at people. By that I mean, intensely observe specific people in public places or at social gatherings. This quirk of mine has been pointed out by numerous people over the years, most of them exasperated family members suffering from secondhand embarrassment. My wide-eyed stare is never mean spirited or judgemental, but others contend that it can be quite unsettling. When I stare, I am almost never aware of it. Likewise, it seldom crosses my mind that, just as I can see other people, they can see me looking at them.
In navigating the world, I tend to observe humans the same way I observe objects, plants, and animals. That is not to say that I’m oblivious to their humanity; rather, that I view myself and other humans as integral parts of the environment. Because I feel no psychological separation from the environment, I observe people as though I am a wall, a chair, or a bookshelf; as though I cannot willfully affect them, and as though they will not notice me. For most of my waking hours, I do not have a clearly defined ego, or sense of self. This is because I am intimately connected with the environment through my senses. I find it difficult to distinguish between myself and what I feel, the things I sense and the things themselves. So, instead of feeling like a “person”, a step above the things I sense, alienated from everything but myself, I feel like part of the environment. Staring at people, then, doesn’t feel like staring at people. It feels like being an invisible, irrelevant, unobtrusive observer. Like a perceptive pincushion or a curious curtain.
Like many autistic people, I have weak ego boundaries. That’s another way to say that I “lose myself” very easily, whether that be in an environment or an activity. Losing myself psychologically and losing myself physically go hand in hand, so my proprioception is generally pretty dismal. How can I know where I am in space if I feel like I am space? Having weak ego boundaries that fluctuate based on environmental circumstances can be difficult to manage. More often, though, it’s just confusing and awkward for other people.
My mother and sister like to remind me of one fateful night a few years ago (I was around 15 at the time), when we were dining out at an Irish pub in Boston. We were seated upstairs, with my mom and sister on one side of the table, and myself opposite them. The staircase ran parallel to our table, on my left, and the upstairs landing was behind me. I was right next to the railing, which was presumably there to keep me from falling 12 feet onto the stairs below and breaking my neck. I could see a little bit of the ground floor in front of me and to my left, when I looked down. If I turned over my left shoulder, I could see people walking up and down the stairs.
While we waited for our food to arrive, I looked around the room. I absorbed the pub like a sponge, soaking up the deep red ceiling and carved wooden chairs, the colored glass lights and flickering candles. I melted into oblivion, became part of the room. Then, behind me, I heard a noise. A man and a woman got up from their seats, and made their way towards the landing of the staircase. I looked over my right shoulder to see that the woman had long black hair, and was wearing high heels. She wobbled as she walked, and the man, who I assumed to be her boyfriend, held her arm to assist her. I thought she might be tipsy or drunk. Their trip to the stairs took over a minute, because the woman was having such trouble walking. Instead of looking away after 10 or 15 seconds, I watched the whole procession, craning my neck to look over my shoulder. My mom hissed, “Stop staring!” but I was much too curious to stop, and besides, there was no way they’d notice me.
They arrived at the landing, and began making their way down the stairs. I pressed my forehead between the bars of the balcony, to look down at them as they went. As I observed, my face was completely blank and expressionless, and my eyes were open quite wide. I wanted to know if the woman would fall, and if the man seemed trustworthy enough to be helping her. The man helped the woman down about 5 to 7 steps, before pausing. Then, he turned his head, and looked up at me. This was quite shocking, as it hadn’t occurred to me that it was even possible for him to notice or care about my existence. I continued staring at him, frozen, in curiosity and amazement. Then, he smiled.
His smile seemed confused and forced, a sort of “Hi, I notice that you’re staring at me, this feels really awkward and I’m not sure what to do about it, so I’m going to smile and hope it diffuses the tension of the situation.” Instead of smiling back, as a gesture to say, “Oh right I’m sorry I’m gawking at you, how silly of me, please carry on and have a good day,” I continued to stare blankly at him.
At this point, my sister whispered, “Oh my god, smile back!!” Unfortunately, I couldn’t. I was much too surprised and taken aback, first by being noticed, and second by being smiled at. So I sat there immobile, forehead pressed between the bars of the wooden banister, my eyes boring holes into his soul. The man’s face fell.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person so bewildered. His smile vanished and a small confused frown appeared instead, as he looked away from me and back down the stairs. I turned towards my mom and sister, and discovered the looks of horrified embarrassment etched into their faces.
“Why did you do that?” my sister asked, plainly mortified.
“I don’t know,” was my honest response, “I didn’t think he’d see me.”
One might think an experience such as that would begin to curb my staring habit. Interestingly, my brain seems incapable of remembering the consequences of ego dissolution. Or perhaps I do remember what happens when I lose myself, but I can’t avoid it, because of the nature of my sensory processing system. And once my ego is dissolved into my surroundings, I’m incapable of conceptualizing myself as anything other than an observant object.