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.