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Five Things About Life on the Spectrum That Make a Big Difference

Updated on October 17, 2014

My friends and family often ask me what it’s like to be on the Autism Spectrum (AS). From my perspective, this has always struck me as a strange question, because autism is the fabric of my experience. No one has ever asked the people in my life who are Neuro-Typical (NT) to explain what their cognitive experience is like. For example, we don’t ask what someone understands by the color blue, even though there are many different ways of seeing that color. That’s why we are all different, even when it comes to something as basic as color: Within certain limits, we may have a different sense of fashion; we might have diverse color preferences; and it’s quite possible that we see distinctive color shades that others do not notice.

The Color Blue

Despite this diversity, what allows us to talk about something like the color blue is a shared perceptual framework. We may see details of a color differently, but we all recognize that there is a color there, and this allows us to attach shared social meanings to it. Fashions come and go, and where we once liked brown M&Ms, now we have blue. These color choices are communal rather than individual, part of cognitive framework that makes up our social world.

Life on the spectrum is not like having an idiosyncratic opinion about the color blue; it’s more like having a color palette that includes ultraviolet, but is missing bright orange and dark green. My perceptions are different because my cognitive frame of reference is different. Many things matter to me inordinately (from an NT point of view) and, conversely, there are many things that I don’t care about that are very important for normative culture. This is not a choice that I make; rather, it’s how I’m wired. If I don’t see bright orange, I can’t decide one day to see that color. The best I can do is to note the grey patches in my color field and treat those areas like the bright orange color people are talking about. This is called passing, and much of my life is involved in identifying those grey patches and filling in with what I think is the most appropriate behavior.

Social Ritual: Just a Fashion?

I’m using color as a metaphor here, because it’s much easier to talk about than the emotionally fraught world of social ritual. There are very few things that aren’t profoundly touched by our communal rituals, although I know it’s hard to recognize this when it’s makes up normal life for most people. If we talk about clothing fashion instead of color, it may be easier to spot the element of social ritual. Most people know that fashion is arbitrary: hair lengths come and go; preferences for the fit of clothing changes with each year; and the color schemes alternate with each season. There is no reason for these changes, and yet culturally these shifts are immensely influential. Our multi-billion dollar clothing industry is driven by the development of fashion, for example.

From my perspective, fashion is unnecessary. The function of clothing (especially it’s comfort) is the only real marker of value for me. This is not because I am woefully lacking fashion consciousness; I note the changes as they come and go, and over the years I have learned to wear appropriate clothing when the occasion demands it. The real reason that I think fashion is unnecessary is that I lack the emotional basis that drives the need to fit in and participate in this social ritual. Time and again, I’ve been forced to throw out perfectly good ratty old tee-shirts just because they have a few holes, and I can’t imagine needing more than three pairs of shoes (a pair for teaching, a pair for exercising, and a pair for going out).

Five Things that Change My Life, Every Day

From the outside, my way of life might seem merely eccentric, but the difference between idiosyncrasy and cognitive difference is extremely important. Because I am missing the shared perceptual framework that makes up normative culture, it can be all too easy to miss social cues or disobey shared rituals with disastrous consequences. I have lost dear friends and missed opportunities for employment and promotion; I have spent a great deal of time and effort learning how to mask my differences because the punishments can be unforgivingly harsh.

As a result, I try to be very careful with my friends and family when they ask me what life is like on the spectrum. I want to give them the core elements that make my experience truly different from theirs in the hopes that they can use this knowledge to communicate better with me and others with AS. I’ve found that my cognitive framework is powerfully shaped by five key differences that most people have a hard time relating to:

1. Logic Is Not a Subset of Emotion

In my 36 years of life in a Neuro-Typical world, the most important thing I have learned is that emotion is an amazingly important, although ultimately unknowable dimension of most people’s experience. I don’t feel my way through experiences; instead, I reason about problems. This is very useful when I want to think clearly about something, but it is less helpful when I have to live with contradictions.

Beginning with Freud, students of psychology have noticed the persistence of what is called “ambivalence” in the typical human psyche, the capacity to hold two opposing beliefs, thoughts or feelings at the same time. We all know that we should eat healthily and exercise, but sometimes it is more fun to watch the whole Indiana Jones series and eat fudgsicles all day long. For most people, this wreaks havoc on their professional lives as they procrastinate on deadlines and get involved in the seedier side office politics. But as psychologists like to remind us, without the capacity to live with contradictions, most of us would have a hard time functioning.

I can’t live with contradiction. Everything is a problem to be solved, and the only way I know how to solve problems is to think them through and come up with a solution. This means I don’t procrastinate. I find it easy to stick to my tasks, and I do what interests me with all my attention until I am done. Likewise, I have little problem staying fit with a few simple, thoughtfully applied habits of diet and exercise. There is not a question of wishing I were doing something else, because I would be doing that instead.

On the other hand, it is hard to coax me into doing things I don’t want to do, which is an important part of successful adult life. In parallel fashion, I can’t relate to many of the contradictions that make up normative social life. I have almost never stayed after hours to complain with co-workers about how much work I have to do. I frequently point out the inconsistencies of my friends and family, a tendency that has rarely been appreciated. I have a hard time with the small lies that hold society together, because most of the time they don’t make any logical sense to me.

While I am very good at recognizing patterns, as soon as something loses the appearance of intelligible regularity, I am lost. And then again, whenever something doesn’t make sense to me, I will return to it compulsively until I have organized it into some kind of recognizable order. This need for order and symmetry gives me a high IQ, but pretty low scores on social competency. As a result, I feel most comfortable in settings where I can use my intellectual side, rather than trying to navigate the hazy incongruities of the emotional world.

What has always surprised me is that most people seem to prefer this emotional world, which I picture as a cloud of murky half-images floating just behind a person’s head. In our NT world, rational thought is subordinated to this dominantly ambivalent chaosmos. I get into trouble, socially, when others expect me to function like this too. When my friends and family reason with me, presenting arguments for their ideas and opinions, I can relate to them, and our relationship moves forward, but I cannot relate to someone on an empathetic, emotional basis.

Sometimes I wish I had an introductory card I could hand to people when I first meet them that would say something like this:


2. A Feeling Is Not a Good Thing

I like to think my way through problems because feelings are usually dangerously disorienting streaks of lightning through my mind that leave me dazed. When I was younger, I learned to find alternatives to feelings, which were almost exclusively negative in my experience. All things being equal, my standard condition is quiet contentment. Feelings represent the disruption of that otherwise constant state. Contentment is the position from which I can reason, and feelings usual signal the oncoming loss of my ability to think clearly. If reasons represent control over my environment and a sense of balanced tranquility, a feeling is what causes me to lose that equanimity.

As a child and a young adult, my breakdowns, meltdowns, tantrums and frenzies were the product of these feelings. Whereas most people can mediate their feelings in a complex world of emotions, my feelings come one at a time, and they are deafeningly overwhelming. With the development of my mental abilities, I found an alternative to these periodic collapses, and I instinctually learned to nurture this intellectual side of myself in order to escape the terrible world of feeling.

Because rationality took on such a predominantly important role in my early adult life, I learned to consistently seek out environments that were most conducive to this kind of behavior. I learned to love the college classroom, where intellectual skill is prized. More generally, I’ve found that quieter milieus are more comfortable for me. I like spaces where there aren’t too many distractions, where people can talk and where I can unwind more complex trains of thought. Contrariwise, parties and social gatherings are usually confusing, introducing many of those dangerous feelings that make it hard to think.

We live in a noisy world that sometimes brings me to the point of sensory overload. Like feelings, sensations occasionally create so much internal commotion that I can’t think. Cars and music are exaggeratedly loud and smelly; colors and lights are often dazzling. Most of the time, I would prefer a low-key, tranquil and generally slower moving world. In my perfect universe, perfume would be worn discretely, and no one would ever smoke. Fabrics would all be soft, in muted colors, and loose fitting. When these senses are calmed, my feelings are usually calm as well, affording me the space I need to understand what’s going on around me.

3. Time Is A Metric Substance

The philosopher Bergson was one of the greatest modern theorists of time. He famously proposed that time was a flow or durée that could only artificially be broken up into incremental units. Sometimes I wonder if he would have modified his theories if he had been able to talk with someone on the spectrum. To me, time is a substance that can be divided, subdivided and arranged as concretely as pack of cards. Time management is a constant part of life, as natural as self-consciously breathing. When I’ve allotted a certain amount of time for an activity, the time and the activity become one and the same thing. If you put a cube of sugar into a glass of water, the amount of time it takes for the sugar to dissolve is precise. Similarly, a flower cannot grow any faster or more slowly than it grows in its particular context. This is what I mean when I say my timing is precise and incremental. An important part of my rational understanding of my world involves comprehending these kinds of relations and bringing them into a daily process of organizing and coordinating my projects.

One result of this relationship to time is that I think in terms of sequences. Like my logical, problem-solving mentality, my sense of time has a strong tendency toward ordered sequences. This is true both for the most important tasks and the most mundane. When I make my morning cocoa, I go through an ordered sequence in which I get out my equipment (my coffee moka and a specialized enamelware cup), then the ingredients that take the longest to make (the milk and coffee, both conveniently located in the fridge), and finally the cocoa, sugar and peppermint extract. When I am preparing the ingredients, the milk is poured first because it takes the longest, but I found that with my special nonstick cup I can put it on the same stove eye as the coffee to save electricity. Before I did any of this, I will have turned the heat all the way up on this stove eye in preparation for the moka. With the milk heating, I pack the coffee (which I only add for taste, since I don’t actually like the effects of caffeine) and place the moka next to the milk. While those heat, I mix precise amounts of cocoa and sugar (two tablespoons to two tea spoons) into a large mug. By the time I’ve crushed the cocoa crumbs into the sugar, the coffee is ready, and I pour that because it’s a better solvent for this mixture than the milk. After that, the milk is ready, and I pour that in over the spoon in order to preserve all the cocoa mixture. Lastly, I add two drops of the peppermint extract. At first, the whole operation took me about 15 minutes, but with the kind of sequential planning that comes naturally to me, it now takes me 6 and a half minutes. I count on this timing, and plan different parts of my morning around this and other activities that I like to complete each day.

Over the years, I’ve learned to become more flexible about time because I see that most other people have little control over it. When I was younger, my mother was always late because she was very busy, working full time while building a house and raising me. I would fly into fits when she invariably picked me up late from school. To my mind, I had to rearrange my entire day when she was late, even though my activities mostly consisted of trivial things like playing video games or endlessly fantasizing one of the complicated games I made up in my head within the safety of my own room.

It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand that time was more fluid to my friends and family. I still can’t grasp why this relationship to time is preferable to a day planned fully to the minute, but I have noticed that time is a stressful concept to people. I don’t feel this stress at all, but I do feel a great deal of anxiety when my carefully organized projects gets disrupted by an unforeseen event. This evokes the feeling that I’m losing control over my environment, which in turn makes me much more vulnerable to what I call a “schiz” (a meltdown). Correspondingly, it takes a great deal of effort to reassemble my plans, because this involves going through every element of the day’s projects and making adjustments.

For me, everything is a project, and every project has a natural timeframe. This doesn’t mean that everything has to fit perfectly; it just means that I build expectations on how long things tend to take. Some projects, like buying groceries, can be very precise, but I have learned that adding my four-year old to a project like shopping extends that time out. In my adult life, this is not a problem, because my daughter has her own timing and development that can be factored in pretty precisely. Similarly, some projects have a more extensive, accordion-like timing, such as writing this blog. I teach writing at the college level, so I have a number of techniques that help when I’m feeling stuck, but writing is a notoriously fluid process. For these kinds of projects, I allot a periodic amount of time over a weekly or monthly routine.

The discovery of routine has been immensely important in my life, but it is really only part of a larger, more complex relationship to time. Because I think in terms of temporal increments, I need routine to balance out all the variables that come up during my day. Disruptions to my routine are not usually traumatic. The thing that most NTs have a hard time understanding, though, is that everything project, and everything is planned, even my movie time or my morning cocoa. I have never been able to simply “hang out,” an open-ended style of socializing that I don’t relate to at all. Conversely, I attach expectations to the timing for each of my projects, and I feel deeply satisfied when I can realize that timing in a successive series of accomplishments.

4. Language Is For Communication

In Graeme Simsion’s novel about a high-functioning AS university professor, The Rosie Project, the protagonist, Don Tillman, hilariously narrates his efforts to stuff his social conversation with as much information as possible so that he can avoid the dreaded rituals of chatting. Obviously, this doesn’t work very well in an NT world, where conveying facts about animal mating rituals or the terrestrial aphelion takes a back seat to brief exchanges about mutual acquaintances or problems at work. I related to Don in these sections of The Rosie Project. I feel uncomfortable in the unstructured give-and-take of the cocktail party, while at the same time the straightforward observation of my interlocutor’s qualities often leads me into awkward situations. One of the classic symptoms of AS is the see-it-say-it phenomenon: if something is noteworthily in front of me, I’m going to verbalize my experience. This tendency sometimes functions like a mirror in social settings, for better or for worse. On the other hand, I can’t grasp which of the glaringly obvious aspects of my acquaintances I am supposed to pretend to ignore, and which I should specifically comment on.

I love communicating information and facts. I large part of my drive to get a PhD was the opportunity it has afforded to talk about history and philosophy all day long. This overriding emphasis on knowledge ignores an entirely different (and much more popular) use of language in our Neuro-Typical culture. In linguistics, this type of communication is called “phatic” expression, or the emotional dimension of our communicative process. The phatic is anything that isn’t expressed for the purposes of information or knowledge. Many of the phatic aspects of conversation come in facial expressions or non-verbal auditory cues like grunting or sighing. And, for all my highly developed capacity for informational self-expression, phatic speech mystifies me endlessly.

Over the years, I have learned some techniques for navigating this phatic dimension of communication. I know, for example, that when a woman gets a haircut, you should mention it briefly and strictly in positive terms, but that it is not necessary to comment on a man’s haircut. There is no logic to the phatic; rather, it is based on what I call ritual, the unconsidered but extremely important collective habits that keep us socially interconnected. Autism spectrum and the phatic are pretty opposed modes of cognition:

I am literal; the phatic is figurative and indirect.

I don’t read facial expressions very well; the phatic relies on a number of subtle, unspoken cues.

For me, information is an almost concrete substance that can be handled and tested; the phatic is a slippery subtext that usually can’t be fully verbalized.

I am happiest, and feel most secure when I can share ideas, and my conversation partner speaks to that topic or brings up something related. There is an unspoken rule in social or “polite” conversation that a topic has to be dropped after a certain amount of time. This rule doesn’t allow for learning, and I find that it can be used to cut off otherwise good conversations just when they are getting most interesting (and most challenging).

The best conversations for me are the ones in which there is disagreement coupled with mutual respect. I don’t like to agree, because I know there are always more points of divergence on a topic than there are correspondences. I want to understand why people think the way they do, and correspondingly, I believe that every thought and action should have a reason. In my world, this means anything can be discussed, and the best discussions uncover unconsidered assumptions that have the potential to change how we behave in this world.

This craving for informational communication is at the center of my ethical drive. Conversation is an opportunity for understanding our own contradictions, and reworking them into more coherent and consistent patterns. This is what it means to reason about my life. Sharing information and exploring ideas is one of the best ways to realize this ethical drive, while phatic conversation confusingly masks inconsistencies that can actually hurt people and perpetuate self-destructive behaviors. At least, this is my rationale for wanting to talk about ideas; at the end of the day, however, I simply don’t have the mental equipment for understanding the phatic, emotional world that most of us inhabit and love so dearly.

5. The World Is A Puzzle

Summarizing the elements that make up my AS cognitive framework, I would say this: I think rather than feel; this is why I like my days to be organized and tranquil, giving me space to think and share information. I have overdeveloped these skills in order to make up for my difficulties in understanding the more fluid and unstructured emotional world that governs most people’s sense of time, communication and ethics.

One outcome of this cognitive framework is that I see the world as a logical puzzle that continuously demands solutions. Like most people, I focus on problems that maximize my strengths and minimize my limitations. A key difference is that I see almost everything as a puzzle, and I always assume there are logical, consistent patterns that can be uncovered to find a solution. From an NT perspective, I focus on the “problems” rather than what’s already functional. It took me a long time to understand that my students like to hear praise about what they are doing correctly before they are ready to listen to what they need to work on. I’ve been told many times that I’m not a good “cheerleader,” even though I have spent considerable effort learning to highlight the non-problem areas of a puzzle or project.

My emphasis on problems tends to make acquaintances think that I’m pessimistic, but this is far from the case. My dominant mood is quiet contentment grounded in the optimistic sense that all problems afford a rational solution that can improve life for the better. This doesn’t stop me from noting both personal and collective issues that require solutions. I think it’s irrational to ignore global warming, overpopulation, or our industrial food system, but I’m not on a righteous crusade to save humanity. These are problems to be solved, and yet I see that the emotional world that drives our NT culture sustains the desires to reproduce and consume in illogically destructive and unnecessary ways. I haven’t ever had someone present reasonable arguments against solving problems like theses. Rather than chatting at a cocktail party, I’d like to hear someone’s ideas about something like our global food system.

I like this problem-solving approach, which has done so much for me in my own life, but if I could change one thing about my approach, it would be the overly sincere attitude. I enjoy laughing, and I love puns and whit, but when I switch into puzzle mode, these aspects of communication take a back seat to my much more profound commitment to solving a problem. I have found that laughter often distracts from the matter at hand, allowing false reasoning or inconsistencies to slip by with a bon mot, but I have also witnessed a Neuro-Typical dislike for focusing seriously on a problem unless it is in a specific setting such as the classroom or the lab. In a certain sense, I’m always in the lab, and everything is (at least potentially) a puzzle worthy of the university classroom.

Although I like routine, I intensely dislike the kind of repetition that comes from unreflective behavior. For me, once a problem is understood, it should not be repeated. When I was younger, this made me seem intolerant, mostly because I didn’t understand the emotional world of the people around me, which often allows for a much greater degree of contradiction and repetition. My ethics is tightly bound up with a sense of forward progress at both the individual and the social level. The emotional worldview doesn’t always foster this sense of progress. Emotions seem to provide NTs with a vague global perception of events and issues that can make those problems seem overwhelming. I can’t do that; I have to start with the details of a problem. This means that I’m good at concrete tasks in which I have a specific role, but I do poorly when I need to “feel” my way through.

This statement about my psychology – that the world is a puzzle – can also be understood in another sense: I inhabit a puzzling universe that will never fully be my home. I can never fully be part of the NT world that makes up the context for almost every aspect of my life. But I do think (optimist that I am) that the awareness of non-standard cognition is growing, and perhaps one day we will develop the cultural tools that will allow us, as a society, to see AS simply as another way of understanding things that has its own quirks and its own joys, one worldview among the many that the human mind is capable of.


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