The Autistic Mind

By Gary Waleski

In a neurotypical individual, the brain has an amazingly high capacity for intelligence, and it is extremely thirsty for knowledge. Like a sponge absorbing water, the brain rapidly absorbs and processes any information that it perceives. The individual goes through life constantly absorbing all of the information that he/she is exposed to, steadily gaining experience and wisdom.

The mind of a newborn infant is like a blank sheet. Right from the first day of life, the child’s brain begins collecting information, and some text becomes placed on this blank sheet. The brain starts growing and the child begins acquiring knowledge at a rapid pace. The child collects information through all five senses, considering that they are all working. The child recognizes his/her mother, father, and other immediate family members. He/she becomes familiar with the home surroundings, and begins learning basically about the outside world. As time progresses, the child begins learning names of close people. He/she learns the difference between yes and no. The progress continues steadily as the infant evolves into a toddler.

As the child grows, so does the brain. Children are wide awake and totally alert, and they gain knowledge at an incredible rate. They quickly learn to speak, read, and write. They learn from entertainment; as they progress from solitary play (in which they entertain themselves), through parallel play (in which they entertain themselves alongside other children), to interactive play (in which they share their activities). They learn from their parents, from school, through socializing, from TV, through pleasure activities, and from society in general. Children make friends with other people of comparable age, and they gain experience in socializing. They learn what they need to learn, as well as certain things that adults would not like them to learn. Children are difficult to fool and hide things from. They may be kids, but they are not stupid; therefore, a quickly-thought lie does not always work! Children are very curious, constantly searching to gain more knowledge, and often driving adults crazy by asking millions of questions! If guided properly, they develop a sense of moral values.

As children evolve into teenagers, their knowledge continues to grow. They learn what it is like to work, and earn and handle money. They begin dating and gain experience in relationships. They become experimental with many things - some good, some bad. However, many things are learned by trial and error. The “rebel” phase is common in most teenagers, and is simply a form of experimentation; therefore, parents are urged to be patient.

The early twenties is a varying age between different individuals, especially in today’s generation. Each person matures at a different rate, so there are no specific guidelines set. Most young adults have the intelligence of fully-mature adults, but many tend to carry on the behaviour and attitudes from their teenage years. This leaves a major gap between intelligence and maturity; but eventually, this gap will close.

All of the information gathered through life leads a person to adulthood. They have acquired all of the intelligence and wisdom necessary to support themselves, embark on careers, and lead active social lives. They now have a total understanding on moral values (hopefully). Once financially secure, they are able to marry and raise families if they chose. However, nobody ever stops learning!

As a dramatization, I will compare the brain to an office filing room. A neurotypical brain is like a large filing room. Inside this room is a very energetic filing clerk and several filing cabinets. Outside of this room is a large pile of paperwork, compared to the large amount of information in this world. This rambunctious clerk will grab a handful of paperwork, quickly and accurately sort through it, go to the proper cabinets, and file all of the papers in the proper files. Sometimes; because of the large amount of paperwork, the clerk may take extra time to sort, file, and retrieve certain paperwork, but that is par for the course. This clerk works at an incredibly fast rate and this room is well organized.

In a developmentally-challenged individual, the brain works in a similar manner, but at a simpler scale. This brain has a limited capacity for knowledge, depending on the level of challenge. Information is also processed at a slower rate. The individual gains some knowledge and wisdom, but not as much as a neurotypical individual.

A developmentally-challenged child will grow up learning basic things, but not at the rate of one who’s neurotypical. They need special education, and extra care. In adulthood, they will continue to require assistance. Many developmentally-challenged adults may not be able to live independently. Ultimately, their wisdom and lifestyle is extremely basic.

This filing room is smaller and contains only a couple of filing cabinets. As well, the clerk is slow and less energetic. The clerk works at a slow pace, and due to the lack of filing space, can only store a limited amount of paperwork. Much of the paperwork is left outside, and what is brought in is filed in a very general manner.

In an individual on the autism spectrum, the brain is actually identical to that of a neurotypical individual. However; this condition forms a maze-like pattern of communication between the brain and the senses, causing the brain to absorb only selected pieces of information. With the limited information that it does gather, this powerful brain will process it and clarify it to amazingly precise detail.

Since the brain is only able to pick up certain bits and pieces of information at once, the outside world can be a blur for a young child on the spectrum. Inside the familiar home surroundings, the child is able to learn the basics, such as recognition of the home and family. Since information gathered is usually limited to the home, the child has a very little variety of what he/she becomes familiar with. Therefore; the child becomes fascinated by simple household items that happen to catch the eye. Such objects may be those that rotate, oscillate, or illuminate. These items may include fans, lights, records/tapes/CD’s, motors, and appliances. Once the child becomes familiar with and fascinated by these items, he/she will notice and watch for such items outside of the home. Throughout the childhood years, the individual tends to develop an obsessive interest in these objects.

People on the spectrum are known to have incredible memories. This may be true because of the small amount of information that this powerful brain has to work with. In a neurotypical person, there is a large amount of information that the brain has to process. However, the brain in a person on the spectrum has a much easier job. Since there is far less information to work with, the brain can process the information that it has to much greater detail.

People on the spectrum become highly dependent on routine, and anything new or different may appear strange and frightening to them. Without adequate preparation, transitions are hard to accept and adjust to. Familiarity is the comfort zone, and the person tends to be reluctant to go beyond the boundaries.

The child may be uncomfortable in establishing and maintaining friendships. The individual can easily become intimidated by the responsibility of entertaining other people. As well, the child needs his/her time and space in the comfort zone. If friends become overly aggressive and insistent in spending much time together, the child can become repelled by these people.

School can be a difficult situation for the child if appropriate assistance is not provided. Since the child is sensitive, he/she may be uncomfortable with the strange surroundings, and become intimidated by teachers. Peer pressure can become a difficult situation if not properly dealt with. Children easily notice qualities that are somewhat odd about certain people, and tend to ridicule these people about their qualities. Since a child on the spectrum has qualities that are eccentric, mocking and teasing may be a serious problem for this individual.

Employment can be a major problem for a youth on the spectrum. The individual may become uncomfortable with the unfamiliar surroundings, and he/she may lack the confidence and motivation required to take on the tasks. Directions often must be precisely given to those on the spectrum, in a way that they understand. In the world of employment, that’s not often the case. Employers, in general, are demanding. Since they are paying employees to work, they expect them to understand and perform the job properly. Employers are intolerant over substandard performance, and will not hesitate to express disapproval in a harsh manner. This may be a critical situation if an employee is on the spectrum. Since the person is sensitive, he/she may become terrified of supervisors. A youth on the spectrum ultimately becomes apprehensive in being employed.

A child or youth on the spectrum may appear to be lazy, but this apparent lack of motivation actually results from lack of confidence. A child on the spectrum tends to become convinced that he/she is behind other children of comparable age; therefore, he/she ends up lacking confidence and self esteem. The person simply does not want to end up in a situation too deep to handle, and fears being stuck at the point of no return. Responsibility becomes a very intimidating experience; and ultimately, the person will give up. If caregivers become impatient and aggressive with the individual, this can make matters far worse. Patience and positive reinforcement are essential in helping the individual become motivated.

The filing room, in this case, is exactly the same as the one describing the neurotypical brain. The room is just as large, and has just as many filing cabinets, and the clerk is just as energetic. However, there is a security guard standing in front of the door. This guard is very selective, and chooses only particular paperwork, then hands it to the clerk. The clerk can only work with the given paperwork, but will eagerly and efficiently process it. Since there is so much filing space, the clerk can create many sub-files, categorizing the information to a greater extent. There may, at times, be one file for each piece of paper! Since the information is filed so precisely, it can be quickly retrieved. Due to the low volume of paperwork to file, this eager beaver becomes bored and decides to create new information from the existing filed paperwork. This clerk will continue to go through the files; retrieving, duplicating, and refiling. This inside activity is called imagination.

Hypersensitivity is common among the autism spectrum. Strong emotions, such as anger and fear, can be traumatic for a person on the spectrum. Temper tantrums are a result of anger beyond the control of patience, and can be triggered by any form of inconvenience. The individual can be easily annoyed by certain sounds or minor incidents. Common fear can be magnified to the point of making the individual become paranoid. Extreme senses (eg noise, light, texture, smell, taste) can make the individual extremely uncomfortable. Depression is a common problem with autism, and can often strike for no apparent reason. There is no complete answer to why this is so. It may be related directly to autism, or based on factors resulting from it.

A person on the spectrum does not mature gaining social wisdom in the same manner as neurotypical people. They may not be able to read certain things, such as nonverbal cues, properly. They have a tendency to comprehend communication literally, and not understand common sayings. This person may be offended by a comment not intended to be derogatory, and become wrongfully defensive. The person may not always be able to take a joke, since he/she is often unable to distinguish humour from fact. They also tend to overreact over superficial issues, due to inability for proper judgement. The person can be extremely intimidated and terrified by a challenging situation (eg being questioned by a police officer, being reprimanded by a supervisor at work, learning a new job, being involved in a personal confrontation). People on the spectrum can be overly trusting, and that can be a scary situation if this person is dealing with a “con artist” who is a professional at fooling people (eg sales people, thieves). A person on the spectrum, like anybody else, must understand that we live in a world where we must keep our eyes open.

The typical solution that a person on the spectrum uses in dealing with problems is simply to withdraw. If the individual is struggling in school, he/she will neglect to put any effort into studying. If the person is uncomfortable in a certain job, he/she may quit or deliberately perform poorly in order to be fired. If the person becomes stressed or bored, he/she may resort to daydreaming as an escape from reality. Addiction to drugs and alcohol is a common escape method for many people; therefore, people on the spectrum may be especially prone to substance abuse if exposed to it. This is a situation that must not be overlooked, especially when the individual is young.

An individual on the spectrum tends to live a scheduled, ritualistic lifestyle. I believe in the possibility that there may be a certain area in the mind that is aware of an existing cognitive challenge, and is taking action to accommodate it. A person on the spectrum may be subconsciously setting mental guidelines in order to function in day-to-day life. Without rituals, this person may become confused. Therefore, setting rituals may be necessary and beneficial in helping the individual. If properly planned, rituals may be an excellent aid in guiding a person on the spectrum. There are certain responsibilities that are automatically top priority and cannot be avoided, such as school and work. The person cannot do anything else until that occupational time period has expired for the day. A person on the spectrum has certain rituals that he/she has convinced one’s self not to deviate from (eg a TV show, certain food at a certain time, particular pastime, scheduled washroom time). With organization, it may be possible to set rituals in order to create a habit in taking care of important issues, alongside school or work, and then setting aside time for leisure. Organization is a great habit to establish in order to simplify and maintain a lifestyle, especially for a person on the spectrum.

I, the author, am actually on the autism spectrum, having been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome when I was in my early twenties. Autism was not well known when I was a child; therefore, I was categorized as a neurotypical person in need of extra discipline. I grew up the hard way, being treated like a neurotypical person and expected to perform as such. I endured many problems in school; being disciplined and humiliated by teachers, and being continually ridiculed by my peers. I also experienced much difficulties in employment as a youth; trying to avoid becoming employed, being uncomfortable with certain jobs, and failing to keep some jobs. In certain ways; I feel that my “rocky road” of life has made me a strong person, and I am now actively working to pave the road for other people on the spectrum.

I honestly do not know what it is like to be like the majority of the human population who are neurotypical. In turn, all of the neurotypical people truthfully do not know what it is like to be on the spectrum. The experience may be quite similar, and yet, it may be altogether different. Looking at neurotypical people, I see that their lives are far different from mine. I see children and youths rapidly gaining social wisdom, and I remember what I was like when I was their age (What a difference!). Most people have experienced much more in life than I have, and I am sure that their lives have been more interesting and adventurous than my own. I also notice that most people handle situations much differently from the way I do. Their emotions do not seem to have as much of an impact on them as my emotions have on me. I often wonder if my emotions are actually more acute than most people’s, or if there is a trick or technique that I need to know in dealing with certain situations properly. Most people seem to have the motivation that I never used to have until recently. I have seen many people lead highly active lives, and have always wondered how they could do it! What creates confidence, and what is it like to have a lot of it? I have met many people that are quite gregarious, unlike me, and I have always wondered what it would be like to have that strong social drive. I wonder what other people think about when they see people like me. Are they curious about what it would be like to be me? My mission is to share my experience, so that many people can have a greater understanding of what it is like to be on the spectrum. I hope that this will be beneficial in helping people on the spectrum.

I do believe that people on the spectrum can be assisted to mesh more smoothly into society. They may have to think and practice with special additional guidelines; including scripting, simplifying, dramatizing, prioritizing, and setting rituals. There are not many techniques presently etched in stone, but we are developing and experimenting with many new ideas. If we have come this far, imagine what we will be able to achieve down the road!

The world of responsibility may be intimidating and confusing to a person on the spectrum, especially if he/she is young. In order to guide the person through life, the aim is to simplify the challenges. Scripting is becoming a popular practice in guiding children on the spectrum. The process is simple; a portfolio is arranged in order to direct the child through daily responsibilities (eg dressing, toilet use, daily planning, table manners). This portfolio consists of pictures accompanied by simple sentences that the child can easily understand and follow. Another technique in making life easier is dramatizing, which can be an aid in helping a child become motivated. As an example a child can be encouraged to participate in household chores by making a game of it. This may even turn work into fun for the child, making cooperation easy. Incorporating imagination into tasks may also make the job more pleasant. When I was a child, I used to incorporate fantasizing with my tasks when performing my household chores, and it actually helped me in self-motivation.

Simple organizational skills may be very helpful in planning and simplifying the lifestyle of a young person on the spectrum. The aim is to teach the individual to plan each day and prioritize daily activities. A typical day would be scheduled and prioritized as follows: (1) taking care of all morning rituals; (2) attending school and/or work; (3) taking care of other responsibilities - including homework, household chores, and personal responsibilities; (4) leisure time, which can be spent however the person wishes. Priorities may be set as rituals, which may become good habits after a certain period of time. It is possible that if practised consistently, this schedule can become normal everyday life that the person may not want to deviate from. Every person is different, so it may depend on the individual as to whether the new system should be introduced suddenly or gradually. These mentioned ideas are not intended to be hard-and-fast rules, but suggestions which would not be harmful to experiment with.

Patience is an extremely important factor for caregivers and family members in dealing with a close one who is on the spectrum. Living with a person on the spectrum may become quite challenging at times, and people around the individual may sometimes feel that they have their back up against the wall. However, it is very important to hold on and not lose it. It is proven that aggression only worsens the situation, like extinguishing a fire with fuel. Being aggressive will scare the person, anger and cause the person to retaliate, and lower his/her self esteem and confidence. If a caregiver and family member is normally aggressive and negative towards a person on the spectrum (or any person), long-term consequences will result. Such behaviour towards the individual can cause him/her to develop a resentment towards the aggressor, and slow the maturing process for the individual. You, as a caregiver, must put yourself in your child’s position. Analyse how you deal with your child, and imagine how it would feel if your parent dealt with you the same way. Consider how you would wish to be treated, and what you feel would be effective, in order to have an idea of how to deal with your child properly. Most importantly; never prioritize yourself, your position, or your pride ahead of your child’s situation. Patience, empathy, and integrity must always be considered top priority in family relationships, and must never be neglected.

In summary, the brain of a neurotypical person has a high capacity and is constantly absorbing knowledge at a rapid pace. The brain of a developmentally challenged person has a smaller capacity and absorbs less information, and does so at a slower pace. The brain of a person on the spectrum is the same as one of a neurotypical person, but the condition forms a maze, limiting the absorption of information. However, this brain is highly active. The emotions of a person on the spectrum are highly magnified, compared to those of a typical person. Rituals may be subconsciously-set guidelines, and, if properly planned, may be used in an advantageous manner. I, as an individual on the spectrum, notice how neurotypical people behave. However; I do not know what it is like to be like neurotypicals, and they don’t know exactly what it is like to be like me. People on the spectrum may have to think and practice differently, but I do not think it is impossible to bridge the gap. Ideas in helping these individuals may include scripting, simplifying, dramatizing, prioritizing, and setting rituals. Patience and empathy are extremely important in dealing with people on the spectrum. Most of the material presented here are not scientifically proven facts, but hypotheses based on my experience in living with my condition. This is intended to give many people a better idea of what it is like to be on the autism spectrum, and provide some help in dealing with this situation.

October 15, 2002