Experience-based distinctions in autistic traits

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anbuend
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27 Mar 2011, 12:29 pm

One thing that really bugs me about the way people differentiate between autistic people right now, is they seem to mostly be based on traits that... they aren't the aspects of autism that really affect my day to day life, nor are they the important ways that I find that I have things in common with other autistic people, or find great differences between autistic people. So... here are a few of the distinctions that I think really have meaning.

I should note that with a lot of things, it's not just a matter of being one "type" or another. It can also be a continuum.

Also, I'm really curious what distinctions other people find important. The distinctions I'm curious about are ones that arise from people's actual lived experience of the world, not ones that arise just from looking at people from the outside. (For instance, I really don't think that what age a person learned to speak is that important compared to their experience of language, just to give one example.)

These three things aren't the only things I've noticed, they're just the only ones I can remember and/or describe right now.

1. Solid, Stable Abilities vs. Prone to Shutdown/Burnout

I was actually inspired to start this thread after reading several threads worth of people who are very prone to shutdown and burnout. I've noticed that there are people whose abilities are rock solid and they never change that much even when under stress. And then there are those of us who shut down easily, and can easily be pushed into burnout by ongoing, severe shutdown. We also seem prone to losing abilities in that way.

This seems like a really important thing to figure out how to determine in autistic people! People who are very prone to shutdown and burnout should not be pushed beyond our limits, whereas people who are not prone to it at all may find that being pushed to excel really helps them overcome their difficulties.

This difference even results in a fair bit of misunderstanding here from time to time -- there are people who can and do push themselves to and beyond their limits, and they sometimes misunderstand why other sorts of autistic people might react to this in horror (and may think that we lack the proper drive to overcome our difficulties). Meanwhile, those of us who react in horror can have trouble understanding that it's actually safe for some autistic people to push themselves that hard.

2. Stable but Possibly Hyper/Hyposensitive Senses vs. Swirling, Jumbled Senses

This distinction has to do with sensory issues. It's hard for me to figure out the right words to describe it, though.

It seems like there are people who have a different kind of stability. Like a stability of their senses. They usually, if anything, find that their sensory issues are on the order of having misophonia (anger based on certain noises), or having a few very specific hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities, or a tendency to get overloaded by certain sensations, and yet... basically having a stable sensory system.

And then... there are people who seem to be to one degree or another absolutely swimming (and seemingly drowning at times) in sensory input. It's not a matter of simple hypersensitivity. The best way I can describe it is like everything swirls around me in just about every sense (and synesthesia so does not help there). Some people with these issues actually shut down awareness of several senses and concentrate only on one sense (like Tito, who focuses on auditory information only). Other people with these issues may do something similar, except temporary, where they sort of shift between various senses. I think I do something midway between both responses -- I do best with tactile/kinesthetic information (and just about everything else is going to be really jumbled), and yet I can shift to perceiving different senses at different times (often involuntarily). I also find that sometimes... it's like... it reminds me of electronics on the fritz or something, I can almost feel the "brr--zzzzzzzzzzzzt" sound as my senses fritz out.

Temple Grandin seems to think that there's a continuum between these two things, with her more towards the first side and Donna Williams more towards the second. I have no idea if there is or not (or where on it I sit), I only know that my experience is very much the second type, and I really don't know enough about others' experiences to know if it's a continuum or if most people tend more towards being on one end or the other.

Anyway, this too is important to understand for a whole lot of reasons. People with different sensory experiences are going to require totally different teaching methods. Here's a quote from Temple Grandin about this (the next two paragraphs):

"When my speech therapist held my chin and directed me to look at her, it jerked me out of my private world, but for others forcing eye contact can cause the opposite reaction -- brain overload and shutdown. For instance Donna Williams, the author of Nobody Nowhere, explained that she could only use one sensory channel at a time. If a teacher had grabbed her chin and forced eye contact, she would have turned off her ears. Her descriptions of sensory jumbling provide an important bridge to understanding the difference between high functioning and low functioning autism, which I would describe as a sensory processing continuum. At one end of the continuum is a person with Asperger's or Kanner's autism who has mild sensory oversensitivity problems, and at the other end of the spectrum is a low-functioning person who receives jumbled, inaccurate information, both visually and aurally."

"I was able to learn to speak because I could understand speech, but low-functioning autistics may never learn to speak because their brains cannot discriminate among speech sounds. Many of these people are mentally retarded, but a few individuals may have a near-normal brain trapped inside a sensory system that does not work. Those who escape the prison of low-functioning autism probably do so because just enough undistorted information gets through. They do not totally lose contact with the world around them."

...I don't agree with her LFA/HFA distinctions, obviously, and I also think her assumptions about those labeled low functioning are overly simplistic, like a lot of her assumptions about autism (for instance, there are people labeled low functioning who have sensory systems more like Temple Grandin, but have severe movement issues preventing them from showing what they know). But I think that what she is noticing here is definitely the same continuum of sensory issues that I have noticed.

And it obviously has serious implications for, for instance, teaching someone. For someone like Temple Grandin, the main teaching issues around sensory issues are just avoiding the hypersensitivities. For someone more like me, you have to work out what senses the person uses best, track what sense the person is "stuck" in at the moment, etc., and at the same time you're still going to get a whole lot of sensory jumbling and all kinds of things that make it difficult.

3. Conceptual Thinking vs. Sensory Experience

This is a difference that Temple Grandin hasn't noticed so much, but Donna Williams definitely has, and she calls it "interpretive thought" vs. "sensing".

So interpretive/conceptual thought is the way most people call thinking. It involves using ideas and concepts. These may manifest in a whole lot of different ways (pictures, words, wordless concepts, probably a dozen other possibilities at the least.) but it's all basically different forms of symbolic/idea-based/abstract thought.

And "sensing" is more like… experiencing the world entirely as sensory information without it being sorted by thought. (If the sensory information is even capable of getting through on a conscious level, which it's not always.) So you'll see colors and shapes and stuff but you won't have the concepts to differentiate them into separate objects, let alone identify what the objects are. Even the most concrete mode of conceptual thought is highly abstract compared to sensing. For instance, "cat", "table", "door", these are all abstractions, they're just on the most concrete end of abstraction. A person in "sensing" can perceive patterns, but they are not the kind of abstract/symbolic/mathematical patterns a lot of people think of when they talk about "patterns", they're more like patterns of raw sensory data.

If this seems confusing, I did a thread on conceptual thought, and someone else explained how I natively see the world in a way that made more sense to people than the way I was explaining it:

http://www.wrongplanet.net/postt154792.html

And while there's a sharp distinction between sensing and conceptual thinking, there's also plenty of people who experience both. Like people who are mostly "sensing" but can climb into conceptual thinking for limited periods of time, people who regularly experience both, people who have each on one "track" at a time somehow (I don't even know how that works, but someone said they do), people who are all conceptual but experience "sensing" during shutdowns, people who switch between the two at will, people who were "sensing" at one period of their live but moved up to "conceptual" later on, etc.

Also, it's important to be aware that the experiences of these things are different based on how you experience them. I grew up with sensing being my most stable form of perceiving the world even when I was sometimes able to do conceptual thought. Conceptual thought was always an add-on (and one that could only happen for limited amounts of time), not something that ever felt stable for me. Anyway, experiencing sensing for so much of my life, as my most stable way of dealing with the world, means that I have developed ways of navigating the world entirely within sensing.

That's important because there are a lot of people who either only experience it during shutdowns, or only experienced it the first four years of their life. And they are far more likely to view it as simply chaotic and confusing rather than something comfortable or easy to navigate. (Although I do know people who actually miss it and can't get back to it because it was more comfortable for them than conceptual thought is.)

Anyway, this too is a major, major thing for any dealings you're having with someone. For reasons that I hope are obvious because I don't even know how to explain how much of a difference it makes which route to a person's experience of the world you take.


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27 Mar 2011, 1:32 pm

If I had to guess for myself:

1. Prone to Shutdown/Burnout
2. Swirling/Jumbled Senses
3. A little bit of both Conceptual/Thinking and Sensory experience


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anbuend
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27 Mar 2011, 1:36 pm

Oh, I was more asking for more examples of experience-based autistic traits (from what is important to everyone else, not just to me), rather than just people typing themselves based on the ones I described. (Not that there's anything wrong with your response, I just wanted to clarify in case people think it's another "Which one of these are you?" thread.)


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purchase
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27 Mar 2011, 1:37 pm

These are great distinctions. I am also prone to burnout when overwhelmed and this is so often interpreted by people (in general) as "me not trying hard enough" or "me not wanting to get better." Quite frustrating.

I'm usually not in a pure sensing mode like you describe, not even close, but it's occurred to me I'm generally in more of one than the average person. I'm trying to figure out what I was in the first seven years of my life, when I saw everything... I saw it... more magically, I guess... I saw it more vividly. I think now my eyes take in stuff and then ignore it the same way I ignore the feel of the fabric I'm wearing, but I ignored neither of these things when I was seven and under. I can still switch into that mode if I try. But either way is somewhat conceptual.

Sorry anbuend, I didn't see your second post til too late. Let me try to add something useful: I've noticed that autistic people seem to be either very rigid/codified thinkers )more rigid than NTs) or very flexible thinkers (more flexible than NTs). One person could be extremely rigid in some ways but extremely flexible in others. I don't know if this accurate... I probably haven't thought it through enough.



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27 Mar 2011, 2:04 pm

Edit: Oops. I see what anbuend wanted now. I'll leave the following but think about what she actually wanted (her commented posted while I wrote mine).

1. Prone to Shutdown/Burnout - I've posted about this a lot lately, but yeah.

2. Stable but hyper/hyposensitive senses, I think. But I have a tendency toward agnosia in some situations, and hypersensitivity tends to be very disruptive to my thinking processes. Like, loud sounds aren't just "I can't hear myself think" but that the sounds themselves fill up and clutter my thinking until there's no room for thinking at all. And it's not like the sensing thinking you're talking about, just jams up for fills with static and I shutdown. This happens with vision/light and smell as well, and when someone touches me by surprise, it causes a weird feedback loop sensation in my skin that I am really hate. Also, over time my ability to process what I'm hearing degrades to the point that it dissolves into meaningless noise. And sometimes I get focused on tone of voice and miss verbal content. Also, from Temple Grandin's example, eye contact is pretty overloading for me.

3. Both. I tend toward conceptual thinking, although I tend toward conceptual thinking without language and this was actually hard for me to accept even though one of my communication difficulties tends to be how much time/energy it takes for me to translate thoughts into words (and since already translated thoughts are sometimes easy to access again as translated). I think I posted this to your thread about sensory thinking. I also tend to occasionally slip into what appears to be sensory thinking/lack of thought, but not frequently.

The hard part for me was separating concept from language, even knowing I don't think in words. I am not sure I am cleanly delineating between when I think in concepts without language vs. sensory impressions as I feel like meaning can sometimes flicker in and out, but I think much of the time I know what things are even if I am not processing the words for them.



Last edited by Verdandi on 27 Mar 2011, 10:06 pm, edited 3 times in total.

daydreamer84
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27 Mar 2011, 2:21 pm

purchase wrote:
Sorry anbuend, I didn't see your second post til too late. Let me try to add something useful: I've noticed that autistic people seem to be either very rigid/codified thinkers )more rigid than NTs) or very flexible thinkers (more flexible than NTs). One person could be extremely rigid in some ways but extremely flexible in others. I don't know if this accurate... I probably haven't thought it through enough.


I agree with this......I've noticed that too............we (ppl with ASD's) seem to differ in what we are flexible vs rigid about.

I'll try to think of more for when I come on the site tonight.



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27 Mar 2011, 2:30 pm

purchase wrote:
Sorry anbuend, I didn't see your second post til too late. Let me try to add something useful: I've noticed that autistic people seem to be either very rigid/codified thinkers )more rigid than NTs) or very flexible thinkers (more flexible than NTs). One person could be extremely rigid in some ways but extremely flexible in others. I don't know if this accurate... I probably haven't thought it through enough.


I was thinking of something like this (focusing on logical thinking but not sure of the contrast).

Another might be abstract + concrete vs. primarily concrete. Obviously all language and concepts are abstractions themselves, but I know I have preferences for concrete things over abstract, but it seems some have an easier time with abstract things, and I know I am not useless at abstract things, and others have more trouble than I do. I am not sure how to codify this more thoroughly or even if it's separate from conceptual vs. sensory thinking.



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27 Mar 2011, 2:35 pm

My first thought is that for me 1 and 3 are linked. I'm quite capable of conceptual thinking, but I am sensitive to stress and once the stress level hits a certain point, I start shutting down and slip into a more sensory oriented experience. Also, when I get stressed and start edging to a more sensory based experience, I end up with a more jumbled sensory experience as well. I am finding if I allow myself to occupy the sensory space deliberately, I seem to have a better tolerance to stress when in the conceptual mode. Intense exercise seems to be the best way for me to burn off the stress and let all my senses merge into a sort of background noise. Strangely, this sensory, experiential state is often more enjoyable than the conceptual one. It feels less contrived.


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27 Mar 2011, 3:35 pm

Not (or mildly) prone to burnout or ability fluctuations. Senses are normal except hyper/hypo issues and probably synesthesia. Conceptual thinking. That's how I fit on yours.

I suggest logical/hard/cold/robotic vs. emotional/artistic/intuitive. (I think I described that badly.) Some people seem to not want friends, not care whom they insult, not get really emotional, love logic and think of themselves as purely rational and immune to bias. Often these seem to like or be good at math or the nitpicky aspects of writing. Other people seem to have normal emotions or even be MORE emotional than normal, may or may not want friends but aren't cold or unfeeling toward people (if they recognize them as people), might well have a strong conscience. These people seem prone to creative pursuits like drawing, painting, writing fiction.

I guess it could almost be a left-brain/right-brain dichotomy... but, more relevant to us, the former (logical/robotic) is the stereotypical Aspie, while the latter is much more common on the spectrum and probably among NTs. Anyway, this is DEFINITELY a continuum and there's DEFINITELY crossover. (I'd consider myself to fit the latter, but I'm good with grammar, I'm nitpicky and I have a great respect for logic. That might be because my dad is more of a logical/cold/robotic type than I am and I look up to him, but then, he's good at math and that hasn't done anything for my (lack of) talent at it.)

Also, another trait is executive dysfunction. Does everyone on the spectrum have it? Does everyone on the spectrum have it the same way? ED is kind of a bad term. So actually, let me break this down into what it actually is.
1. Emotional regulation and impulse control-- I know nothing about this, but I've seen it in lists of "stuff that gets called ED." Maybe someone else can explain.
2. Task sequencing. Like, being confused about what you're doing-- like, you know you want to cook something, but you can't figure out how to start it. Because it's complicated and you can't put together what you're supposed to do. If this were on the A-SHED scale anbuend posted another thread about, I would probably score a 2 or 3 on this.
3. Task initiation. Now it's time to do something. You need to start doing it and there's something about this step that's hard even though it shouldn't be. I'd probably be a 2 on this one if it were on the A-SHED, or I think so, anyway... but it varies for me.
4. Winging it. Dealing with the fact that even though you expected A to happen, B is happening instead. For me, on good days this is a 1, but on bad days more like a two or three, and when I'm really close to melting down, more like a four or five. (Don't even bother to ask about DURING a meltdown. It's impossible to cope any WORSE than that, whatever happens; that's what a meltdown IS, is the simultaneous failure of all of your coping mechanisms.)

So. Which of those do you have issues with, and how bad? Is this something that ends up dividing the community? I know that parts of this seem to go hand-in-hand with autistic inertia and autistic catatonia. Or perhaps those are descriptions of the same traits, to varying degrees of severity. Describing these issues is hard because it's like there's a pie and it has real slices but some of these words describe parts of two slices, or all of the slices except one, or only slices that are described by the other words. Whatever. It's confusing. But THE LARGE NUMBER OF GENERALLY-RELATED THINGS CALLED EXECUTIVE DYSFUNCTION, AUTISTIC INERTIA AND AUTISTIC CATATONIA. That's what I'm talking about here. But what is this area like for you? Is it just better vs. worse? I think impulse control and emotional regulation are not necessarily related to transition stuff and winging it.

Also, some of us find that, as is normal for NTs as well, sensory input stops being registered. Whereas some of us find that, atypically, these perceptions persist without diminishing. That has a big effect on your ability to get used to things. People in the former category might become able to deal with uncomfortable things once they get used to them, but people in the latter category probably can't.


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27 Mar 2011, 3:40 pm

1. Prone to Shutdown/Burnout:
When I'm overwhelmed I generally shut down, pull away or have panic attacks. Not much more detail is needed to explain that.

2. Swirling/Jumbled Senses:
My senses like the switch around constantly and I've had to learn how to literally switch sensory mediums depending on what I am doing.

3. A little bit of both Conceptual/Thinking and Sensory experience:
This area seems to be the most confusing for me b/c I naturally think through things using words in a sequence that seems very logical to myself. I don't know if it is actually logical but it is almost constantly influenced by the sensory information I am processing. But my conceptual or sensory processing can end up overpowering the other form of processing depending on what is going on around me. The sensory stuff tends to cause me the most problems b/c the way senses work, at least for me is completely illogical and or contradictory to what my conceptual/logical side wants/needs. I naturally favor my hearing over sight but w/ the way the world is, I'm forced to be more visual. I'm also hyper-touch and smell sensitive. I have to use my more logical side to balance out my senses by literally thinking through my sensory processes so they don't overwhelm my general consciousness. The sensory stuff can also interfere with fulfilling emotional needs.


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27 Mar 2011, 9:04 pm

This overlaps with what some of what others have said, but how about emotionality vs. non-emotionality.

I.e. Sometimes there's a thread that will get heated, and someone will start getting 'worked up," and then someone else will say, "you're acting awfully emotional. People on the spectrum aren't like that." (And then I get confused.)

It's a personality trait, but it seems like one of those where people on the spectrum strongly identify or stongly feel the opposite way (or is that an artifact of how the criteria and official theories are set up?). Especially as a kid, I often felt raw/exposed/overwhelmed (even by other people's emotions), rather than like a granite pillar, unpeturbed by various tidal waves crashing around (as I've seen plenty of other people reporting feeling like).

It's hard to pin down exactly, as I think about, though. It's not simply 'flighty-ness,' as I'm (and have heard others say they are) always good in emergencies, when everyone else is panicing. (Can't find my favorite hat; that's another story.) It's seems more like how well someone can keep the external world from invading their internal world.

Anyway, I think that would be important for teachers and others to know, as the usual stereotype is that all autistics are the are a don't-feel/don't-detect-very-much type.



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27 Mar 2011, 10:31 pm

Socially awkward (NTs) vs. socially unnatural (Aspies).For example an NT might be shy and nervous about making eye contact with people he/she doesn't know well. In contrast an aspie might be with two other people and stare at one person while speaking to the other bcs she forgot to shift her gaze (since its unnatural for her to look at people when she speaks to them at all and has to make a conscious effort to do so).



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27 Mar 2011, 10:38 pm

Apple_in_my_Eye wrote:
This overlaps with what some of what others have said, but how about emotionality vs. non-emotionality.

I.e. Sometimes there's a thread that will get heated, and someone will start getting 'worked up," and then someone else will say, "you're acting awfully emotional. People on the spectrum aren't like that." (And then I get confused.)

It's a personality trait, but it seems like one of those where people on the spectrum strongly identify or stongly feel the opposite way (or is that an artifact of how the criteria and official theories are set up?). Especially as a kid, I often felt raw/exposed/overwhelmed (even by other people's emotions), rather than like a granite pillar, unpeturbed by various tidal waves crashing around (as I've seen plenty of other people reporting feeling like).

It's hard to pin down exactly, as I think about, though. It's not simply 'flighty-ness,' as I'm (and have heard others say they are) always good in emergencies, when everyone else is panicing. (Can't find my favorite hat; that's another story.) It's seems more like how well someone can keep the external world from invading their internal world.

Anyway, I think that would be important for teachers and others to know, as the usual stereotype is that all autistics are the are a don't-feel/don't-detect-very-much type.


I think I know what you're talking about. I've always been quite emotional, to the point where as a kid I would sometimes scream and cry while only wishing I could be like Spock. As I've gotten older, I've found it easier to deal with my emotions, as well as the bombardment I get from other people's emotions, but as a kid unused to the intensity I sometimes felt like the emotions would kill me or something.

I sometimes wonder if other people's unemotionality is one of those long-term shutdown things, like one of those things that autistic people trade off for something else. But I don't know, not having experienced it. (I used to think I did, but that was PTSD-induced numbness and when I began to thaw again -- after being treated like a human being when I least expected it -- all the emotions came back. And they were never really gone, just buried.)


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27 Mar 2011, 11:53 pm

My problems with "executive thinking," cluelessness about company politics and not understanding what people mean versus what they say are the biggest negative impacting factors in my daily life.

My ability to focus on relevant details to logically troubleshoot problems is a strength related to my AS I think. I think visually for troubleshooting, giving shapes, colors and forms to data rates and signaling protocols and things like that. Thinking about it now, sometimes those things have sounds in my head too.



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28 Mar 2011, 3:17 am

In your first point, can I add a thought of my own? You say that some people do push themselves beyond their limits because it is safe for them. I personally think most of these people only push themselve because they have trouble sensing where their limit is, and recognising the first signs of burnout. I think it's especially true of undiagnosed or "late diagnosed" people who have been labeled lazy a lot while growing up, and have learnt to ignore that "no, that's too much for me now" initial feeling or dismiss it as not worth lingering on.
I'm not entirely sure it's safe for anyone in the long run.



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28 Mar 2011, 5:10 am

Apple_in_my_Eye wrote:
It's seems more like how well someone can keep the external world from invading their internal world.


anbuend wrote:
I sometimes wonder if other people's unemotionality is one of those long-term shutdown things, like one of those things that autistic people trade off for something else.


That's very interesting. You both seem to be saying that this could be a learned trait, not something one is born with? Like a defense mechanism one develops maybe in childhood and keeps over time? Or did I get you wrong?


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