And Now … Understanding Autism
Or, as I call it, ASD, Understanding ASD
Autism spectrum disorder or ASD1 is a category of disorders that are presented as a deficit in Theory of Mind. It’s taken me more than ten years to begin understanding Theory of Mind and as an exercise in explaining the complexity of ASD in as simple a way as possible, this is what I tell people:
Theory of mind is often thought of as empathy and empathy doesn’t have an official diagnostic criteria in psychology2. I believe empathy can be clarified by defining it in two parts:
One, without assistance to be able to identify an emotionally significant situation
Two, without assistance, to appropriately respond to an emotionally significant situation3
That’s it. That’s how we understand the basis for autism and it bears repeating:
Autism is an inability to identify or respond appropriately to emotional situations without assistance.
There are a lot of reasons and working through the many books on ASD has led to some insights. For example, there are up to twenty-five percent fewer long nerves in the ASD brain4.
The comparison I make for these long nerves is a large city with highways and surface streets. On ramps and parking. There are buildings and structure where the activity within the mind begins and ends and where signals from and to the rest of the body communicate. It’s a busy and complicated place with a lot going on.
In a normal or neurotypical (NT5) brain, everything flows like it’s supposed to and I’d imagine that watching traffic flows in an active fMRI6 would prove to be similar and similarly informative to watching traffic patterns in a large metropolitan area. In an ASD brain, the traffic flow is by nature of fewer long neurons more congested and less efficient. The difference in speed may only be measured in milliseconds, but that slowing is the difference between being able to see and identify emotions and completely missing emotional cues.
As I’ve considered some of what this means, there is an idea that as with any situation where traffic congestion happens, flow will be improved by removing some of what causes the traffic and parking it somewhere. For the mind, this can be parking appropriate emotional awareness and allowing more immediate and important processes through. Which means, for ASD, the lack of emotional awareness in real time is an aspect of how the neurodivergence adapts to the differences in neurology7.
I believe it may be impossible to properly comprehend how milliseconds can be the difference between emotional awareness and engagement and complete lack of awareness. It may also be true that most of the time milliseconds don’t matter8. If we use sports, the Olympics, as a starting point in trying to visualize the millisecond difference, the Wall Street Journal has an article that illustrates that faster-than-a-blinking-eye moment though it may be just as easy to find movie that uses Bullet Time9 and watch that intentional slowdown and camera movement to understand this concept.
Watch any football or baseball game where a referee or umpire makes an unpopular or even a bad call and this is an issue of blinking eyes and processing the visual input10. Science, today, has attempted to identify when we become aware of the actions we’re taking and some studies suggest that we often make choices before we’re even aware of the need to decide11.
Whether or not we can identify when thought happens, or even an inherent recognition of the origin of action, emotion, or anything else is less important within the overarching ASD conversation than how long it takes for a signal to both travel and be processed. By allowing for the possibility that all other factors are equal between ASD and NT, or that the process between ASD and NT begins in exactly the same way, the principal difference will then exist as an aspect of time-in-transit. Rather than how signals move through the brain, what I’m suggesting is time is an essential factor in how those signals are processed, in what order, and with what priority.
The mind processes information in as efficient ways as possible and it’s likely the evolutionary development from lizard brain to high reasoning and emotional functioning allows for a delay in emotional input and response over more important neurological data. It’s equally possible that fewer long neurons in the brain require some signals to have less priority over others. How the neurological processes of the mind determine importance may be a question of evolution. Regardless, emotions end up as both low and high priority data points within the brain with personal emotions a higher priority than external emotions. Milliseconds in this context begin to help inform, if not also explain, some of the core functionality of people with ASD.
As an adult with ASD, I find the idea of emotional processing as unimportant most of the time. When it is important, I am unprepared for the task and then I’m stuck in the process of trying to remain as calm as possible in a heightened emotional situation I may not be able to properly identify. What is also true is that I will be more aware of the conversations, details, and outcomes a few hours or days later and more capable of connecting emotions back to the events that caused them12.
One of the tricks to ASD and emotion is a limited emotional vocabulary and a delayed personal emotional awareness. What I’m saying here is generally that people with ASD don’t have a broad understanding of or description for emotions. They also need to process what’s happening before an emotion or emotions can be applied to any given event. The awareness and processing of emotions isn’t immediate, it’s not natural, and it can be delayed for significant periods of time.
As an adult, an emotionally significant event that happens today could take hours, days, or much longer to work through. By creating a delay in event and recognition of emotions and finally processing of emotions creates a situation where the event and the emotion aren’t connected. What this means is that being angry and recognizing that I was angry and then understanding why I was angry removes the emotion of anger from the event where I was angry or the conditions that led to me being angry. This is going to be true of any emotion and situation.
As a parent of an ASD child, I’ve found it important to identify what precedes a meltdown and what to do when one occurs. It is possible to get ahead of a meltdown, but what is more important is recognizing the emotional or sensory overload leading to overload and shutting down.
The word for the conditions and signs preceding a meltdown is rumbling. This is when an individual, in my case a young child, is beginning to indicate things aren’t right and may begin flapping, running around, he may be more erratic, or he could begin to act tired or sick. Rumblings are followed by the emotional incident, which is what people often refer to as the meltdown. However, this could also be the individual shutting down or showing an emotional response that is outsized or even inappropriate for the situation. Finally, there is a period of recovery where the individual is more capable of understanding something happened, but not necessarily ready to deal with what preceded the meltdown or even their actions during the meltdown.
Once my ASD child has moved into a meltdown, there is no getting through to him until he is in the recovery stage and even then what is needed is comfort and reassurance. My objective for my ASD child is safety. I don’t want him hitting his head against walls, throwing things, flailing, or doing anything else that might end up in self-injury or hurting someone else. At the point of meltdown, this is riding out a storm, making sure the individual with ASD is safe, and waiting until they’re calm and rested. That is if the meltdown wasn’t stopped at the rumbling stage13.
My experience both as an adult with ASD and as a parent, an educator, and as someone who has been investigating ASD since 2010 to believe these same conditions and qualities aren’t also true for adults with ASD. I believe there should be a greater degree of control for adults, but even if that’s true the levels of control are directly related to how independent14 the individual with ASD is in life.
We expect adults to be adults and therefore we expect them to be in control. Yet, ASD doesn’t discriminate against age, sex, orientation, or anything else and assuming age creates protections against exhaustion and emotions is naive15. The adult expectation is what ASD is an invisible disorder as those who have ASD learn to mask16 and act as expected, most of the time, rather than giving in to what it means to be ASD all of the time.
Early ASD work has shown that children with ASD communicate through movement, which has led me to suggest that movement is communication17. We often see this as flapping or stimming and yet when we look further into what’s behind the movement of both children and adults, what we find is meaning that might otherwise go unnoticed. Happiness, sadness, excitement, anxiety, anticipation, dread or any of countless other examples are displayed through individual body movements and often identified as flapping or repetitive movement.
What I’ve taken from movement is communication is both the necessity in watching what’s happening and also realizing that the mind and body are far more complexly connected than we realize. Instinct may have an outsized role in how emotions are expressed before they’re realized. Meaning our bodies may know what is happening before our brains have an opportunity to catch up18. As a parent one of my roles is watching my ASD child’s movement. Movement may include having my son take swings at me or running headlong into a wall for no obvious reason. Movement results in a broader and more inclusive view of how he is experiencing the world and is commentary on his perception of place within it. Understanding that movement is communication should be an integral part of the school settings, among caregivers, and as training for police officers and police departments as well as social workers. Rather than ignoring m ovement, it is an essential method of communicating19.
ASD doesn’t exist as only an inability to see or process emotional input. Though I believe this to be a first step in understanding what it means to be ASD. My approach is to make something very complex approachable before diving into a level of complexity that includes other known disorders that are comorbid20 to ASD.
There isn’t an agreed upon standard by which those with autism are referenced and I don’t care for the infantilizing sounds of most terms currently in use
Definition. Let me be clear, there is a lack of diagnostic criteria and defining characteristics for empathy, which leads some with ASD and those who work with them to reference as ASD with high empathy. This is incorrect and I will be revisiting this topic in the future.
This is an adaptation of many different working definitions, but found it’s current form through the work of Simon Baron-Cohen. I will, at some point in the future, spend more time on Baron-Cohen’s work.
Sally J Rogers and her writings on ASD Early Intervention. Early Start Denver Model for Young Children with Autism: Promoting Language, Learning, & Engagement. Co-authored by Geraldine Dawson.
NT is used as shorthand as opposed to ASD or some other alphabet disorder or condition.
This is a subject, emotional awareness and relative timing, that will be dealt with on its own as I believe understanding how one becomes disconnected from situational emotional awareness also affects how those emotions affect future experiences and situations
Except in sports where the difference between winner and loser can literally be determined on with high speed cameras and millisecond clocks.
Wikipedia article, though a google search will come up with the etymology and examples. Though as a quick-and-dirty explanation, the first Matrix movie introduces this when Trinity is attacked at the beginning of the movie and then uses the effect throughout to show Neo’s growth and changes.
If this in any way interests you, looking up when people process information as opposed to when the information is taken in may prove to be interesting and confusing.
While there are many examples of delayed emotional awareness, I’ll begin these posts with the story of why I sought out diagnosis and why understanding what makes me different was necessary to help my marriage and family.
There is a dated book about this titled High Functioning Autism and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Reducing Meltdowns by Brenda Smith Miles. The book isn’t very long and is applicable for all levels of ASD as well as with NT children and children with other disorders. It should be noted that ASD heightens emotional expression.
I believe one primary distinction in ASD levels should be considered independence and not functionality. An individual who is capable of living alone, holding a job, paying bills, and interacting with the NT world is a far better indicator of ASD level then how smart, what kind of job, or even where one lives.
I will add here “In my opinion,” though my opinion is correct and when we start looking for ways to help everyone with autism, we’re also going to see that infantile and juvenile autism studies directly apply to adult autism and should directly influence therapy, treatment, and accommodations.
Masking is to appear as though one is NT and responding appropriately in specific situations. This can be dating, work, or other social situations. However, in all cases masking is temporary and given sufficient time and stimulus the mask will drop and the ASD characteristics will be presented.
As stated, the neurological signal has to be parked somewhere, which also means it has to be expressed in some way.
Finding news articles on young ASD children put in handcuffs or restrained in the wrong way and for the wrong reason, locked in rooms with the intent to reduce interruptions, and other negative examples of individuals and professionals ignoring ASD communication in favor of what’s easy takes absolutely no effort. Go ahead, search the news for these stories and examples.
Definition. I will be diving into the ASD comorbidities. https://dictionary.apa.org/comorbidity