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How to process the stimuli of a chaotic world

Nov 25, 2022

It is very common to hear that autistic people process information differently, but, what exactly do we mean by this? What does the term “processing” imply and what activities or actions are related to it?

Actually, our whole life relates to our style or way of processing external stimuli. To simplify it, processing refers to our way of perceiving the information that comes to us through different channels (a conversation, a caress, a loud noise, a facial expression of disgust or joy, etc.) and, later, in how we integrate all this data in our brain to give it meaning and coherence. Finally, we must develop a response to meet the demands of the environment.

Processing in autism: visual, detailed, sequential

Processing in autism, unlike what occurs in neurotypical people, is often deep, sequential (that is, one thing after the other), meticulous, detail-oriented, and specialized. For all these reasons, we tend to excel in memorizing facts or images (especially long-term), in analyzing different issues in detail, in tasks where specific and verified data and/or explicit information appear (instead of hints or ambiguous references), in remembering events that happened a long time ago, in finding patterns and sequences, in IT or in exercises that require logical reasoning, and in focusing our attention on a specific task, among many other activities.

In addition, autistic people constantly seek pragmatism and usefulness in everything we do (we don’t like superfluous or dispensable information, and prefer clear and direct things instead), and we have a strong sense of fairness and of morality (these characteristics can be considered virtues but, unfortunately, society tends to label us as “rigid” and inflexible for always trying to stick to what we consider correct). Finally, comment that one of our main strengths is visual thinking or images; Whatever information they want to convey to us, it is very likely that we will understand it better if it is accompanied by images, pictograms, diagrams and other types of visual aids.

Logically, no two autistic people are the same (there may be someone, for example, who does not stand out for their long-term memory, or who has an extraordinary ability to interpret ambiguous information), but it is true that the vast majority of us are characterized by this type of more detailed processing (the famous “hyperfocus”, which helps us focus and forget about everything else), and that we prefer to do things one at a time, rather than dealing with several tasks simultaneously. But, as with neurotypicals, autism is a spectrum, and each of us has specific strengths and weaknesses, beyond these general considerations.

Demands of the neurotypical environment

As we have just seen, autistic people have a large number of specific strengths and talents, but what happens when we interact with the environment? Here is where trouble comes. In general, the world is changeable and unpredictable, and is governed by ambiguous and abstract rules, instead of logical and concrete ones. In addition, social interactions often require processing a large number of stimuli in parallel, as well as making inferences based on subtle and not very explicit information (voice tones that imply specific moods, for example).

We prefer to relate to predictable people and environments, as well as structured and controllable environments. In addition, it helps us a lot in our daily performance to have fixed routines, plan our tasks and anticipate problems or obstacles to overcome before they occur (improvisation is not usually our forte).

However, we are constantly faced with imprecise demands (“we can see each other later”, “hand me this task in a few days”, etc.), with social rules that change their meaning depending on the context in which we find ourselves (you have to greet in different ways at a party and in a work meeting, for example), with simultaneous conversations (which also require a quick response capacity) and non-linear (that is, they jump from one topic to another without prior notice), with not very literal codes in social interactions (metaphors, jokes, puns, etc.) and with work environments that unfortunately tend to reward immediacy, the famous “multitasking” (doing various tasks simultaneously), good social performance and the ability to adapt and flexibility towards changes, to the detriment of concrete and meticulous research or the rigor of the papers presented.

Many autistic people, of course, can adapt to these demands (we’ve been doing it all our lives; masking, to a large extent, allows us to put on a mask and perform all the attitudes that we see rewarded in society), but this obviously has a great cost to us. Since our processing style is different, we are constantly forcing ourselves to fit into a world that is not designed for us, and therefore we very often end up exhausted after socializing for many hours, or have meltdowns or shutdowns trying to sustaining situations that are making us uncomfortable (a discussion involving many stimuli, for example, or a train journey at rush hour), as well as burnouts due to not having adequate adaptations in our workplace.

In addition, if we are not able to identify our needs and ask our environment to listen and understand us, it is very likely that our anxiety will worsen day by day, and that we will have other mental health problems (depression, PTSD, and even suicidal ideation).

It should be noted here that the problem is not in us, and that there is no individual flaw or defect that must be corrected because it is bad in itself, but that all the difficulties that autistic people have are caused by this interaction with an environment thought by and for neurotypical people. In addition, there is the stigma of classifying as wrong or defective everything that is not common to the vast majority, and, therefore, talking about neurodivergences and how certain traits of our character manifest themselves is still a taboo, something uncomfortable for a large part of the population (for example, not looking into the eyes is frowned upon, and can even be seen as disrespectful).

It would be necessary to change the focus to look for real solutions; It is society that disables many neurodivergent people (because of how bureaucratic procedures are designed, due to the excess of stimuli that certain spaces demand, etc.), and, therefore, it is also society that should adapt to us (until, ideally, a healthy and respectful coexistence of equals is achieved), instead of forcing ourselves to fit into molds that cause us a lot of daily suffering.

Examples of deep processing

From a very young age, autistic people intuit that we are different from the rest, but we do not quite understand why. I, for example, noticed that I had great difficulties in certain areas or activities considered easy and that, on the other hand, the most complicated tasks (according to the teachers, parents and other children) were done practically without blinking, much faster than the rest of colleagues. I didn’t know it at the time, but that strange feeling of being clumsy and brilliant at the same time was closely related to having an atypical processing style.

I am going to put some everyday examples so that this explanation is well understood. For example, it has always been very difficult for me to understand action, adventure or fantasy movies, since they usually have many secondary characters, parallel plots and subplots, scenes that follow one another quickly, many stimuli to process in a short time, a large number of special effects and, sometimes, a non-linear exposition of the events that occur in the different plots. I have always had a complex about this issue, because action movies are considered easy by the vast majority of people (many friends tend to watch them even to disconnect, without paying too much attention), and on the other hand, for me, it is practically impossible to see a movie like this without pausing every two minutes and reading summaries of what just happened. It took me 28 years to understand and accept that, simply, many of the things that stress me out or make me uncomfortable come together in action films, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging and living with it.

On the contrary, I can easily understand theory manuals of different subjects, and read for hours books on psychology, philosophy, literature and many other topics of interest to me, despite having a technical vocabulary and syntactic and grammatical constructions that many people consider complicated. Why is this happening? Very simple: this activity requires slow, deep, meticulous processing, focusing our attention on a single focus, analyzing in detail and at our own pace what they are telling us and, furthermore, the explanations in these books are explicit, without ellipsis or gaps that you must fill with your imagination, with objective and contrasted information and with a logical and orderly exposition of the facts, among many other things.

I’ve always wondered: why don’t I understand entertainment movies and, instead, read theory books from a very young age? It has nothing to do with being more or less intelligent, but this example is related to our way of processing and integrating information from abroad. I invite you to meet other autistic people so that we can all enrich each other through our unique and peculiar ways of understanding the world.

(Montse Bizarro, autista, Specialisterne Spain)