Nature or Nurture: My Autistic Skills

I’ve always thought of myself as a natural problem-solver. Give me the information and I can sort through it quickly, find the important bits, and come up with a plan. It’s one of my skills.

Sometimes it drives my husband up the wall. He will have been doing something for ages, I walk in, look at all the parts, put them together in every way imaginable, and a second after seeing it all for the first time say, “Why are you doing it like that? Just put that bit in there.”

He is often surprised by how much I can think in a small space of time. When he turns to me and says, “What’re you thinking?” It’s rarely a short answer. A long train of thought triggered by a bird flying past the window, and culminating in the evolution of the backbone, with every logical step for every tangent inbetween, can be a bit overwhelming. It’s how I think all the time. I am always making connections.

But is it something I do naturally? Is it an intrinsic part of my brain, or is it something I have developed over the years?

Brain-training is a real thing. The more we exercise our brains in certain ways, the better they are at doing things. Maths skills are not a set thing. The more you practise the better you get, the faster the synapsis fire, the clearer it becomes.

The way the brain of someone who is deaf develops, is fascinating (Interesting article Here) The parts usually used for hearing are given over to other senses; sight, touch.

I can look back at young me, before I was fully formed, and I can see two clear driving forces; anger and logic. The anger was there because the world isn’t logical, and confusion and uncertainty breeds anger.

Logic. Logic is key. Logic is my driver, it’s my friend. It’s how I put the information together, it’s what leads me down my tangential narratives. Logic is who I am. There is a reason for everything I do if you look hard enough.

Where is problem solving in all this? Well, it could have been there all along. It could be that the problems of childhood didn’t take as much solving.

But this autistic brain of mine could have created my skill. Perhaps it is not intrinsic to my autism, perhaps it is that my autism meant I had to get good at problem solving. It meant I trained daily.

Every day my brain presents me with huge amounts of information to sift through. It does not give me answers to questions, it gives me data. Over and over and over again I am required to work out meaningful information from irrelevant data. I am required to problem solve each and every encounter, each and every situation. I am not a natural. I do not have a brain that says “This is how you socialise” I have a brain that says “The electric light is humming, there is traffic noise outside, someone is talking next door, there is birdsong that you recognise (blackbird), there are seven irregular square shapes on the wall opposite you (one is a window, there is irregular movement outside), the person you do not know in front of you has said, “hello”, they are smiling, their arms are crossed, they are frowning too, work out how they feel before you respond or it is less likely to be correct, the floor has faded parts where people walk, the ceiling is cracked in places, the lights are fluorescent and make everything a bit wrong, the air smells musty, there is a lingering smell of perfume that tastes sickly, the arms of my top are scratching against me, and on and on and on.” All presented equally, all handed to me with equal focus and importance.

“Here is the data,” Says my brain, “Now sort through what is relevant, what needs noting, what do you need to not respond or react to because other people don’t, come up with the correct response… quickly.”

I have learnt the rules of the game, and I apply them to the data I now have. New places will need more analysing, if I’ve been there before then I’ve already marked out what is important and what isn’t. I will also have found a pleasing pattern somewhere, that I can let myself glance at to silently stim.

Perhaps this is why I find the label “Mild Autism” so frustrating. No one sees how much work goes on inside. It is no milder than the times I screamed and smacked my head as a child, it’s just under my control.

Just as the brilliant pianist who practises for eight hours a day is not that good by chance, the ‘mildness’ of my autism is not effortless.

I am enormously lucky that I can do a lot of this processing and problem solving before I hit my limits, but I do have limits. I have to work at this. Too much and suddenly I find myself lost at sea. My expressions drop, I look sullen, words take ages to find their place. “A table? What is a table? Where is that picture stored?” I am slow and clumsy in thought as well as action, I bump into things and my brain does not have the capacity to sort the information as pain, so I don’t notice. Speaking is hard. Thinking is hard. I have burnt out. I am an overheated hard drive. I need to let it cool, so I can start again. I need recovery time.

Am I a natural problem-solver? Perhaps, but I’m so much more than I would have been if problems weren’t such a huge part of my life. My autism has taught me many skills, it has taught me to appreciate the small things in life, it has taught me that beauty is everywhere from a tangle of wires to a sunset, but most of all it has taught me how to problem solve.

As excellent as my problem-solving is, when it comes to social interactions, I am never working with all the information. People are too variable to be certain of their motives or how to interpret their expressions and intonation. The better I know people, the more likely I am to be right, but mistakes will still be made. So much of social interaction is intuitive, and that’s the bit that I miss. It can mean that I don’t let intuition get in the way of communication, and sometimes I see things that other people have missed, but mostly I miss what other people can see.

The more information you give me, the clearer the communication, the easier it is to problem-solve correctly.

28 thoughts on “Nature or Nurture: My Autistic Skills

  1. I know a lot of autistic people are logical. Not me. I’m creative and I have an amazing imagination which is partly why I’m mentally ill as anxiety often requires good imagination skills. My brain receives all the info – then shuts down because there is too much of it. I wish I was more logical. X

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m one of those logical people who use it for creativity and practical things, more than just numbers. Imagination definitely goes hand in hand with anxiety. Being able to think of every eventuality inevitably gives you all the bad outcomes as well as the good ones.

      Logic is useful, but not as pleasing as creativity 💐

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I’m somewhat similar. I find being logical and organised is something I have to work really hard, and consciously at. I CAN do it, and sometimes I’m excellent at it, but it’s not lightning-speed in the way it is for Rhi.

      I also have a hugely rich imagination, feel almost constantly overwhelmed, and suffer terribly with anxiety. But yes, I am creative. I do believe there are different types of creativity, though.

      I wonder whether ADHD has a role in this, for me at least…

      Liked by 4 people

  2. “People are too variable to be certain of their motives or how to interpret their expressions and intonation.” Also, many people deliberately lie with their expressions and intonation. If we (autistic people) see through that deception, we’re “rude” for not believing/accepting the lie, and if we don’t see through it, we’re “stupid” and “lacking empathy” for taking everyone at their word. Fun fact: NTs are never working with all the information, either. It’s just that the many of them don’t care if they misinterpret something. Nor is there One True Way to Socialize, applicable to all people at all times (and our way is the right way, when we’re with others of our own kind — any anthropologist worthy of the name can tell you that).

    My twin and I say, “Intuition is just logic that happens ‘behind the curtain,'” meaning it’s harder to see all the steps taken to arrive at a conclusion, but those steps still happen. Intuition isn’t magical or some special psionic talent (and we’d know — we have “special psionic talents” 🙂 ), although I think a lot of NTs want autistic people to think it is, so we’ll feel inferior for knowing our own “intuitive leaps” are, in fact, logical.

    “The more information you give me, the clearer the communication, the easier it is to problem-solve correctly. ” This is true for anyone, not just us. Again, NTs have communication troubles amongst themselves, too, but they don’t care</I as much as many of us do.

    (I'm "tangenting" strongly today, as you probably noticed. So many bits of information in my head, and the filters aren't stopping most of it… Good thing I like how this feels. This is crest of the “overload” wave, and at the moment I’m having a grand time surfing it. “Information overload equals pattern recognition,” and I do love those squiggle blue lines…)

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I believe the difference between NT intuition and my version of it, is that mine is conscious, and theirs is unconscious. The NT brain deciphers information in a different way to me. They do not have to use up their conscious processing to work things out, which leaves me with more information to process all at once.

      Intuition is just a name for the unconscious processing that goes on.

      And yes, throw in deliberate misdirection and it’s just another way to leave me flummoxed!

      Your final comment is why I keep banging on about how improved communication for us, is beneficial to everyone. A move towards clear and accurate is good for all. It’s not as though doing things in ways that suit us would damage workplaces etc. So many would benefit. It’s illogical not to.

      Liked by 5 people

  3. I can so identify with practically everything you have said. My brain has cascades of information and I will jump from interest to interest and follow different trains of thought. Comet 67p looked like a giant slushy duck, followed by how a large plastic duck in China became untethered, causing mayhem. Then the discussion of how the colour blue had not been written inn the first printed books and how the texts only dealt with colour that was unusual in the environment (so colours like the yellow or red pigment of flowers was identified), which in turn lead to discussing blue pigment, pottery and the story of the Willow Pattern plate. I was asked whether this occurred over a few hours or days – I was perplexed. I said, ‘Possibly over the course of 10 minutes.’

    Liked by 3 people

      1. My thought too. When I was undergoing diagnosis, one of the questions was posed thus; if you were travelling on a train and you saw/mountains,rivers etc., would you be interested in their names and how they were formed/where they led, or just content in watching the scenery go by? I said both, but would be far more interested as to the formations of lakes and mountains and the names that they had been given. The psychologist asked why – I said it’s because I am not a pillock, of COURSE I want to know these things and how they link. An apt, but on reflection, perhaps not a ‘user-friendly’ answer.

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  4. Hello Rhi, congratulations on making your hundredth post and a hundred thank yous for being such an enormous help to me. I am the lady with the scissors. I have decided to cut myself loose from the job that has been eating me up for the last 10 years (now, thanks to you, I understand it’s not my fault that I have a problem with the totally unmanageable environment). I have connected so strongly with your posts and your brilliant readers comments that I do not need to wait to see if I get my NHS diagnosis (due next week). I have not resigned from work (I think because I want to make a point to them very loudly about their reluctance to accept any responsibility for making adjustments).
    Just now it is like I’ve hit a wall of information that I need to digest and filter and process before I can start putting one foot in front of the other again. I suppose it is like learning to walk again (appropriate seeing as that seems to be one of the keys to the NHS diagnosis). I have no idea how to gauge where I am in relation to my limits (until I’ve crashed). I have no idea if I can find any work that I can cope with. My current employer does not offer much scope for my variety of problem-solving and it seems that anything else I may be good at is not valued unless combined with neurotypical communication skills. They used to call our department “Communications” and I always joked that they couldn’t have got it more wrong. Now we are Contact Management.
    Your comment “throw in deliberate misdirection and it’s just another way to leave me flummoxed” explains one area that is particularly significant for me. And even bigger than that “the lag between processing what has been said and my response” in Autism is the Key of 22 March 2017. Now I’ve read about your experience and I know that I am not imagining these things any more, I feel like I need help to have any important conversations (for example with doctors and my employers). The psychologist doing my assessment was the only person who has ever allowed me to use written evidence, and asked me back for a second chance to fill in the gaps from the first time. That felt like it kind of worked, but I don’t know how to ask for the same assistance from people who don’t understand. If it’s ok to ask this, do you or any of your readers have any useful experience or advice on the “lag” and “flummoxing” issues? I find it hard enough to have anything to say in the first place (tend towards non verbal) and then lag and flummoxing will make me shut down totally.
    Massive thanks again,
    M

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are so very welcome (Sorry for the delay, I’ve been recovering from some productive overload!).

      I definitely struggle with getting across what I need to, and taking on the information I need to have absorbed, when it’s something as huge as diagnosis.

      I try to say, “Thanks for that, could you stick it in an email or I won’t remember it all?” I think we would be surprised by how often other people feel comfortable to ask for things, whilst we just try to push on through.

      Sometimes people may say no, in which case “ok then, give me a minute whilst I make some notes” is fair enough. These are reasonable requests.

      We often try to be so self-sufficient that we sabotage ourselves. Asking for help is really hard, asking for time is difficult, but if they say no, they are the unreasonable ones. Give yourself permission to ask. Give yourself the time to pause and consider. If communication is important, then we have to work in the ways that suit us (even if it means breaking old habits).

      With the diagnosis then you may feel more confident in asking for adjustments and feeling secure in your rights. I know I struggled to even let myself rest before I had the piece of paper. Darned black and white thinking!

      I truly hope that things improve for you. If I’ve missed any points then please feel free to ask again (I’m not firing on all cylinders just yet, but that’s ok too) 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rhi, thank you so much for your response. I hope your recovery is everything you need and that your efforts preceding it were good for you. I am so overwhelmed by everything it’s like my life is one huge blur and I am even worse than usual at organising myself, so this is the first moment I have felt I can get my head in gear enough to put fingers to keyboard.
        My thoughts have been jumbled and floating around on long pieces of elastic, but at last they are settling down and I am starting to make sense of what I need to grasp. You confirmed it’s a relatively simple request to ask for help or more time. I was thinking “but I knew that already – so why can’t I make it work?” What I didn’t understand before we shared those thoughts, was that the thing tripping me up is not quite being able to believe the difficulties I have. It’s almost funny. But as soon as somebody gives you one of those looks as if to say “you’re being ridiculous” I crumble and assume that I am being ridiculous.
        Well done for showing me that things like this are possible to deal with (as long as I know someone else understands). It seems my first big lesson in being the real me is learning to believe what I’m dealing with, no matter how “ridiculous” that may be according to my imaginary critics. Once I believe it, then I can accept it and work with it.
        Time for me to get those scissors working again.
        Mx

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Absolutely! It’s why I needed an official diagnosis – until I had one I couldn’t possibly be kind to myself. I still need people to prod me and say “stop being daft and let yourself rest!” Every once in a while.

          We have spent a lifetime comparing ourselves to people who are not like us. Shaking those habits takes time and effort. It’s why finding other autistic people is so healing. We can compare ourselves like-for-like, and discover that we are doing just fine.

          We have also spent a lifetime relying on other people letting us know when we are getting it right. We have to learn to trust ourselves, trust that when we are tired we are tired, when things are overwhelming they are overwhelming. We have to finally listen to the one person that we have always over-ruled; ourselves.

          And now I’m starting to sound like a motivational speaker 😄 so I’ll stop there!

          Like

  5. Logic is a family trait and expectation for me. I can play, but I’m not the sharpest scissors in the drawer. Intuitive logic and reflection are what I’m better at which are useful to me as a writer and going back afterwards to offer ideas or postponing an answer until it arrives by swallow from the forest. Sheer blunt intelligence (and 52 years’ experience) gets me along and ahead enough of the time. Except when the emotional quotient spirals me into a tornado and it takes time to unwind the points (and perhaps apologize for the havoc). NTs expect me to be less over the top, but it’s only through regular, repeated internal work that I can find my way back out of the maze to be able to verbally, appropriately express my point. Above average intelligence is useful, but it wears me out to have to apply it to analyze emotional things. Fortunately I’ve had the sense to live in the mountains surrounded by forest, so I have good company who are patient with my overwrought expressions and calmly hold the space for me to find answers until the next round.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Beautifully expressed. My thoughts definitely arrive by swallow. It is exhausting working everything out all the time. Thank you for a fascinating comment.

      Like

    1. It is more than alright😊. I very much hope that it helps them understand a bit better. We are all working to make the world a better place for the autistic children growing up now.

      Thank you so much 💐

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “New places will need more analysing, if I’ve been there before then I’ve already marked out what is important and what isn’t.” This tells me a lot about what might be going on inside my son’s head in a new place, and his preference for the familiar. Who wouldn’t prefer the familiar when the unfamiliar requires so much work! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are very welcome! I’m glad it helps. Anything that makes life less work, also makes life more enjoyable! I know the more I prepare for new places (by looking at photos and maps) the more I can enjoy them. But there will always be so much more I can do when the place is familiar.

      Liked by 2 people

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    Like

  9. I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve offered for your post. They are very convincing and will definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are too brief for beginners. May just you please extend them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

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