Finding Ourselves on the Autism Spectrum

Archive for April, 2011

Putting things into words

TED 2010 Temple Grandin

Image by redmaxwell via Flickr

OK, I’m sort of having a little “aha” moment here, and the challenge I’m finding getting the moment into words to share actually relates to what the moment is about.

I’m in the middle of watching a very cool speech by Temple Grandin at the TED Conference, which you can find here:

http://www.eileenparker.com/2010/03/temple-grandins-speech-at-the-ted-conference/

Temple is sharing a lot of information about different types of thinkers, and I realized I usually have trouble deciding what kind of thinker I am. I’ve definitely noticed some tendencies. I can take in information through visual, auditory, or other sensory channels, but I have a lot of difficulty attending to more than one channel at a time. I’m not sure I actually ever do attend to more than one channel at a time – I’m just relatively proficient at switching between them, and I tend to switch frequently if I’m not particularly absorbed by something. If I’m listening to someone speak, I may find after a couple minutes of actually attending to what they are saying that my gaze has drifted elsewhere. I have no idea whether other people notice this about me or not. And if I’m concentrating on something visually, it’s hard to hear what anyone is saying to me. If I’m being bothered by something on a more primitive sensory level, it’s a challenge to attend to much of anything else at all.

I have also noticed that I seem to communicate more clearly in words when I can write and edit and change things around – unlike trying to talk to someone in person or on the telephone. I can have a tendency to go overboard with rewriting and correcting myself sometimes, but with no opportunity to do more than one draft, I really have a hard time getting across to another person what seems perfectly clear in my mind, even thought it’s not in words. It probably doesn’t help that I do a lot of my conversing through the day with children and teenagers, who also have a tendency to have lots of only partially-formed thoughts popping out of their mouths. I don’t get so much practice speaking with adults, apart from sharing the latest adventures of our kids, which don’t usually require much editing – just relating of things as they happened.

I don’t plan what I’m going to say as I’m talking, because I can’t really think and talk at the same time. (That doesn’t sound too good, does it? 🙂 ) It works OK when I know ahead of time I’m going to be dealing with a particular issue and have some kind of script for that in my mind to keep me on track. Otherwise, I can be as surprised as anyone by what comes out of my mouth, and I sometimes learn things I didn’t know I knew by hearing myself say them. I’ve actually had some tremendously cool conversations with certain individuals I trust just by talking and listening that way.

So I had been trying to decide if I was more of a language-based, auditory learner – unlike my oldest, Simon, who has shared with me that he sees in pictures or in pictures accompanied by words and gets totally freaked out if the pictures aren’t there, which has happened before under great stress – because I don’t consciously see everything in pictures and sometimes even have trouble forming a visual for things I hear if I don’t already have an associated visual file for that somewhere in my head.  I think I have a lot of trouble translating things that come into my mind from one channel into some other form.

[ A little digression here: When I read a book, I feel a need to have some actual individual’s face in my mind attached to a particular character or I can’t really connect with the book. It’s very helpful if I’ve seen the character portrayed on film or television, because then my mind just goes right to that actor’s face and voice. That works out well for the mystery novels I read, because lots of novels have the same main characters. If I don’t have a ready reference like that, I sometimes just end up choosing some actor I’ve seen in something that reminds me of a particular personality and use that.]

The truth is, I’m not sure I have a handle on how I actually get the impressions that are in my head. I suspect I’m scanning things from a variety of channels (auditory, visual, memory) and then zeroing in on those that interest me in some way.  It makes me think of the Google reader I’ve only recently discovered and started using to keep up with lots of different blogs – I can see parts of a lot of things all together at one time, then just pick out things I want to focus on one at a time.  But the reader holds onto the other updates while I am focusing on just one, whereas in my mind I tend to lose track of anything not in my current view.  I think where words and language come in is when I’m trying to sort through all the images/impressions swirling around in my mind into something that makes sense and can be retained for future use – at least for me, if not other people.

I have this thing about organizing. I get totally geeked walking into an office supply store. I can lose track of hours organizing books on my shelves or files on my computer without actually feeling a need to read any of them at that particular moment. I do read quite a bit, but it’s a completely separate interest for me from filing away information and sources of information. I’ve stored away so many articles on my computer about autism-related issues that don’t directly relate to my life, because I just like having it handy to retrieve in case maybe someone I hear about might be able to use it. Some info is also for myself and my family, but even that needs to be indexed and categorized, because I don’t seem to have any working or long-term memory to speak of. I see something, decide it has value, and immediately want to put it away somewhere where I won’t lose it – with my mind definitely not being a reliable place for storage. I can scan and re-familiarize myself with something extremely quickly once I’ve read it through once, but without going back through after some time has passed, I have a lot of trouble retrieving any relevant information.

This is reminding me of how my husband assured me fairly early into our marriage that I didn’t need to study to retake a driver’s test for my lapsed license, presumably because I was a good driver and an exceptional student, and because he found the test so easy. I had the study materials in my hand, but I didn’t use them, because I favored another person’s perceptions over my own self-knowledge, which I didn’t feel secure in or able to explain. I then proceeded to fail the written test and had to wait to take it again. Ten minutes study was all I needed, but I NEEDED the ten minutes to access that information and to carry me past over-analyzing the language of the questions and trying to process too many different scenarios from every possibility I could imagine.

Now that I’ve written way more than I intended when I first sat down, the point of this whole “aha” moment is that it’s just dawned on me that my focus on language isn’t necessarily because that’s the learning or means of expression that comes most naturally to me. I think it’s actually because it’s my means of trying to sort through and organize everything in my mind that mostly streams into it raw and unprocessed. It’s analogous to being in a messy room – which happens way too much in my home for my peace of mind – and having to sift through and put things away in order to be able to start finding anything. My outer experience is actually mirroring my inner one, which fits in with my overall personal view of the universe, so it somehow makes sense to me.  For now I suppose “that’s all I have to say about that”. 🙂

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