Finding Ourselves on the Autism Spectrum

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:

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? πŸ™‚ ) 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.Β  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.Β  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.Β  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.Β  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.Β  For now I suppose “that’s all I have to say about that”. πŸ™‚

Comments on: "Putting things into words" (22)

  1. Aspergirl Maybe said:

    I have seen that talk; it’s very good. I really admire Temple Grandin, as well as her mother Eustacia Cutler.

    My learning style seems to be all over the map. For instance, I like to read about things but don’t feel like that is enough by itself. If I am going to a class on something, I tend to understand and retain more if I have read the textbook or the speaker’s book or website ahead of time.
    But there are also times where it doesn’t make sense until I see it done or do it myself.

    I learned at a seminar on implementation science that only about 5% of people can attend a workshop and go back and implement what they have learned, even if the workshop included all the things it should to be a good learning experience. The other 95% of us require coaching to truly master a skill. It was fascinating stuff (Dean Fixen if you want to look him up).

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this post. Feel free to “work through stuff” anytime!!

    • That’s interesting about the workshop learning. I do find it difficult to master skills without real coaching. I’m thinking now of my mom finally teaching me how to prepare a full Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago (we had always traveled for the holiday in past years, so I had never needed to learn). I could read the recipes myself, but having her there to point out little things no one thinks to write down and to demonstrate how something looks and feels at different stages and to answer questions as I was actually doing it made it all much clearer to me very quickly.

      Thanks for taking time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

      • Aspergirl Maybe said:

        I think I would need to have my mom on speakerphone the whole day to get through a Thanksgiving meal; luckily; our house isn’t big enough to host the family!

        BTW, I had the gentleman’s name wrong – it’s Dean Fixsen and he is at the National Implementation Research Network ( Not that you have to look it up; I just felt bad that I spelled it wrong the first time!

      • Thankfully I’ve only had to host my parents – same deal with the house not big enough for more. My mom really enjoys helping, because she doesn’t do the whole thing anymore but still remembers a lot, and my dad is one of those people who really, truly appreciates the food that’s made for him. I try and do extra baking when he’s around, too, so he has things to take home with him.

        I will probably look up that info when I get some more time. Thanks for making sure I have the right name.

  2. I really liked Temple’s talk too. It has been a while since I watched it and I forgot about it, I think I will watch it again. All I can really remember is that I thought it was good. πŸ™‚

    I am all over the place with the way I learn as well. When I get into a “loop” in my head it’s because I have consumed so much information through so many means and I am unable to process it, so I automatically go into a stim loop. However, it usually causes me more confusion.

    It is like all of the things I have read and seen are a deck of cards that got thrown in the air, each one has information or an image and they land on the floor, scattered and in chaos. I frantically try to re-organize them according to the subcategory file folders I have in my head and place them back in my filing cabinets labeled in the category I decided it should go. If I do not have an image, face, place whatever to reference, I go in search for some place for it to go or try to figure out what it is in my mind. I have learned to just go look it up or ask questions so I do not spend so much time on it.

    I didn’t do this in the past because I felt so silly asking about things that others seemed to know.

    All of this can be very draining and last for days depending how quickly I can get it all organized. The cards can get thrown all over the place by new experiences or surprises as well.

    I will miss whole chunks of what people are saying because I get fixated on something visually, a smell or a word that they said that I am trying to find an image for. I did this to David just the other day, he had been talking for about 10 min. before I realized that he was talking, he thought I was looking and listening to him the whole time but I was actually looking at a reflection on the fish tank. When I realized he was talking to me I said “Oh, my I just missed everything you said, what?” He thought that was funny. Thankfully!

    I have to have images of people too if I read a fiction book, I will think of someone or I find a picture of the author and place them as the main character. I feel like I am in the book observing the whole thing, it plays like a movie in my head.

    I am glad you wrote about this it has helped me to work through some stuff too and understand my mind a bit better. πŸ™‚ Sorry if I went off on a tangent, now I have a ton of words! πŸ™‚

    • I’m glad you have lots of words. πŸ™‚ It helps me to get other people’s take on this. I think the key is learning what you need and how to find a way to get it, even if that means asking someone for help or just explaining your situation. I miss parts of conversations all the time. My poor husband still tends to assume that I’ve heard and retained things just because he has said them somewhere in my vicinity. When I do catch myself drifting, I try and go back and ask people to repeat whatever I’ve just missed, but sometimes I’m not even aware that it’s happened. I wonder how much stress that adds to my son’s situation, constantly being confronted by things he’s supposed to have heard or seen but didn’t.

  3. Hi Diane-firstly, sorry I haven’t been here..the link that I had for you-wasn’t the new one..sigh..I thought I had changed it on my blog I have the right one..there..I feel better..

    I do the same exact thing with books. I always visualize faces for the characters-if a movie should be made after I had read a book..I am always surprised by the actor who is cast as the main never fits the one that I had in my head. πŸ™‚

    I never gave much thought to how I thought or communicated-until I had kids. Like you-most of my day to day conversations are mainly with, sometimes I feel like I have forgotten how to speak to adults outside of my home. Sometimes I wonder, if maybe I was never any good at it-and that having kids and being a SAHM just made me more aware?

    • Hi, Kathleen.

      I find myself examining a lot of things about myself since learning I had a child on the spectrum. Between suspicion of my own spectrummy issues, relating to this whole PTSD for autism moms concept I’ve heard about on other blogs, and how I live daily life with a bunch of other stress factors thrown in – I seriously have trouble telling what stuff has always been me and what is just my reaction to my circumstances over the past several years. However it came to be, I don’t seem to have a lot of attention or patience for grown up talk these days and find myself much more comfortable talking to kids.

      Glad you found me. Nice of you to take time to comment.

  4. Diane,
    I saw this video a while back, but i just watched part of it again. I think my daughter thinks in a combination of musical patterns and verbal mind. I love what Temple Grandin said about how if there were no autism people would still be sitting around the fire. I told someone almost the exact same thing today.

    I think I learn more by doing so you process of writing to help you figure something out makes sense to me. Thank you for another insightful post.

  5. I have difficulty figuring my type out too. I am definitely not a visual learner, at least not when it comes to assembling things or using maps. That said, if I read something, it sticks with me typically. Pictures help sometimes but not as much as words. I think I’m kind of a hodge podge….

    P.S. thanks for supporting my LEGO social club! I appreciate it!

    • I’m a bit eclectic in my interests, so I suppose it fits that I’m eclectic with my learning type, too. πŸ™‚

      The LEGO club is a great idea. I hope it goes well. My boys are nuts for Legos, and I saw a news magazine program somewhere that showed research that even boys who are not on the spectrum have a better time with communicating when they are busy doing some activity like that (rather than just trying to sit and talk).

  6. Hey, I wanted to check in and see if you’re doing okay! I miss reading your posts!

    • Hi, Kim.

      Thanks for checking in. I have what amounts to a new part-time job now on top of my usual responsibilities, and it’s all I can do to find time to read a few blogs and comment on an occasional blog or two at this point. Our business has just made a change from a service provider that was causing lots of extra hassles, so I still have some hope that things will slow down a bit in a while – of course, by then, my children may be home for summer break πŸ™‚


  7. Hello Diane, I hope all is going well for you. I’m rather late with this comment.

    I find I can’t read or write if someone is talking within earshot. This could be my wife talking on the phone downstairs, the radio playing downstairs, or two or more people conversing. The words I am hearing will get mixed up with the text on the page, or with what I am trying to compose in my head, and it’s just a big jumbled mess. So I keep ear protectors by my desk, and even earplugs for more difficult volume levels.

    And I would find it very hard, if I were doing a painting, to have any words coming in my ears. I would need absolute silence, with the possible exception of an instrumental piece playing quietly in the background (but silence would always be my first choice when concentrating on working with my hands).

    And for me, also, writing is an easier way to communicate than the pressure of first-draft face-to-face conversations.

    I have great visuals. I can build a sailboat in my mind, or draw a steam locomotive with great detail. But I have difficulty putting a face to a character in a book. I think this is why I virtually never read fiction. And I think the reason is that in real life I don’t look at faces, and when I do, they don’t stick in my memory. When I was a kid I would draw steam engines in my school notebooks but never faces. I noticed that when the girls doodled they tended to draw people. I have often thought it would be good for me to practice painting some portraits just to familiarize myself, if possible, with the human face (at 66 years of age, better late than never!).

    And those β€œquestions” on tests and surveys – they are often open to various interpretations which couldn’t possibly have occurred to the author of the question! Being able to see that does make answering more of a chore! πŸ™‚

    • HI, Bruce.

      Thanks for taking the time to put together such a thoughtful comment. I took me some time to see this. I’ve been busy with some new work responsibilities, and it’s taking a lot of time to sort out how to integrate those with the rest of my life and to get back to reading blogs and comments.

      I’m curious whether you have the same difficulty drawing faces when looking at picture or another person’s drawing, rather than from memory or a face in front of you. I read in a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that putting an image upside down can help the brain to shift and help individuals produce better drawings, because it forces the mind to stop trying to categorize or draw what it believes it should be seeing and to just draw the lines and shapes that are actually in front of it. I experimented a little with this and some other techniques in the book a long time ago and did see a noticeable improvement, although I had no natural drawing ability to begin with, so anything would have been an improvement. πŸ™‚

      As for auditory distractions, I think my auditory sensitivity and my difficulty processing more than one channel of input at a time are going to be greatly challenged when I’m fulfilling these new work responsibilities and soon find all my children home for the summer. I could already see new difficulties having my middle son home (but not really all that sick) for several days this past week, and then again while watching a friend’s spectrum child for a morning. Children’s needs don’t fall on a schedule. πŸ™‚ I also have difficulty with remembering what I was doing previously after experiencing an interruption of any kind, so this became a real challenge this past week. I can just see my whole summer being an extended version of experiencing these challenges and finding ways to accomodate my needs and those of my children. Whenever I do find time to put together another blog post, I have a feeling that may be my topic.

      Always good to hear from you. Thanks again for stopping by.

      • Hi Diane,

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply, and for the drawing tips. I may try that if I ever get my art supplies out again.

        To answer your question about drawing faces: if there is a face in front of me I can draw it as I would any other object – by rendering lines, contours, shading, etc.. But I don’t seem to have a stock of faces in memory, the way I do have a stock of steam engine and sailboat images. My family would be an exception, as would anyone with whom I’ve had repeated contact. I can see their faces more clearly.

        And because, when young, I wasn’t interested in drawing/painting faces, I didn’t develop the skills that come with practice.

        I was in the bank a couple of days ago dealing with a new teller. Immediately after I left the bank I could only remember a very vague, foggy, image of her face. I think this is because I tend to not look at faces, I focus elsewhere when I am generating a response to a question.

        I hope you find a way to manage all the inputs over the summer.


      • That’s very interesting. I can see familiar faces in my mind, too, but would have no idea where to draw lines to reproduce them without being able to stare at them very still for a long time. And now that I think about it, it seems like I have to see someone several different times before their face will really come to mind for me if I’m just trying to picture it from memory. I’m usually so focused on just trying to muddle through whatever social interaction is happening that physical characteristics and even usually names tend to go right by me. I hope I never have to give a description of anyone to the police – I’m sure I’d be fairly useless. πŸ™‚

        Thanks for the support. Knowing there are others out there who deal with some of the same challenges gives me courage to keep trying and exploring different ways to approach things.

        Take care.


  8. testing again

  9. Hi πŸ˜€ Just to let you know, I’ve put a link to your blog on my page called “My Blogging Friends” πŸ˜€

    Hope you’re having a good weekend,
    Chloe xx

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