Anxiety, Ambiguity, and Autistic Perception

This piece on interviewing autistics had me nodding along in self-recognition. It me.

I relate deeply to every point in the article, but this one acknowledges a fundamental aspect of my being that contributes to all other points:

While the autistic individual is interviewing, they will often be acutely self-aware and preoccupied by their own nervousness and internal coaching, and be simultaneously experiencing two conversations at once—one that is shared aloud between the interviewer and interviewee, and one that is an ongoing internal dialogue. Often the internal voice will overshadow the external conversation and, as a result, gaps of time in the interview will be lost. What might appear as being not being present or distracted, is typically the individual attempting to balance the internal voice with the external conversation.

Source: 533: Interviewing Autistic Individuals – Everyday Asperger’s

That ever-present internal voice is of an ever-present witness, a not-so-fair “fair witness” that audits every moment and thought, flipping through lenses and spinning self-critical narratives in real time.

Candidates on the spectrum will sometimes panic with open-ended questions, as most are very quick thinkers, able to connect information at rapid speed and reach multiple conclusions in a matter of seconds. While deliberating over a question, the candidate is also contemplating about what the interviewer expects, wants, and is hinting at. The more specific and direct a question, the better.

Source: 533: Interviewing Autistic Individuals – Everyday Asperger’s

The “reach multiple conclusions” part is significant. My mind is an ambiguity finder. I sometimes wish I could turn down or turn off my ambiguity sensitivity. When you see many interpretations and conclusions, social interactions are harder. Interviews are harder. Standardized tests—loaded with bias and assumption and often purposefully bereft of context—are harder. What others comfortably and even thoughtlessly assume, I analyze obsessively, dowsing intention and expectation.

Autistic perception is the direct perception of the forming of experience. This has effects: activities which require parsing (crossing the street, finding the path in the forest) can be much more difficult. But there is no question that autistic perception experiences richness in a way the more neurotypically inclined perception rarely does.

Source: Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm – Los Angeles Review of Books

“The direct perception of the forming of experience.” There’s that internal voice, that witness. I am heavily instrumented code with breakpoints on every instruction. I’m plugged into my own JTAG witnessing myself experience experience. I’m prone to recursions and loops unwound only by passing out from adrenal exhaustion.

Such an operating system finds ambiguity everywhere. We humans communicate in assumptions, tropes, and defaults, in bundles of scripts, habits, and expectations. What usually goes unacknowledged is that these “literacies are plural and context-dependent.” I suspect many autistic people intuit this on some level because we navigate a world not set up for us, one that assumes sociality and sensory processing not our own.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois says that blacks have a sort of doubleness in them not found among whites. Blacks cannot just “be themselves,” but must always think about how they are being perceived by whites. This creates a sense that you are always of two minds: that you are not only thinking and doing, but that you are thinking about how others perceive you, and adjust accordingly. Whites never have to deal with this. Being the majority and having the majority power, they can just be themselves without worry about how anybody is thinking about them.

Du Bois would probably not be surprised if he learned that other minorities were put in similar situations in the U.S., but it probably didn’t occur to him that there were people out there with different kinds of minds, and that they too would develop such a doubleness.

I know all about this double-mindedness, because I experience it constantly. I not only have to think about what I’m going to say or do, but I have to think about how others might take it. I can either just say or do whatever I want as I want and hope that I don’t do something that will set people off, or I can always consciously think about everything I say or do before I say or do it, testing against what I expect the expectations are (and hoping I’m getting those right). If it takes me a moment to respond to something, it’s because I’m going through all this nonsense to make sure I don’t say or do something wrong.

Source: On the Double-Mindedness Developed Among the Different – An Intense World

The profusion of expectations and ambiguities that others sail over on a buoy of assumption overwhelms me. Whereas they accept them unconsciously, I do something akin to a real-time, zero-based audit of the assumptions coming at me: interrogating them against context and the people present, sussing intention and expectation, looking for the landmines and sinkholes, the ethnocentricities and neurotypicalisms. What look like detached “gaps of time” (as in the interview example) are very busy and very connected with moment and context.

We’re surrounded by ambiguity in everyday life. Words not only have multiple meanings, but the context in which we use words can greatly change their meaning. Even words that both sound the same and are spelled the same way can be understood very differently depending upon context.” Ambiguity is a generative, creative, and productive continuum ranging from the quiet assumptions of the quotidian to Poe’s law. The continuum is rife with dead metaphors rapidly accumulating with the exponential growth of networks. What are the assumptions of the person talking to me? What are their “normal” and their “common sense”? What memes flash through their minds when consulting their personal heuristics? What is their lived experience, and what are their triggers? What, for example, is the worldview of this white, male, abled, neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual interviewer who knows little of marginalized experience and accepts the defaults of a life lived at the lowest difficulty setting? The ambiguities and assumptions sluicing off his words weight the moment with an anxious, gravid humidity.

The hardest part to navigate is not so much the teeming ambiguity; it’s the assumption. It’s the self-centering, automatic and unaware, that reduces ambiguity to an ethnocentric “right answer” or “right behavior” and leaves little room for autistic sociality. Instead of “foregrounding complexity as the baseline”, we bury it with myths of normality that create structural barriers and exclude people. We pathologize and marginalize the minds and bodies that sense ambiguity and assumption the most deeply and feel their results the most acutely. So much is lost in the reduction. Acknowledging ambiguity, multiple literacies, and multiple socialities renders the terrain more passable rather than less. “Ambiguity is actually something to be embraced rather than to be avoided”. It is “an inevitable feature of human discourse”. Compassionately accepting our ambiguities and differing literacies means less masking and passing and burning out—and better communication.

Overcoming mutual incomprehension and better understanding each other requires unpacking a lot of ambiguity and assumption. Bridging the double empathy gap takes work, starting with recognition that ”empathy is not an autistic problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a deficit in imagination.” Reflecting on my own experiences and those of others in the #ActuallyAutistic community—particularly with regard to empathy—I posit that the autistic tendency for rabbitholing and getting expository while in conversation is, in part, an urge to unpack ambiguity, acknowledge assumption, cross the empathy gap, and be understood.

Often times, the autistic job candidate will want to be seen, heard and understood; as is such, it is commonplace for an jobseeker to provide information that the interviewer many not deem appropriate, necessary, or beneficial. Most autistics will in fact share thoughts and insights to their own detriment, unable to stop the need to be transparent and forthcoming.

Source: 533: Interviewing Autistic Individuals – Everyday Asperger’s

Interviewing Autistic Individuals describes me. I identify with every point. I’ll conclude this with a few more to which I particularly relate. Anxiety and ambiguity, these go to 11.

Partaking in an interview can cause extreme stress for days before the interview. The interview process will more likely than not be over-thought and imagined repeatedly, with multiple outcomes and scenarios. The candidate on the spectrum will typically relive the actual interview itself, repeatedly after the event.

What might appear as a simple ‘not a fit’ or ‘no thank you,’ to the hiring agent, can be devastatingly crushing to a person with autism. It’s common to obsess over the reasons for failure and to catastrophize the outcome, incorporating all-or-nothing thinking, and self-torture, in the form of repetitive, obsessive thoughts regarding the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs.’

Before an interview, some candidates on the spectrum will create scenarios in their mind of failure and miscommunication, and have fear of not being able to express their true intentions and true self. They often have a fear of not appearing genuine and honest enough.

Some autistics will have little to no trouble expressing self in various communication venues. But the large majority will have specific triggers to communication that can bring on various outcomes, including panic attacks, insomnia, inconsolable anxiety, and nonstop, rapid thinking.

In most cases, people on the spectrum communicate better in written form with time to process, rethink, and edit thoughts and ideas, than spoken form. When possible, some type of written assessment ought to be utilized during recruitment screening, such as an essay or instant messaging service.

2 thoughts on “Anxiety, Ambiguity, and Autistic Perception

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