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.

Social Emotional Learning, Psychological Safety, Double Empathy, and the Social Model #3rdchat

I contributed some neurodiverisity, social model of disability, and pigeons of ed-tech perspective to the #3rdchat on social emotional learning. Thanks to the teachers present who very graciously welcomed input from parents.

Q1: What does Social Emotional Learning mean to you? What does it look like in classrooms?

A1: Pardon the intrusion of this parent as I momentarily decloak to offer some neurodiversity, disability, and pigeons of ed-tech perspective and then return to lurking. #3rdchat

https://boren.blog/2017/08/19/mindset-marketing-behaviorism-and-deficit-ideology/

Q2: How do you incorporate SEL with academic learning? How do you find time in your instruction?

A2: The studies Google and others have done on psychological safety are relevant. They talk about social-emotional intelligence of teams and do it without the usual tinge of manipulative behaviorism.

#3rdchat

https://boren.blog/2017/01/11/projects-teams-and-psychological-safety/

https://boren.blog/2017/02/28/affinity-groups-psychological-safety-and-inclusion/

Q3: Many schools have not yet focused on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Why does social emotional learning deserve a place in our schools?

A3: It doesn’t in its mainstream ed-tech form. In that form, it is incompatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability.

https://boren.blog/2017/08/19/mindset-marketing-behaviorism-and-deficit-ideology/

Instead, frame SE and soft skills in terms of psychological safety.

https://boren.blog/2017/01/11/projects-teams-and-psychological-safety/

#3rdchat

Q4: What resources do you use/recommend for educators wanting to use Social Emotional Learning in the classroom?

A4: The SEL of mainstream ed-tech doesn’t understand empathy, far from it. It doesn’t prepare kids to navigate the double empathy problem.

https://boren.blog/2017/09/16/the-double-empathy-problem-developing-empathy-and-reciprocity-in-neurotypical-adults/

Consult the neurodiversity and social model of disability communities. #3rdchat

https://boren.blog/2016/08/09/education-neurodiversity-the-social-model-of-disability-and-real-life/

I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.

We assembled this as a quick introduction for those interacting and working with our neurodivergent, social model family.

Hello teacher, principal, professor, coach, tutor, therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, nurse, doctor, coworker,

I’m autistic. You probably believe some wrong things about me. Myths, misconceptions, and misguided awareness campaigns overwhelm and erase the actual lived experiences of autistic people. Here is what I’d like you to know about me, autism, and my needs.

Contents:

Autism, Society, and Me

Press Play for Perspective

For an introduction to autism and a taste of sensory overwhelm, check out these videos:

For a deeper dive, the entirety of the Ask an Autistic series is great:

“Empathy is not an autistic problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a deficit in imagination.” We can’t truly step into another neurotype, but we can seek story and perspective. These videos offer a taste of what it is like to endure the daily gauntlet of neurotypical questioning. To not respond to questions is to be called rude. To not respond will get you publicly color-coded as an orange or red and denied perks that the compliant NT kids get. To not exchange this social styrofoam is to be a problem. Make it stop. Empathize with what it is like to navigate these interactions while dealing with the sensory overwhelm of raucous environments not designed for you.

Advice to Teachers and Parents of Neurodivergent Kids

Our family follows and recommends this advice:

  • Be patient. Autistic children are just as sensitive to frustration and disappointment in those around them as non-autistic children, and just like other children, if that frustration and disappointment is coming from caregivers, it’s soul-crushing.
  • Presume competence. Begin any new learning adventure from a point of aspiration rather than deficit. Children know when you don’t believe in them and it affects their progress. Instead, assume they’re capable; they’ll usually surprise you. If you’re concerned, start small and build toward a goal.
  • Meet them at their level. Try to adapt to the issues they’re struggling with, as well as their strengths and special interests. When possible, avoid a one-size-fits all approach to curriculum and activities.
  • Treat challenges as opportunities. Each issue – whether it’s related to impulse control, a learning challenge, or a problem behavior – represents an opportunity for growth and accomplishment. Moreover, when you overcome one issue, you’re building infrastructure to overcome others.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. For many parents, school can be a black box. Send home quick notes about the day’s events. Ask to hear what’s happening at home. Establish communication with people outside the classroom, including at-home therapists, grandparents, babysitters, etc. Encourage parents to come in to observe the classroom. In short, create a continuous feedback loop so all members of the caregiver team are sharing ideas and insights, and reinforcing tactics and strategies.
  • Seek inclusion. This one’s a two-way street: not only do autistic children benefit from exposure to their non-autistic peers, those peers will get an invaluable life lesson in acceptance and neurodiversity. The point is to expose our kids to the world, and to expose the world to our kids.
  • Embrace the obsession. Look for ways to turn an otherwise obsessive interest into a bridge mechanism, a way to connect with your students. Rather than constantly trying to redirect, find ways to incorporate and generalize interests into classroom activities and lessons.
  • Create a calm oasis. Anxiety, sensory overload and focus issues affect many kids (and adults!), but are particularly pronounced in autistic children. By looking for ways to reduce noise, visual clutter and other distracting stimuli, your kids will be less anxious and better able to focus.
  • Let them stim! Some parents want help extinguishing their child’s self-stimulatory behaviors, whether it’s hand-flapping, toe-walking, or any number of other “stimmy” things autistic kids do. Most of this concern comes from a fear of social stigma. Self-stimulatory behaviors, however, are soothing, relaxing, and even joy-inducing. They help kids cope during times of stress or uncertainty. You can help your kids by encouraging parents to understand what these behaviors are and how they help.
  • Encourage play and creativity. Autistic children benefit from imaginative play and creative exercises just like their non-autistic peers, misconceptions aside. I shudder when I think about the schools who focus only on deficits and trying to “fix” our kids without letting them have the fun they so richly deserve. Imaginative play is a social skill, and the kids love it.

Source: A parent’s advice to a teacher of autistic kids

  • Instead of intensive speech therapy – we use a wonderful mash-up of communication including AAC, pictures scribbled on notepads, songs, scripts, and lots of patience and time.
  • Instead of sticker charts and time outs, or behavior therapy – we give hugs, we listen, solve problems together, and understand and respect that neurodivergent children need time to develop some skills
  • Instead of physical therapy – we climb rocks and trees, take risks with our bodies, are carried all day if we are tired, don’t wear shoes, paint and draw, play with lego and stickers, and eat with our fingers.
  • Instead of being told to shush, or be still- we stim, and mummies are joyful when they watch us move in beautiful ways.
  • Instead of school – we unschool and can follow our interests, dive deep in to passions, move our bodies, and control our environment

Source: Respectfully Connected | #HowWeDo Respectful Parenting and Support

I just want to do what is best for my child. Can this notion of Neurodiversity help me do that?

Yes, absolutely! The notion of Neurodiversity can allow you to embrace your child for who they are, and it can empower you to look for respectful solutions to everyday problems. It can also help you to raise your child to feel empowered and content in their own skin.

Do you think I am ableist? I thought I was helping my child…


Yes, I think you’re ableist. I think most of us are ableist (even if we are ourselves disabled), and because the social climate is ableist, it takes a lot to question ourselves. They way to be respectful is not about being perfect, but we can question our own ableism so as not to let it interfere with our children and their rights.

That is hard for me to hear. I didn’t think I was ableist and it hurts to be told I am.

That’s fair enough. However, if you want to do what is best for your child you will need to move past that in order to begin to shed this ableism from your everyday reactions and choices.

How does it feel to be autistic?

That is really complex and difficult to answer. I cannot explain that in as much depth as would give you a good knowledge of it, however there are so many autistic writers you can look to for guidance on that. If you are asking me to to describe how I experience life, as compared to how you experience life, this is a huge question.

Is there a quick way to understand all this?

No, not really. The hardest part is challenging yourself and dominant social assumptions. It is a long road but the great thing is that you’re already on it. You’ve started; because you’re questioning yourself.

Source: Respectfully Connected | Neurodiversity Paradigm Parenting FAQs

Rules of Thumb for Inclusive Learning

The following heuristics bring together ideas acquired from neurodiversity, the social model of disability, student-directed learning, passion-based learning, contemporary progressive education, the equity literacy framework, critical pedagogy, critical instruction design, restorative practices, hacker ethos, just culture, and distributed work. Try them when building inclusive spaces and culture.

For more on these rules of thumb, see Rules of Thumb for Human Systems.

Neurodiversity and the Social Model of Disability

Our family often writes on neurodiversity, the social model of disability, and education.