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The Autistic Sensory System and Patterns of Thoughts and Emotions

Often, people do not realize the sensory system includes movement. While it is easy to understand physical movement because we can readily see it, it is harder to understand the many impacts of internal sensory movement that is part of autistic daily life. The unseen areas of sensory movement differences impact thoughts, perceptions, emotions and memories.

Patterns become important to many people with autism. The patterns of movement outside our bodies often allow us access to our own ability to move, think and participate in the social fabric that is the world we live in. I have less of a cognitive load when I can simply discern and hook into the movement and patterns around me. The following example shows the importance of contextual or environmental sensory movement patterns having to do with internal repeating thought and emotion patterns. The myriad ways the autistic sensory system works both in our favor and against us seems to be largely unknown by most humans. Even so, I am not the only autistic who has articulated these things.

Personal Example:

I use the movement of things outside of me for purposes of thinking and of processing feelings. Recently, autistic friends have let me know that most people in the world do not do this and yet, my experience tells me this is a rather common autistic phenomenon.

Thinking

My thoughts are all in colors and pictures. Usually there are sounds attached, but not always. To think I need a way for the colors and pictures to move. When my sensory system is calm and integrated the thoughts sometimes move on their own accord. When my thoughts are not moving or moving too slowly I simply borrow from the archives. This means that my words come from something previously thought about and stored. I just pull from the archives and run the script. Sometimes I wonder if this is simply a form of echolalia.

When I am a little bit disregulated I am able to pull from the archives and run the scripts, speaking aloud their words, pretty fluidly. I doubt most people realize the thoughts are not original, but instead historical. As I become more disregulated I have higher probability of pulling something from the archives that isn’t a particularly good match for the current conversation. I also have an increasingly narrow swatch of the archives available to see and pull from. The best match from the limited swatch is at best not relevant and at worst downright offensive to those around me. It is one reason why I work hard at staying regulated – I want the lowest probability of unintentionally offending friends and co-workers in my day-to-day life.

Emotions

My emotions are also in colors and pictures, sometimes with sound and always with a high degree of movement. The more intense the emotion the more patterned the movement of colors and pictures become. Emotions that arise from interactions with others can get really big really fast. The colors and movement pattern of the emotions are infused with snapshots of the current situation. As the pattern of color movement happens, portions of the snapshot are stretched and highlighted. When the emotions are positive the stretching and highlighting of the snapshots are generally either amusing or very beautiful. When the emotions are negative it makes the snapshots look similar to horror movie scenes with grotesque exaggerations.

The visual emotion scenario my brain creates runs in a predictable sequence over and over, each time through with an increasing vividness. Thus, a good and positive sequence can become quite nice and very relaxing and generate soft feelings towards others that are in the pictures, while a difficult or negative sequence becomes more and more horrifying as the loop cycles over and over. This is how I experience emotions.

The Patterns of Thoughts and Emotions

Besides my thoughts and emotions being comprised of colors and pictures and their sounds and movements they also occur in the context of unlimited patterns and combinations of patterns. I do not have control of the patterns any more than I have control of the colors, pictures, sounds or movement. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I am unaware of any control. I am always hopeful that one day I will be able to exert control over some of this internal thinking and feeling process as I imagine that would make for an easier time interfacing with people around me.

The patterns are important, because whether in thought or in emotion, that is where I can impact a change. When I have a friend who will listen to my thoughts or is willing to hear the same patterned emotional story, after several times through I can latch onto something – usually a snippet of color or movement that comes with their words – that becomes helpful in breaking up the pattern and heading towards a new or different pattern. Practically, this means I am able to shift an emotion or incorporate new words or ideas into my thinking.

Most of my friends are not able to hang in there beyond the second or third pattern repeat. If it is a thought pattern I am attempting to repeat they stop me and tell me I have already told them my views. Sometimes I am perceived as stubborn and con- trolling because I am saying the same thing over without incorporating their ideas. This makes them feel like I am talking at them rather than with them about the topic at hand. As soon as I recognize this I stop, but typically the damage has already been done in terms of how people view me. When I am in the midst of an emotion pattern I repeat the visual loop I am seeing over and over. My friends report they feel they are not helpful as I am just repeating myself and not taking their words into consideration. They tell me they feel they are wasting their time because I am not listening. Typically, they walk away in frustration.

The Resolution of Difficult Thought and Emotion Patterns

Most friends are not able to be helpful to me in interrupting my negative thought or emotion patterns only because they do not see that sticking with me while I replay the pattern might be helpful. Most friends seem to need to be able to make a positive impact the first time through. Really good friends allow a second or third round of my repeating pattern, but then do not see any benefit in continuing on in a cycle they seem unable to be helpful in altering.

Because people are generally not very helpful to me in changing the patterns of negative thoughts or emotions I have other ways that are helpful. All of the helpful things for me involve some sort of movement outside of me that has either nature sound or no sound attached to it. When I put myself in these contexts I allow the thought or emotion pattern to run repeatedly until some element of movement outside that pattern presents itself in a way that my neurology can latch onto. Once this happens, the thought or emotion pattern can start to change. Sometimes this can happen in a few hours, but most of the time it takes several days. It is hard work. There are a few thought and emotion patterns that I have been trying to interrupt and change for years.

If I do not have lots of energy I find it helpful to be outdoors. Sometimes going for a walk, other times just sitting outdoors in solitude watching the patterns of nature is helpful. Eventually, something in nature’s pattern will hook into the thought or emotion pattern and effect a positive change.

If I have more energy I can read a book or engage in creating a work of art. This allows for the same result of something in the pattern of the reading or the act of creating to hook into the thought or emotion pattern to effect a positive change.

The interesting thing about this is that generally I become cognitively aware before my thought or emotion pattern changes. For example, if I misunderstood something with a friend that produced a negative emotion pattern and then discuss it with my friend, I will cognitively understand my friend’s perspective before I am able to interrupt the emotion pattern.

Practically, this means that even though I understand my friend’s words and the words do inform me that the pattern I have running is now faulty, my neurology will continue to repeat the pattern and to experience the negative upsetting emotions until some movement pattern outside me can interrupt and change that internal pattern. My friends sometimes interpret this as me not being able to take their perspective. I know it looks like I am stubbornly hanging onto my false take on the situation even though my friend has told me their take on it. It is exasperating to them. It is to me, too.

Even though I understand their words and their perspective the pattern of thought or emotion is still running. It is more dominant and powerful than I care for it to be and I am not able to will it away. Believe me, I’ve tried! Instead, I need to work with it by finding some other movement to hook into that will serve to interrupt and change the pattern to match my newer cognitive understanding.

Here is a poem from my childhood that illustrates using a movement pattern in nature to be able to think about my thoughts from the day. When the pattern of nature’s movement was over, so was my ability to continue thinking. At the time I wrote this poem I did not have the words to explain it further than the words of the poem. Today I do. That is progress – slow – 60 plus years in the making, but progress in understanding my own autistic neurology! (Note: I no longer see myself as an alien who does not belong on this planet, but did back then.)

Dog Walk Air Colors

brown, soft hush puppy skin folds swaying too and fro as short legged clippety-clops echo off the sidewalk

the pink-yellow air of a going down sun
allow the girl and the dog forward walking room into the future

by providing a reliable unchanging pattern of air color rhythm every night after day, every day after night
predictably reliable over and over, again and again

the girl lent the air colors a space inside her adopting the yellow-pink air
along with it’s early-time night of lavender-blue to herself

then…
tying the dog by his house she went back inside her alien self to hide from a world she didn’t belong to and was not a part of

but one from which she could see and borrow dog walk air colors to become for a moment something bigger than the alien girl that she was (Endow, 2006, p. 100)

Selection adapted from Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology

Note: The author is autistic, intentionally uses identity-first language (rather than person-first language), and invites the reader, if interested, to do further research on the preference of most autistic adults to refer to themselves using identity-first language.

BOOKS BY JUDY ENDOW

Endow, J. (2019).  Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology.  Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012).  Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006).  Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013).  Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009).  Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009).  Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010).  Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013).  The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Social Participation and the Autistic Sensory System

Every time autistic people interface with the world outside their skin they bring along their sensory system that is often unstable and foists many unexpected experiences upon them. The solutions we employ to deal with the many sensory assaults we experience in social envi- ronments are coded by others as “behaviors.” This is because other people cannot see the inside workings of our sensory system. They can only see the outward behaviors we display as we respond to our inner experience. The following is about one experience of eating at a restaurant, but it is easy to understand that most social participation for an autistic means managing a sensory system that is often unreliable.

Here is an example from my own autistic life:

Lots of people like to eat out. I do, too. Because of my sensory sensitivities, I have learned to reduce certain input to the best of my ability in restaurants so as to better enjoy the experience.

It is impossible to control for all sensory sensitivities at a restaurant. However, I have learned to scan the place and figure out what I can do to make it the best experience possible. A recent gathering was wonderful because the restaurant was spacious with plenty of room between tables, very few diners, soft lighting, soft music and chairs with arms. The perfect sort of place for me!

When the atmosphere isn’t so perfect, I ask for a booth if the place has booths. A booth ensures that nobody will walk behind me and surprise me, causing a startle reaction. A tall-backed booth greatly cuts down the noise. If a booth is not available, I ask to be seated along the perimeter of the dining room.

If there are blinking lights, TVs or lots of movement, I know I will get dizzy. Chairs with arms are great to help me stay anchored. Even if I don’t get dizzy, I often have trouble feeling where my body is located in crowded noisy places. If I don’t have a chair with arms, I will find something to lean at least one side of me against – wedge in with the table or, if in a booth, lean against a wall or a willing friend.

There usually isn’t much a person can modify about lights in a restaurant, but I try to avoid downlights if at all possible. Sitting on the perimeter of the dining room helps reduce the noise input. There is not the surround sound with a wall behind you!

Friends will often suggest I use my earplugs in a restaurant. I realize they have never tried wearing earplugs while eating! It magnifies the noise of your chewing so much that it is nearly impossible to eat. I control for whatever I can in a given environment and then do my best to cope with the rest. Sometimes I do better than other times.

One time I was on a trip with friends. Each morning we ate breakfast in the hotel dining room before setting out for the day. One particular morning, I couldn’t make up my mind about what to order. The waitress came back several times to see if I was ready to order. My thoughts were “sticky,” meaning I would get part way through a thought of what to order and then lose the thought, only to have it butt in on the next thought that involved the next menu item. It was frustrating. I know it made me look like I needed lots more help than I actually did.

When the waitress returned once again and I still did not have my order ready, I wanted her to understand that I wasn’t trying to be difficult and blurted out as way of explana- tion, “I am really not as stupid as I look!”

The waitress acted all flustered. I felt bad because I had no negative intent towards her – just wanted to offer an explanation of sorts about my situation. In retrospect, I should have left well enough alone, but wanting to smooth over the situation when the waitress was apologizing and saying she didn’t mean to rush me, I very supportively replied, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I know that you are probably not as smart as you look either.”

I tell this story so you can know our good intentions are not always conveyed by the words that come out of our mouths. This is especially true when we are on sensory overload or having trouble with movement in our thoughts or in our bodies. Please remember – we are doing the best that we can, given the neurology of our autism.

Selection adapted from Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology

Note: The author is autistic, intentionally uses identity-first language (rather than person-first language), and invites the reader, if interested, to do further research on the preference of most autistic adults to refer to themselves using identity-first language.

BOOKS   BY JUDY ENDOW

Endow, J. (2019).  Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology.  Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012).  Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006).  Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013).  Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009).  Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009).  Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010).  Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013).  The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

 

The Problem of Attributing Negative Intentionality to Autistic Behavior

Problems arise when we attribute willfulness to behavior of an autistic and then regard it as fact. One problem is that because it is not willful on the part of the autistic, when the assumptions of “won’t” or “doesn’t want to” are erroneously made, it is a difficult (if not impossible) platform on which to start a positive relationship with another human being. Just like it is difficult for any human being to learn skills, feel comfortable and thrive when those around him think poorly of him, so is it for autistics.

Another problem arises when behaviors observed are stated in language ascribing intentional negative attribute or willfulness to the autistic such as “he won’t” or “she refuses to” in that it can undermine problem solving the kinds of supports that might be helpful.

Classroom Example

Here is an example based on the assumption of classroom staff that a student did not want to listen or join conversations of non-interest.

I was called in to see 5-year-old Max who was throwing toys at his classmates. When the classmates reacted in a negative manner such as shouting, “Stop that, Max!” or crying, Max would laugh and throw another toy at this child. Even though Max was getting negative feedback from his peers, it seemed to encourage him rather than deter him as evidenced by the increasing frequency of his behavior of throwing toys at his classmates.

When I asked the team if Max had a way to initiate conversation or request a classmate to play with him I was quickly assured that Max did not like to engage with other children and was given several examples such as he wandered around during Circle Time, never joining in and when the students did stations where they engaged in a variety of play activities in small groups, Max was never interested in their conversations or activities. Instead he picked up items in the station and threw them at the other students.

This team was stuck in their ability to solve the problem. When the neuromajority team members observed Max’s behavior their own neurology informed them. If they them- selves had been wandering around during Circle Time or throwing toys at their class- mates it would mean that they did want to listen or join in conversations or that the play wasn’t interesting to them. The team members were unaware that their own neurology was the base from which they tried to solve the problem.

The lens our neurology uses to look through at a particular situation outside of us is just that – the lens of our own neurology, propelling us to ask what would this behavior mean were I engaged in it? Our brain tabulates this information and provides us a sense making explanation without us even consciously thinking in this way or even being aware of the process! Yet, it is important to know our brains automatically problem solve for us in this manner even though we are not aware of our brains doing so.

It is important to understand when we make neuromajority attributions to autistics we are generally wrong AND it can cause us to become stuck in our own problem solving concerning the situation. This team hadn’t even considered the possible communicative intent of Max’s behavior because they thought Max was not at all interested in communication with his classmates or with anyone.

When Max’s behavior was reframed as misguided attempts to initiate conversation and join in play this same team of people became great problem solvers! A month later when I returned to the classroom I observed Max affixing the Velcro cloud to the weather square during Circle Time and then sitting on the masking tape X – his visual spot to sit at Circle Time.

Follow Up

Three months later I observed Max choosing a visual mini schedule from the available options, each option sequentially outlining a way to play at the kitchen station. The mini schedule showed him exactly what to do and in what order at the station. First a pan with eggs on the stove, next a spatula removing the egg from the pan, then putting it on a plate, and last saying, “Here is an egg to eat,” while placing the egg on the table. Another student sat down and pretended to eat the egg.

Conclusion

Max had received direct instruction on what to do at Circle Time and what to do at the kitchen station. It turned out he really was interested and did want to join in the conversations and activities in the classroom. He just did not have the skills to do so. Once the skills were taught and his neurology supported he was able to join in with his classmates in a more effective and satisfying way than to throw toys at them and laugh.

This story shows the errors we can make when ascribing negative intentionality and willfulness to behaviors of autistics.

Selection from Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology

Note: The author is autistic, intentionally uses identity-first language (rather than person-first language), and invites the reader, if interested, to do further research on the preference of most autistic adults to refer to themselves using identity-first language.

BOOKS  BY JUDY ENDOW

Endow, J. (2019). Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology.Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult.Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006). Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009). Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go.Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013). The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment.  Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Non-Fluid Speech and Autism

I am a speaking autistic woman. Even so, I rarely have fluid access to my speech. Often times I have in mind something I would like to discuss with a friend so as to get their thoughts and ideas on the topic, but even though I know what I want to discuss the words are not available as speaking words. Oh, I know the words – they are in my head – I just cannot get them to come out of my mouth at will.

This often poses difficulties for me. One example is when I am with my friends who I consider to be brilliant in the field of autism. Most of the time I am with them for a purpose so we have an already planned agenda with little time for novel thoughts and musings sorts of discussions. We are all busy people in our professional and in our personal lives. Rarely is there time to get together for no reason at all – the times when I am most able to get the ideas in my head out through my mouth in speaking words.

Because I talk – and I can talk a lot – people who do not know me well are unaware of this difficulty.

People can easily see movement difficulties that are physical such as when a person has difficulty getting through a doorway or get stuck in a repetitive movement. However, nobody can see when the movement difficulty is internal such as words that cannot come out as speaking words at the time you wish to say them (Endow, 2013).

Over the years I have come up with several strategies to encourage the speaking words out of my head. The reason I need several strategies to try is that I never know which one might work when and sometimes, even though I try all the strategies, I still have no success. Here are the three main strategies that sometimes work for me to get the ideas in my head to come out as speaking words:

  • Begin speaking any words. Sometimes this allows the words I really want to speak to hook onto the random words and thus be carried out of my head through my mouth as spoken words. When the strategy doesn’t work at least I get credit for “being social” – an area I can easily get “down graded” in if not putting forth effort.
  • Use a research article that has some aspect I can use as a launching pad. Some- times if I can start speaking about a research article related to my thoughts, the ideas in my head can hook onto this with corresponding words coming out of my mouth. When the strategy doesn’t work at least the conversation was about some new and interesting research.
  • Use written words. Sometimes if I write down the words I wish to speak, then, when I am with the person I want to have the conversation with, I can pop up the picture of the piece of paper I wrote the words on and by seeing this in my head I am able to “read” the words as a launching into the conversation I wish to initiate. When the strategy doesn’t work nobody can tell because they cannot see the picture in my head so I do not get “faulted” socially.

I wrote about this last strategy more than twenty years ago. It was first published as a poem in my first book Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers (Endow, 2006). A few years later this one written poem became the catalyst that allowed the words of an entire new book called Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism (Endow, 2009b) to be written. Here is that poem. Notice the unusual spacing. The empty spaces represent the pause in time it takes, even when writing, for the next word to come in so I might write it down. As you read please contemplate how internal movement differences might impact autistic individuals you know.

Paper Words

Paper words
                can be heard
                              so speak up ink
                                             and say them!

Speaking words
                are burdensome;
                              they get her
                                             lost      and tangled.

When speaking        words
                 two people should
                              take their turns
                                             to say them.

Start words                now 
                 then stop                   and wait
                              and listen                   some
                                             adds up to conversation.

But,     starting words
                 and     stopping them;
                               and                 seeing faces

                 is much          too much
                              to keep track             of
                                              when having                conversation.

So,                  paper words
                 are much preferred.
                                Speak up ink;
                                               now say them!

Listen people
                 to the ink;
                                you won’t get
                                               lost or             tangled!

NOTE: This selection comes from the bookAutistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology.

BOOKS   BY JUDY ENDOW 

Endow, J. (2019).  Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic NeurologyLancaster, PA: Judy Endow. 

Endow, J. (2012).  Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing. 

Endow, J. (2006).  Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press. 

Endow, J. (2013).  Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press. 

Endow, J. (2009).  Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing. 

Endow, J. (2009) . Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing. 

Endow, J. (2010).  Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing. 

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013).  The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment.  Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing. 

Reading Comprehension, Perspective Taking, and an Autistic Solution

Is perspective taking important to reading comprehension? Of course it is! Understanding why characters are behaving in certain ways is crucial to comprehension. We also need to be able to understand that different characters have different perspectives and to be able to shift back and forth between characters and their particular perspectives. Because of this, in reading and in life in general, autistics are often admonished to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

To say something like, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” assumes a shared experience in the way we think and handle information. That is likely not the case when it comes to autistics, meaning that because their brains likely do not handle information in a neuromajority manner they do not share your experience. That is why understanding HOW autistics think is crucial to understanding how they can come to comprehend what they read or find their place in a multifaceted, fast paced world.

I am intimately acquainted with this admonition – “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” – because I have heard it all my life! In fact, growing up and during my adult years I have been scolded with this saying because I have not been able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. These scoldings never helped me gain this skill.

Coming to understand how my own brain handles information is what made the difference. Here is how I see it:

Why it doesn’t work for me to take your perspective:

As an autistic, it doesn’t work well for me to try to follow the admonition “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” suggesting that if I do that I will somehow magically wind up understanding exactly how this other person thinks and feels. It seems to me this involves a multistep process.

Step One: To “put myself in someone else’s shoes” means I am supposed to think about how I would feel if I were in the same circumstance.

Step Two: It is assumed that once I think this through, I will have a similar feeling to the neuromajority person.

Step Three: It is thought that I will be able to act, based on my now similar feeling, in a way that will be much appreciated by the neuromajority person experiencing a given circumstance or difficulty.

Looking at these three steps, I am very able to accomplish Step One. I can think about how I would feel if I were in the same circumstance.

Step Two is where the problem comes in, because very often if I were in the same circumstance, because of my autistic thinking style, I would NOT wind up feeling the same way a neuromajority person feels.

Then, when looking at Step Three, yes, I am able to act on MY feelings, but it won’t work out well socially for me because MY feelings likely will NOT match the feelings of the neuromajority. So that is why it doesn’t work out for ME to TAKE your perspective.

Personal Example: Take for example the time I left the home of a friend without say- ing good-bye. We were done visiting, so I left.

Later, I found out my friend’s feelings were hurt because I hadn’t said good-bye; she wondered what she had said or done to deserve what she considered rude treatment. She guessed that she had somehow offended me.

None of this was true for me. I had simply left when the visit was over! No matter how much I think on this, I will never arrive at the same feelings as my friend. So, it will be of no benefit for me to try to put myself in her shoes.

However, I can come to understand how my friend thinks and feels about me leav- ing without saying goodbye and then respond based on her take of the situation, which I have learned to do. I always say goodbye when I leave now – not only with this friend, but with everybody (Endow, 2012)!

For most of my life, people have assumed that I am lacking because I have been unable to take their perspective. The truth is I can come to understand others’ perspective and act on this understanding even though I do not naturally take their perspective. In fact, as an autistic it is not necessary for me to actually TAKE the perspective of others! I only need to understand their perspective to enable me to act in a way that will be socially desirable.

This isn’t rocket science! The ways of the majority is assumed to be “right” and becomes a societal standard. Anyone who doesn’t measure up to the standard is assumed to be deviant or “wrong.” I don’t believe most people even think about this. They are not trying to be mean or in any way think or behave badly to autistics. Instead, it is merely an assumption most peo- ple act on without giving it any, or very little, thought (Endow, 2013).

Solution for Perspective Taking Based on Autistic Thinking Style:

As an autistic, I have learned that when I understand the “majority-is-right” assumption, I can make the necessary accommodations to fit more comfortably into the neuromajority world around me.

Rather than trying so hard to take someone else’s perspective – when that perspective is very foreign to me – what has worked very well for me is instead to try to understand the thinking style of a neuromajority person.

Also, I try to understand the way the feelings of neuromajorites are attached to their thinking because it is often different from mine and has to be accommodated for in order for me to fit more comfortably into the world around me.

To do this, I think of the neuromajority person and myself as characters in a play. This enables me to understand how to act in a compassionate manner based on someone else’s perspective without having to figure out how to take that perspective as my own – something I am not able to do simply because my brain does not seem to work in the same way as the brains of neuromajority people’s brains work.

I understand that thinking elicits feelings and that most neuromajority individuals think in similar ways and that this, in turn, leads to shared feelings. However, because I don’t always share this experience, I have had to figure it out another way.

I can NOT understand by simply putting myself in others’ shoes because even though I could and did put myself in their shoes, my neurology would not allow me to arrive at the same conclusion of a shared feeling.

Instead, I have learned to fast-forward the (current life situation) AS IF it is a play. That way I can see in my head the various ways people might come to look as the scene plays out. I can work out the effects of various words and actions on the characters in the play I have running in my head. Fast-forwarding allows me to act in a way considered “appropriate” without having to understand what the characters are feeling and why.

The amazing thing is that the more I act in a way that makes scenes come out favorably, the easier it is to pull it up again at a future time. In addition, after I acted “right” several times, I could anticipate the responses of others, and it was this anticipation that allowed me a soft feeling of my own – of wanting to relate to and be a part of making the scene come out nicely for all!

It is important for autistics to learn how to take a perspective other than their own according to how it works for their autistic neurology. This, in turn, will lead to increased ability to comprehend written materials where different perspectives are discussed.

BOOKS   BY JUDY ENDOW

Endow, J. (2019). Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology.Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult.Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006). Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009). Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go.Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013). The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment.  Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.