Autistic Neurology or Psychiatric Symptomatology?

Sometimes autistic neurology – specifically our style of thinking and the way our brain handles information bumps up against what can appear to be psychiatric symptomatology. This has happened to me many times over the years. My style of thinking is visual along with being quite literal and concrete. I understand myself and, in general, thoughts, ideas and concepts by having or creating an object or visual representation of that construct. Here is an example:

“…in my life, I have come to a fuller understanding of the parts of me as represented by actual pastel colored stones. I have the collection in a small box. Each stone holds for me the information about a segment of my history. This is why, as a child, information learned in one setting didn’t automatically transfer to another setting for me, as it seemed to do for others. For example, the “home Judy” might be able to tie shoes and know how to make a sandwich, but the “school Judy” would not be able to access these skills” (Endow, 2009a, pg. 17).

In the field of autism we say individuals are not very good at generalization. We try very hard to help students perform learned skills in a multitude of environments to support generalization. I wonder if we had a way to discover how our student was processing, recording, storing and retrieving information if we might be able to develop a system for them to generalize. Once the system was developed would generalization be able to happen? Nobody knows as it hasn’t yet happened, but it is an interesting question.

In the field of mental health we tend to see Dissociative Identity Disorder when there are distinctly different parts of one person, sometimes the parts unknown to each other. I was actually diagnosed with this back when it was called Multiple Personality Disorder. Today, I believe this historical diagnosis more accurately represents my autistic style of visual thinking in a very literal and concrete way along with the way my neurology processes, records, stores and retrieves information.

“Thus, this first pile of stones was comprised of several pastel-colored bits representing the inside unconnected parts of me –

 I was in

            different places,

                        much of
the know-how of

                                    the various WHO’s

                                                unrelated to
each other,

                                                            each WHO of Her

                                                                        represented by

                                                                                    a separate
pastel bit of

                                                                                                colored stone”

                                                                                     (Endow, 2009a, pg. 17).

Illustration of Concrete Thinking Impact
Over time, as I grew from a child to a teenager, and then into the various stages of womanhood, I was able to look back over the lifetime of these pastel stones. Each of them had its own bit of Me recorded and encapsulated into an entity of its own. These pastel stones held my history, each era distinct and separate from all the others, with none of the content of the stones overlapping.

Illustration of Information Recording and Storage Impact
No wonder I often felt unconnected to my past, as if I was continually starting my life over! I came to understand that this was a function of the way I recorded and stored the happenings of my life – each bit encapsulated in its own entity, never intertwined with any other events. It often felt to me as if I was lost from myself.

Illustration of Information Retrieval Impact
When the content of these pastel stones became available to me in my thirties, I was finally able to piece together my past into one whole. During my forties I was able to think of myself as one whole person with a past, a present and a future yet to come. Today I have a good sense of my own personhood, being able to line up the story of each stone chronologically to tell my history and also to imagine forward into the future. I do this by thinking about what the story of the next stone will show. I have to be able to visualize a new pastel stone inside me before I can plan something into the future, like an upcoming vacation, for example (Endow, 2010).

I think it is important to start discussing the issue of when characteristics of autism in general and psychiatric symptoms in specific may be a reflection of autistic neurology – part and parcel of how one thinks and how one processes, records, stores and retrieves information.

One reason it becomes crucial in teasing out whether we are looking at autistic neurology or psychiatric symptomatology is because autistic neurology need not be fixed. Instead, we all simply need to understand how it works for specific individuals and then based on individual self-determination we can proceed. For example, in my life, I sometimes explain how I store and retrieve information when I need extra time to answer a question and sometimes I choose not to explain.

On the other hand, when something is reflective of psychiatric symptomatology, then the supports and treatments available to general public need to be available to the autistic too. It is not appropriate to attribute psychiatric symptomatology to the autism. It is appropriate, however, to treat psychiatric symptomatology of an autistic person through the lens of autism. This is another subject perhaps for another blog…or book, and for another time.

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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.

Originally written for and published by Ollibean on March 6, 2016.
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