Autistic Cognitive Processing Differences

Over the past 20 years we have begun to realize that people with diagnosed with ASD have a different cognitive processing style. Professionals have looked at autistic people and by observing their behaviors have come up with at least three theories that together impact reading comprehension in students with autism. Here are those theories along with aspects of their basic definitions:

Central Coherence:

  • the brain’s ability to process multiple chunks of information in a global way
  • and viewing them in context
  • in order to determine a higher level of meaning

Executive Function:

  • the set of skills or abilities involved in organizing cognitive processes

Theory of Mind

  • ·  the ability to recognize the thoughts, beliefs and intentions of others
  • ·  to understand these are different from our own
  • ·  and to use this understanding to predict behavior (Carnahan & Williamson, 2010)

We can now look at these three theories and know that it isn’t all together true that autistic people are lacking in these areas, but instead their brains function differently than the brains of neuromajority individuals. It has been more helpful to me in my practice to figure out how the neurology of the individual I am working with actually handles information and how his automatic style of autistic thinking works. It hasn’t ever turned out to be helpful when I have tried to get individuals with autism to think and handle information in a neuromajority manner.

For many years I have ascertained that it isn’t that I, as an autistic, do not have theory of mind, but that instead, I do not have YOUR neuromajority Theory of Mind. When I am with other autistics I discover we share our own Theory of Mind. Our brains work similarly to one another and differently from yours. Simply put – we have a different operating system. Just like you cannot adopt my Theory of Mind, I cannot adopt yours.

Additionally, when it comes to theory of mind aspects of interoception now inform us that individuals whose sensory system is not giving them typical and reliable feedback do not have the physiological basis – feeling and understanding their own bodily sensations that are connected with their emotions – that is the prerequisite to being able to understand how the thoughts, beliefs, intentions and feelings of others might be different from their own (Mahler, 2018, Personal Communication). Understanding this difference allows us to go on to predict behavior of the characters in a novel and of people in the world around us.

Neuromajority Theory of Mind is based on a shared experience of the functional interoception body mind connection. When experiencing a sensory system that is not integrated, autistics struggle to access participation in this shared experience. Today we can use The Interoception Curriculum: A Step by Step Framework for Developing Mindful Self-Regulation (Mahler, 2019) to support a more functional body mind connection.

Likewise, much of executive function happens differently for autistic people. Previously in this book you have read a few examples of the storage systems of autistic individuals. These storage systems are examples of the rudiments of executive function for that person. It is the way their brain is organizing the information. Left to itself, it is has been my experience that initial styles of organizations, being literal and concrete and starting at a young age, are often outgrown as youngsters age. They simply acquire too much information for their early years storage system to serve them well. When we understand their system we can impact the size, functioning, speed of retrieval, etc. to make it more efficient. In addition we can use the typical supports all human beings use to stay on top of the many things we need to keep organized both in our internal thoughts and in our external lives as we go about our days.

Central coherence allows us to figure out why it is that characters in a novel or people in real life are acting the way they are acting. It requires the ability to process many individual chunks of information in the story or in the context of life, hold all those individual things in place and then match them to the context or backdrop of what else is going on in the story (or life) – all of this to then surmise a higher meaning.

As for myself I have had lots of trouble doing this over my life, but have learned along the way just how my brain does it. Additionally, I have learned how to best support my autistic style of thinking and manner of handling information to be able to comprehend what I read and much of the social aspects that living entails.

Point to Ponder:

I simply think differently than neuromajority people think. It is not an inferior way of thinking. It is just different. Even so, because autistics are measured according our deviation from the typical standard of normal our different ways are often assumed to be inferior or less than.

This is another example of why it is not helpful to think of autistic people in terms of their diagnosis. Because a diagnosis is based on deviation from accepted normal, an autism diagnosis shows a picture of what autistics ARE NOT and highlights what we CANNOT DO as compared to the majority normal. A diagnosis says nothing at all about the human beings we ARE or what we CAN DO.Our abilities and skills often remain unnoticed and untapped.

The majority of the people in the world do not possess our autistic skills and abilities. Because of this they do not notice them and really do not have a good way to understand them. This makes it nearly impossible for neuromajority folks to support autistic skill development in us. For example, if my way of thinking in the movement and sound of color had been understood by those around me and then supported over my growing up years I likely would have been able to produce paintings well before my 50’s (Endow, 2013).

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


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 AdultShawnee 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 DisordersShawnee 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.