Thursday, December 22, 2016

How Visual and Literal Thinking Can Shape Autistic Experiences

Patricia George
www.persnicketypatricia.ca

Literal Thinking
[image: Two stills from the movie Singin' in the
Rain: Top: Gene Kelly as the popular actor Don
Lockwood being mobbed by fans, with white
overlaid text reading, "Hey, Cos, do something.
Call me a cab!" and bottom: Donald O'Connor
as Cosmo Brown, speaking nonchalantly with
white overlaid text reading, "OK, you're a cab."]
Before starting school, and before Mom remarried when I was five, it was just me, Mom, Grandmother, Grandfather, and a few other beloved close family members (my biological father was out of my life before I could remember him).

I didn't know how different I was from other people back then, not really. I felt different somehow; I always have, as though the most important secret in the world was whispered in my ear the day I was born, plus I just knew stuff even though I couldn't express that knowing very well. I always felt like I was a few seconds ahead, or behind -- but never quite in sync with -- the people around me.

Grandmother mostly raised me in the early years, and she really got me. I would wager real money that she was Autistic, too. After all, reproduction causes autism! Or did you think that we autistics were hatched? The genetics behind autism and inheritance are now so obvious to me.

My world drastically changed when Mom remarried, and my stepfather became part of my life. That change  started to reveal to me, and to others, just how different I was from other kids. It also exposed just how literal my thinking is. And it showed how dangerous that form of thinking can be, when those around me didn't understand how my mind worked, or how my thinking was impacted by my visual thinking.

My stepfather was different from anyone who had previously been part of my life, and we couldn't seem to get each other. I seemed to make him particularly angry because I responded so literally to his instructions, just as I always had before he was part of our family. Other adults were starting to get angry, as well. Because I'd do what they were literally asking me to do, I'd get it wrong.

None of the people who were exasperated with me recognized that how I do and don't process things is radically different from most of the rest of the population. Even though I could talk perfectly well (I didn't shut up, actually, I was hyper-verbal), and appeared "normal" in every other way. But I kept getting in trouble, and things like what I am about to describe kept happening.

(And can I ask a favour? If you are reading this, and you are a non-literal/non-visual thinker, or your child or student or client is, and you feel the need to tell me that non-literal people do these things too? Maybe, don't do that. Because that erases the fact that my actions were and are a direct result of my autistic neurology. Thank you.)

One day, my stepfather took me on an errand. It was summertime, and I was, as always, anxious, because I seemed to get so many things wrong whenever I was with him. I told myself, "try extra hard today, Patricia."

So when he parked our car and told me No-matter-what do NOT open any windows or doors until I get back, my brain locked that in: No Matter What. Don't Open Windows. Don't Open Doors.

He was gone for long enough that I started to get quite hot. But my literal-thinking brain, which was complying with my stepfather's directions to the letter, couldn't let my body open a door or a window. It absolutely wouldn't permit me to disobey.

Now, my stepfather was probably only gone for fifteen minutes. But as we've learned from so much increased awareness about leaving pets in cars -- and how quickly that can be fatal -- it doesn't take long to overheat in that situation, even when one isn't covered in fur.

By the time my stepfather returned I was covered in sweat, crying, nauseous, and upset.
“Why didn't you open a window!?”

“You told me not to,” I squeaked out.

“But you could have opened a window!?”

“You told me not to.”
Once again, I’d gotten his meaning wrong. How? Because I hadn't yet gained the ability to read nuances and social cues, plus I didn't yet have the pictures in my head that I usually used to understand what people wanted.

What I mean by "pictures": As a visual thinker, I need a picture of something in my head to make sense of it. This is one of the many gifts of learning about and embracing being Autistic later in life. I understand how to find the words I need, to explain things so non-visual thinkers and I can understand each other better.

Judy Endow's article on visual thinking makes this self-knowledge come powerfully full circle for me, especially as I read how she opens her article:
“I think in colors. My thinking colors have sound and movement. When I hear spoken words my neurology automatically goes for the match -- a match for the words I hear to a familiar concrete picture of something in the world outside my skin or to an internal picture I have stored in my memory.”
OH YES!!

Autism comes with wide range of sensory sensitivities. I recently heard being Autistic described as being in a constant state of osmosis. It feels like I take in everything around me, e v e r y t h i n g -- but that overwhelms and delays the processing of all that information. Much like a cache in a computer, the more pictures I am able to store, the quicker I can pull up relevant pictures to any given situation. It also affects how quickly I can process and respond.

It doesn't surprise to me that I started playing with, and asking questions about, my Uncle’s photo equipment when I was three years old, and taking my own pictures by the time I was five. If I were to survive in a mostly non-literal world, I needed as many outlets to expressing my literalness as possible.

Like many Autistic and neurodivergent kids, I have several co-occurring conditions that also affect the way I think. The one specific to my literal thinking is hyperlexia, which means I seemed to know how to read without needing to be taught, and read well above my age level. Before I even started school, I knew and could spell (and was fascinated by) huge and complex words. Numbers too. But none of those abilities helped me acquire or understand social skills. 

I was told, before I even went to school, to go look something up in the dictionary to understand it. And then I was quickly able to read books and encyclopedias. So literal me went ahead and did that in only a way an autistic person could!

And in those pages I learned how to fit in enough to get by, but not enough to not be bullied or have my real needs taken seriously. I was laser-focused on learning idioms and acronyms, on learning enough facts about anything I could, just so I could get through a basic conversation. 

Gusto-color
Tasting Color. Photo © Paul C├ínovas
[image: Blue-eyed man biting into
a rainbow-colored slice of watermelon]
I loved and still do love idioms, even though they are a minefield for a literal thinker. (Guess what my mind is seeing right now? Boom!) I also have something called synaesthesia, which can cross-wire and enhance my senses: I taste sounds, I smell pictures, some numbers are friends and others are enemies -- it's an interesting facet of neurology, and something autistic people seem to experience more than non-autistic people.

I can vividly recall -- as if I’m there now -- looking out the kitchen window at my Grandparents’ house. I am perhaps six, and it is raining but also sunny, and there is a rainbow. It is the most delicious colour outside, and the contrast of light and dark and colour makes my head spin.
“NANNY!?” I bellow. “NANNY! Come look! It's raining and sunny at the same time!?”

“The devil is beating his wife” she says to me.
And I stopped in my happy little tracks.
“The what??”

“The devil is beating his wife,” she replied again, like I was suppose to know what the heck that meant.
“Why would the devil beat his wife??” I asked,  almost in tears.

“Because he is angry with god for the sunshine” she replied
That seemed to satisfy me enough to let it go for the time being.

Remember how I said I am certain my Grandmother was Autistic? Even so, she did things to amuse or horrify me ALL the time, like using visual riddles. I know she did it on purpose. I also know she did it to help me better navigate the world, using our shared similarities and her life experience to present information in a way that would help me in the long run. Now that I can see what she was doing, I think it was very clever, though I didn’t at the time.

For instance, I wouldn’t wear socks, not even on the coldest winter days. Sometimes I even went barefoot in the snow. So she told me about the time when she was a child and didn't wear socks in her boots, because socks really bugged her, too. Then she lost track of time while sleigh coasting in the snow, and by the time she came inside, her toes had started to turn blue and then black.
“So what happened to your toes?!” I asked, looking at her feet.

“They just get sore in the cold,” she told me, “But had I been out there any longer, they would have fallen off.”
I think my eyes opened so wide she could see her entire reflection in them. And the image of my toes falling off was enough for me: I made sure to wear my socks and boots in the snow after that.

I didn't do well with superstitions either. If you are a parent of a literal/visual thinker -- please, be careful with the superstitions. Our superb pattern recognition skills can mix with superstitions to result in deep paranoia. I had to work very hard on coping strategies, and get therapy, to move past the debilitating effects of a literal understanding plus a visual mind, since I had so little understanding or accommodation.

When supported, literary and visual thinking traits can be positives. I see/hear/taste the tiniest change in a pattern, which can actually save lives as when I smell smoke long before there is noticeable fire. Or hear a bolt drop. Or see something hidden among the leaves on the ground.

Visual supports are crucial, so autistic visual/literal thinkers have images to match their language. There was a line in Judy Endow's article that actually incensed me:
“We do not know when we are little that most other people think with words rather than with colors and pictures.”
That insight blew my mind (so right now I am seeing a volcanic explosion coming from the top of my head) and even took me to the brink of anger, in trying to wrap my head around the existence of a reality so different from my own.

How the heck does a person think with words!? Words are pictures and colours. They are smells and sounds. They are a memory preserved as a snapshot. I have an ever-growing rolodex of word-images in my mind that allow me navigate and understand this world, to process Life the way my neurology requires. It’s really perplexing to me that’s it’s not that way for everyone.

Several of the sayings my Grandparents shared with me became touchstones in my life. One in particular was my grandfather's “It takes all kinds.” I broke down those words the way I always did with his seemingly incomplete sayings or thoughts: I saw them as puzzles to solve. I’d search for the corresponding word-images, then use my pattern recognition skills to find the logic in them.  I combined that with research and asking questions, and would eventually find my way to a complete picture, which I could store -- and recall the next time I needed it.  

For me, “It Takes All Kinds” is the crux of inclusion: the acceptance of our neurodiverse society, and of neurodivergent persons. (I only got to know those big “Neuro” words in the last few years, since my autism diagnosis.) I've had to find ways to merge my literal and visual thinking with such word definitions, because learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyspraxia make it difficult for me to "get" them, otherwise, and I struggle with grammar as well as getting the words down physically in a way that I can recognize. I don’t believe I’d be close to the writer that I am, without literal and visual thinking guiding me to make pictures with my words.

For your part, and in making an effort to be inclusive, please always presume competence on the part of individuals whose neurology is different than yours, and also work toward recognizing the different routes brains take to process and expressing their experiences. Accommodating a literal/visual thinker isn't giving into weakness -- it is supporting and validating a literal way of processing life. Anything that invalidates or seeks to change that way of thinking will damage that person in countless ways.

I've experienced inclusion and validation and it makes such a difference. And it’s a difference that many really seem to be seeking in the lives of those they love. Please know our literal and visual view of the world has so much to offer to society, and the world.

To thank you for making your way through this, here's a yummy quote for the visual thinkers out there! I “see” you!
“A waffle is like a pancake with a syrup trap.”
-Mitch Hedberg