I had a ‘delayed‘ response to finding out that I’m autistic because I had been labouring under the misconception that being autistic means avoiding or not wanting social interaction, which are fine by me given my introverted and at times, misanthropic personality. This misconception meant that I wasn’t aware of and therefore, never considered the sensory implications and executive function aspect of my condition. I got my diagnosis in 2009 but it wasn’t until 5 years later I read The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome that suddenly everything that has happened in my life makes sense. And when I referred back to my assessment report, I realised the significance of some observations which I had thought were minute and irrelevant. For example, it was observed:
“It took her slightly longer to process and answer the questions directed by the examiner.”
Apparently, there is an ‘explanation’ for this.
“During the diagnostic assessment the adult client may provide responses that appear to indicate empathy and ability with social reasoning, but on a more careful examination it may be clear that these responses, given after a fractional delay, were achieved by intellectual analysis rather than intuition. The cognitive processing required gives the impression of a thoughtful rather than spontaneous response.” Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome
I find this interesting and rather unbelievable. Don’t people think before they give a response? Do people not think before they say? What does even a spontaneous response mean? How is that possible? What’s the thought process that go through these people’s mind? I cannot fathom.
Below are a couple of reasons I can think of that may contribute to my slower processing time during interactions.
The use of intellect rather than intuition in social situations
It has been noted several times in the book that individuals with autism use their intellect and cognitive abilities rather than intuition to socialise. It makes me wonder what it feels like to be a neurotypical. Apparently, when I tried to emulate the persona and behaviour of my class monitress when I was 11-12 years old, I was using my intellectual abilities to socialise by camouflaging, observing and adopting a social role and script.
Poor executive function & difficulty switching attention
Autistic individuals may have problems with switching attention from one task to another. Some may find it difficult to stop the activity at hand and move on to a new activity unless they have successfully completed the activity at hand. This may prove challenging in employment situations where one is often required to multi-task. Starting a new task can also be challenging due to an impaired executive function. It can be time-consuming because of the mental effort it takes to plan and structure. From writing my essays in schools to writing my blog posts, I probably spend more time than is necessary to plan and structure my outline, which is why you probably notice that I seldom address autistic issues in my blog because these kind of posts take up a lot of my time and mental effort. Individuals who struggle with organisation will require considerable mental efforts and therefore longer time to process and switch attention from one task to another.
When someone demands attention from me or interacts with me, they are at the same time competing with the environmental factors and external stimuli for my attention. And being a hypersensitive person to sensory experiences especially sounds and movements, it takes conscious effort to focus and listen or else I get distracted. The same thing happens when it’s my time to respond. I need to exercise conscious effort to focus and stay on track. By the time the interaction is over, mental exhaustion hits in.
I think the side effects of an impaired executive function and tendency to sensory overload is to get overwhelmed by too much information. Put simply, my brain is like a web browser with too many open tabs, I need time to process information. The video below by The National Autistic Society (UK) is a great example of both TMI and sensory overload.
Little philosopher / thinker
It is said that girls with Asperger can sound like ‘little philosophers’, with an ability to think more deeply about social situations than boys. It has also been noted that people with ASD think about things that most people take for granted. I find this to be true in my case. When I was about 23, I worked with a colleague and we used to share book recommendations. One of the books she recommended was Tuesdays with Morrie, she said it was thought-provoking because it made her ponder about life, to which I was extremely puzzled. What do you mean the book made people ponder about life? As a child, I thought about life’s purpose. I grow up thinking about the meaning of life and I’m still thinking. Do people not ponder about life?
Alexithymia (Emotion blindness) & Lack of self-awareness
Alexithymia, an impaired ability to identify and describe emotional feelings. Questions like “how’s your day?”; “how are you feeling?” are difficult for two reasons. First, I need to ascertain if this is just a question the other party asks out of courtesy or is s/he genuinely interested in an honest answer. The second challenge is finding the right words to explain how I feel. There is also the question of self-awareness. I struggle with hypothetical ‘what if’ questions and answering questionnaires for psychological assessments because of the gap between ideal and reality ~ what I’ll do or who I perceive myself to be may not be who I actually am. Yes, I’m talking about myself as if I don’t know myself.
The other day I had a meeting with my boss. She asks how things are going. My mind was thinking if I should go with the quick answer (fine, thank you) or something closer to the truth but I just blurted out “ok” after all, she always greet people with “how are you” so the question seems to be out of a habit and even though I knew she would listen if I have any problems, maybe that wasn’t the right time. She sensed the hesitation so I clarified if she was referring to how things were going in terms of work or otherwise? She knew about my current plight so I wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear any further or whether further talking would help. After a few more prompts, I admit I’m still worried. Yep, I can turn a simple question into a complex mental exercise.
Autism isn’t the only thing that defines my identity, which is also shaped by other factors such as education, family, cultural and upbringing etc. etc. Here are some other reasons (non-exhaustive) I can think of that contribute to my need for a longer processing time:
- lack of confidence (don’t trust instinct)
- afraid of making mistakes
- low self-esteem
- need for clarity (often asking “what do you mean by this/that?” because I can’t comment on things in general or without a context)
- refusal to take things at face value or for granted
- stupidity (considering it took me 5 years after my diagnosis to appreciate the implications of the condition, talk about autism awareness! I know nobody here is going to tell me straight to my face I’m stupid, I take it upon myself to do so. Depending on how one defines stupidity, I do seem to take a longer time and twice the effort to get things done.)
S~low & Hard Functioning
In the context of employment, it isn’t difficult to see why I would have difficulties securing employment. Most job adverts require “ability to multi-task”, “great organisation skills”, “work under pressure” and I have worked in positions like these but what I find really annoying are the times where the ability to “work under pressure” is not so much due to the job nature (e.g. in ER or the stock market) but is quite unnecessary and can be avoided if only other people cooperate and not succumb to last minute deadline and better effective management from the above. I know I’ve never been put in a managerial position so that’s easy for me to say and I can leave finding employment for next discussion. I do wonder though if my slow functioning has not somehow rendered me somewhat low functioning. Again, that depends on how you define low functioning but in a society and education system which measures success by one’s ability to keep pace with the rest, being slow is certainly hard functioning. I wish society and workplace embraces individual effort and spirit as much as it encourages team work and celebrates team sports.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Henry David Thoreau
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