WARNING: I am not a doctor or professional researcher of any kind. I have not undertaken recent or significant formal study in the fields of psychology, sociology, medicine, or philosophy. Despite my enviable observational skill & breadth of experience/knowledge, I am not an accredited expert or authority on any subject unless specified, & may potentially be even more prone to errors than they usually are. Some terminology may be my own, either invented or used differently than by other sources. There is a glossary of terms for you to peruse( also includes notes on idiosyncratic punctuation). All opinons are solely my own unless otherwise noted. All assertions regarding mental health, disorders, & behaviors should be taken only as opinions, or as my own personal experiences & fallible derived understanding. If you have a reason to believe I’m wrong, please e-mail me or post a comment.( NOT just over your own gut feeling or something a shrink/parent/teacher said; when it’s opinion vs. opinion, I’m obviously more likely to trust my own.) If you can provide a reliable, publicly-available free resource that contradicts my understanding as expressed in a given entry, & I can read & understand it, I will post a correction–so include how you want to be credited.
A defining aspect of autism & autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) is the social impairment stemming from poor theory of mind. This means that, on a fundamental level, humans with ASDs lack a neurotypical( NT) person’s core understanding of the conceptual boundary between ourselves and the rest of the world. I am not automatically able( although part of what makes me high-functioning is the ability to compensate) to differentiate which things I should think of as parts of “me” vs. “not me” objects & concepts that may or may not affect me, or even to fully grasp the concept of something being not part what affects me, let alone another person different from myself having thoughts & feelings completely unrelated to mine. I think this may be related to the common difficulty individuals on the spectrum have with spatial awareness, and especially proprioception( the awareness of our own bodies including relative position of our body parts); although even if that were so, I have no guess as to which is cause vs. which is effect.
The difficulty typically increases when in the presence of others, this may stem from having to keep track of the separation between oneself and other similar yet entirely isolated dynamic constructs. If we consider Gray’s biopsychological theory of personality, we can see how, when the pressure becomes too great, the autistic individual may perceive the growing discomfort as a signal of imminent danger and trip the behavioral inhibitory system (BIS), which responds by prioritizing the appropriate reflexive or conditioned response for the threat in question and limiting other actions–thus leading to complete breakdown of the conscious or semiconscious coping mechanisms that someone with autism uses to simulate natural self-awareness & theory of mind aptitude.
Theory of mind may also be viewed as a complementary way of looking at self-awareness, which is recognized using the mirror test; testing whether an animal recognizes that its reflection is an image of itself rather than another animal or part of the environment. Self-awareness is of vital importance in understanding the cause-effect relationships of past & present events, and forming expectations of what will happen in the future–especially with regard to how others will behave. The more severe the difficulty in separating oneself from the rest of the world conceptually, the more disabled a person is... usually.
Autism is seen as a spectrum; my ASD was believed to be fairly mild, yet I stalled out in life disproportionately, particularly when considering that I am obviously quite gifted. For a lot of my life, especially adult life, I just couldn’t seem to get tasks done when left on my own, & I would have no idea where the time went. Everyone would assume I was goofing off, reading, watching TV, playing games, the many ways in which I do like to procrastinate; but I would typically have no memory of any such thing, which was troubling to me and to the few people who actually believed me.
A couple years ago, I made a joke that I may look almost normal and just slightly off, but I’m actually a total nutjob coping really well. I started gradually exploring this idea with more seriousness, noting that it was a frequently a better fit for the way things played out, especially where our notion of me doing the same self-care as others came in, despite my desperate with to stop depending on others. About 6 months after first saying that, I was home alone, and I caught myself–in a mirror, ironically–practicing multiple versions of a conversation I wouldn’t need to have for quite some time, if ever.
“Why?” I asked myself, thinking about it the rehearsing consciously for the first time in maybe 15 years.
“Because this is how I get ready.”
“For whatever might happen.”
I became slighty dizzy in the rush that followed.
“Normal people don’t do that.”
“Did you ever ask?”
“No, but... characters on TV only do it for high-stakes conversations, & in real life I never see anyone do it.”
“So they do it alone.
“But for everything?”
“Have I done this before?”
“O.K., right, I sit on the couch, or I pace, or I do it in the shower...”
“Lying in bed, starting at the ceiling, sitting at a desk, walking or biking places...”
“When was that?”
“All those times...”.
This, of course, was the larger part of what I had been doing in the time gaps, for decades, at least. Unless I am actively concentrating on something else(, which tends to become impossible when I haven’t done sufficient planning to feel ready for upcoming situation), I do it to some degree in just about every moment when I am alone, & sometimes when I am not. It’s why even small changes can knock me for a loop, & why I may home in on certain details in a conversation that others don’t consider important: I’m constantly working to see everything in relationship to everything else. People constantly criticize this, telling me that I can’t do that, I’m overthinking, that it just leads to bad assumptions–well that is easy to say when the meaning of others’ communication & appropriate reactions are there for them like magic. Not so for me.
It took a couple weeks for it to really sink in, but for over 2 years now, I have been able to rapidly change & expand the ways I think about & interact with the world in response to new information. More than ever now, I can quickly assess a problem or situation that doesn’t involve me with accuracy over 85%,( based on confirmation from those who know, & success rates the admittedly-limited times my suggestions are actually accepted & engaged accuracy), even scenarios in context I am learning for the first time); & events that do involve me with over 55%( which is not bad, given we all suffer from bias in subjective situations). I would be nowhere near that if I had not seen myself in the right mirror in the right place at the right time
Rehearsal of various possibilities, a technique known as situational planning, is in fact sometimes taught to relatively high-functioning ASD patients, & seems to be the only technique able to directly impact the ability to cope with social situations( I suppose because as long as there is a plan for what’s happening, the person won’t feel threatened & the BID won’t cause a meltdown); however, it cannot be taught at my level.
Neurotypical people are entirely unaware of most of the things going on around them, even a large number of the things they do themselves. The most common thing I say to people on the spectrum when ‘translating’ is “Oh, I get it; you’re reacting to [some typical enty behavior; e.g., all the lying]–NTs aren’t aware of that unless you point it out.”. It took about 20 minutes to convince one guy his boyfriend & I were not playing a practical joke.
But, hey, that’s part of why I do this; to give everyone a chance to recognize themselves in the right mirror.