What goes on in an autistic person’s mind?

Answer by Martin Silvertant:

Extra synapses
The first thing to consider is that people with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain. Normally during the early development your brain will go through a “pruning process”, where the excess of synapses are removed to essentially streamline the neurological network. In people with autism this pruning process is diminished, leaving them with more neurological connections in the brain.

The images show representative neurons from unaffected brains (left) and brains from autistic patients (right); the spines on the neurons indicate the location of synapses. (Image: Guomei Tang and Mark S. Sonders/CUMC)


From my experience this means at least three things:

  • Associative ability — Because of these extra synapses, with each thought I have, there will be a bigger cluster of neurological activity. I experience a noise of related thoughts. This can be very beneficial as it’s a great source of creativity, but at times it can be a challenge to focus. I can be intensely focused on something for a long time, but my thoughts have what you might call a cluster focus; one thought gives rise to another, which splits up into two considerations, and then another thought branches off of that, and by that time the initial thought is gone and I have trouble retracing my steps. It’s a chain of thoughts that can lead to wonderful insights, but it can also be a very unproductive process when it’s unguided or derailed.
  • Deep thoughts — My thoughts tend to be quite abstract and deep, and some thoughts I have trouble properly putting into words because they are so abstract. I have a deep focus and tend to explore subjects deeply, though again, when it’s unguided it’s not necessarily productive. I often experience a semi-subconscious state of mind I call “going into the abstract”. It’s like drifting very deep into thoughts to the point your actions become automatic.

    For example, earlier today I was walking outside and from a distance (not a physical distance but a mental one) I heard children saying something, and as I passed a man I came back to reality and I heard the children say “Why doesn’t that man [me] listen to us?” to which the dad responded “I don’t know. Perhaps he’s upset”. I wasn’t. I was just so deep in thought that the situation barely registered. My consciousness tends to fluctuate like that.

  • Cyclical thoughts — I have a tendency to keep repeating the same thoughts, for at least a while. It’s not necessarily that I’m obsessed with one thought, but rather that due to my associative ability I keep recalling certain moments and I keep approaching it from different angles. I consider all the implications, consequences and in general just try to make sense of things by approaching it in different ways. Often at random I will think about something seemingly unimportant, and I zoom way in on certain details. When I loose control over a situation, even the thinking process itself becomes cyclical, where thoughts are on a seemingly infinite repeat, because I want to deeply understand what’s going on, so I make various considerations and think about implications and consequences. I have a tendency to overthink things. You might say the first step to a solution is to understand, and I suspect for people with autism there is a tendency to want to understand something perfectly before it’s deemed appropriate to get to a solution.

Blown out of proportions
So what does this actually mean in terms of how I think? Let me give an example of cyclical thoughts and deep thoughts. A few weeks ago my boss (let’s call him Matthew) asked me and my other boss (let’s call him Anthony) if the letter T came after the V, and for some odd reason instinctively I said “yes”, whereas I meant to say “no”. It was the second question he asked about the alphabet and I thought the first question was funny already, because he should know the alphabet. But due to the pressure of the social situation and perhaps an eagerness to show how quick I was with knowledge about letters (I am a type designer and typographer, after all), I made a mistake. I was slow in correcting my own mistake, and by the time I was about to correct it, Anthony had already made the correction. I felt it reflected badly on me that I made this mistake considering my aspirations—I should know the alphabet better than my boss. I told him he should have mental anchor points, like the K, Q and U, which you can use as reference points so you don’t have to say the whole alphabet to get to that one letter. Matthew said next time he should just ask my help, and Anthony laughed and said I got it wrong, too.

Now, the situation itself wasn’t so bad, and I laughed about it myself. However, I am challenged in letting this go. The first thing you might notice is that I’m blowing it out of proportion. I’m very focused on all the implications, how it reflects on me, how I felt it undermined my own identity and sense of perfection and correctness and how I might have made them think less of me, while realistically I know that it’s probably none of that; my bosses have long forgotten this situation and are as impressed with my typographic knowledge and abilities as ever. I know these kind of situations don’t tend to be remembered by most people, as they filter differently than myself; they make different distinctions between what’s important and what isn’t. For me, a lot of situations keep cycling through my mind for weeks—both minor situations and genuine problems. It all builds up in my head and can result in anxiety, and ultimately over a period of months it may build such that I need to find a way to dissipate the stress.

I’m trying to keep this story short because it’s only meant as an example of my thinking and shouldn’t overtake this answer, but I could seriously write a few pages about this one minor event and how I think about it. It happened a few weeks ago but every few days it’s on my mind again. It usually takes a while to recycle some thoughts to the extent I grow tired of thinking about it myself. I particularly obsess over things I don’t entirely understand or should have done better. Although this may appear unproductive to a neurotypical, it’s part of a larger process of learning. I look at an issue from all kinds of directions because I want to intimately understand it, why something happened and what I could do better.


Rumination
Also notice how there is a tremendous focus on the situation itself and not on possible solutions. So let me address ruminating specifically. Essentially it’s a sort of panic reaction, or more properly a general sense of hopelessness. Things did not go according to plan, and it interferes with our thinking. You see, for people with autism it takes longer to process information because they filter out a lot less input. So everything comes in unfiltered which can be an overwhelming experience. Couple that with the associative ability and the intense focus on details, and you can see how there is a tendency to have an elaborate “thinking” process which involves no proper directions or ultimate solutions, because the process itself is derailing when not kept in control. Questions like “why?” and “how?” race by, and not finding satisfactory answers reinforces the sense of hopelessness, which brings a greater focus on pondering the causes and consequences, which reinforces the hopelessness and you have a vicious cycle. Thinking about solutions from my experience can only happen moments later when your cool is regained.

What goes on in an autistic person’s mind?

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