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Autistic masking – everything you wanted to know about ‘passing’ or ‘camouflaging’ as an autist

Autistic masking – everything you wanted to know about ‘passing’ or ‘camouflaging’ as an autist

We have written a lot about autistic masking, but haven’t dedicated a single article to it – so here it is.

Autists commonly experience difficulties in key areas including communication, socialisation and sensory challenges. (It’s also common for those on the autism spectrum to experience emotional rigidity and repetitive thought processes or behaviours.)

Many autistic individuals, subconsciously or otherwise, end up masking

Looking at the areas of socialisation and communication, it begins to become clear why many autistic individuals, (subconsciously or otherwise), end up masking – e.g. presenting oneself differently in one’s behaviour, in order to hide certain traits, or mimic neurotypical behaviours.

So it is a way of ‘fitting in’ and meeting people’s expectations.

Autistic masking – getting through the day at work, in school, and at home

A side on image of a white female used to illustrate autism articleMasking may sound quite superficial, but it is in fact necessary to get through the day for many autists; for example, earning a wage in order to feed the family; therefore fitting in at work, meeting social conventions and carrying out the required workplace tasks (often without relevant support).

In places of education, this ‘fitting in’ is usually required in order to access the education on offer without confrontation or revealing one’s struggles, as well as to meet social conventions, potentially avoid punishments, and avoid standing out or being ostracised or bullied.

Masking uses up valuable energy units

In everyday life, masking may be required a lot of the time to simply achieve life’s daily requirements; e.g chatting to a cashier at the supermarket, being friendly towards the neighbours, or mingling at a family function. That is not to say that the autistic individual doesn’t want to be friendly, and chat to the cashier, neighbour or family member – just that this very action takes a lot of mental processing, and energy units. 

Autism is after all a condition of processing, so every interaction for the autist takes up energy units. If the autistic individual had a completely full tank of energy units, then chatting to the cashier, family member or neighbour would probably not represent such a problem.

But if most of the energy units have been allocated with daily executive functioning, there’s very little processing data available, making communication of any kind an effort.

Autism – extensive processing effort

Autistic individuals may develop a set of social skills or ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others,.

Autistic individuals may develop a set of social skills or ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others,.

Rather than simply seeing Mary the neighbour and having a chat, the energy-depleted autist is likely to be going through a mental tick list as they see the neighbour. ‘Who is that? It’s Mary. I need to say hello to Mary. Should I ask her how her pet is? What’s her pet’s name? Will she say hello to me first?’ 

Each thought process takes mental and processing effort – the autist may even rehearse the conversation in his or her head as they approach, to make sure it sounds appropriate. Remember, they’re doing this for the neighbour’s benefit, not for their own. How exhausting!

The autist’s natural (and probably preferred) state would be NOT to say hello on this occasion, just to go home and recalibrate after the day’s challenges. But in order to meet social convention, the autist will probably be friendly, and try to ‘pass’ as a neurologically-appropriate individual.

(Hence why autistic masking is also known  as ‘passing’. In clinical terms, it is also described as camouflaging.)

Interacting with other people can be draining

Multiply this effort dozens of times each day, and we see that due to the autist’s differences in processing and communication, interacting with other people can be draining. Hence a ‘mask’ is used to appear neurotypical, or to simply pass as a functional individual who’s following social convention.

Two men walking, to illustrate autism articleRemember, this isn’t a reflection on the autist’s desire to interact with the other person – the autist may very much want to communicate with them – it’s simply relative to the amount of mental processing required to do so, when the energy bank is already depleted from processing everything else in the environment that afternoon. (E.g the bright sunlight, the din of background noise on the bus, and the busy neighbourhood.)

Being the best version of one’s self

Autistic masking doesn’t just take place with non-family members – autists may mask around their close friends, spouses, parents, children and other family members too, not because they can’t be themselves, but because they love their close friends and family members so much that they don’t want to cause concern and make the family member worry that there’s something wrong. Maybe the autist, if feeling low, anxious or tired, just wants to appear as the best version of themselves? Like maximising your appearance, putting on a smarter outfit, or putting on make up.

Two females talking _ to illustrate communication between NTs and autistics: ASC ASDIn an ideal world, no masking would be required around loved ones. A family member, knowing their autistic loved one had just done the school run, returned from the office, been shopping or had generally had a tiring day, would knowingly stick their thumb up with a smiling, enquiring face, to silently question, ‘Are you ok?’

And the autist would smile and stick their thumb up to reply, ‘Yes, I’m okay, thank you for understanding and pre-empting my mental exhaustion, spoon depletion and social hangover, but I’m just not up to talking right now, or at least not taking about non essential things.’ And all would be well. But families aren’t all like that, are they! It’s simply a matter of education and awareness, however.

(It’s important to note that young children don’t have that awareness of their parents’ sensitivities, as described above – so the autistic parent is likely to mask, so as not to concern their child.)

Hence, the autist masks to make their families feel happy, often at their own expense, not because they’re unhappy about being themselves, but because they care.

Childhood autistic masking

Three girls are shown to illustrate that echolalia can be an early sign of autism.

It is thought that autistic girls ‘mask’ more than boys.

It’s worthwhile mentioning childhood masking, specifically. Autistic women mask more than men, and it would seem that autistic girls mask more than boys. Masking is a way of navigating reality – remember, it may be subconscious – and for autistic girls, it’s a valuable tool to fit in with peers. But successful masking can lead outsiders to be so convinced of the individual’s ‘typicality’ that their autism goes unnoticed. Additionally, it’s common for a child (of either gender) to ‘mask’ at school and ‘let it all out’ when they return home to the safety of their own surroundings, and people who ‘get’ them.

The website Spectrum News, reporting on a study, states: ‘[Researchers found that] boys with autism might be overactive or appear to misbehave, whereas girls more often seem anxious or depressed.’

It is also interesting to note that masking can include the hiding of self-stimulatory behaviours (stims), like fidgeting or tapping. The autistic individual may bite their cheek, clench their fists or flex and relax a muscle – all things that probably go unnoticed, but help to self-regulate the autist.

Masking – good or bad?

In summary, autistic masking in small measures is maybe not bad thing, to help one’s self esteem, and feel like less of an outsider. However, too much masking, which can occur long-term when the autist is not yet diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition (ASD), can be hugely depleting; it is also associated with mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Once ASD diagnosis occurs, it does also throw up the question, who’s the real me? And too much masking can lead to social hangovers, shutdown and autistic burnout. 

It could be said that getting the balance right between self-care and being true to one’s autistic-self, and fitting into a predominantly neurotypical society and masking along the way, is the eternal holy grail for most autistic individuals.

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

Why not also read our blog on autistic communication differences:

Talking Taki-Taki – discussing communication differences between autistic individuals and neurotypicals; and why NT’s find autists ‘different’ (Asperger’s / ASD /ASC)

Autistic burnout – what it it and how can we prevent it? (Autism / Asperger’s / ASC)

Autistic burnout – what it it and how can we prevent it? (Autism / Asperger’s / ASC)

Do you know the phrase ‘burning the candle at both ends’?

Autistic burnout is when the candle is being burned at both ends without enough replenishment to counteract the areas in which an autistic individual especially struggles, or uses up the most energy units – e.g. social, communication and sensory. Everyone, no matter what their neurology, experiences low mood, tiredness and potentially has the capability to burn out – but autistic burnout is slightly different, in that it usually relates to the autist’s deficits and challenges.

Candle - to illustrate that Autistic burnout - Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload

Burning the candle at both ends?

The autistic individual (especially, it seems, if female), tends to use up a lot of energy on ‘autistic masking‘, or fitting in (you can read more about energy exertion in our blog about the spoons theory.)

Most autists face some kind of difficulty with fitting in, especially if they are undiagnosed and unaware of their autism, or if they are young and still getting to know social conventions. Avoiding autistic burnout only becomes easier once you know what self care tools you need in your toolbox!

Going back to masking; what would be classed as ‘fitting in’? Maybe engaging in expected conversation at work, appearing unperturbed by sensory difficulties when shopping, and managing the challenges of certain socialisations, e.g. extended family get-togethers or office parties. This ‘masking’ is often required in order to hold down a job, access education services or maintain relationships, and can be an automatic reflex, rather than something calculated. However, the processing power and social energy required to maintain the mask can be very depleting.

Ryan Boren writes eloquently about autistic burnout as follows – “Periods of burnout caused problems at school and work. I would lose executive function and self-care skills. My capacity for sensory and social overload dwindled to near nothing. I avoided speaking and retreated from socializing. I was spent. I couldn’t maintain the facade anymore. I had to stop and pay the price.”

What tends to happen to autists who are responsible for others is that this important element continues to function during burnout – eg. their duties as a parent or carer – but other everyday functions have to be ‘turned off’. Communication may deplete, sensory overload is common, self care skills (perhaps including seemingly simple things like taking care of one’s appearance) become of less importance – essentially, this computer’s operating system is shutting down, so only the essential tasks remain ‘on’. In autistic burnout, the individual may become withdrawn, their voice may become more monotone due to the sheer effort of communicating (some autists may even become non verbal), and they are likely to be very sensitive to sensory input. Many autists experience anxiety, symptoms of low mood, dysthymia or depression during their lives, and during burnout, these conditions could well resurface.

How long does autistic burnout last?

Autistic burnout may last days, more likely weeks, and perhaps a couple of months. Anyone in more longer term burnout than this would likely need a great deal of support in their lives, to become strong and well again. (Severe levels of total burnout are likely to be linked to some kind of large-scale life milestone, or occurrence  – the individual would likely not be able to continue to go to work, or stay their place of education, until they recover sufficiently.)

Woman- to illustrate that Autistic burnout - Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload

Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload.

So here’s our take on autistic burnout. Treat lower level autistic burnout as something akin to a migraine. Would we expect someone with a migraine to go to work, merrily do the shopping, look their best and casually chat about trivia? No, they would likely head to bed, and rest.

Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload. The individual generally needs time to recuperate in a low-demand environment, with as few challenges in the areas of communication, sensory triggers and socialisation as possible.

How is autistic burnout avoided?

Autistic burnout may be avoided by knowing yourself (as an autist), knowing what triggers you, how often you must rest or have social downtime, reducing social activities when you’re feeling sensitive, using self care tools like headphone time when you need to recalibrate…. and removing things or people from your life that deplete your energy bank, rather than fill it up.

In children who don’t yet have this level of self awareness, reducing demands, allowing the child choices in their decision making, reducing socialisation and sensory triggers, and generally allowing rest or down time could be beneficial. (With liaison with their educators.)

Individuals in more severe stages of burnout could need all of the above, as well as talking therapies, health and nutritional support, and the support of any education or work places, to allow the autist to recover and plan any return.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter! Why not read another of our blogs on autism – this one focusses on communication…

Talking Taki-Taki – discussing communication differences between autistic individuals and neurotypicals; and why NT’s find autists ‘different’ (Asperger’s / ASD /ASC)

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Conditions / Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Please share our articles if you find them useful!

What’s echolalia; and is it an early sign of autism or Asperger’s?

What’s echolalia; and is it an early sign of autism or Asperger’s?

Echolalia, a beautiful-sounding word from the combined Greek words for ‘echo’ and ‘speech’, is the repetition of another person’s spoken words. But is it an early sign of autism? Read on!

It’s a valuable part of processing speech for everyone, but for many young autistic individuals, echolalia becomes more than that – part of their persona, and in many cases, part of the ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others, including with neurotypical (NT) people. So, echolalia can indeed be an early sign of autism.

Examples of echolalia?

Three girls are shown to illustrate that echolalia can be an early sign of autism.

Echolalia can be an early sign of autism.

A simple example of echolalia is if the child replies ‘Are you hungry?’, when asked that exact question. (Or perhaps just the last word – ‘hungry’).

“But all children repeat words and phrases – mimicry is just experimenting with different sounds to hone social language skills. It is a normal stage of language development,” explain incredulous friends and family members to the concerned parent whose child exhibits a lot of echolalia.

Yes. But as with piecing together all autistic signs, it is about spotting patterns and frequencies; looking at the other elements of the child’s vocabulary; noticing how their peers talk in the same situation; and noticing whether echolalia is being used to help the child process language. Experts indicate that echolalia, as part of typical language development, has generally decreased drastically by the age of three, for typically developing children.

Immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia

Autism clincians describe both immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia; immediate echolalia could include our earlier example, e.g. if the child replies ‘Are you hungry?’ when asked that same question. It is sometimes an issue of processing (autism is after all primarily a condition of ‘processing difference’.) The child may be ‘buying time’, while they’re processing the words and their meaning. (Remember, if they’re autistic, that there are many things to process in that moment, and ‘blocking out’ the rest of their environment – e.g. the noisy running tap, the bright bathroom light, the music in the background – may require a few beats of conversation longer. Repeating a question gives them a little more processing time.)

Catch-phrases and film lines

Delayed echolalia can take the form of a catch-phrase, song lyric or a line from a TV show. Many people of all neurologies do this of course, but the ‘social norm’ is to make the phrase relevant to the conversation or situation. If the child has, for example, seen the TV show, they could be remembering the episode; but sometimes it is a phrase someone else has remembered, and makes no real sense comprehensively; it just sounds good!

Two girls are shown to illustrate that echolalia can be an early sign of autism.

Echolalia, a beautiful-sounding word from the combined Greek words for ‘echo’ and ‘speech’, is the repetition of another person’s spoken words.

It can also be a phrase the child has actually heard in real life, often linked to a strong emotion. Maybe they were told off by a teacher, or their parent shouted something in frustration; or maybe the phrase is from a pleasant birthday party, or a foreign holiday (e.g. even a foreign phrase, when the child doesn’t speak the language).

To infinity and beyond…

“All children repeat words and phrases,” reminds the helpful friend or family member, as the five year old jumps off the sofa quoting a phrase from a super-hero film. Yes, but in what situation, and what’s the frequency; are they ‘stuck’ on the phrase like a broken record? Is it said once, five times, ten times maybe? And is it when they’re pretending to be the character, or at tea time? Detective skills are required here, to spot the patterns and frequencies.

What’s behind the echolalia?

Also, it’s useful to work out what benefit the echolalia has to the child – just a nice, fun sound or phrase that is comforting, or makes them happy? Or a tool to compensate for a lack of language skills?

If it is the first example, bear in mind that autists like ‘sameness’, and things they know; many will watch a favourite film multiple times, and enjoy the predictability. Maybe a phrase is just part of their appreciation for something predictable in a film. (Also, autists are notorious wordsmiths – just look at some of the most quirky and creative songwriters out there, and ponder whether they have / had autistic traits!)

And, if the echolalia is a fun sound or phrase that is comforting, is the comfort needed for good reasons, e.g. as we’d hug a teddy because it feels nice; or, of more concern, because the child is stressed or anxious – if it’s the latter, how can the ‘stressors’ be lessened?

Also, if it’s the second scenario, and the child is over the age of three, could speech and language therapy be a consideration?

Autistic masking

Autistic individuals may develop a set of social skills or ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others,.

 

Going back to something we mentioned previously, echolalia may form part of a ‘mask’ that helps the autistic child, or youngster with Asperger’s, fit in with others, including with neurotypical (NT) peers. This element can make it hard for some outsiders to see an issue with a child who may be autistic, but doesn’t have a diagnosis.

‘To infinity and beyond!” shouts the autistic child repeatedly to his or her playmates, as they play space rockets and space-men. It may look as if he or she is interacting with his peers, and that they’re all enjoying the game collaboratively – but are they? How are the other children conversing – what vocabulary are they using? And is the child using echolalia as a mask or ‘fitting-in’ strategy, because he or she is struggling with conventional or typical communication styles?

An undiagnosed autistic child has many cues and signs that he or she presents; but noticing them takes the aforementioned detective work, sometimes.

The websites autism-help.org and speechandlanguagekids.com have some really useful tips, articles and factsheets on echolalia.

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Conditions / Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Please share our articles if you find them useful!

The elephant in the room – it’s time to write about environmental toxins and autism; & how they may affect autistic individuals (written with a healthy dose of cynicism)

The elephant in the room – it’s time to write about environmental toxins and autism; & how they may affect autistic individuals (written with a healthy dose of cynicism)

We have been asked several times regarding our thoughts on environmental toxins, and how they affect autistic individuals. With a slightly heavy heart, here’s our take.

While there’s no specific known cause for autism, much work has been done within the genealogy field, leaving many experts to cite ‘interactions between susceptible genes and environmental factors’ as likely causative factors. E.g., autism is known to run in families, with certain genes associated with the condition – but some experts believe that so-called environmental factors – notably linked to the mother’s health status in pregnancy, the use of some medicines, and her exposure to certain compounds; may ‘turn on’ susceptible genes or somehow increase their risk factors for neurodevelopmental conditions like autism.

The V word – and heavy metal overload

A smiling baby - investigating the link and causative factors between babies, deliveries, C sections and autism

How a foetus processes metals, MAY affect the risk of autism, according to some studies.

There is currently no sound evidence pointing to any causative links between vaccines and autism. However, interest continues in this field.

One study into toxins examined baby teeth from children with autism and correlated the metals lead, zinc and manganese (Ref 1). ). Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study suggested that differences in early-life exposure to metals, or more importantly how a child’s body processes them, may affect the risk of autism.

The discussion continues…

There are studies linking the pregnant mother’s immune response, eg. ‘abnormal maternal immune activation’ and resulting, elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines, which are said to affect the baby’s embryonic brain development, and increase the risk of ASDs. (Ref 2). It states – ‘Mother exposure to some chemicals [including] heavy metals… can affect foetal health negatively through epigenetic alterations of gene expression.

Our bodies produce ‘adrenal steroids’ or stress hormones such as cortisol, and there are also theories relating to ‘placental permeability’ to these hormones when the mother is pregnant.

Heavy metals are of course a much-discussed issue in connection to autism. A recent and very contentious study linked overloads of aluminium to autism (although this was a very small study of five individuals, and in some people’s opinion, didn’t use suitable controls, so was not vey ‘robust’. Please read the excellent article : ‘Using bad science to demonize aluminum adjuvants in vaccines’ which delves into more detail and challenges the study itself. The study may be found at this link (Ref 3).

Why are we being fanatical about causative factors for autism?

child holds balloons to illustrate autism spectrum disorder blog postThere’s certainly lots of research underway searching for causative factors for autism. But in our opinion, families of autists would perhaps be better served supporting their autistic family member by helping them manage their autistic challenges via aspects like talking therapies, mindfulness, the reduction of ‘demands’ (to help reduce anxiety) etc, rather than embarking on non-proven, ‘quack’ ways to help reduce so-called autistic symptoms (or god forbid, ‘cure’ autism), in their family member. We believe that the scientists and psychologists should be left to research and present their theories on Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASCs), but that the rest of us are best placed promoting empathetic autism awareness – not seeking causes and ‘cures’.

Take heed research the research!

There is a big movement consisting of parents of young autists focusing extensively on toxins, (e.g. heavy metal overload, as well as vaccines), and their impact on autistic individuals.

In the course of our work here at www.spectra.blog, we extensively read and research articles and papers, and have found no definitive, irrefutable evidence in the field of heavy metals and autism, in terms of the toxins being a definitive causative factor. Yes, there are studies linking compounds like lead and aluminium to ASDs / ASCs; but these should not lead parents and families to take action by furtively administering potions to their children in the hopes of ‘curing’ them, in our humble opinion. This field of research is still relatively young.

For example, the latest piece of so-called research doing the rounds (Ref 3) which we mentioned earlier seems so limiting, in our view, in that it only looked at five (decreased) autistic subjects. For science to be taken seriously it really has to be a lot more robust. Also, interested parties should always check who funded a study, and consider what gains the funding organisation may reap!

Showing a young child's sandy toes. To illustrate a discussion on whether autism and delivery methodology - are C-sections linked to autism?

One study found that there was a higher rate of cesarean section (CS) deliveries in autistic children. Should we be asking why autistic babies may not deliver naturally?

Not all studies are tenuous; there have been some compelling studies into some areas connected with autism and environmental toxins – one study found that there was a higher rate of cesarean section (CS) deliveries in autistic children, for example. (Ref 4). It stated: ‘This study confirms previous findings that children born by CS are approximately 20% more likely to be diagnosed as having ASD (autism spectrum disorder)’. (You can read our blog on the subject here, which includes the view that studies like this and the resulting ‘chat’ may make women feel guilty – ‘Are C-sections contributing to ASDs?)

Many people reviewing and discussing the results thereafter took the angle that maybe this high amount of C-sections is because they were a causative factor for the autism – however our viewpoint and surely a more logical one, is to question why the autistic babies did not deliver naturally?

Delve deep into the studies concerning autism and Asperger’s

We would urge anyone interested in reading more about ASCs and the effects of toxins to delve deep into the research. One thing which is interesting is that inflammation is widely credited with being linked to autism; that seems consistent. And yes, environmental factors do somehow seem to be linked to the onset of autism, in terms of how a child’s body processes the compounds in the womb. (Ref 2).

In our option there are far better things for people interested in learning more about autism to read and learn about, than detoxing children…

With science advancing, there is every possibility that new studies will come out that do conclusively link toxins to autism; but our belief is that many of the current studies are simply not convincing enough.

Two females talking _ to illustrate communication between NTs and autistics: ASC ASDIn our option, there are far better things for people interested in learning more about autism to read and learn about, than detoxing children (without their consent!!!) from toxic heavy metal overload; for example, SEND support in schools, the male / female divide in autism, and the process of referral and diagnosis for autistic children in the local authority system. Have we all got our priorities skewed?


Inflammation, IBS and autism

It is important to point out that as mentioned, inflammation certainly seems to be a factor with many autistic individuals, as is digestive challenges. The causes aren’t  really known, but some people propose that stress hormones are a factor. (Certainly the author of this blog suffered with digestive issues – Ketoacidosis attacks every single year of my school attendance as a child, and then irritable bowel syndrome attacks every single year of being in the workplace as an adult. Anecdotally, many, many other autistic individuals will attest to similar challenges.)

So, while we at www.spectra.blog are not ready yet to advocate detoxing from heavy metal  overload to reduce so-called autistic symptoms with branded water, we are certainly open to the concept of supporting an autistic individual’s body through diet, and managing their stress levels, so that physical signs of stress, such as IBS, may be reduced.

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Conditions / Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Please share our articles if you find them useful!

References-

Ref 1 – Arora et al. 2017. Fetal and postnatal metal dysregulation in autism. Nat Commun; doi: 10.1038/NCOMMS15493 [Online 1 June 2017].

Ref 2 – Environmental factors influencing the risk of autism. Padideh Karimi et al. J Res Med Sci. 2017; 22: 27. Published online 2017 Feb 16. PMID: 28413424.

Ref 3 – Aluminium in brain tissue in autism, Mold, Exley at al.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtemb.2017.11.012.

Ref 4 – Ref 2 – ‘Association Between Obstetric Mode of Delivery and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Population-Based Sibling Design Study, Eileen A. Curran et al. JAMA Psychiatry:2015;72(9):935-942. )

Inflexible (black and white) thinking, common in autists, can be linked to negativity. We examine the phenomenon, plus find ten positive traits of b&w thinking (ASD / ASC)

Inflexible (black and white) thinking, common in autists, can be linked to negativity. We examine the phenomenon, plus find ten positive traits of b&w thinking (ASD / ASC)

Autists are renowned for their black and white thinking styles. While we will start here by detailing the challenges this brings, at the end of this article, we have detailed some information on the benefits this mentality brings!

Also described as polarised or inflexible thinking, black and white thinking, a phenomenon that’s not limited to autists, is usually linked to negativity. In that the negative voice common in this thinking style may overwhelm us. E.g: I’m a failure, he/she hates me, I am no good at reading, etc.

Emotional reactions to everyday situations

A man is shown in shadow to show black and white thinking styles _ autismExperts agree that black and white thinking is caused by heightened levels of emotional arousal to everyday situations. It is usually earmarked by immediacy and impulsivity, states Corey Whelan, writing on WebPsychology.

This thinking style is a limiting factor for autists and, when linked to impulsivity, can lead to knee-jerk decisions that are not helpful; examples include breaking off a friendship after a small disagreement, or abandoning a hobby due to an ill-perceived sense of failure.

Adapting our thinking styles

However, despite being a naturally occurring thinking style for many autists, it IS perfectly possible to adapt and limit negative black and white thinking. (Although to what degree various enormously, depending on the individual and many other factors, notably any mental health issues.)

This ‘greyness’ is easier to achieve as an adult, however young autists can also be taught to question their thinking styles.

Key points in terms of trying to change a repetitive, negative thought pattern, or an ‘all or nothing’ approach, would be:
Looking for evidence to back up the thought; e.g. am I really no good at art? This drawing isn’t my best work, but I have painted beautiful pictures before.
Or, is my friendship with ‘x’ really over? Or was this a small disagreement that’s part of the fabric of our relationship?

Finding perspective and making choices

 woman in black and white - to illustrate autism article re black and white thinking styles Finding perspective can help too, especially in terms of blame. Yes, person ‘x’ threw the punch; but what happened previously, and were they provoked?

In terms of choices, it’s easy as a black and white thinker to sometimes feel that stopping, leaving, abandoning and walking away is the only real option. One useful tool is to remember there are always other options – and that this abandonment option is usually option B.

We can help young autists gain perspective by working out what the Achoice could be. It may seem harder, but it has more potential benefits. Stay for ten minutes, as we could discover a great new skill, or gain a prize? Try the new menu, in case we discover a new favourite taste?

Seeking the evidence

Sometimes, waiting and looking for the evidence helps us decide. A child doesn’t want to enter the room of a birthday party, saying they’re too tired, or feel ill. Going home is the B option – but what is the evidence for feeling tired or ill? Is their body tricking them?

Could waiting for a few minutes outside help them look at the choices? Maybe option A could involve the birthday child coming outside to say hello; or the worried child entering the room for ten minutes and sitting with the parent, to count the balloons? If they then decide they want to leave, this is ok of course, but some ‘thinking time’ helps with the issue of immediacy, linked to impulsivity.

Visual cues and scales

rl in black and white to illustrate autism article on black and white thinkingAs many autists respond well to visual cues, a traffic light graphic could help. If red is option B, amber is thinking time, and green is option A, this may help autists look for (and wait for) other options or perspectives.

Another option is to scale one’s feelings from 1-10, with ten being the worst. How much of a failure was the issue? Did I just not reach a personal best, but still made an average score? (What did everyone else score; again, seeking evidence.) If today’s occurrence scored an eight, what other occurrences scored an eight recently, and what was the outcome? Did they stay an eight, or could I lower the number, on reflection?

Keeping an actual chart and writing the details down can help too, especially if it involves tracking emotions; e.g. ‘That class was awful, I felt too embarrassed’, and giving the experience a five. Next time, if you repeat the exercise and score a four, the evidence shows you that your skill-sets have improved.

‘Doing’ something in the moment

We have a further tip, gleaned by the author of this article from Phil Parker’s Lightning Process training. (The Lightning Process attempts to modify the brain’s thought patterns to reduce stress-related hormones, and was designed by British osteopath Phil Parker in the late 1990s.)

The tip is to remind oneself of what you are doing or feeling in the moment, or the hour, or the day. Black and white thinking makes us think in extremes (e.g. I will never lose weight, I can’t give up this addictive habit, I will never feel well again, etc.) But framing the issue as something we are DOING at the moment, rather than something that we will necessarily also be doing tomorrow, next week or later today, helps give us some perspective.

Positives of black and white thinking

Whilst black and white thinking is undoubtedly unhelpful for the most part, there are some positives of black and white thinking.

black and white graphic to illustrate black and white thinking styles for autism blogTen ways that autists may have positive skill sets, due to their inflexible thinking styles:

  1. Cutting to the chase in business – removing the irrelevant data, and seeing the important elements. (If something’s good or bad, or right or wrong, decisions can be made more quickly.)
  2. Not getting caught up in the emotionally draining dramas that many NT (neurotypical) individuals can sometimes become embroiled in; who said what to who, etc. This lack of importance attributed to such trivial matters often leads to good, logical problem solving.
  3. Sticking to rules that help us – in terms of safety and security, health and wellness, legality, etc. Right and wrong thinking styles can help us stay safe.
  4. Generating action in a business capacity – no endless meetings, boardroom discussions, and pros and cons charts – logic is applied and a decision made. Simple.
  5. Sorting the available data to find a problem – this could be why something doesn’t add up, why a part has malfunctioned, or why a machine doesn’t perform well. Not paying attention to the grey or inconsequential information helps the individual solve a problem efficiently.
  6. Expertise – autists are known for developing special interests and obsessing about certain elements – together with black and white thinking, this helps them see a way to reach a goal logically. These combined factors mean autists often excel in key areas of sport, technology or the creative fields, because their obsessions mean they’re open to practise and repetition, and ultimately, expertise.
  7. Good employees – autists are renowned as being loyal and dedicated employees, due to a leaning towards rule-keeping. This can involve punctuality, reliability and honesty; all valuable workplace skills.
  8. Great pattern recognition, due to the brain ignoring the unnecessary grey areas – useful for memory, and learning techniques that require repetition.
  9. Attention to detail – again, in business, this can be beneficial for highly technical roles involving data. Honing in on what’s important helps the autist see areas that their NT peers may miss. It also reduces the risk of ‘mis-remembering’ information. And sometimes the little elements make all the difference.
  10. Loyal and trusting natures, which make many autists good friends and romantic partners. Whilst autists do have challenges in relationships relating to some areas of communication, they are often the shoulder to cry on, the reliable friend who keeps appointments, the partner who arrives for a date on time, and the person who upholds the values of monogamy and shared couple values.


    A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Conditions / Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Please share our articles if you find them useful!