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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 we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Please share our articles if you find them useful!

Also published on Medium.