Tag Archives: executive function

A Cognitive Defense of Stimming (or Why “Quiet Hands” Makes Math Harder)

Thanks to Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” I’ve discovered the concept of ego depletion.

Coined by Roy Baumeister, the term ego depletion simply means that we have a limited pool of energy to devote to both self-control and cognitive tasks. If we devote energy to, for example, suppressing temptation, we’ll be less willing to solve a difficult math problem or run an extra lap around the track.

Baumeister did a series of landmark experiments to prove the link between self-control and our willingness to engage in difficult cognitive tasks. He found that people who were asked to resist eating chocolate cookies and candy were quicker to give up on solving challenging puzzles than those who were allowed to indulge in the sweets.

What the heck does this have to do with autism, you ask? A lot.

The types of things Baumeister tested for are all related to executive function (EF)–our brain’s ability to regulate our cognitive processes. EF includes things like planning, problem solving, working memory, attention, and initiating, sustaining and inhibiting actions. That last part is really important–that’s where self-control enters the picture.

When we look at the tasks that Baumeister asked his subjects to do, they all call on the brain’s executive function reserves. And impaired EF is a central feature of the typical autistic brain.

What’s More Important: Quiet Hands or Long Division?

Many therapists, teachers and other professionals believe that extinguishing a child’s stimming is necessary for learning to take place. Their justification is that stimming diverts the child’s attention away from the information or task. To help the child focus, they insist on “quiet hands” or “quiet bodies.” The assumption that a child can learn better if he or she suppresses stims has been widely disputed by autistic adults and by some parents, teachers and therapists.

The obvious reason for objecting to “quiet hands”-type instruction is that it shames the child for moving in a way that is natural and comforting for them. Others have written eloquently and in great depth about this subject; I’ve linked to some key pieces below rather than repeating what has already been said.

The case I want to make against “quiet hands” is that in addition to being emotionally damaging, it’s cognitively counterproductive. Think back to the experiment where the people who were told to resist eating chocolate gave up more easily on solving puzzles. Substitute stimming for chocolate and learning long division for solving puzzles. Add in the fact that autistic people have impaired executive function to begin with, making inhibition of actions more challenging, and you can see why asking a child to resist stimming is counterproductive if you’d also like them to learn a new skill.

An Illustration (or Let’s Pretend EF is Something We Can See)

To help us think about executive function in concrete terms, imagine two children in the same math class. Since we can’t actually see or measure EF in a simple way, let’s use imaginary EF “units” to talk about typical versus impaired executive function.

The typical child has 100 units of EF available for math class. The child with ASD has impaired EF, meaning s/he begins the math lesson with 70 units of EF.

Assume the typical child has to exert some self-discipline to attend to the math lesson: 20 EF units, which are devoted to things like staying seated, paying attention, and not talking to classmates. That leaves 80 units that can be devoted to learning math.

Assume the autistic child has to devote twice as much EF (40 units) to self-discipline. Not only does s/he have to do all of the things the typical child is doing (staying seated, paying attention, not talking to classmates), s/he has to inhibit the natural urge to stim. That means s/he is starting out with less EF and devoting more of that small reserve to self-discipline.

typical_ef

Look at the amount of EF each child has left for doing their math work. The autistic child starts off at a disadvantage and is further disadvantaged by a classroom rule that has supposedly been put in place to help him or her.

A Brief Clarification

Before you say, “but how can s/he learn math while spinning around/headbanging/bouncing up and down” let’s clarify what stimming is. Yes, sometimes stimming is all of those things, but it is also fidgeting with a toy, chewing on a chewy, bouncing a leg/foot, flapping a hand, flexing fingers, rocking gently, moving around on an exercise ball used as a chair, or any number of other things that can be done while sitting at a desk.

In fact, every time I stop typing to think of what I want to say next, I start rhythmically tapping my fingers in sequence on my keyboard. That’s stimming. I don’t think about it. I don’t do it on purpose. It isn’t a “behavior.” It happens naturally. It helps me organize my thoughts and stay on task.

It’s the opposite of a distraction.

The Cost of Inhibition

So when I say that a child should be allowed to stim and that stimming is more likely to be cognitively beneficial than distracting, that’s the kind of stimming I’m talking about. Note that in my example, the autistic child was expected to do the things the other typical children were expected to do, such as sitting in their seat and not talking to classmates. They aren’t being allowed to do “whatever they want”–an assumption some people will jump to when anyone raises the notion that autistic children should be allowed to stim.

Maybe while they’re sitting in their seat and working on their math problems, they’re also manipulating a piece of string or a fidget toy with one hand. Maybe they’re sitting on an exercise ball so they can gently roll from side to side. Maybe when they pause to think they flap their hands.

Imagine the red self-discipline portion of the graph shrinking for these kids when they’re allowed to stim while they work. When that happens, the green “solving math problems” portion can grow. When they no longer have to spend EF resources on not stimming, those resources can be repurposed for learning.

If you find it hard to imagine how difficult it is to inhibit stimming for an extended period of time, try this: imagine you have a bad case of poison ivy, you’re not allowed to put any medication on it or to scratch where it itches . . . and I’m going to teach you how to find the limit of a function as x approaches a fixed constant.

How much of that math lesson do you think you’ll retain? Would you even care?

A Few Words About Socially Acceptable Behavior

There is another argument against stimming at school or in other public places: we need to teach autistic kids socially acceptable behavior so other kids/people don’t think they’re weird. Well, I have two things to say about that.

Yes, autistic children should be taught the same social rules as typical children. They should be taught to respect others and all of the rules of politeness and civility that go along with it. But here’s the thing: I was an autistic kid and I can tell you for certain, stimming or not, the other kids already think we’re weird.

Instead of insisting that autistic children adopt unnatural behaviors for the sake of social acceptance, how about working toward changing what is socially acceptable?

**** I’ve used children as an example throughout this piece, but everything here applies to autistic adults as well.

Further Reading:

Quiet Hands by Julia Bascom

The Cost of Compliance is Unreasonable by Beth Ryan

Another Way to Silence – Shame by Ariane Zurcher

My Decision, Not Yours by Alyssa

On Stimming and why “quiet hands”ing an Autistic person is wrong by Rose

What’s Your Function?

Nonfunctional. This word drives me nuts.

I’ve seen it used to describe autistic behavior in the context of “nonfunctional routines” and “nonfunctional play.”

Raise your hand if you think your routines are “nonfunctional.” I will happily concede that my routines are inflexible and specific, even weird and inexplicable at times, but nonfunctional? No way.

My routines have purpose. Without them, I risk becoming paralyzed or adrift. My carefully organized life goes all to hell. The plants don’t get watered. The dog may or may not get fed. I forget to shower. I get anxious about what’s for lunch before I’ve even finished breakfast. I spend too many hours happily chasing after this idea or that, forgetting that the rest of the world exists.

In the absence of routines, I just plain forget to do things. I drift. I perseverate and spend way too much energy on the blizzard of little choices that typical people find effortless and aspies find exhausting, never getting around to the more important stuff. I become all details and no big picture.

Take breakfast, for example. I find it fascinating that some people (a lot people?) wake up not knowing what they’ll have for breakfast. Presumably they walk into the kitchen or the diner or 7-11 and just decide on the spot what they’d like. This is an amazing feat of executive function and one that I would find stressful beyond words.

I eat the same thing for breakfast everyday. It frees me from having to think about what I’m in the mood for in the context of what we have in the house, the comparative calories and nutritional value of my choices, how much time it would to prepare each choice, the possibility that I’ve left some better choice off my list not to mention the fact that I’d have to shop for these choices at some point, thereby having to choose not once but twice.

Instead, I grab a bowl, slice up some fruit, dump in my favorite cereal and pour milk over it. It’s simple and it makes me happy and I don’t have to use up precious brain resources before the sun is barely over the horizon. That seems pretty damn functional to me.

Routines give my life structure. Within my routine, I always know what I need to do next or I at least have a limited number of “preprogrammed choices” to pick from. While this doesn’t entirely prevent unwanted surprises, it reduces them to a tolerable level.

If you’re not thinking “yes, exactly!” at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m the most boring rigid monotonous person in the history of humankind.

Fear not, I can be flexible if I have to. Let’s stay with the breakfast example. There are times when breakfast at home isn’t an option. Vacations. Special occasions. Power outages. This used to upset me, but I’ve learned that being grumpy at breakfast when there are so many delicious things to choose from is not only an example of a nonfunctional attachment to routine but a real drag.

At first I had to do the adult equivalent of a social story: Sometimes the restaurant doesn’t have the food I want to eat. That’s okay. There are a lot of other foods on the menu that I can try. Many of them are probably things that I would enjoy.

(That doesn't look like me at all but I have zero drawing skills so I had to rely on the stock characters at Pixton for an assist)
(That doesn’t look like me at all but I have zero drawing skills so I had to rely on the stock characters at Pixton for an assist)

Yes, I felt a bit odd having to repeat this to myself, but over time it worked.

Which isn’t to say that I’m routine-free on these magical breakfasts away from home. I can be happy with coffee if the restaurant doesn’t have chai. I can enjoy French toast as much as an egg sandwich or a bowl of oatmeal.

You won’t catch me spontaneously ordering a mango smoothie or freestyling my way through the make-your-own-omelet choices. I still have a routine for breakfast; it’s just different.

I’ve discovered that it’s not routines themselves that are problematic, it’s the appropriateness of the routine I choose to run. At home, I need to run the home breakfast routine; when I’m out, I need to run the restaurant breakfast routine. The restaurant breakfast routine has more options. It’s not one that I’d want to run everyday, but I can do it as needed without the kind of negative consequences I’d face if I had no routine at all.

What does no routine at all look like?

The Scientist and I went to a new lunch place last week. First of all, it was one of his totally unplanned let’s be spontaneous adventures so I was already a bit flustered by the last-minuteness of it all. The menu was blessedly limited, except for the all-day breakfast option, which I considered then eliminated on principle, although I’m still wondering even as I type this if I should have factored the breakfast items into my decision.

Anyhow, I ended up choosing a grilled ham and cheese but not before I’d analyzed the pros and cons of everything on the menu that I’d even remotely consider eating. I cycled through a half-dozen choices before settling on the ham and cheese, mostly because that was the choice I was thinking about when the waitress appeared in front of me. If she’d arrived a minute earlier, I would have had a BLT. Before that I was settled on a burger. Thirty seconds later and I might have ended up with ham and egg sandwich.

I have no idea how long I would sit there looking at the menu if I wasn’t forced by circumstances to make a final decision. Ten minutes? A half hour? Indefinitely?

Choosing what to eat at a new restaurant probably sounds trivial to anyone who is running at full executive function capacity. For those of us who have impaired EF, every single one of these decisions uses up resources that could be better spent on important stuff like being productive at work, home or school.

Routines may look nonfunctional and even limiting, but they’re often just the opposite. They allow me to spend less time sweating the small stuff, freeing up my brain for the more important aspects of adulting.

Goal-Fish: The Neurodivergent To-Do List

One of my special skills is goading people into doing things that I think are great ideas. A few of you have been on the receiving end of this.

When it comes to getting my own stuff done, though, I have a tougher time making things happen. If you have impaired executive function courtesy of autism or ADHD (or some other neurodivergence), you know the feeling. How many times a week do I think “I really should spend some time on my novel” and “I’m way behind on responding to comments” not to mention “The kitchen counters could use a good wiping down” and “When was the last time I vacuumed?”

I’m super organized when it comes to work and bill paying and anything with a deadline. But those things that I should be doing regularly–which includes everything from housework to writing and keeping my blog in order–that stuff slips away from me so easily.

So when Slepa Ulica (who comments here under the username Anonymus) mentioned that they were designing a “smart to-do list” that would serve up tasks to do based on a whole list of customizable parameters, I got just a little excited.

A to-do list that understands crummy executive function! A to-do list that would give me one appropriate task at a time! A website for neurodivergent people created by a neurodivergent person! Much goading encouragement ensued on my part and much work on Slepa Ulica’s part.

And here it is, ready for you to try out:

Goal-Fish

Some cool things I like about this software:

1. The fish! I know that’s a silly thing to put first on my list, but the illustrations make me happy. More importantly, the interface is sensory friendly. Plenty of white space, no busy layouts, moving images, sounds or loud colors to assault my brain. Just the minimum of information that I need, accented with whimsical illustrations. (The website also has a boatload of accessibility features which you can read about in detail if you like.)

2. Unlike regular to-do lists, Goal-Fish understands that not all tasks are created equal and we don’t always feel up to tackling certain chores. The constraints feature allows you to limit tasks to what you’re capable of doing (based on energy level, time of day, etc.) and how much time you have. Once you’ve input your constraints (which will take less time to do than it took you to read about it here), you press a button and the software gives you an appropriate task.

For example, I set up a 15-minute time window, a pain (you can change this to spoons, energy, etc.) level of 4 and no helpers. The software gave me “change sheets” which I should probably go do now because I have no idea when I last did that. Increasing my pain level to 6, it told me to take out the trash. When I decreased my pain level to 1 and increased the time to 30 minutes, it told me to clean out the fridge (another task I should do more regularly).

3. What you see when you first start using Goal-Fish is Slepa Ulica’s tasks and categories. You can edit tasks to fit your needs, add your own tasks, assign them to categories, change/create detailed instructions for each task and modify the constraints. Depending on how much time you want to spend, you can do quite a bit of customizing.

The fish is doing laundry. The fish wants you to laundry, too. You don’t want to let the fish down, right?

4. It’s free. Wow, right? Of course, if you’re feeling generous and can afford to, you can throw a few bucks Slepa Ulica’s way. If you do, you’ll get an additional 20 tasks and 6 categories added to your account. Plus the good feeling that comes along with supporting a cool project by a member of our community. Just use that bright shiny donate button at the top of the screen.

5. The detailed instructions can include as many or as few steps as you need. Some of us may be fine with “do laundry” as a single instruction. Others  may need a detailed list of steps to complete more complex tasks like doing the laundry. I can see this making a great independent living tool for pre-teens, teens or adults who need support in completing daily self-care tasks.

6. It almost makes doing chores fun. Clicking the button and getting a semi-random chore makes completing tasks feel like part of a game. Also, having a time limit on a chore makes mundane tasks less open-ended and onerous. If I decide I want to spend 15 minutes on a chore and the software tells me to go pick up stuff, then I feel good about spending 15 minutes or less picking stuff up, even if I don’t get every last thing put away. Without that limit, I’ll avoid even starting because I know I can easily end up spending an hour straightening up, getting distracted, drifting off into other tasks, etc. and then feel like I got nothing substantial done.

I’m going to close this out with Slepa Ulica’s description of why the software is called Goal-Fish, because it ties in nicely with #6 and it made me smile:

“I got to thinking that my todo list is kind of like one of those digital pets where you have to order it to do things, feed it, water it, and take care of it, except in reverse. I’m the digital pet, and the computer is the person telling me to clean my room.”

If you have questions or comments, Slepa Ulica (Anonymus) has promised to reply to them here or you can find an email link at the bottom of the software’s help page.

——-

Obligatory disclaimer: I didn’t receive any compensation for reviewing the software/website.

Post #100: A Hiatus and Some Thoughts on Executive Function

This is my 100th post. Yay!

Around the time I started blogging, a blogger that I was following made her 100th post and I was in awe. I wasn’t sure if I could stick with this blogging thing long enough to make it to 100. I wasn’t sure if anyone would read what I wrote or if I had enough ideas to make more than a few posts.

It turns out that I probably have enough ideas for a thousand posts. Even better, I have an amazing group of readers who I’m enjoying getting to know. I didn’t realize how interactive blogging can be. Again and again I’m humbled by the comments here, by the kind words and the trust. By your willingness to share and be open and support each other and make this journey with me.

And to those of you who read and lurk, I see you, pushing my post view count up day after day. I know you’re out there and I’m grateful. Don’t be shy about joining in the conversation if the spirit moves you.

A Change of Plans

I was going to post one more survey tomorrow before I leave for my Big Adventure, but I’ve decided to wait until I get back. My executive function has been in a downward spiral for the past week. Right now I have the EF of a squirrel.

So here’s The Plan:

  1. 100th post

  2. Put blog on hiatus

  3. Big Adventure Part 1: Go far far away

  4. Big Adventure Part 2: Come home, immediately move to new apartment

  5. Die a little

  6. Recover

  7. Post survey part 4

  8. Start writing again

I have no idea how long 5 and 6 will take so I’m not sure how long the hiatus will last. Maybe close to a month? Hopefully my Big Adventure will give me lots to write about.

I’m sorry to keep messing with the survey schedule. I know unexpected change can be frustrating.

WTF Executive Function?

My Big Adventure is looming large. A major trip followed by a move is a lot to cope with. Massive change, lack of control, uncertainty, sensory triggers, major sleep disruption, yadda, yadda, yadda. I used to think that the uneasiness and disorientation I felt before a big event was anxiety but I’m starting to think it’s actually stress-induced deterioration of my executive function.

The degree of my uneasiness is directly proportionate to how stressful I anticipate an event will be. The next few weeks are 7-9 our of 10 on my stress-o-meter. Not just an evening or a day of level 7-9 stress, but a full two weeks of it. The anticipation I’ve been feeling over the past week has given me a chance to step back and observe my reactions to extreme stress.

Here’s what I’m discovering: the closer I get to the Big Adventure, the worse my executive functioning is becoming. About 10 days ago, I started to notice that I was having trouble concentrating on work. I made myself a detailed schedule, plotting out a reasonable number of tasks each day and allowing myself five days of no complex work leading up to my trip. That helped a lot.

Then I noticed that I was having trouble staying organized. Moving and preparing to travel overseas involves a lot of planning. Random details were constantly flying around in my head, especially things I absolutely shouldn’t forget. Turning the utilities on/off. Buying dog food. Changing my address on this account and that account and some other account. Packing tampons and melatonin and my laptop cord. Picking up moving boxes at the grocery store. My passport!

Finally, I took out a notepad and wrote everything down–lists, important dates, schedules, reminders. The notepad sits on the kitchen counter and every time I think of something, no matter how trivial, I write it down.

Gradually, I started to lose interest in communicating. I’ve mostly stopped keeping up with social media, email, etc. Soon after that, I started to struggle with writing. Just getting through this fairly straight forward post is taking me forever. I keep losing track of thoughts and going down blind alleys. (There also seems to be something wonky about the tenses here, but IDK.)

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week doing stimmy, low-cognitive-demand things, like playing Temple Run, taking long walks and being silly with the dog.

I’ve been double and triple checking everything I do, especially for work. Still, I find myself making a lot of little mistakes. Putting my empty cereal bowl in the fridge instead of the dishwasher. Putting clothes in the dryer but not turning it on. Not realizing I’m wearing my shirt inside out until the end of my run.

So this feeling I get–disconnected, disoriented, unfocused, withdrawn, restless–this thing I’ve been thinking all these years was anxiety is looking more like a deterioration of my executive function. Thinking about it in that way has removed a layer of stress. It also explains why my “anxiety” symptoms only match a small subset of typical anxiety symptoms (restlessness, difficulty concentrating, becoming less social, fatigue).

Instead of worrying about it and beating myself up for not coping well and powering through it like I’ve done in the past, I’m being kind to myself. I’m making accommodations, acknowledging that I shouldn’t be doing complicated work projects right now, taking more breaks during the day, asking for help/advice where I need it, reminding myself that it’s temporary.

By not pushing myself, I feel like I’ve deescalated my stress quite a bit. I’ve also been able to avoid negative coping mechanisms like perseverating, withdrawing or being controlling. This makes for a happier marriage and a happier me.

See You on the Other Side

Assuming all goes as planned, I’ll see you in 3-4 weeks. Until then, be well.

Survey: General Coping Strategies

Welcome to week 3 of our survey.

I’ve slightly revised the schedule due to some additional questions that were posted over the weekend. This week we’ll do general coping strategies. Next week we’ll do special skills and fun stuff. When I get back from my great big adventure some time in May, we’ll do acceptance and gender/sexuality/body image.

You all probably know the drill by now, but in case anyone new wanders in: answer as many questions as you like, here or anonymously at Survey Monkey. Talk amongst yourselves about the answers if you like.

Also, you might want to have a look at the last two weeks’ surveys on relationships and sensory sensitivities/work and school strategies. Answers to both are still coming in!

Take the Survey Monkey version here: general coping strategies.

Although some questions reference diagnosis, this is open to all those who identify as on the spectrum (professionally diagnosed, self-diagnosed  and suspected aspies/autistics/people with autism).

General Coping Strategies

  1. What positive changes did you make to your life after your diagnosis?

  1. Over-apologising/apologising as a reflex action: Seriously, “sorry” has become my standard greeting to people at uni. Does anyone else do this? Has anyone managed to break the habit? How?

  1. How do you all describe what it’s like to be you to someone else? What do you compare these things to in a way that makes others have that aha! moment? more details here

  1. Does anyone else have issues with conflict/arguments/shouting matches in front of you? How do you deal with this?

  1. Does anyone else have trouble with “future planning”? a little more info here

  1. How do you stay on top of cleaning? What contextual cues do you use to get you to do things around the house?

  1. Do you catastrophise and if so, have you strategies for managing it?

  1. Do you experience emotional distress, such as depression and grieving, in unusual ways, such as increased sensory challenges or physical pain?

  1. Do you have trouble speaking at a normal pace? Do you have any tips for modulating your voice?

  2. Have you experienced chronic fatigue or chronic pain? Do you have other chronic illnesses? If so, do you think autistic traits such as poor emotional awareness and sensory differences such as oversensitivity to pain or muscle discomfort have any effect on these?

Thinking on your Feet: A Trio of Cognitive Tests

Thinking on Your Feet is a new test at Test My Brain. I was planning to do the creepy Face in the Branches test today but it’s no longer available. Instead I took Thinking on Your Feet, which isn’t an Asperger’s test but does test some of the cognitive areas that can be impacted by ASD.

Thinking on your Feet consists of three short tests:

  1. Find the flickering dot: You’re shown a set of blue and yellow dots that flash intermittently and you have to find the dot that’s changing color. There are sixteen sets of dots.
  2. Visual working memory: You’re briefly shown a set of four shapes arrayed around a plus (+) sign. The set disappears and one shape reappears. You press “s” if the shape is the same as the one you saw in that position in the set and “d” if it is different. There are 42 sets of shapes.
  3. Visual reasoning: You’re shown a matrix of shapes and have to identify the “missing piece” from 5 possible choices. There are 35 matrices and they become increasingly difficult.
Example of a nonverbal reasoning matrix
Example of a nonverbal reasoning matrix

As I was taking the tests, they reminded me of some of the cognitive tests I took during my Asperger’s evaluation.

The first and third tests measure components of executive function: attention and working memory. Executive function is way of describing our brain’s command and control center. It encompasses things like planning, problem solving, and verbal reasoning as well as starting, stopping, switching and monitoring tasks. Many aspies, including me, have impaired executive function.

The second test–visual reasoning–relies on nonverbal reasoning. Many aspies excel at tasks requiring nonverbal reasoning, either because they think visually or are skilled at pattern recognition.

Working with those general assumptions, individuals on the spectrum are probably more likely to score above average on the second test and average or below average on the other two.

Taking the Test

First a warning: One section of this test has a set of colored dots that flash at a steady rate. The flashing isn’t rapid, but the dots are quite bright and you have to study them as they flash to find one that is different. Is this sounds like it may be uncomfortable or triggering for you, don’t take this test.

The test guidelines say it takes about 30 minutes to complete. I finished in a little over 20. The first and third tests go pretty quickly, but you may want to spend more time on the visual reasoning section, depending on how quickly you can solve the harder puzzles and how much you care about your score.

When you’re ready to give it a try, go to the Test My Brain site and click the Go! button next to the Thinking on Your Feet test. You’ll be asked to agree to the consent form and provide some demographic information (age, handedness, primary language, etc.) to help the researchers analyze the data they’re collecting via these tests. It’s all anonymous and you won’t be asked for any personally identifying data.

Before each section of the test, you’ll be given written directions as well as two practice trials to be sure you understand what to do. After the three tests are complete, you’ll be asked for your SAT scores. If you don’t remember them or never took the SAT you can skip this section. It has no impact on the results you receive.

Scoring the Test

You’ll get three separate scores. Here are mine:

Find the Flickering Dot:  I got 14.63, which is a measure of the average number of screen flashes it took me to find the dot. The average score on this test is 20.53.

My scores on the Find the Flickering Dot test
I scored better than 30% of other test takers

Visual Reasoning Test: I got 31 out of 35 correct. The average score is 25.76

My visual reasoning score is in the 90th percentile group
My visual reasoning score is in the 90th percentile group

Visual Working Memory: I got 37 out of 42 correct. The average score is 33.91.

My visual working memory score is better than 60% of the other test takers
My visual working memory score is better than 60% of the other test takers

If we assume that the scores are normally distributed, then scores that fall between the 25th and 75th percentile are in the average range of ability. Or to put it another way, if your blue guy is standing somewhere in the middle of the pack, your scores are average. If he’s standing in the first two or last positions, you’re above or below average.

For the flickering dot and visual working memory scores, my blue guy is standing in the middle six, which means I have average scores . On the visual reasoning test, my blue guy is in the second to last position, meaning I have an above average score.

I went back and looked at my ASD evaluation report to compare the results of the comparable cognitive tests with these and they’re quite similar. My scores were above average for perceptual reasoning and average for attention. I didn’t take a visual working memory test so I don’t have a direct comparison there. I did take two verbal working memory tests and my results were “impaired” on both, meaning my little blue guy was standing in the first position in line.

It’s no surprise to me that I scored better on visual working memory than verbal. My verbal cognitive test scores are poor across the board and I’m much more comfortable working from printed or visual material than from oral directions.

The Bottom Line

This set of tests is an interesting look at some of the cognitive elements that are thought to be ASD strengths and weaknesses.

You Can Do Something About That

sensory processing, executive function, and learning to recognize discomfort before it leads to a meltdown . . .

—–

Somewhere in my early reading about Asperger’s, I came across this idea: If something is bothering you, you can do something about it.

That seems like deceptively simple advice. If you’re cold, put on a sweater. If you’re hungry, eat something. If the sun is in your eyes, move or close the blinds or put on your sunglasses.

For a typical person, the idea that you can get up and put on a sweater if you’re cold is probably not an earth-shattering revelation. In fact, it’s something they’ve been instinctively doing since childhood. The typical brain receives an incoming message about physical discomfort, finds a solution and swiftly acts on it:

typical body: I’m cold.
typical brain: We’re underdressed. Stop what we’re doing and put on a sweater.
typical body: Good idea!

This is where the typical person gets up from the computer, goes to the closet and takes out a sweater. But for a lot aspies, the body-brain communication is dulled to the point that we appear to not feel pain, cold or other physical sensations in the way that typical people do. You often hear parents of autistic youngsters say that their children will play outside in the winter without wearing a coat or will injure themselves but continue playing like they haven’t noticed.

Based on my experience, I don’t think we necessarily feel pain or cold less. I think our body-brain communication is muted. As a result it takes a lot more sensory input from our bodies to provoke a reaction in our brains.

Here’s how my brain functions:

body: Something’s not right.
brain: Uh-huh . . .
body: No really. I feel strange.
brain: Yeah yeah . . .
body: I think I’m cold.
brain: Shhh, I’m busy.
body: Yep, definitely cold.
brain: Okay, I get it, you’re cold. Hmmm . . . maybe we should do something about it.
body: Look, I have goose bumps.
brain: I’m thinking!
body: Now I’m shivering.
brain: Okay, go get a sweater.

Even when I get to this point, I may put off stopping what I’m doing to get that sweater because in addition to the sensory processing issues of AS, there is the issue of poor executive function.

To understand the complex brain-body interaction problem that aspies struggle with, it might help to break it down into a few parts and look at them separately first.

Sensory Processing

Those of us with ASD have a tendency to put with stuff until we can’t anymore.

From childhood, we learn that the world is full of annoyances, big and small. Our clothes have scratchy tags and seams. The kids around us never shut up. We suffer through bad smells, weird food, annoying noises, uncomfortable temperatures. The list is endless and it differs for each of us. But I’m betting that one thing we have in common is that we get used to being physically uncomfortable.

Maybe we get used to it not only because we’re more sensitive to physical sensations but because the physical discomfort signal often isn’t strong enough to cause us to act on it. This sounds like a conflicting statement. How can we both more and less sensitive to the physical world?

Often I find myself feeling uncomfortable but I’m so deeply engaged in what I’m doing, that the discomfort hovers at the edges of my consciousness. It exists as low level background noise, not serious enough to make me stop and think about it, but not minor enough that I can completely ignore it. So I put up with it until it becomes truly impossible to ignore.

Of course, by that point it’s long past the time when I should have acted and the minor annoyance has ballooned into serious discomfort.

So what’s going on here? Why can’t an adult with supposedly above average intelligence figure out that she’s cold and the obvious solution is to get up and walk across the room to the closet to get a sweater?

Scientists still aren’t exactly sure how and why aspies process sensory information differently from typical people. The simplest explanation is that we have difficulty prioritizing incoming sensory data. For example, when a typical person walks into a strange place, they quickly and instinctively filter out the unnecessary information from the necessary. In a doctor’s office, they zero in the reception desk. In a coffee shop, their brain immediately sorts out where the ordering line is. In a busy train station, they filter out the distractions to focus on the directional signs pointing them to their platform.

If just reading about those unfamiliar situations raised your anxiety level, you’re not alone. The aspie brain takes one look at the busy train platform gives equal weight to the directional signs, the map on the wall, the crying toddler, the homeless man shaking his cup of coins, the stale underground smell,  the roar of the trains, the sound of the bathroom hand dryer, the person brushing up against you, the uneven flooring, and a million other sights, sounds, smells and physical sensations.

Like so many other things, what typical people do instinctively–filter out the sensory noise to identify the relevant inputs–the aspie brain does through a logical process of elimination. Given enough time, I can stand in the busy train station and find the correct directional signs, but it will usually take me longer than it would take most typical people.

So how does this apply to those everyday annoyances that we’re so good at ignoring? Because we seem to receive so much of our environmental data at the same “volume” level, it’s hard for any single piece of information to rise above the rest and get noticed. Typical people instinctively sort those same incoming signals by priority and the “I’m too cold” signal will get mentally red flagged. This red flag message then interrupts the part of the brain that’s engaged in work to say “hey, we’ve got a problem over here.”

The aspie brain doesn’t seem to red flag sensory input until it reaches critical levels that make it physically impossible to ignore. By that point it’s often too late, and a meltdown is imminent.

Executive Function

Unfortunately, the sensory processing issue is only half of the problem. Even when I notice that, yes, I’m too cold, I still tend to ignore that information for as long as possible. Often I’m probably investing more energy in ignoring the annoyance than it would take to get up and remedy the situation.

So it’s not that I’m not uncomfortable. I am. Just not uncomfortable enough to take action.

This is where executive function comes into play. Executive function is an umbrella term that covers things like planning, problem solving, mental flexibility, multi-tasking and initiating and monitoring actions. Poor executive function is why aspies often have trouble switching between tasks, starting and stopping activities and planning ahead. It’s also a big part of why we put up with stuff that could be easily fixed.

For an aspie, the time lag between detecting the annoyance, formulating a plan to deal with it and then taking the required action can be long or even indefinite.

What appears to be a simple problem–this thing is bothering me and I need to do something about it–has very complex neurological roots.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. All of this theory stuff is great, but what can I do?

You Can Do Something About That

The first step is being attentive to what your body is telling you. For me, the feeling that something is physically uncomfortable is very specific. It hovers right at the edge of my brain, like an itch that I can’t quite reach. I’ve begun to practice listening for that feeling when I’m engaged in something else.

The second step is consciously prioritizing that feeling as early as possible after you notice it occurring. For example, as I was about halfway through writing this, I started to get the itchy feeling. When I came to the end of a stream of thought I paused and disengaged my mind from writing enough to realize that the sun was shining on my laptop monitor, creating a glare.

The next step is identifying a solution. Is this a problem I can easily fix? How? In the case of the glare, I looked around and realized that there is a shade in the coffee shop window next to me and it has a pull chain that would allow me to lower it.

The final step is, of course, acting on the problem. If the solution is simple, try to act on it right away. It can be hard to stop what you’re doing to take that action, but once you do, you’ll be able to concentrate much better on your activity. I try to use that as an incentive to break away and do what I need to do. Since I pulled the shade down, I’m no longer squinting at my monitor, my face isn’t too warm from the sun and I know I won’t be leaving Starbucks with a headache.

Don’t be surprised if it takes awhile to get the hang of doing something about the little things in life that bug you. At least fifteen minutes passed between the time I started to peripherally sense that something was wrong and the time I lowered the shade.

Retraining our brains is hard work and requires some patience. Rather than feeling bad because a typical person would spend about 15 seconds on a process that took me 15 minutes, I try to focus on the fact that a year ago, I would have just kept right on typing, squinting at the glare on my monitor and feeling miserable.