I have autism, and from a happy accident the summer I turned 11, I learned that there were things which could make my quality of life a lot better, and others which could make it a lot worse. My life since then has been shaped around discovering what hurts the symptoms of autism, what helps the symptoms of autism, and why, what is the science which makes sense of this.
I have the hope that if I explain why autistics do the different types of behaviours which have made some non-autistics feel so alienated or upset, then empathy and support will be a more likely reaction. If I can make it easier for you to help autism behaviours be understood by extended family, colleagues, educators, friends, or anyone who might be working with or supporting someone with an autistic spectrum condition, you may be able to improve the social quality of life for the autistics you care about, immediately.
So, why do autistics organize things, or line things up? Well, autistics take in more sensory information. So there’s more visual information, there’s more auditory information. There’s more scent coming in, there’s more flavour. All of these things have to be translated and integrated.
This means that there’s a signal-to-noise ratio problem. That’s an engineering term talking about how much has meaning (signal), and how much is irrelevant (noise) in all of the possible things you could be paying attention to.
For example, imagine you’re trying to get your favourite radio program on a short-wave radio. You’re turning the tuning knob, and you’re listening intently, trying to find that sweet spot where everything will come through clearly.
But mostly, you hear hisses, pops, whistles, and squeals, with an occasional word or dash of music. The music or the words is the signal. The noise is everything else in between.
Trying to identify what around you has meaning, and what doesn’t, seems to be something that neuro-typicals or non-autistics put on automatic, that they’re unconsciously competent at (like going on auto-pilot to drive home). But autistics have to really work at it, to keep consciously translating what has meaning in any given situation. It’s exhausting, and can be very frustrating.
When you see an autistic who is organizing things or lining things up, they’re doing something very clever: reducing the signal-to-noise ratio. They’re creating more signal and less noise by organizing their environment.
If you’re a parent, teacher, or health practitioner, you really want to look for, and encourage this coping skill, this active engagement with what has meaning. When you see autistics doing this kind of thing, help them organize in that same way in parallel play, and then show them other ways that they can organize things. This really helps us begin to be able to identify more and more of the criteria that are considered meaningful.
How many ways can the same things be organized? What criteria are being used in each different alignment? Exploring this through shared or adjacent activities can be the first breakthrough in understanding. And supporting this skill will speed the path to increasingly effective communication.
Most of us who have made it out of the fog of autism are highly skilled at spotting patterns or errors in chaotic information, because of developing this pattern-recognition and pattern-interrupt recognition coping skill. This is being used to good effect in programming and quality control applications.
If you or someone you love could use more information on how to Thrive With Autism, please join us for one of our upcoming webinars;
Thrive With Autism Essentials gives you the keys to help the autistics you care about at home, school, and work.
The Five Root Causes of Autism helps you find the unique blend at the root of your particular autistic challenges.
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Where do autism behaviours come from? Answers blend autistics’ experiences with relevant health research that turns lives around.
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