The challenges of having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are well known. Pervasive difficulty in communicating and interacting with others, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviors or interests, generally cause considerable hardship in everyday living for most people with Autism.
What is not as obvious are the things that adults with ASD tend to be good at. In this article I will focus on one area, thinking, and what is exceptional, and useful, about the way adults with ASD think.
Please keep in mind that what I am about to say is fairly general. Not everyone with ASD thinks the way I describe. But many do, and insofar as it is helpful to have a comprehensive understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder, consideration of these general tendencies is worthwhile.
You notice a large object with four legs, a head, tail, and soft, fluffy fur. Instantly, you recognize a dog (yes, I know, it could be a cat.) Why? Because you compared what you saw with copies of those features (four legs, head, tail, etc.) stored in your long-term memory and which is identified with the concept of a dog.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to be very good at finding meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. They are able to take information, find the patterns within it, and thereby explain why things happen.
But are these patterns accurate? Are they effective and useful? You might argue that what causes people to have ASD is likely to cause them to misperceive and misunderstand the world, especially when it has to do with social activity.
And you are exactly right. The pattern recognition that people with Autism tend to excel at fails when it involves recognizing and understanding how people operate. For some reason, non-human information is easier to recognize, sort out and understand than social information. This is the mystery of ASD.
Simply put, associative thinking is the ability to connect previously unconnected ideas. Closely aligned with pattern recognition, associative thinking depends upon the idea that everything is connected.
Most of us can see connections among a limited number of objects, ideas, or bits of information but adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder often recognize a much longer chain of connections. Two things make this possible. People with ASD are more likely to think in non-linear ways. They see connections that aren’t immediately apparent. They do this because of their ability to focus in different directions and proceed from different starting points, rather than take a straightforward linear approach to problem-solving. Ironically, the non-linearity that seems so unhelpful and that often drives others crazy is an asset of having ASD.
Better long-term memory is the second reason. By having the ability to access more data from the past, the person with ASD is able to find more connections than is typical among apparently unrelated ideas.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder are usually really good at seeing details. They may not be able to see the forest but they can see lots of trees. When you consider it, being able to see patterns and thinking associatively requires seeing the component parts of a problem.
Detail thinking is frequently referred to as bottom-up thinking. A person assembles lots of data, groups that data together, finds results and then draws conclusions from those results. It is the opposite of starting from ideas and then finding the facts that support them.
Although this type of thinking has its drawbacks, most notably the problem of putting together the big picture, an argument can be made that solving problems and identifying solutions effectively can only occur when the component parts of a problem are recognized and identified. It may take require lots of data in order for someone with Autism to draw conclusions but often those conclusions are quite accurate and less prone to reaching beyond the facts.
These are three positive characteristics that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder are good at. In a subsequent blog, I will address other competencies and discuss why it is that we should include them in our understanding of this unconventional but widespread syndrome.