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Post No.: 0695allistic


Furrywisepuppy says:


Firstly, the best set of analogies I’ve ever heard to explain how autistic people can be so diverse from each other in their presentations yet all still be regarded as autistic is via cakes…


So to bake something that can be regarded as a cake, you’ll need certain key ingredients. It’s a similar situation when reaching an autism diagnosis. And just like when baking a cake, you can combine those ingredients in different ways and quantities and that’s going to affect the end result.


Therefore it’s not apt to say that one autistic person is ‘more autistic’ than another autistic person any more than it is to say a Génoise sponge is ‘more of a cake’ than a Victoria sponge. But we can talk about autistic people having different difficulties, just like we might say one cake is more sweet or rich than another. One cake could be fine in sweetness but overly dense, and another could have the right texture but lacking in flavour – hence different cakes can have different strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, autistic people can each be different too. Post No.: 0682 explained the ‘spiky profiles’ of autistic people.


Some of these ingredients can be related to other conditions as well. So ADHD could be like biscuits, which share many of the same ingredients as cakes. Jaffa Cakes have characteristics of both cakes and biscuits. (This led to a dispute in the UK about which they were for tax purposes! It settled on being closer to cakes.) And all these other conditions can be seen as something that can combine within the individual, like perhaps some kind of cake with a biscuit base.


This also means that it’s not appropriate to say that someone can be ‘a little bit autistic’. Okay, many people in the general population are likely to have a few traits that are common with ASD, but just because an omelette contains eggs – just like a cake normally does – it won’t make an omelette ‘a little bit cake’! (This analogy applies to other mental health conditions like OCD or ADHD too.)


Yet non-autistic, or allistic, people can at times indeed experience many of the difficulties that autistic people face, like misreading others or making social mistakes. So what is a ‘typical’ versus an ‘autistic’ human experience? People often say, “Oh, but everyone does that.” There’s so much overlap.


The key points to recognise are the intensity, frequency and ultimately impact of these experiences. Do you agonise for months over whether to try out a new, unfamiliar supermarket? Do you fret about getting it wrong when trying to buy a bus ticket? Do you worry about asking where a toilet is even when you need one urgently? Do you struggle to tell a waiter they got the order wrong? You might occasionally – but for autistic people it’s constant, for both the big and ‘little’ things. That’s why it can be frustrating for them to hear allistic people say, “I know exactly how you feel.” (This again can apply to other mental health conditions too.)


…Non-autistic children appear to be hard-wired to be able to pick up how to communicate and interact with other people. It starts when babies are usually preferentially interested in watching people’s faces. Within the first 3 months, babies will smile back at someone who smiles at them or makes appealing vocalisations and facial expressions if they have eye contact with the infant. By 6 months, most infants can follow another person’s gaze to see what they’re looking at (joint attention). From about 9 months, they can start to point at things to non-verbally indicate those things. Verbal language emerges during the first year – most infants will speak their first actual words before 24 months of age (many by 12 months). Their vocabulary will then rapidly expand.


Before around 3 years old, children are a bit hopeless at lying. The collection of abilities that make up ‘theory of mind’ is developing around this age though, and they’ll soon begin to realise that not everyone knows what they know, hence they’ll seem to figure out that they can consciously attempt to manipulate other people by telling porky pies. They’ll appear to learn that people communicate and interact with each other on the basis of what’s in their heads rather than what’s in the external world. The social politics at school age then become more challenging, as children understand that people don’t always literally mean what they fluffy say. So they learn to read the context, the body language and vocal intonations to work out whether something could be euphemistic for instance.


In general, girls are better at exhibiting empathy and at talking and communicating. They’re usually really interested in relationships and in nurturing them (well until they reach their teens and mean cliques can arise anyway!) Boys are relatively less chatty and would rather express themselves physically, with relationships that form based on play and sharing similar interests rather than the subtleties of social politics.


Coordinating eye contact and looking out for eye contact or direction, pointing, mirroring or copying, using and reading vocal intonations and non-verbal cues, taking turns, knowing when to interrupt and finding good ways to start conversations – all eventually come naturally for non-autistic children. But these things don’t come naturally for children on the autism spectrum.


Many autistic people prefer to communicate via writing or typing because this is less nuanced than verbal communication. Yet there are concerns expressed about how too much screen time or online communication can take away from the ‘real’ social skills of in-person interaction. There are similar concerns expressed from some corners regarding using sign language or other forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which are communication methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing for those with language impairments. They believe that this could impede children from learning to speak. But research suggests that learning one communication method overall enhances, not detracts from, other communication skills. And online communication has been described as just as enabling to autistic people as sign language is to deaf people.


Autistic people are said to exhibit ‘mind-blindness’ due to an atypical development of theory of mind. This term may be useful since it highlights the difference between not being aware of social information (e.g. non-verbal signals) as opposed to being indifferent to that information. (Similar to how a blind person isn’t indifferent to people standing in front of them – they’re just not aware of them standing there.) For this reason, autistic people are sometimes considered to lack empathy – but now this conclusion is being disputed.


Indeed autistic people do often struggle to understand what allistic people might be thinking and feeling. But this is two-way – allistic people often struggle to interpret what autistic people might be thinking and feeling too. Therefore to conclude that it’s (only) autistic people who have empathy or theory-of-mind deficits would be biased! If autistic people lack a theory of non-autistic minds – non-autistic people reciprocally lack a theory of autistic minds.


This has been coined the ‘double empathy problem’. It’d be like how one person speaks English and another speaks Urdu, and then concluding that the person who speaks Urdu has the deficit for not being able to understand English because more people speak English in the world currently(!)


Generally speaking, allistic people don’t struggle as much when trying to work out what fellow allistic people are thinking. And autistic people don’t struggle as much when trying to work out what fellow autistic people are thinking – as demonstrated by diffusion chain (similar to the telephone game) experiments. Perhaps it’s because they’ll understand that everybody is always speaking literally with no figurative speech? But misreadings will increase when autistic and allistic people interact. For example, an allistic person may attempt to read between the lines and look for a hidden agenda when nothing was said between the lines, or they may project their own emotions onto the autistic person. So reading vocal intonations and body language then jumping to conclusions will lead to errors when it’s assumed that everybody speaks and moves the same way.


So just listen to the words. That’s again a reason why many autistic people prefer written forms of communication. (Autistic people might consequently find software coding and programming languages more natural than non-autistic people find them?) For non-autistic people however, written forms of communication can be occasionally misunderstood because of the difficulty in clearly conveying the tonal intent of a message on paper (e.g. a reader could read the same words angrily versus sarcastically, and if the reader gets it wrong then it’d speak more about the reader’s than the writer’s mind).


So it could be that an autistic person understands literal answers, whereas an allistic person will understand metaphors and subtexts.


Now who’s more correct? Shouldn’t yes mean yes and no mean no? (I’m not autistic but I’d like more honesty (and empathy for those left waiting) if people meant two minutes, not fifteen, when they say they’ll be ready in two minutes!) Who’s more disabled in this regard? It could be said though that once a non-autistic person understands that someone only speaks literally, they can relatively easily adapt to this understanding – whereas an autistic person will find it harder to adapt to understanding nuances and subtleties. Nevertheless, don’t we all fall under the range of neurodiversity?


When interpreting the motives and actions of some abstract shapes interacting with each other in an animation (Frith-Happé animations) – both allistic and autistic people will anthropomorphise them and give them mental states but generally different ones (e.g. ‘they were happy and playing’ compared to ‘they were angry and fighting’). But a more popular ‘neurotypical’ interpretation doesn’t necessarily mean a more correct answer – after all, they’re just a bunch of shapes moving about on a screen(!) (A similar problem exists with thinking there are objective dream interpretations.)


So judgements are being made in the context of being in a predominantly non-autistic world. And so it’s often non-autistic people who are describing any deviations as ‘deficits’. Woof.


Wouldn’t it arguably even lead to a better world if everybody simply always spoke literally about what they thought i.e. with more honesty and without social politics? This is predominantly a world where people will try to say the right things to the right people in the right way depending on who they’re with, in order to manipulate their public image and boost their own popularity. (All this social politics probably evolved from understanding how others may attempt to read between the lines and figure out our hidden intentions, then behaving in ways to counteract this, then attempting to read between those lines, etc..) This kind of Machiavellian manipulation (e.g. to show that one cares even when one doesn’t really deep inside) is even considered a skill! It’s often considered a key trait for success in business and politics. Curt, blunt, direct language – regardless of the status of the other person being spoken to – can indeed be misinterpreted as aggressive, yet ‘neurotypical’ people could be accused of never meaning what they say and never saying what they mean!


So how come honesty doesn’t pay in this world, from the evidence that it isn’t autistic people who are consistently at the top of organisations or who are the most attractive mates instead of manipulative charmers?! Society says (or ironically lies by saying) it values direct and honest people – yet ‘honest to a fault’ people aren’t the ones getting rewarded.


Having said that, it isn’t true that autistic people cannot ever lie.


Woof! Anyway, the double empathy problem shows us that it’s reciprocal when autistic people frequently misread allistic people, and allistic people frequently misread autistic people. You can use the Twitter comment button below to tell us what you think about how this might change your approach when interacting with people who are relatively neurodiverse to you?


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