Autism and pattern recognition

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 11, 2021, 10:26 PM | comments: 0

For obvious reasons, I'm fascinated by the ways that brains are wired among the neurodiverse (read: people with autism). This topic helps me better understand my child and myself. I'm particularly interested in the subject of pattern matching, because of the extraordinary things I've observed Simon do, and how it relates to my own journey.

There is extensive research around the ability of autistic people to recognize visual patterns. I remember Simon, at the age of 4, able to recall exit numbers and directions to places he had been only once, and that seemed extraordinary. The funny thing is, humans tend to behave in patterns, to various degrees of predictability, but we're pretty bad at recognizing those patterns. In fact, I think we're generally not great at recognizing more abstract things, or things that are not well defined. So while Simon can tell you how to get somewhere with stunning accuracy, I know from experience that he doesn't understand the cause and effect relationship between behaviors and consequences.

I can completely relate to this. I had an interaction today where I was presented with some abstract problems where the solutions weren't based necessarily on things that you could describe in enough detail to validate them. That ambiguity was a mental block for me, but I could compare it to non-abstract situations where I could systematically reduce ambiguity to the point of arriving at successful solutions.

As frustrated as I get in those situations, I've become very self-aware of them in recent years, thanks largely to Simon. I've come a long way toward understanding that when Simon questions something, he's not being obstinate, he's trying to reduce ambiguity. I'm the same way. It doesn't mean that I'm less effective at problem solving, quite the opposite. I would argue that I'm very thorough about resolving ambiguity because the longer it's there, the more uncomfortable it makes me. The challenge, whether it's following directions without questioning them for Simon, or me trying to roll with that ambiguity, is that it's difficult to reconcile that as a condition of social contracts or expectations.

I recently realized that this is the reason I can't stomach to fly Southwest. The idea of getting on a plane and not knowing where I'll sit stresses me out. Heck, when I buy upgraded seats on JetBlue, I'm not doing it because I want to be VIP (OK, maybe a little), it's because I want to know I'm going to have the seat that I want and dibs for the overhead space to stash my bag.

If living with autism means rolling with ambiguity (which is not the same thing as change, by the way), sometimes I wonder if our culture has made it harder to develop those skills to compensate for the challenge. I mean, Amazon gives us two-hour windows about our deliveries. The things we don't know we can find out almost instantly on the Internet (assuming we're willing to engage in critical thinking). Disney can tell me what the queue times are going to be like for every attraction. And our politics sure have become unambiguous, where you're for us or against us.

But just as people with certain challenges find ways to use them to their advantage, like people with ADHD able to successfully and frequently context switch (also might be me), I think that reducing ambiguity to improve understanding and recognize patterns is of huge benefit to people with autism. It probably requires a little extra grace from your friends, coworkers and partners, but I think it's worth it. I know I want to be better about offering that grace to my kid.


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