Autism Month: Inside the Mind of a High Functioning Autistic Person

Understanding the way autistic people work is difficult even for auties. There are so many variations on the theme that we can be as different from each other as typicals are from each other. However, that most autistic folks have in common, no matter where they are on the functional spectrum, is a rich inner life. In fact this may be the fundamental difference between auties and typicals (please note that I do not mean anything derogatory by normie; it is just shorter and less officious than neurotypical).

Autism and Emotions

One popular misconception is that autistic people don’t have emotions. We do. We have them in spades. In fact, the problem may be having too many emotions and an inability to sort them out. The problem that auties have with emotions is that we can’t interpret emotions in the social context very easily, especially when we are direct participants in the social interaction.

If I’m observing two or more people interacting, I can interpret the emotional subtext very easily and accurately. If someone turns to me and expresses strong emotions, though, my first reaction is often confusion and anxiety. Given time and a reduction in anxiety, I can often sort out the emotional content of the interaction; unfortunately, when I say time, I usually mean on the scale of days, weeks, months, or even years. A typical scenario for me is to have a quiet moment and out of the blue get struck by a, Oh, THATS what was going on!

The Inner World of Autism

Autistic people are often far more concerned with their inner world than the outer one. In fact, the outer world seems like a gross inconvenience to most of us. Something that gets in the way of our inner pursuits. You can think of it as a type of narcissism, only without the toxicity of a personality disorder.

Narcissistic personality disorders have an absence of empathy, shame, and guilt. This absence allows them to treat other people like objects and a means to an end. Auties have ample empathy, shame, and guilt, emphasis on the shame and guilt since it ties in so well to anxiety.

What we don’t have is the ability to see ourselves as others see us. We can’t imagine our appearance, so we don’t put as much effort into it. We can’t imagine that people can see what we’re doing — think stimming (the repetitive behaviors like hand flapping that help us deal with anxiety) — so we often don’t learn to inhibit those behaviors until we’ve experienced repeated negative feedback from others who waste no time in telling us how fucking freaking abnormal we are, and eww get away from me!

For some of us, even that doesn’t work because the opinion of others doesn’t matter as much when you’re obsessed with what’s going on within. That said, people can and are hurtful, in part, because they feel completely justified in treating someone badly who violates social norms.

The focus of an autistic person is on that inner sanctum. Those inner needs. Those beautiful and ultimately satisfying imaginings. If only we could get PAID for that inner world what a wonderful world that would be. Most of us find a way to compromise with the world, but still auties are woefully unemployed. Studies suggest that 50 – 76% of people on the spectrum are either unemployed or underemployed. After graduating high school, the longer a person went without employment, the less likely they were to find employment. Six to eight years post-graduation, 93% of auties were unemployed. It is the disability with the highest unemployment rate.

Autism and Unemployment

For most of us, our jobs play a big role in meeting our socialization needs. We spend eight hours a day, five days a week, for forty or more hours a week at work. It is the primary way in which we meet and interact with others. It also is a big source of Western identity. Who are you? I’m a blogger. See? My job is my identity. No job, no identity.

Because anxiety and depression are so frequently comorbid with autism, meeting people at church or clubs or other social venues carries with it a stigma due to your unemployed or underemployment status. I remember when I was an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant the difficulty I had meeting people. As soon as you told them you were an assistant manager in fast food, it was, Oh, that’s nice. Ew! Get away from me!

To be completely dependent on your family is worrisome. I feel exceedingly fortunate to have been gainfully employed — necessity is the mother of all invention, after all — since I was sixteen. Through much of my young adulthood, though, I couldn’t keep a job for longer than a year or two. I would get the signal that my employer was less than happy, and I’d move on. The only saving grace was my stint in the armed forces. Once I became a professional, I tended to keep jobs longer.

Those of us with weaker executive functioning have the most difficulty coping with the non-autistic world, especially the world of work. Which cues up a future post about what an autistic-friendly world would look like.

Celebrate Autism Acceptance Month!

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Image Attribution

The Inner Sanctum” by Trey Ratcliff is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

13 replies »

    • Howdy Cathy!

      I’m so pleased, thank you for letting me know.

      I think that the more that we can popularize what life is like for us — neurotypical or divergent — the more we’ll see similarities rather than differences.



  1. Jack, your description of the Autie difficulty in social interaction (just fine as an observer and baffled as a participant) reminds me of my similar (maybe identical) difficulty under the influence of THC. I’ve also seen people diagnosed as Negative Symptom Schizophrenia appearing much the same – delayed responses, non-committal responses, tangential responses, withdrawal from the interaction. The way I have come to describe the state is that the unconscious system with which I would normally reach a rapid interpretation of the social/emotional context of the other person’s utterance based on meta-communication by facial expression, body language, tone of voice, etc. just went off-line when stoned, forcing me to try to sort it out consciously or give up. I often did have the sort of delayed AH HA moment you report (The, “Did that woman make a pass at me an hour ago?” kind.). Later, when I was working with clients on Schizophrenic Spectrum and some probably rightfully on the Autism Spectrum, I think that experience served me in good stead.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Howdy Bob!

      Maybe being stoned is one of the best analogies there is to being on the spectrum. I hadn’t thought of it before. I’ve often thought of myself as being a slow and careful thinker… kinda like the way things slow down and are distorted but with incredible focus when you’re under the influence. I can’t do it anymore, though. It leaves me paranoid and way uncomfortable.

      Once the disconnect happens for whatever reason, the rational part of our brains can become overwhelmed pretty quickly. We just can’t hold all of the needed information in working memory and make all of the needed connections. We just don’t have the hardware for it.

      I think there are a lot of autistic people who were misdiagnosed as schizophrenic back in the day. I remember Howard Dully’s story of being lobotomized by Walter Freeman in 1960. After hearing his story, I thought, he was probably autistic more than anything else.

      I think it is why it is important for all of us to tell our stories just so we can humanize one another and our experiences and develop the deeper empathy that greater understanding brings.

      I must say, it is a rather thorough description of nonverbal communication and how it is processed. It makes me laugh every time I read it. I may have to use it in a future post.


      Liked by 1 person

      • It was Gregory Bateson in his discussion of schizophrenia in “Steps To An Ecology Of Mind” (I don’t have a quick page reference handy) talking about the difficulties processing meta-messaging that he saw in people diagnosed schizophrenic. Thinking about it, I suspect that the boy in his case discussion of the interaction between the boy and his mother (who sounds narcissistic) may well have been autistic more than schiz.

        Liked by 1 person

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