The Rich Inner World of Autism, Its Gift to the World

I stumbled during the month of April and didn’t post a weekly article concerning autism. While it is frustrating to me personally, it is not surprising. Many things can derail my plans, the tiniest weakest breeze, a small drop of water, a whiff of faint soap. Really, just about anything. A hair that catches my attention. Anywho, considering I’m a part-time blogger and a full-time citizen who blogs by his own rules — just like John McClane! — I’m writing the post that I had planned on writing earlier but hadn’t gotten round to.

Imagining to the Rescue!

Over the years, I’ve been struck by how I’ve used storytelling and imagination to help sooth myself and get myself through tough times. My daughter seems to spend a lot of time doing the same thing. We can disappear into our imaginations envisioning complex intricate details of characters, settings, and plot. The stories were fantastical… and, of course, involved ourselves as the heroes.

If the stories were ever spoken aloud or written, they’d be embarrassing to no small degree because of their inherent narcissism and clumsy plot devices and corny wooden dialogue and any manner of other awful storytelling practices. However, the point of those stories aren’t their soundness as narrative, but their ability to sooth and distract the autistic mind creating them much like stimming does.

Another way that imagining helps me as an autistic was the belief I held as a young man in need of a job. I believed that I could sense when and where the right job for me would be. I literally never looked in the want ads or asked friends about where there might be openings. I would go to a business, put in an application, and get the job, much to the annoyance of everyone who was panicked about me not having a job and wondering how I thought I was going to get one. It worked just not in the way that I thought it did, though.

Mind you these were usually minimum wage dime-a-dozen service industry type jobs. The point is, if I could imagine myself working at the business doing whatever, then I knew I could get the job. There are probably spurious variables scattered all over the place when this was happening: changes in confidence, ability to engage appropriately, noticing help wanted signs in windows without really realizing it. You know, that kind of thing.

The point is that as an autie, I relied on my imagination a lot. I believed that if I could imagine it, I could do it. And, the corollary, the more clearly and more detailedly I could imagine it, the better it would be.

As I got older, I lost some of this belief in and reliance on imagining things in detail. I never could get a job at an international school that way, for example. All the schools that I was sure we’d get a job at, literally, never panned out, even though it was the exact same feeling as I had when I applied to all those minimum wage service jobs. Hunh. Go figure.

The Brain and Processing Sensory Information

There’s a whole industry that grew up around this idea of visualizing and manifesting — I think that’s the modern term for it — your needs and desires to help make them come true. It is a nice bit of grifting off the magical thinking of middle class people with leisure time to fill and money to spend, but that’s the topic of another blog post.

Now, we come to find out that there is some actual truth to the ability of imagining to affect your perceptions of “reality,” not that you can imagine things into existence, but that your brain has difficulty distinguishing a really good fantasy from the real thing. Maybe that’s why sex fantasies and porn are as wildly popular as they are, know what I’m saying? Um… don’t bother bringing it up in the comments, though. Really. No one wants to hear about THOSE experiences, okay? Boundaries, right?

We’ve known for a long time that the brain processes sensory information in areas specialized by the sense (the occipital lobe for vision, the auditory cortex for hearing, the olfactory bulb for smell, the gustatory cortex for taste, and the somatosensory cortex for touch). There’s only one place vision or sound, for example, gets processed in the brain it don’t matter if it is a “real world” sensation, a sensation in a dream, in a memory, or in a fantasy. Sensory processing is sensory processing. It’s why dreams can seem so real. It’s why CGI convinces us that you can run up a wall, across a ceiling, and back down another wall. It’s why we get aroused to a porn star faking sexual excitement. You see what I’m getting at, right?

Perceiving is believing. The source don’t matter. It’s a truism of mammalian existence. No good ever came from doubting the information your senses were feeding you until disinformation, deep fakes, and ChatGPT came along.

Vivid Imaginations — the Study

Some folks over at the University College London did a very boring study about imagining fields of alternating black and white lines while staring at a blank computer screen and then very sneakily making an increasingly clear image of a field of alternating black and white lines appear, but only for half of the participants.

As they were visualizing the field of lines, they were asked how vividly their imaginings were.

Seriously, how can you have a study about the confusion of reality and imagination be that boring? Fields of black and white alternating lines? Whew, that’s boring. It probably helps the validity of the study, I’ll give ’em that much.

They found that for the half that had a real field of alternating black and white lines fade onto the screen, a majority of these participants reported that their visualization had simply become more vivid. They didn’t notice that the screen had become occupied by real live actual lines. Hunh.

For the other half who hadn’t had lines actually appearing on their computer screens, the people who had reported very vivid imaginings of the lines, were more likely to believe that they had seen a real stimulus even though none had been presented.

Imagination, the Strength of Autism

It seems to me that one of the great strengths of autism is to be able to imagination in great detail highly complex situations. Temple Grandin, for one, has made an entire career out of her ability to envision ways of slaughtering cattle more efficiently… or maybe she’s expanded to other ways of dealing with livestock. Anywho, she’s been a great ambassador for autism and a font of insight into the autistic mind.

Because imaginings whether it is visual or just some conceptual complex design, which is what I generally imagine. I don’t see a tree when I shut my eyes and some says imagine a tree. I have the idea of a tree in my mind, but not a picture of one. So, there’s that distinction. People are biased to vision and visualization. Let’s try this again, though.

Because autistic people tend to have these rich inner lives of imagination, it seems to me that an autistic friendly world would help autistic people take advantage of this ability and not just let is serve as a retreat from the cruelty of the world.

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Image Attribution

The featured image was generated by WordPress’ AI image app in response to the request A whimsical inner world of an autistic person.

A whimsical inner world of an autistic person
A whimsical inner world of an autistic person

5 replies »

  1. While not formally diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum, and probably lacking in enough of the qualifications, I very often imagine conversations or written messages with very low probability of happening, but still in some sense in a spirit of rehearsal, and it does have a soothing effect. Sometimes, I even get to actually use some of the material.

    Liked by 1 person

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