Jun. 22nd, 2009

mellowtigger: (Default)
Back in 2003, I created a presentation about autism in the workplace that I gave at a GLBT conference that wanted to hear about dual citizenship issues.  In my case, I spoke about being a citizen of both the gay and autistic worlds.  Within the presentation I tried to explain what autism is while using short examples that were still workplace relevant.  One of my terms explained the mental "explosion of alternative thoughts" that could be called more concisely just permutation exploration.  It's the examination of an idea and then the branches of alternatives that follow from that first idea.

When caught within a permutation explosion, it's hard to interact with others because the mind is frantically working at exploring options without coming to any conclusion.  Caught up in this mode, an autistic person might be unable to answer the simple question, "How are you?"  There are so many possibilities depending on how thoroughly the question should be answered, that the autistic just sort of stands there apparently dumbfounded and not knowing what to say.  Kids (and adults) are taught in classes to basically just lie.  It's not a legitimate question, you see.  Instead it's the utterance that begins a protocol in which the other party is supposed to state "Fine, thank you, and you?"  Neither statement is actually a question.  They are social ritual, not intellectual query.  There is no intellectual conclusion to reach, there is only protocol to follow.  Don't think about it, just follow the script.

My social avoidance is not a phobic reaction.  The closest I've come to that kind of response, though, was June 1997 (or 1996?) at a gay pride celebration in Austin, Texas, with my last boyfriend.  I made the mistake of thinking about our relationship and then the relationships of the other people around me.  Trying to map out that social network, I succumbed to permutation exploration (explosion).  I don't know if it looked like a phobic panic to him or the other couple that walked with us, but I know that it was sudden and insistent.  I demanded with no notice "I want the keys to the car so I can leave now.  I'm not coming back to pick you up.  Can they drive you home?"

I'm pretty sure it's the only time that I ever drove his car.  I just HAD to leave.  Immediately.  I didn't know why at the time.  I just knew that if I stayed in that situation then I could not guarantee my self-control.  I had to leave.  It's what the autistic literature calls "overstimulation leading to meltdown".  I dislike overstimulation; meltdown is not an option.  So I left.  Alone.  And I didn't drive back.  Anything that day after my getting into the car and putting the key into the ignition is completely forgotten.  At least I drove home safely.

problem solving testSo, permutation exploration can easily be debilitating if it cannot be interrupted to allow interaction.  On the other hand, however, it is also a very valuable intellectual tool.  It's how chess programs have been written in the past, actually.  The computer examines possible moves and counter-moves with as much time as it has available.  When time runs out for considering permutations, it makes the move with the highest likelihood of winning the game.

In a similar vein, a recent study finds that autistics are especially gifted in identifying patterns in data to solve problems.  In the sample image on the right, a person has to notice 3 different trends in the data before they can choose the correct answer for the final piece of the puzzle.  Lots of people can solve problems like these, of course, but they found that autistics were faster at it.   A lot faster.

"Autistics are up to 40 percent faster at problem-solving than non-autistics, according to a new Université de Montréal and Harvard University study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping."
- http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090616121339.htm

One of the researchers also stated, "The limits of autistics should constantly be pushed and their educational materials should never be simplified."  I agree that it is unproductive to simply give up on the mute autistics, but I'm not certain that persistent stimulation is a solution.  If a mind were stuck observing all the sensory information available... maybe isolation would be more effective at breaking the cycle and allowing interaction?  I still think it would help to have communication without verbalization.  The less data that has to be simultaneously examined, the better the chance for self-expression.

Anyway, when asked recently if I would be attending the local gay pride celebration (3rd largest in the country, I've heard) this weekend, there's a lot more for me to consider than just the mechanics of getting my carcass there.  :)  I'm pretty sure that it's worse than "aloof" to be around people and avoid noticing them.  Avoiding social entanglement is a very useful survival tool, though.

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