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Sunday, July 15, 2012

All or Nothing: The Autistic Experience


This is a post made by Bill Nason on the Autism Discussion Page on Facebook. It describes very well what it's like to be on the Autistic spectrum. I find the Discussion Page to be very informative and accurate.

Living in a World of Extremes!

We have discussed the “all or nothing” thinking style of many people on the spectrum. This trait is represented in many areas of the person’s life (sensory, cognitive, emotional, and social). They often fluctuate from one extreme to another, having difficulty staying in a moderate range. They have difficulty regulating their cognitive and emotional responses, to stay in a level range that matches the demands of the setting. It is if there processing has an “on and off” switch, but not a volume control switch. Most neuro-typical (NT) people have a “volume switch” that allows them to regulate the intensity of sensory stimulation, emotional reactions, and behavior responses to match the demands of the current situation. This allows them to “regulate”; match their cognitive and emotional reactions to the current demands. From moment to moment, for a person to stay regulated and “in sync” with his surroundings, he has to be able to turn the intensity up and down, depending on the current situational needs. If the sensory stimulation is too “loud” the brain will turn it down. If a daily snag initiates an anger response, our brains will immediately tune it down to not over-react. We constantly adjust the volume of intensity to adaptively match the situational demands. When possible danger is present, we become hyper-aroused to increase our alertness to react, then quickly turn it back down when the danger subsides. When we need to go to sleep, we lower our arousal level so we can fall a sleep. People on the spectrum have difficulty raising and lowering their arousal level, emotional responses, and cognitive interpretations to respond adaptively to the immediate demands. This is why they are frequently “out-of-sync” with their social surroundings.

People on the spectrum seem to have a faulty “volume control”, and react with an “all or nothing” response. They have an “on/off switch”, but not a volume control knob. They are either all on, or all off, reacting in the extreme ends of intensity. We frequently see this in sensory processing, where the person can be sensory defensive (over-responsive) or hypo-sensitive (under-register stimulation), or over-aroused (hyper-alert) or under-aroused (slow and sluggish). Their nervous systems react quickly to fight/fight/ or freeze, “panic” response, or may not notice the stimulation altogether (e.g. very high pain threshold). Their nervous system either filters out too much stimulation, or let’s in overwhelming stimulation. This leaves the nervous system “on guard”, nervous, anxious, and on “high alert!”

This “all or nothing” also effects the “extremes” of emotional reactions. They may over react emotionally to minor irritations, or show minimal emotional reaction at all. They are either calm or angry, happy or sad, with little in between intensities. When they are happy, they are excited, when mad, very angry. Unfortunately, they frequently interpret any negative emotion with “fear” and “panic” and escalate quickly. They also have a hard time rebounding once the situation subsides. Little snags can set their brains into a whirl spin, or the brain shuts down to avoid overload. Again, an all or nothing response.

Cognitively, these extremes also are seen. They think in “black and white”, “right or wrong”, “either/or” extremes. They have difficulty perceiving the “gray area” or flexibly adjusting to variability in thought. Rules are black and white, with little room for bending, They interpret things literally, and have difficulty with “good enough” thinking. In regard to attention and concentration, they either are easily distracted with problems attending, or “hyper-focused” to the point of blocking out the rest of world. They have difficulty shifting attention based on moment to moment priorities. This leads to major problems with multi-tasking. They either are totally focused, or unfocused.

Behaviorally, they are either unmotivated for tasks that provide little meaning for them, of hyper-focused (even to point of obsession) for topics of interest. They are either committed and dedicated to action ( even when evidence points otherwise), or totally indifferent. This “all or nothing” often creates obsessive “perfectionism”, or stifling “fear of failure.” They have difficulty understanding what is “good enough!” The world of moderation is difficult to grasp.

Unfortunately, our world is built around flexibility, variability, fluctuations, and moderation. Most of the world operates in the middle ground, fluctuating occasionally from one extreme to the other, only to quickly modulate back to moderation. Most NT people get annoyed and even scared by people operating in the extreme ends. People “out-of-sync” with the rest of the crowd, and reactions do not stay coordinated with the rest of us. Not only does the person with autism not understand our relative processing, we do not understand their “all or nothing” reasoning. This lack of match makes it difficult for people on the spectrum to “fit in.” Often not understanding “why” they don’t get it, only increases the anxiety, further decreasing the ability to regulate.

However, if those close to the people on the spectrum can remember that they are operating from the extremes, then it is easier to understand their behavior and help them regulate. Awareness of why they are reacting so extremely helps us accept their differences. Understanding this “all or nothing” reasoning, helps us stay calm during emotional turmoil, understanding when they “don’t get it”, accepting when they are “rude”, and patient when they are obsessive. Understanding that they see the world differently than us, allows us to live together more cooperatively and appreciate the gifts that come with these differences.