Efficiency and frugality


In response to one of my earlier posts on interpretations of my eye gaze, Allison Cummins wrote:

As an NT, I use facial expression (as Amanda noted) and body posture when interpreting gaze.

In Western culture, we tend to prefer the vigourous, dynamic agent. Firm handshake, upright posture and all that.

In Nigeria (I lived there four years), where all that tension and vigour would be a waste of scarce calories and generate unwanted heat in a hot climate, people are much more relaxed. While most Canadian NTs would expect someone to stand up, look you in the eye and shake your hand firmly, a Nigerian is likely to remain seated with her head propped up on her arm, more or less looking toward you, as she proffers one limp hand to be shaken.

Many Canadians would interpret this not as frugality, but as laziness and inattention.

Amanda has a frugal-type body posture. She uses support (floor; elbows on knees) and has a facial presentation that could be unkindly described as “slack.” For me, this overall picture suggests someone who isn’t particularly present in her own body or for the other people with her, whether because she’s daydreaming or incapable of thought. Eye gaze is interpreted in this overall context.

Of course, knowing better, I can make a point of disregarding certain signals and focussing on other ones. But people have to know better to do that… otherwise they will defer to their unconscious readings.

This idea of frugal body postures reminded me of one of my own observations about the way I do things, formed when I was just starting to realize I had an outward appearance and that people were judging me based on it. I noticed that very little of me moves at any given time, in relation to the background. In fact, only the bare minimum amount of me moves voluntarily at any given time.

I say voluntarily because much of the time I have the standard autistic mannerisms as well as tics, both of which can look like a lot of movement. (As a very rude professional said the other day, in gesturing at me to make uninformed pronouncements about stuff I needed without acknowledging my presence, “See all that movement?”) But that’s background. In the background, there is either movement or stillness, but it’s still background, something my body is doing, probably for a good reason, but not something I’m voluntarily doing to achieve a tangible end.

When I say I use the minimum movement possible, I mean against that background. Whether I’m rocking or not, I still use the fewest body parts possible in order to type with my hands. I have noticed that non-autistic people (at least, in America) are in a constant state of what to me would be gross overuse of my body: Even when they are doing something with their hands alone, their faces and all possible body parts are involved in generating assorted signals or something. They seldom use the “resting” postures that my body assumes when that particular body part is not doing anything (the postures that apparently get interpreted as “blankness” or even signs of neurological injury).

But this exact kind of efficiency and frugality that I use, is one of those things that would fall under the heading of an autistic-style life skill. Many of my behavior programs, of course, were designed to try to get me to stop looking like this. That requires monitoring so many body parts that it’s really impossible, and even when I do achieve some semblance of it, the effect isn’t to make me look NT, it’s to make me look really weird with pasted-on expressions and such that are fairly incongruous and would probably scare the crap out of a lot of people who read standard body language.

me attempting to look NTish and only succeeding in a scary-looking facial expression

This is an example of me doing my best to do NT-style posing for a picture.

This obviously doesn’t work too well, and I know that once I get one thing (like the facial expression) then the rest of my body goes back to doing whatever it was doing. I can’t wrestle the whole body into submission at the same time, and even my face isn’t doing a natural smile at all. Even if I could look like that all the time (which I can’t), what’s the point? It’s wasteful, inefficient, and doesn’t even make me pass particularly well (the goal in the training that got me to do things like that was passing, it was never achieved). Compare it to the hand-flapping pictures on my other website, and ask yourself which one looks happier, and more natural for me. Hint: It’s not this attempt at a smily thing.

This efficiency, though, is exactly what is needed in order to control a body that must first be found, like any other sensory input, and then controlled, one piece at a time. Trying to train someone out of it is training someone out of… efficiency. That’s not a good thing to train someone out of, but it seems to be the focus of a lot of “social skills” sorts of things. A special ed teacher (for whom I have no respect) once told me that her goal was to make it so that when her class went out in public, they “didn’t look like a bunch of retarded kids being taken out in public”. So she as much as admitted she wasn’t teaching anything functional, only cosmetic. (And trust me, they all looked autistic, even when she was done with them.)

It’s not just movement, of course, that demands this sort of efficiency. It is also thinking, and perceiving the world. Wastefulness in these areas leads to overload, and overload leads to pain and shutdown. It is harder to describe the skills it takes to deal with thought and perception, because they are not as concrete and overtly visible as movement. But they are very similar things: Don’t waste what you’ve got.

All of these skills are pretty much the antithesis of how autistic people are taught to deal with the world.

For instance, many programs for autistic people rely on basically memorizing large amounts of symbolic information about the world. That is horribly inefficient. It requires perceiving what is in front of you, converting it into symbolic information, calling up the correct symbolic information on the basis of whatever it is that you’re doing, cross-referencing that with a whole bunch of other symbolic information, and then converting all those symbols into action or words. By the time you’ve done all that, the response may create as many problems as a non-response would, and you haven’t even had the chance to check in on intention. And you’ve used up a whole lot of mental energy on generating all those symbols (whether said symbols are words or something else).

Similar things happen when communicating with an autistic person. If you want me to do something, the most efficient thing to do is bring me the objects used in doing that thing. However, most people don’t do that. They announce things like “Would you like to do this?” which requires deciphering what they’re saying, remembering what they’re talking about, and responding in yet more words, and then in actions, which requires starting various body parts moving on my own with no appreciable cues to physical movement. Or they wave things back and forth in front of my face so fast that I can’t possibly see whatever it is they’re trying to show me, and the slower I am to respond, the faster they jiggle the object around. Then they’re surprised when I shut down and can’t do anything, or melt down and scream.

The combination of pressure to respond and total incomprehensibility is never good, and using various long and winding routes to get the information in is not good either. There’s a very particular side to side motion that people do, where the bottom part of something stays still and the top part is moved rapidly and rhythmically from side to side. It makes the object utterly incomprehensible to me yet conveys a desire that I respond to the object, and makes the object impossible to ignore. And people wonder when I start banging my head. Hand me breakfast and I’ll eat it, start talking about breakfast and waving oatmeal boxes around in the air and you’ll drive me up a wall trying to keep up with everything and generate the desired responses.

And yet things like that are considered among the “best” of what there is to teach autistic people. What autistic people actually need to learn, is ways of doing things that do not take up so much space cognitively. This, of course, is yet another thing with no fancy names, money to spend, promises of normalcy (in fact the person will almost undoubtedly look less standard), resemblance to anything medical, or appearance-saving shortcuts that are really the long way around. So it’s, yet again, unlikely to catch on in the “we’re doing something doing something doing something doing something” mentality that pervades the autism world. Much better, apparently, to bend autistic people in strange unsustainable directions or force us to take the long way to do things half as well as the short way, if at all.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

16 responses »

  1. Thanks – now I have even more to process. What about using sign language? is that similar to “waving an oatmeal box in front of your face ?” Is it the amount of visual PLUS auditory thats confusing ? Or is it the visual busyness that gets too much ? Is it that staff need to look at what your body movements are FIRST and recognize that you have to stop doing that first before you can focus on what they want ? What about instruction that may require their physical assistance ? How do I recognize you may need physical assistance and when you need just verbal. I would really appreciate any response you can give. You have been a real lifesaver in more ways than one. !!! Reading your posts has changed completely how I respond to people and it is making a huge difference in their lives. Is there any chance that the bloggers etc on the Autism Hub blogs will be putting their posts into book format ? I think it will help thousands of people. Especially those who dont have time to read through the blogs. But If someone shoves it under their face and says ” You need to read this ” they just might.

  2. Okay… the motion of the oatmeal box means that every time I start to fix in on what exactly it is, someone moves it. So all I see is this moving thing. And then the movement itself means that I can’t really not see it, it’s kind of insisting its way into my visual field. But I also can’t tell what it is, because I can’t identify (in the NT-land sense of identify) objects very fast visually. And I can tell the person wants an answer, especially when they start speeding up the way they tilt it back and forth. So that becomes pressure to process information I can’t actually process, combined with not being able to ignore it unless I turn my whole head away (which often I do, and then people wonder why I’m sitting there with my back to whatever they’re trying to show me). Plus if I try to follow it with my eyes it makes me slightly seasick.

    It’s sort of like one of those animated and flashing banner ads on a website. I can’t read them, but they’re very insistent on letting me know that they’re there and totally distracting me. Only it’s worse when someone’s doing it in person.

  3. You’ve done something about the animated GIFs? There’s a Registry setting in ‘Doz that will knock out IE’s ability to run them. And it doesn’t affect Flash (for better or worse).

    (If you’re running OSX, though, I’ve never played around with that. But, then again, since I switched for the most part to Firefox, I haven’t bothered to change anything (I’m not that annoyed by it so much these days–although Asian-originated sites are the worst offenders); I just move the noisy window portions off the screen so the cr- doesn’t show if it gets bothersome.)

  4. Thanks -that helps me understand. It also clues me in on being aware of how “busy” the enviroment is before I request that someone do something. That explains a lot of things that I have wondered about when people seem to respond differently to the same thing.

  5. Also, it’s impossible for me to make a decision when there’s some kind of sensory input that’s demanding all my attention. If you’re waving an oatmeal box in my face, I can’t think about whether I want oatmeal or not.

    It’s hard to describe the manner of the waving. It’s like people show me something at a slant to begin with. And while I’m trying to figure out what it is, they put it to the exact opposite slant, as if this will give me more of a clue what they’re doing. Then they start doing this back and forth more and more rapidly the longer I take. I’ve seen people do things like that on television, so it seems to be a common human gesture, but it’s really frustrating if you’re having trouble telling what the object is in the first place.

    anon: I’ve got Adblock with flash-blocking on Firefox. It’s a very good thing.

  6. The waving business is apparently an NT device for making something stand out from the background; it probably never occurs to these people that the motion itself keeps you from identifying the object.

    I have several co-workers who have the annoying habit of asking me “Do you know where this goes?” when it should be obvious that I can’t physically see the object they are holding (since they can’t see me from where they are standing). I’ll respond, “I can’t see it. What is it?”
    “This thing!”–and I’ll see a arm waving something at me, but the shelves and boxes are in the way, so I have go around, peer at the item, and say, “Oh, that! Over by the blah blah blah.” It has apparently never dawned on them that asking from the start, “Do you know where the purple one sided widgets are?” will save us both time and effort. Either there is a unknown Telepathic Code in use among NTs or they are the ones who lack Theory of Mind.

  7. Very glad to know how distracting that waving-around thing is.

    But this raises a different issue: If you want me to do something, the most efficient thing to do is bring me the objects used in doing that thing. However, most people don’t do that. They announce things like “Would you like to do this?” which requires deciphering what they’re saying, remembering what they’re talking about, and responding in yet more words, and then in actions, which requires starting various body parts moving on my own with no appreciable cues to physical movement..

    If I am in charge of you doing something, OK. But if I really want you to decide ‘for yourself’ — if I am perfectly willing to take no for an answer — bringing you the relevant objects seems pushy on my part. If you came to visit, for example, and I wished to be a generous host. For NT guests, I would offer choices: “would you like to eat now? or tour around the neighborhood? or play with the dog? or something else?” Based on my understanding of this post, offering up a bunch of options like that would induce heavy symbol-juggling on your part. Can you point me to other options?

  8. It really depends on the situation. If you want me to understand the choices given, it might be a good thing to let me know what they are long enough beforehand that I can figure out what I want by the time you ask me. (That requires a lot of things coming together, still, but it’s the best I can think of.)

    The situation I was thinking about was one in which someone’s working for me and I’ve already made the decisions. (For instance, oatmeal or grits in the morning, brushing teeth, etc.)

    But even in the case of the oatmeal box, if someone were to want to ask me about oatmeal, giving me an oatmeal box to hold myself would probably be less obnoxious than waving one around. It’s also important at that point to back off a certain amount physically and not to give too many non-verbal or verbal “hurry up” signals.

    But I did think of the scenario you described, and those are much more complicated. I remember once standing outside a Chinese restaurant with another autie, and neither of us could figure out whether to eat there or go home, nor could we determine whether we were hungry or not, so he flipped a coin.

  9. You are bringing up some issues that I never thought about. So to continue what the previous poster mentioned. If I want you to tell me when you need to use the bathroom OR go for a walk OR go to lunch then I need to tell you 15 minutes or beforehand something like ” I want you to tell me …. ” and probably give you a picture of whatever item I want you to tell me ? If so what about the situation where you have learned (and I think you mentioned this in a previous post) NOT to tell staff “I want this or that” because of the consequences. Is there a way I can tell the difference between
    “You are confusing me ! STOP IT ” and ” I KNOW what you want me to do but i am too scared/frightened etc to tell you”

  10. A lot of this stuff is unfortunately stuff I can’t answer, because I’ve never worked out a reliable system for communicating about these things.  (Still working on it.  Right now I have a really hard time even saying “I need to use the bathroom” or “I am thirsty” in the actual context it occurs in.  Although sometimes my hand will do sign language for one of those, without my conscious intent behind it, and before I consciously realize that’s what I need.  When I woke up from general anesthetic recently, I was moaning and signing “water” before I was awake enough to realize I was thirsty.)

  11. But, thinking about it more, I do far better with an object associated with going to do something, than a picture of it. Something that’s fairly integrated into the action.

    So, for instance, if I was somehow supposed to choose between various activities, it would be good to have an object strongly associated with that activity, in order to be able to pick one. Like, if I’m going for a walk, then (when I used a cane) a cane would be a good one, not waved around but handed to me. And then, for eating, maybe a bowl and a fork, or the actual foods that I could smell (if that were possible — in fact, if it were possible, it would be cool to have something permanently scented like different foods, that’s a much more direct route than words or pictures, but I know that’s probably not within current technology, that and the smells I’d associate with various locations).

  12. “I remember once standing outside a Chinese restaurant with another autie, and neither of us could figure out whether to eat there or go home, nor could we determine whether we were hungry or not, so he flipped a coin.”

    Did you get a good giggle out of that? I’m giggling with recognition! (In practice though, when I am so stressed out that I can’t figure out what I want I don’t find the situation funny at all. Not at the time, anyway.)

  13. I have trouble figuring out if I’m hungry or not also. Not good, considering that I seem to have some kind of blood sugar issues. (My Dad is reactive hypoglycemic with a family history of diabetes, and I get dizzy if I don’t eat, as well as craving sugar and peeing a lot.)
    In terms of the thing about cognitive efficiency, I’ve learnt that unless something interests me, presenting it as isolated information means I’ll likely forget it. It’s like my mind is a tangle of string, with each knot being an idea and the string connecting them. AQn isolated piece of information is a single knot that doesn’t connect with anything, and just gets lost. If the knot hooks up to things I can find it more easily. Although even then I sometimes don’t remember it at the right time, because times are not linked with many things. I need a cue that is linked to remember it.

  14. I was thinking about the “efficiency and frugality” part of your post, and how much energy it takes to keep my mouth closed. I heard a lot when I was a child, “Close your mouth! You’ll catch flies” or some variant thereof. I know that keeping my mouth closed is at least semi-conscious and sometimes completely conscious.

    I am an organist at a church. Many times I remind myself not to play with my mouth open (my face can be seen by a number of people while I play and I get self-conscious and hear my mother’s voice telling me to close my mouth or it will get stuck that way.) I find that this effort distracts me. I have mild dyspraxia and have a hard enough time hitting the right notes at the right time, keeping my balance while sitting on the bench, etc.

    Tonight I went to practice and I was thinking about Allison’s quote above, about the “slack facial presentation.” And thinking, also, about what you say about using the “minimum movement possible,” which to me would mean not putting so much mental and physical energy into keeping my mouth shut.

    Anyway, I noticed I was playing with my mouth wide open. So I closed it. Then, I swear I noticed that my hands were more tense. I have had a lifetime problem with “banging the keys” as my mom and various piano teachers scolded me about. I think it’s a dyspraxia thing, too, like getting a death grip on the pen when writing, or on the other hand, dropping something because I did not get *enough* of a grip on it. So, I went back and forth playing the same passage over and over, mouth open, mouth closed, mouth open, mouth closed. I then went to a piece I know really well and did the same thing. I still could swear I had more tension in my hands with my mouth closed. I then found a really hard piece I can play but have not played for awhile. I looked for the hardest part of the piece to do my test. (Bach’s Passacaglia in c minor if anyone is curious, the “gigue” section). First I played with mouth closed and did OK considering I haven’t played it in a few weeks. Then I opened my mouth and played that same section. Now, there is only so fast I can play that section, even when “relaxed.” I can’t say that I know for sure I’ve ever played it with my mouth open, but I did tonight…. ZIP! My fingers went FLYING over the keys, much faster than I could do even when I had it all worked up and ready for a recital a while back. It was not really GOOD playing, kind of sloppy, but it was really FAST. The reason I could do it fast is that there really WAS much less tension in my fingers. Right then made the decision that I am going to try to remember to keep my mouth OPEN at church, not closed. I will be self-conscious, but one has to make many sacrifices for ART, right? :) At least that’s what I will say to myself.

    So, for anyone who is training their kid or themselves to keep their mouth closed while doing almost ANYTHING else, unless the place really IS full of flies, I would say “use your energy for something that matters!”

    I was supposed to come home and go to sleep but now I am so excited that I had to come find this and write it down. I don’t even know if this is the best place to post it here as I have not read all of the posts, but “efficiency and frugality” seem to be what this is about. I want to just go back and practice even more pieces to see if I can go fast for once in my life (I’ve always been one of the slower-paced musicians I know), but I have developed a lot of tendinitis over the years due to the tension, so I have to wait and rest until tomorrow.

  15. I am reporting in with the “Efficiency and Frugality Test Results.”

    I know this is an old post but I love it. It has completely changed my life in one area, at least.

    Tonight I was doing music with two people and I realized I could ask them to tell me if they heard any difference in my keyboard playing with my mouth open or closed.

    Person A and Person B
    Version 1 (mouth closed)
    Version 2 (mouth open)

    Person A said Version 1 with my mouth closed had more “structure” and was “deeper” but with version 2 (mouth open) could tell that I really knew the music and that it was much faster. Person A also said version 2 was “lighter” sounding. Person A liked version 1 better.

    Person B said version 2 (mouth open) was faster, more lyrical (never sure what that means even though I am supposed to) and more fluid. Person B liked version 2 better.

    They had me repeat the test again so that they could continue to observe. I played Version 1 and 2 again in the same order.

    I think the “more structure” of the mouth-closed version reveals all the tension in my fingers! But am not sure that Person A meant that.

    The more fluid and faster Version 2 with my mouth open is obviously more fluid and faster because not putting all the effort into closing my mouth makes my fingers relax.

    I asked them if they could really hear a difference and they both said DEFINITELY. One person liked the first version better and the other liked the 2nd.

    They both thought I was doing it “on purpose” to try to play in two different musical styles.

    So… I told them the only difference was that my mouth was closed for the first version and open for the second. Person B summed it up: “Weird!” Person A said “No, not weird, just different.” Actually Person B meant “weird” in the same way I often do, which is “Weird!= Really cool!”

    I then told them that if I continued to play “version 1”-type music I could expect to have a lot of tendinitis in the future. I already have permanent tendinitis due to overuse and what my piano teachers always referred to as “pounding the keys…. don’t BANG!”

    I followed up by telling them about how I learned to play with my mouth open, by reading this blog.

    Neither person is on the spectrum, AFAIK.

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