Tom Bombadil was a Tolkien character who appeared pretty close to invincible in the setting the other characters encountered him. But he refused to stray past a certain set of boundaries that nobody knew except him. The evil ring the story was named after had no power over him, but could not be left with him for safekeeping because “…if he were given the ring he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind.”
Axinar was talking about what he sees as different subtypes of autism, and said:
Of course Ballastexistenz herself has illustrated, at least to me, that this Autism Spectrum may have at least two dimensions.
You see, reading through Ballastexistenz blog it would appear that her cognitive abilities are almost completely unaffected. In some ways, in terms of her ability to observe and process information, she’s in better shape than my dad.
And it dawned on me, one reason that I always have trouble when autistic people are split up into types by this kind of thing: Usually the different typings, presumed to be mutually exclusive, apply to me at different times in my life. So if you ask me to split autistic people up into subtypes, you’re asking me to split myself in half, and to split a number of other people in half as well. Because a lot of these so-called subtypes are not, as far as I can tell, about underlying brain organization, as much as about what the person’s doing with that brain at any particular point in time.
When I was a school-age child (but not before and not after), my thinking often appeared very inflexible and rigid. This was not because my thinking is just naturally that way. This was because the kind of thinking I was trying to use was outside of my natural areas of competence. I managed for a time on sheer brute force, and the strength of that brute force created the apparent rigidity (as well as the moodiness, low frustration tolerance, coming home from school and screaming and crying all night, etc). The kind of thinking I was being expected to use, was the kind that requires stacking blocks on top of blocks and remembering where you put all the blocks in order to avoid knocking them all over. This is not sustainable, eventually they all fall down.
And when they all finally fell down, the rigidity in my thinking was almost gone. I was of course still grasping at those blocks, at random sometimes, producing some fairly scrambled-looking results. But I could not sustain it enough to sustain the kind of rigidity that held them together in the first place.
If I am pushed to engage in that more difficult kind of thinking, even today, I will suddenly appear rigid, black and white, and every other stereotype in the book about autistic thinking, few of which actually apply to me in daily life. It comes from the force of trying to hold foreign ideas together in what amounts to a foreign cognitive language, and watching them all slip away as rapidly as I can put them up. The easiest way to do this to me, is to make me do intellectual work to a deadline. I might get it done, but I become rigid, explosive, self-injurious, and so forth, along the way, and then everything shuts down for a long time afterwards. For those who think that blogging means I could hold a writing job, there’s your answer. When my staff hear I’m writing to a deadline, they give me a wide berth. This is also one reason why I don’t present at conferences more often than I do. You can also get the same reaction out of me by expecting me to perform intellectual tasks in an unfamiliar environment. (Note that for me, “intellectual tasks” start at the level of recognizing the typical identities and functions given to objects,and then work their way up from there.)
But on my own ground, I’m incredibly competent. What people don’t see, is the fact that I rarely stray off that ground. (That ground, by the way, contrary to Axinar’s statement, is far from being unaffected by autism. My way of thinking is in fact a very autistic one. But “autistic” does not mean a certain stereotype.)
About seven years ago, I was given a bunch of extra equipment for my (still) camera — a nice telephoto lens, a flashbulb, and a light meter. It made no sense to me, it was a jumble of chaos, and after a bunch of frustrating sensory explorations of the equipment I put it all in a box and forgot about it.
I opened the box two days ago. I could instantly mount and use every single piece of equipment that baffled me seven years ago.
I can’t even count the amount of books I have poured into my eyeballs without always understanding them. I could read a book and be unable to answer questions about it right afterwards. But given enough time, the information sinks in somewhere, because it’s there when it’s called up some other time.
This is the territory I operate best on, the very non-foreign cognitive territory that allows me to do all the things that seem to impress people overmuch. But it’s also the territory that gets the least respect for what it is. People see me operating well on this territory, and they want, expect, and sometimes demand me to step over into a kind of cognitive territory that, if I did, would result in a short blast of achievement (if anything is achieved at all, which isn’t always) followed by weeks of burnout and shutdown.
They see the extent of my triggered knowledge and expect me to answer questions that don’t trigger that knowledge, they see the gracefulness of my climbing and expect me not to fall on my face while walking, they see how detailed a triggered memory can be and expect me to call up non-triggered memories on command, they see how well I learn when the material is given and then allowed to percolate and expect me to learn well while they forcefully cram information into the parts of my head least equipped to process it.
I was in a room full of people with intellectual disabilities recently. We were all given a form to fill out. Some of them had trouble reading the form, but could answer the questions once they understood them. I could read the form at a glance, but I could not answer the questions (like “Why are you here today?”). Guess which one of us was more confusing to the staff.
Someone replied to my video making it sound as if I have simply not been pressured enough, that if I were pressured enough, I would give up the activities I am good at, and somehow gain all sorts of abilities I’m not so good at. That’s not how it works. I don’t learn through pressure. Excess pressure in fact may have created the burnout of a lot of those things that I wasn’t so good at to begin with, but now can barely use for any length of time at all. The more pressure you put me under, the less I can do, understand, and learn.
I can say, that if I were forced to move into that foreign territory (and if I were even capable of sustaining life there, which I’m not), I would look less intellectually competent, more rigid, more black and white in my assessment of the world, and like I was missing a lot more information about the world. And I would be thus classified into a different “type of autism”, when really all that’s happened to change me from that “rigid-thinking type” into the “type” I am now, is I’ve become much more efficient at staying within my own territory, and much less able to stay within foreign territory.
I suspect much “rigid thinking” among auties (when it’s actually rigid and not just thought to be) is actually an artifact of trying to brute-force thinking with cognitive equipment that isn’t what they’d be most skilled at, rather than a fixed trait of the autistic mind. Sort of a by-product of mental overclocking.
I’ve also noticed, in the changing-over-time department, autistic people who describe thinking like me (as I think now), and then they describe that as a way they used to think. In some cases they view it as something they were glad to discard, in others as something they wish they could get back to but can’t. And now they are way more at home than I am in the kind of thinking I’m not so good at, even though in the past they weren’t. Some so at home that they cannot conceive of understanding something without words, for instance, despite the fact that many of them had a time period when their best understanding of things was largely or entirely wordless. The changes happen in more than one direction.
Meanwhile, I still do best, like Bombadil, in my own territory, even if nobody else knows quite where the boundaries are, and even if the boundaries shift a little every day. But a lot of people who interact with me treat me as if I don’t know what I’m doing, as if they in fact know what’s best for me, and that if I don’t go along with what they’re expecting of me, then I’m either stubbornly refusing to do what is good for me or unaware of what is good for me. The idea that I already have a better idea of what’s good and bad for me than most people, doesn’t cross their mind, nor does the idea that I’m more able to do things overall if they’re done the way I think best, not some other way.
Basically, put the information there, let it come out on its own time. That’s how I best accomplish things — the results are higher-quality, too, than if I’m forced to do it some other way. So even if the way I do (and don’t do) things doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to it, even if you can’t see the boundaries of my abilities, it’d be best to respect that I probably know more about them than you do.
Tom’s own response to being asked who he was: “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself, and nameless?”