Hills and cliffs.


I was just having a conversation about a difference I’ve observed between various autistic people. I want to note, before I describe it, that it’s not some kind of cut and dried division, nor is it scientific. It’s just an observation I’ve made. It’s not even a matter of “types of autism” necessarily, because a person can function in both ways at different times in their life, or bits of both at once. But I notice that some of my friends and family are primarily one way, and some are primarily another.

And be aware that when I’m talking about abilities, below, I’m talking about surface-level stuff. I’m not talking about the deeper neurological/cognitive sorts of abilities, which might be both stable and very much similar in all groups of people described, for all I know.


Some people seem to have very stable abilities. If there’s things they can’t do, they just can’t do them. And if there’s things they can do, they always can do them.

Other people seem to experience a lot of change and fluctuation. They might be able to do something one moment and not the next, and they might always have various abilities moving out of the way to make room for whichever one is being used.

And I thought of an analogy to this, or rather elaborated on one of my old ones. Think of elevation as ability in any particular area.

Some people seem to have started off at a certain low elevation in this particular area. Then as they got older, they hiked up the slope. At the top of the slope was a nice, large flat area where they could find a place to live very easily on a long-term basis.

Other people seem to have started off at the same low elevation, but what’s in front of us look more like cliffs. We can get very adept at climbing those cliffs, but when we are, there is nothing else we could possibly be paying attention to, since too much is going to dealing with this cliff face. When we reach the same elevation as the other person, we are hanging onto a cliff face with our hands and feet. There is no possible way we could stay there. We might even be able to reach much higher elevations than the other person — the cliff seems to not have a top, from our perspective — but we will eventually have to either climb down voluntarily, or fall down involuntarily, back to our original level.

Some people might actually find a top to their cliff eventually, and thus be able to remain stably at that ability even if it took a lot more effort and falling down than someone else took to get to that point. Other people won’t find that, and will end up having to deal with cliff faces all the time.

And there is a definite difference, even in two people doing the exact same thing, between one person standing on flat ground at a certain elevation, and another person hanging off a cliff at the same elevation. They might be doing the same thing, and at the same elevation, but they’re getting at it in very different ways, and only one of them will be able to sustain what they are doing for very long. There are all kinds of things this analogy can’t get across — particularly the complexity of having skills shift around all over the place while you’re climbing those cliffs — but I hope that is one of them.

This difference between ways of doing things seems to exist within all so-called “levels of functioning” and other ways of trying to divide autism into little parts. Both sorts of people, and all combinations and variations of those ways that skills can work, seem to exist among people with all ability labels. I do suspect that some of what gets called ‘regression’ is actually just that someone was cliff-climbing and fell back down to the ground, rather than that the person was not autistic until they ‘regressed’.

I’d also like to note that at my own version of ‘ground level’ in many areas, there is a lot of stuff that’s invisible to people way high up in the air from my perspective (including me, on my climbs up here). Not all of it is bad stuff. There are abilities down here that don’t exist so much once you start climbing, and that I rely on as my more reliable abilities, that exist without too much effort or forcing. So climbing high in one area can mean leaving other things behind on the ground. And even people who climb cliffs to get to where most people start out, have actual abilities that do stay the same at some basic level on the ground. They’re just not usually considered to be that. (And people who mostly live up high but happen to walk by a cliff and fall onto lower ground, have a very different experience of this than those of us who live on lower ground but climb up onto the cliffs. Even if both sets of people look identical in some contexts.)

I hope I haven’t by now stretched this metaphor to its breaking point, but I figured it might be useful, and I’ve seen this difference create a lot of confusion between different autistic people before. (And I don’t think it’s limited to autistic people, I’m just talking about autistic people because that’s the conversation I was having that got me into this.)


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.

22 responses »

  1. I very much get what you mean by this. It is somewhat related to a post you had much earlier when you talked about how not being able to do something might mean one person just not dealing well that day, whereas it might mean another person crashing, because those two people operate at different overall levels, at least on that particular ability.

  2. Very interesting you mention this distinction. Me and Stargazer (she knows who she is, because she reads here) have noticed this in both our lives. As distinctions go, I think it makes more sense than the ‘clinical’ distinction of HFA v. LFA, and it could represent a spectrum of ability consistency/stability (which would probably explain – as you point out – so-called ‘regression’).

    Very good observation.

  3. Actually… I’m just wondering what the effect of perceived stress might be on this matter. Any thoughts on that? I think this metaphor is better than much that exists in the clinical psychological paradigm, and certainly would be very useful if adopted within the educational psychological one.

  4. I’d think stress (whether emotional, cognitive, physical, whatever — and not depending too much on whether it’s perceived as stress, as far as I know) could do a whole lot of different things.

    Some sorts of stress seem to drive people to do more than they otherwise would, other times it makes a person less able to do them, and sometimes (usually disastrously) it does both at once.

    And I’m really not sure what bearing it has on this sort of thing. Certainly any sort of person I’m talking about seems to be able to have any level of stress, it’s the reactions that would be different. And of course being either of these things in an environment not designed for being that way, is stressful in itself.

    As far as consistency, I think they might combine in some ways too, like a person could have some areas that are totally consistent, and other areas that shift around all the time. And a person could have things very consistent at one point in their life and very inconsistent at another.

    I’m not sure about this becoming a whole new classification system or anything, because I’m sure it’s flawed as much as any other, not least by the fact that it’s all based on my own observations and conversations. I’ve certainly got a larger number of people to have observed and talked to about things like this than most people would, but it hardly qualifies me to run around shoving people into categories, which is something that always annoys me greatly when done to me.

    So these are just shorthands of convenience, they’re not something I’d like to become written in stone. It’d horrify me for instance if I suddenly saw message boards full of people trying to force-fit themselves into one category or another when neither one fits, which is something I see a whole lot of already with the existing categories.

    So I’d prefer it to be a loose analogy rather than some kind of convention adopted, however well-meaningly, by your profession.

  5. I think I’m one of those people who fits into neither category. My ability landscape looks more like a surface of rolling hills that slowly slopes upwards. I get better at things when I try to and I don’t seem to lose abilities that much, but when under a lot of stress, I do. When I do it’s less like falling off a cliff than stumbling into a valley, and I always manage to walk back out of it.
    When I’m going uphill, it takes a little more concentration away from other skills, the same way you mention with cliffs, but not as much. I think I also move more quickly than other people, because I seem to pick up new abilities more quickly than both my NT and autie peers do, in general. The only exception is executive function tasks, which I struggle to learn- I seldom have trouble with them after I’ve picked them up, but they’re very hard for me and I never get them as well as NTs even once I have learned them. I also learn them in smaller chunks- for example, I don’t learn to cook. I learn to cook eggs, or I learn to cook muffins, but I can’t generalize what I’ve learned from one task to the other as well as NTs seem to.

    As you can see from my post, I think you’ve come up with a very good metaphor that can stretch pretty damn far without losing it’s meaning.

  6. “So I’d prefer it to be a loose analogy rather than some kind of convention adopted, however well-meaningly, by your profession.”

    I think that the best we can do in my profession is to adopt loose analogies: that is precisely where we fall down in this field… reifying loose analogies.

    As for stress, we do know that there is an window of optimal levels of stress that can lead to peak performance, on either side of which is a continuum of stress levels known to impair performance (the whole thing follows a Yerkes-Dodson law); I’d say that even the window of optimal stress levels for an individual might well vary according to circumstances. Which might go some way to explaining (and even supporting experimentally) the analogy you give.

  7. Is it the difference between someone doing a ‘solidified’ skill – something you can do without thinking – as opposed to a non-solidified skill that takes more effort? If so, NTs have that too, with newly-learnt skills. It’s especially evident in young children because they’re learning so much in a short time that overload very commonly causes them to loose skills for a brief time. It seems to me many autistics are pressured to learn things they will never be able to solidify, or learn them in a way they can’t solidify, and therefore are especially prone to this. There’s some learning theory talking about stages of learning – unconscious unknowing (don’t know it and don’t think about it), conscious unknowing (you don’t know it but want to know it), conscious knowing (you know it when you think about it) and unconscious knowing (you know it so well you don’t need to think about it, and in fact thinking about it could interfere with it).

  8. It could be something on that order.

    In fact, in one video I was trying to make to explain this, I used a set of objects where the thing really did differ depending on whether it was solid or not.

    But what I’ve noticed is that non-autistic people tend to be born with certain skills solidified, or solidify them extremely early in life, that are not solidified for at least some autistic people.

    They also probably never solidify some skills solidified that are solidified in at least some autistic people.

    But what I’ve noticed when it comes to stuff that I either can’t do or have trouble doing, that non-autistic people can… it often feels like I’m starting at some earlier stage in the process than they have ever thought about existing. And even if I’m sometimes going further than some of them in some areas (thus convincing them that I’m “smart enough” or “skilled enough” to do whatever they can do and sustain it long-term), I have to go back to that starting point that’s further back than they start.

  9. Perhaps because I live in the low countries I don’t use the metaphor of hills and cliffs, I like to use a metaphor of all my skills as driving a car.

    I started off not doing that well, driving my car, and a lot of people (parents, family, teachers,..) have pushed my car that I stalled over and over again.

    But when I grew older I finally learned to drive my car and everything seemed to be fine. To other people it seemed that I drove that nice flat area you were talking about. But that’s only how it looked like.

    I spent a lot of energy driving and every turn I made was difficult because the steering wheel didn’t functioned properly and at the end of the day I was exhausted.

    Later I finally wanted to know what was exactly wrong with my car and so I brought it to the garage and it was diagnosed. They told me what was exactly different with it and I was glad that I finally knew what exactly made my car different from other cars. I thought that knowledge would help me driving my car more smoothly.

    So, I assumed that the new knowledge would help me, but I made a mistake there. I started to speed up because knowing your car means you can drive it faster, right ? No, I crashed it severely.

    Now I’m trying to rebuilt my car, with the help of others, all my energy is focused there for the moment. One day I will drive again, but it will be at a speed that I can handle, I don’t have to drive as fast as everyone else.

  10. Ahah the myth of Sisyphus, (Camus)

    Perhaps only at the top do we experience essence, before we are catapulted to the bottom again to grind our way back up in a perpetual cycle.

    Well my favorite metaphor for life is the tightrope, it looks easy when you do it, because no-one sees the effort it takes to learn and sustain, but if you fall it is a long way down.

    Running my landie is also a sisyphean task. They will soon finish painting the Forth Bridge, so that metaphor will no longer have meaning, but keeping the landie roadworthy is a continous task.

  11. I just watched your video in my class at college. I teach students with Autism in elementary. When I saw your video I started to cry when I heard that you were communicating with the things around you. I have a young girl that is non-verbal in my class but she always sings or hums a song. It sounds just like yours. I so desperately want to commmunicate with her but don’t know how to. Is there a way to learn your language so that I may be able to help her better? I don’t want to change her I just want to find a way to talk with her and help her. Please help me.

    Thank you very much for showing me that I was right that she is trying to communicate with me.

  12. please excuse i only skimmed the previous comments so this might be a repetition.

    perhaps the cliffs are moving (as might happen in a dream of mountain-climbing) at the same time that the climber is climbing them; that will improve the analogy?

    and perhaps your “ground level” is a river valley, that is why it’s full of interesting stuff that can’t be experienced the same from above.

    plus it has more oxygen – haha

  13. Good analogy. My mother and I were discussing something similar to this, this week. About the trade-off of skills that occur, that it feels like shifts (of how we feel or focus?) that occur through our lives that result in better ability in some area and lesser in another way (that most people probably never notice in us). It’s like reaching the plateau is a different way of functioning(mode) and something is exchanged/traded, compared to being in the valley or climbing. Like how you have discussed gaining skills at the same time that others are lost. Thanks as always.

  14. I agree alot with what you are saying, I am still a student and I found that depending on my mood or what medication (or lack of) and even diet can affect my mental performance and the “type” of skill that I’m good at at that particular moment. I like that I can be good at alot of different things, but not always when I need to be. I’m trying to find the ideal balance, but this flexibility makes it hard because I’m always tempted to go after fruit I can get if I change my lifestyle. I guess like a cliff climber I have’nt reached a plateau

  15. Pingback: Skillsets « Barefoot Amongst Birch Trees

  16. Good analogy. Having recently fallen off the cliff, I’m not sure how to deal with it. Or how to get back up.Very insightful.

  17. Good analogy. Having recently fallen off the cliff, I’m not sure how to deal with it. Or how to get back up.Very insightful.
    (I have already said this but it was not accepted as I didn’t type my email address)

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