Friday, August 1, 2014

A Look Inside a Black and White Mind

If you know me very well you have probably heard me say that I believe I could almost get an Asperger diagnosis (or DSM Level 4 as it is now called). I have a lot of the characteristics. I was painfully shy as a small child and have never been a people person, although I have taught myself how to behave in most social situations, I still find it very difficult to interact sometimes. I am a visual thinker, thinking in pictures and categories. Ironically, being a visual thinker does not help me in the area of facial recognition. I do not recognize people’s faces until I have seen them several times. I am also a black and white thinker. By that I mean I have a lot of trouble with gray areas. In other words things are right or wrong and there is no in-between.

Many of the people in my life, even those who know me best, say I hide my insecurities in social situations very well. The story of how I learned to “fake it” goes back to my teen years. I had very few friends in grade school. I was in a large school district and very few of the same kids were grouped together year after year thus making it hard for a shy kid to form relationships. I had one friend in second and third grade that I was close to but the school boundaries changed after that and we were sent to different schools.

In the fourth grade I became friends with a girl who I truly loved. A lot of my childhood memories revolve around her. She moved away when I was in seventh grade and I spent the next year in a depressed state. There were two girls that year that got their kicks by bullying me and I had no idea how to defend myself. Then, at age 14, a couple things happened that changed my life. We moved. We moved from a VERY large school district to a VERY small school district. AND, my brother who was five years older than I, and the coolest, funniest guy who was always “the life of the party” told me something that forever changed my life. I told him how afraid I was to start at my new school. I told him how hard it was for me to meet new people. My cool brother, who had dozens and dozens of friends, told me that he was just as introverted as I was. He told me that I had to go into that school and ACT the way I wanted people to perceive me to be. I had to think of it as a play and I was an actor. I remember him saying that I had been a little fish in a big pond at my old school and I would have the chance to be a big fish in a little pond at my new school. I could totally change who I was by how I acted. I had the chance to redefine myself. I looked up to my brother like no one else I knew and I trusted him. I did what he told me to do. Within days at the new school I had made more friends than I’d had in years at the old one. Of course it helped tremendously that everyone at the new school was so welcoming and friendly. Those four years of school were amazing and because of those four years I went off to college well-practiced at making friends and maintaining friendships. I had mastered the art of social relationships, much later than my peers, but I had done it.

I am a visual thinker and categorize everything I learn or see. I had no idea that I think differently than the general population until I read Temple Grandin’s book “Thinking in Pictures.” I read her book when Tate was diagnosed with autism and I learned so much about myself. I knew and had always known I was “different” than a lot of people but had no idea why. I think differently. I did not know that everyone else did not think in pictures. I would still not know this had Tate not been born with autism and had I not needed to educate myself about it. Knowing that I think differently has helped me to understand so many things I had always considered a mystery.

Temple Grandin likened the way she thinks to a video player with clips of video she can pull from files. I would describe the way I think this way: I place the pictures I have and the “rules” I’ve learned in a sort of list and categorize them in a filing system, like a rolodex. I can think quickly through my files and find a picture or a rule that applies in most situations. When I was young my list of rules was shorter and I didn’t have a lot of “files” to draw from so I didn’t know how to act in a lot of situations. Consequently, I appeared socially awkward in new places and around new people. Now that I am older and I’ve had a lot more experiences, my list of rules and how to act in almost any situation that occurs is quite extensive. Everyone learns from their past experiences I know but apparently I am different in that I visualize my list or quickly run through my list of rules so that I can decide what responses will be socially appropriate. It doesn’t just come naturally for me. As a young adult I sometimes misjudged and came up with an inappropriate reaction occasionally. I rarely do that anymore because I have memorized and know how to use most social cues and respond appropriately. Thus, I appear very “normal” to the world. Don’t get me wrong, I feel very “normal” all of the time. This way of thinking and my rolodex works for me. It may be different than the way you think but it works for me. I get by just fine and up until a few years ago I had no idea that my way of thinking was not universal with human beings. HA

It makes no sense to me that a person who thinks in pictures like I do has such a hard time with facial recognition. I am what some call face blind. I recently read almost two percent of people have this issue. I have to meet someone more than once, and usually several times, before I can memorize a face. Then, when I see them in a different setting than I met them in, I am unable to identify how I know them. I often recognize people by their voices though so sometimes if they speak to me that can save me. Sometimes I can tell who a person is by the way they walk. If I see them walking toward me or away from me I might be able to identify them but if I walk up on them then I struggle for to place them. This inability to recognize faces is a real handicap for me and I appear to be a snob often as I walk right past people that I should be stopping to speak to. I honestly do not understand how everyone else DOES seem to recognize a face after one encounter. Unlike people with autism, I do not have any trouble with eye contact so that is not the issue. I think it is that people basically all look similar to me. Oh, there are differences, like hair length, body shape and size, and color too. So that all helps but I see maybe one of a dozen different faces when I meet someone. Weird, I know. If there is something very unusual about a person then I will recognize them after one meeting but otherwise, it is not going to happen. Most of the time when I meet someone I think, “She looks so much like ______.” However, when I mention to someone else that I think the two look similar they usually will not agree. I volunteer one day a week with a teacher friend in our local school and it takes me all year to match the kids' faces to their names. Some I never learn. That is just not "normal." Movies, especially old ones, are a real big part of our family life but I can rarely tell the actors and actresses apart. I take a lot of teasing over that.

I always dread hearing the words “gray area” because I know there is going to be a conflict my mind will have to wrestle with. There are almost no gray areas for me. Gray areas do not fit in file folders. There is no place on the rolodex for gray areas. You see, when you are a concrete thinker like myself, issues are black and white, right or wrong. I recently heard a doctor refer to concrete thinking as “rigidity of thinking.” I thought that was a pretty good way to describe the way I think. There isn’t much flexibility. There is a right way to do things and anything other than that one way, is wrong. And THAT folks, is the reason I can sometimes come off as self-righteous, calloused, or uncaring. My patient husband has taught me to rewrite many of the rules on my mental rolodex. I now can accept that there is more than one way to do some jobs and still get satisfactory results. He has taught me that people who do not do things exactly the way I do are not always “bad guys.” My rolodex continues to expand. So, why don’t I just accept all gray and expand every day? It is not that easy when you are a concrete thinker. Each bit of gray has to make sense. It has to be tried in the courtroom of my mind. If it doesn’t make sense and cannot hold up then it will NOT be added to the rolodex. Many, possibly even most, of the gray things I am asked to consider do not even get a trial date. HA. I am being a bit facetious but this  is sort of how it works for me.

I do not have autism. I have a great imagination, a sense of humor, super eye contact, and no problems with communication, empathy or theory of mind. I do not have any stereotypic behaviors or a lot of sensory issues. I do not perseverate (obsess) on things (although around election time, some might argue about that one.) HA Oftentimes, relatives of a person with autism have some of the characteristics of autism. That would be me.

I am 51 years old and still adding to some of the “rules” I probably should have known for a long time. Moral issues, biblical principals, and God’s commands are extremely easy for me to believe and obey because God’s word is very cut and dried on most issues. It is the social rules and relationships that have always been harder for me. If I wrong someone then it is very hard for me to forgive myself. I spoke in anger to a friend several months ago, apologized, and was forgiven yet I am still ashamed of myself over it. If someone wrongs me or betrays a trust then I will probably never be able to confide in them again. My respect for them is gone. I can forgive them. I can love them. I can be nice to them, but I will not ever trust them again. 

I illustrate my thoughts and feelings with pictures all the time. It is how I think. Following is an example of how I pictured it recently when someone I love did something that hurt me, and others. My mind saw a clean, steel kitchen sink, full of clear water. There was a drain in the bottom of the sink and a stopper in the drain. When my friend did the horrible thing he did, the stopper popped out of the drain and all the water quickly ran out. The water was my respect (not my love, just my respect). It is gone. The sink is dry. I have tried to refill the sink but the stopper just will not hold. Can I try and visualize another stopper and fixing the sink? Oh, I can try; and try; and try again; but there is only so much a concrete thinker can do. Can I change? I've been trying for at least forty years and praying about it daily. If anyone can soften concrete God can so I will keep praying and trying. 

You might wonder why would I want to write a blog post like this? People will think I am “weird” now. I have a couple of reasons. The first being the usual: to raise awareness and tolerance for people with autism. Sharing some of the same characteristics with Tate, perhaps does give me some insight into how he thinks and feels. Secondly, I have tried to describe some of these things to my family and close friends before and wanted to get some organized thoughts on paper. Hopefully, this will explain a few things.

If you liked this post then these two would be recommended for your reading pleasure: Why does Tate act that way? and Look into my eyes.

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  1. Sorry for commenting on so many of your posts, but so many of them speak to me. In this one you could literally be describing my partner, he's diagnosed dyspraxic, but I've always thought he displayed many characteristics of the autistic spectrum, especially the black and white thinking and often a lack of empathy - exactly like your descriptions of Tate, he's not unkind, and this isn't always, but he sometimes seems to forget how his actions impact others, and he can't always see when someone is getting upset until it's too late.

    1. Comment all you like! I appreciate you reading!