Embarrassing moments? Yep. We’ve going there today. We’ve all got a tale to tell and here’s one of mine …
In an effort to make friends when we first arrived in the UK, my husband and I would often invite people to tea over the weekend. There’s nothing like a good carrot cake and I loved having an excuse to eat some!
But it was only when my children started to visit friends of their own that the penny finally dropped. “Tea” has different meanings. English people use “tea” in the way that I would use “dinner”.
I don’t know how many people came to my home expecting a meal, only to be given a piece of cake, but there were quite a few. It was 5 years before my first child was even born so I had plenty of opportunity to offend!
That mini cultural difference is an example of the confusion that often happens in neurotypical / neurodivergent communication exchanges.
Autism is sometimes referred to as a “difference” or a “hidden difficulty”. That much we know. There is no physical difference so what exactly are we talking about?
One of the explanations comes from the theory of central coherence. Central coherence refers to our ability to make sense of detailed information. And it is this thinking process that is often fundamentally different. We don't process information and attach meaning in the same way.
Neurotypical minds tend to use context to work out meaning. We interpret by looking at the bigger picture. This is why we have less difficulty with ambiguity. We can quickly work out the meaning behind what someone is saying.
So, when I told a friend that I would bring her daughter home later that day with tattoos and piercings, she instantly laughed knowing that I was joking.
An autistic person, on the other hand, tends to focus on the detail without necessarily using contextual information. When I asked a client to describe a picture of a forest, he gave a very impressive and accurate description of the trees but he never used the word “forest” even though he has a wonderful vocabulary.
Uta Frith* noted that the bias towards a detail-focused thinking style underpins the pattern of strengths and weaknesses so often seen in autistic people. It explains why autistic people often shine in careers such as Technology, Finance and Engineering where attention to detail is a necessity. It also sheds light on why basic everyday life events can be problematic. Getting it right socially depends on one’s ability to “read the room”.
As an aside, autistic people often show very well-developed skills in other areas such as Art, English and History. But the capacity for detail may still feature strongly.
One lady showed me her Art sketchbook which contained pages of beautifully detailed drawings. Sadly, she had left her Art course because she felt unable to do faces when drawing people. It’s a shame that she didn’t have an autism diagnosis at the time as it may well have enabled her to continue studying with reasonable adjustments in place. All was not lost however, as she put her exceptional capacity for detail to good use as a Financial Director.
So in broad terms, the neurotypical mind tends to be suited to top-down processing whilst the autistic mind leans towards bottom-up processing. Either way, meaning is always attached but the interpretation may be quite different.
Given the amount of detail in social settings, it is no wonder that autistic people often find these situations difficult and draining. There is a lot of detail to process and the context can be particularly hard to read.
To understand this from an autistic person’s perspective, think of how you feel when visiting a new country:
As you step off the plane, your senses are bombarded with new information. You notice the weather. You see the different clothes. You hear a foreign language. The food is strange. You mentally calculate the cost of every item because of the different currency. You scan the exits to make sure you go the right way. You are on high alert and it can feel very unsettling and overwhelming. You are processing the detail of your environment. Hello life from an autistic perspective.
The differences between neurotypical and autistic thinking can be hard to understand. But in this instance, I would have to disagree with whoever said, “Great minds think alike”. Instead, I prefer the words of Sun Tzu from The Art of War:
“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination
they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of
them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted.”
The combination of our different abilities is a truly wonderful thing.
To being better together!
*Frith, U., 1989. Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Blackwell, Oxford.
Linda will be running a 12 week group coaching program for young people & adults with a focus on understanding the impact of autism and developing strategies for managing stress and overwhelm more effectively.
The course is now open for enrolment, so if you're interested, click below to find out more.
Linda is a Speech and Language Therapist with a Masters degree in Human Communication. She works with neurodivergent people who want to develop their emotional well-being, communication & people skills. You can find out more at www.autismroutemap.com
This blog post is for educational purposes and should not be taken as medical or therapeutic advice. If you need medical or therapeutic support, please consult your medical practitioner or therapist.