The AC Documentation Project
This page was written in the late 1990s, when I had limited contact with others on the autistic spectrum. Since this was written, an incredibly diverse range of people on the spectrum have come online. The following described how I process information. This is but one of a diverse range of strategies.
What is the AC Documentation Project?
The AC Documentation Project is an ongoing project to document the processing and thinking strategies we use. I am limited to my experience, but as a visual thinker, I suspect this accounts for around 50% of autistic people. This page is a "manual" of sorts, explaining my thinking in detail, from the basic elements to how they interact, and how I'm able to integrate my style into an alien world. The intended audience includes professionals who want to get an understanding of how we think, other ACs who are looking for better ways to cope with the world, and parents and teachers, who may find these helpful for the children in their care. My strategies are probably more comprehensive than those of many, because I've had to deal with the conflict between my neurology and a personality that wants to meet people, so becoming a recluse wasn't an option for me. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. :-)
My processing system revolves around two main concepts. The first is the encoding of thoughts into elements and actions, which are represented in the form of visual symbols. This will be elaborated on in following sections. The other concept can be likened to a modern relational database, where all life experiences are stored.
Basic Visual Encoded Elements
My viasual processing has two main types of symbol. The first is "objects", which are images that represent ideas, concepts or physical objects. They can take many forms, depending on the nature of the object and the context in which it is used. In general, the following rules apply. Physical objects are represented by photographic images of them. Physical objects include anything that can be seen or felt in the real world, such as rocks, people, animals, plants. Symbolic objects represent concepts which can be explained in words. Examples can be drawn from science (e.g. atoms, radiation, electronic components). Finally, abstract objects represent thoughts for which words or conventional explanations haven't been formulated. These abstract objects are almost impossible to describe in words. Like abstract art, they defy description. However, abstract objects are powerful tools for learning and imagination.
In addition to objects, there are actions. Actions have many purposes. The simplest is to describe simple movement. However, actions can represent any transformation or logical flow of thoughts. The mechanism used to encode the meaning of actions is somewhat obscure, and is actually defined in the "experiential database" (described below).
An image is made up of objects and actions, and forms a thought. Images may be static, like a photo, or dynamic, which can take the form of a movie or simulation. Dynamic images are the main means I have for understanding the world and solving problems.
2D, 3D and 4D images
I've recently discovered that my visual processing occurs in both 2D and 3D formats, and the reason seems to be that 2D is much faster (less elements to manipulate at high speed) and 3D is more detailed, and able to handle more variables simultaneously, at the cost of speed. I switch between 2D and 3D, depending on the requirements of the situation. 2D processing is fast enough to analyse many situations, especially those described by fixed rules, such as radio and computers, in real time. This is a trait I've made use of extensively over the years, both personally and professionally. The current "leading edge" of 2D processing is to handle social situations, which are probably the most complex concepts in the human world. I mainly use 3D imaging to handle physical simulations, the classic example being of a car engine running, where I can see the mechanical parts moving at any desired speed. However, the greater overheads of this format make it less flexible.
4D processing is largely experimental, sort of like playing with the concept of visualising something that cannot exist in real space, to see what happens. This is extremely demanding, and at this stage, just a curiosity. :-)
The Experiential Database
This is a term used to describe the mass of information I've aquired over the years. As one could imagine, the amount one learns over 30 years represents a huge amount of data, and this has to be managed somehow, if sense is to be made of the world.
The database is quite structured, and indexed in many ways. Subjects are interrelated in a fashion similar to hyperlinks in the World Wide Web on the Internet, and one subject can lead off to another through these links. These hyperlinks are accessible from the visual processing mentioned above (in fact, most of the data is encoded visually), allowing thoughts to draw on past experience in quite a lot of detail. This allows me to accurately model systems and predict what will happen, even in circumstances I haven't encountered before. The downside of being reliant on this database is that unstructured situations or interactions can be difficult, and open ended questions are difficult to deal with. It also makes me rather reactive towards the outside world, though I can partially compensate by extrapolating from the knowledge I have.
The data in the database is also "compressed" by at least two mechanisms. Firstly, new information is not stored literally, if possible, but as links to data previously there, so facts and literal data is stored as few times as possible. Secondly, information is represented symbolically, with as few visual objects and links as possible. Unfortunately, while making things manageable, it limits my ability to recall detail from my experiences, unless there's a ruleset I can use to fill in the gaps (in effect, this is a form of lossy compression).
Putting it all together
Well, it'd probably take a book the size of a large UNIX manual to fully describe my thought processes, but the following is a brief overview of what happens in my head, and how the concepts outlined previously interact.
If I'm responding to external information (like you're talking to me), the words are translated into objects and elements. Basically, objects represent nouns, adjectives either modify the objects or become actions, and verbs always become actions. As the visual representation is built, it is re-read, along with any new information, to get the context correct (the same words in a different context can lead to an entirely different image). In addition, since I have some degree of CAPD (central auditory processing disorder), I have to double check what I'm hearing. If the words follow a story pattern, the image is manipulated, like a movie or simulation in real time, to follow the words. The exact behaviour of the simulation/movie is determined by a combination of the incoming information and relevent experiences, the latter often determines the rules by which the image is manipulated. This process, despite the number of words it takes to describe (poorly! :) ), is quite fast, often almost real time. That, in itself, leads to some odd side effects, such as butting in, because I have an answer before I've heard the whole story. Also a good way to get "foot in mouth" disease. :-)
With social cues, the processing is more complex, and more often not in real time. I do have a sophisticated model for human behaviour that works well about 95% of the time, having found ways to convert social rules into abstract images, and link them to my body of experience (Among friends, I call this my "NT emulator"). Unfortunately, because the visual content is highly abstract, the details are difficult to put into words, unless I'm in a situation where I am using part of that information when explaining it to someone (as the actions and interactions are easier to describe than the images used to drive them). When I'm not interacting live, but just thinking of social issues, I tend to see them clearly, as the extra time I have to think allows me to see my images in great detail. This means I tend to understand social issues from a distance, even if actual interaction is a little "rusty". My modelling system also greatly affects my spiritual values. I have a system of values that seems simple on the surface (based upon the basic premises of "Du unto others" and "Judge not lest you be judged", but when real situations are passed through these simple rules recursively, the result is a deep and complex interaction between the elements of the situation. Moral dilemmas are easily encountered, but often easier for me to resolve.
My tendancy to break complex issues into small, simple parts led me to write The Universal Bindings, an exploration of my spiritual journey so far, and my current understanding of Reality.
The Short Term Memory Bottleneck
It is worth mentioning my limitations in regards to short term memory. Short term memory is something I never have enough of. At worst, I can forget something I thought of a mere second ago, or someone asked me immediately before. I don't know if this is due to a faulty short term memory, or simply because I have a lot of other things going on in my head most of the time. This means I tend not to deal well with verbal instructions, as these are highly dependent on short term memory (more so for me, as I have to compile them into visual elements, before I can handle them).
Effects on learning, and how understand this may help researchers and aides
As you've probably gathered by now, I have an unusual information processing strategy, which seems to be shared by at least some autistic people around the world (not everyone uses visual processing, so there's undoubtedly other processing strategies that I don't know of (if someone wants to write them down, please go ahead - a model of the typical person's thought patterns wouldn't go astray for comparison either). The implications of these differences is that it affects learning, and some people may seem to be slow learners, when in fact, it's simply an incompatibility between the teacher and student.
Anyone like me is going to be quite different to teach, and to the average person, will respond in a seemingly inconsistent manner to instruction. Concepts which are logically linked will seem easy to teach, while a scattering of widely different subjects will make any teacher frustrated at the seeming "dumbness" of their student! (I might add that when I'm the teacher, a similar frustration applies when things seem logical to me! :-) ). Also the worst thing a teacher can do is to try and tell their student "the right way" to tackle problems. I, for one, have unique ways of solving problems that are effective for me, and forcing me to do it another way often doesn't work. Instead, giving information, and allowing the student to set the direction (within the scope of the subject you're trying to teach) may help. I tend to ask questions to fill in gaps in my knowledge that need to be filled to form a complete model.
The rate of learning will also be different. Compared to a typical student, my learning pattern is very "step like". The initial stage is likely to be slow, as I form the intitial visual model. However, once that model is built, I will progress at an amazingly rapid rate, until I encounter more complex aspects of the subject, then there's another slowdown, until these anomalies are modelled, and so on, the cycle continues. Research is another problem area. Because I rely on a database like mechanism for handling my memories, unstructured searching is difficult. Instead, I grab information as it passes, and store it away for future reference. Therefore, allowing students to idly browse a library or the WWW may have benefits in the "data collecting" that they do as a result. In effect, it's as though the sequence of need and research is reversed. Typical people need information, then research. I collect data, in effect researching all the time, and save it away until needed.
When giving instructions, avoid verbal instructions, as this will overload the student's short term memory. Write them down, and if it's a task to be repeated often, help them learn it their way. This will make it easier in the long run, as you'll only need to say "Do X", and they'll know exactly what to do. Another thing autistic people are said to be poor at is generalisation. This is only true in a sense. We can generalise some things (in some cases better than typical people). It's best not to assume either way, until you know for sure. Some of your students may have a knack for coming up with unconventional, but very sound ideas. This should be encouraged (hey, I get paid for it! :) ).
This is a very bried overview of how my mind works. It's early days yet as far as my understanding in this area goes, because of the nature of my processing, which is difficult to describe with words. As I come to understand this more, I will add to this page, and I hope this has been of benefit to someone out there. Of course, disclaimers apply. I'm a unique individual, and this information may or may not apply to others. If you're autistic, use you own good judgement as to whether this applies to you. If you're a parent or teacher, if you use this, take note of how the child responds, and if it's not a positive response, it could be because their brain is wired different to mine, and your old methods may be better. If you're a researcher in the field of autism, you could help quantify this information, and help seek out other strategies for the benefit of all. I hope my inside view is of use to researchers seeking to understand us.
Back to Autism