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On Autistic Cognition

Thinking about how we think

This essay is about one experience of Autistic Cognition.

Autistic people are a not a monolith. What we seem to have in common is the ability to process information in powerful and unusual ways. Some Autistic people share the experience described below, to a greater or lesser extent. Some don’t.
This essay is going to describe my experience, but as a commentor very kindly pointed out my language here is too general.
So just know: a ton of Autistic people will read this and say “Oh, nah, I do it this way...” and not relating to this doesn’t mean that you’re not Autistic.
Autistic people are often heralded for our ability to notice patterns — it seems to be a part of the package for Autistic thinkers that when you have a bunch of information there’s order in it just waiting to be found, and our brains are exceptionally good at identifying that order.
Except, that’s not exactly how it feels, for me. For me, it’s not that I notice the order per se. What I notice is when something doesn’t fit. I don’t notice patterns so much as I notice violations of patterns. These noticing are precognitive — I just have an intuitive feeling that “something doesn’t fit” and then I have to think about it to figure out where that feeling is coming from.
This is an interesting facet of the Autistic experience and I think it’s actually pretty crucial to understanding our cognition.

People as Information Processing Systems

People exist as consumers of information. Different neurotypes seem to consume information differently.
It seems to me as an outside observer that when an Allistic person receives information they accept every claim into a sort of list of “things that they know”. Sometimes, two of these things may contradict — but unless the Allistic person is paying specific attention when they receive information that contradiction won’t be noticed.
However, as an Autistic person my experience feels a little bit different. Every time a new piece of information comes in I fit that information into my models, deeply. Every piece of information I notice has a context and a reason for being noticed, and if it doesn’t then I filter it out. Once I do notice it I assume it’s going to fit easily into my mental model of the universe.
But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a claim about the universe makes it through my filters but cannot be easily reconciled with the rest of the way I see the world. Under these conditions the claim “doesn’t fit” — I need additional context to make it fit, because otherwise it’ll jam up the ol’ mental database.
And what’s really cool about being Autistic is that my brain will notice that that claim doesn’t fit as I process it — not later, not after reflection, etc. My mental model is always up to date and always validated — irreconcilable claims never make it into the model, and that keeps the model from fragmenting.

Autistic “Rigidity”

It also means that my thinking looks “rigid” to people when they don’t understand me. The benefit of this approach to cognition is that I can think really rich complex thoughts at any time — I don’t have to process the way the claims in my brain fit together, they’re all already processed. It’s almost like all of those thoughts are pre-thought, I’m just looking them up.
Better, every time I learn a new way to see the world I develop new mental relationships between all the things I know. This makes me fiercely creative and analytical — I can rapidly spit out insights about almost anything given a tiny prompt, and relatively small changes to my perspective can lead to powerful new insights.
The drawback is that I can’t consume information that doesn’t make sense to me. I just can’t do it — you can tell me “X” but if X doesn’t make sense you might as well be telling it to someone else, it won’t enter my brain. I might store it under “This person thinks X”, but that’s like a weird unrelated thought that doesn’t really inform my mental universe.


There’s also the risk of what people in data science call “over-fitting”. If my mental model of X is built out of the claims I’ve processed around X then it’s really important that I expose myself to as many meaningful claims about X as I can. If I don’t then I run the risk of associating all of X with the limited set of input I’ve been exposed to.
This is another common autistic failure mode — we can be resistant to new information that doesn’t fit our models and while that can be helpful when our models are rich and solid and reliable it’s more of a hindrance when our models are sparse and don’t accurately reflect reality.

No One Right Way

If this model is correct then Autistic people are slower at receiving information (because we’re doing more work at that time to reconcile claims etc) and faster at creating new information (because the things we know are richly interconnected.)
Allistic people, then, are faster at receiving information (because they’re not filtering or processing it heavily) but slower at creating new information (because they need to sift through all of the information they’ve received to understand how it fits together.)
Each approach is helpful and useful for a specific goal. Neither approach is objectively superior. But if you don’t understand what’s going on then you may get frustrated when someone’s brain is “slow” in ways that yours is “fast” — or conversely you may get intimidated at the way someone’s brain is “fast” in ways that yours feels “slow”.
The truth is we all process things differently, and making space for different forms of processing is one of the most important aspects of Neurodivergent accessibility.


Who are you?
Wow. I was just thinking about the way I learn and then read this article. You described me. Although I can't put my ideas into words like that. I'm astonished!
However, I am 95% sure that I am not autistic. I have ADHD, though. My mom is NT and this is her way of thinking as well. Despite the great way the process was described, isn't possible that this is just YOU, or The gifted brain (?) and not necessarily related to Autism?
Well said and well written. I can tell I will learn a lot here. Thank you.
This describes my entire way of thinking to a T, and it was actually the original reason I went on The Quest in the first place! Thank you for writing this. Also, thank you for pointing out that both allistics and autistics have their strengths and weaknesses in cognition. All neurotypes are needed in this world.
It’s great that you articulate this style of thought so clearly, and that the comments above suggest that others relate strongly, but this doesn’t gel with how my thought processes seem to me. If I’d read this page at the start of my diagnostic journey I’d have stopped right here, so maybe it’s worth using more inclusive language to suggest that many autistic people think like this, rather that it applies to everyone? You know how Temple Grandin says that we as a group have in common is that we are specialists at information processing - some work with mental pictures, others with patterns, and others with language/symbols, and we may be strong in one area and weak in others? I relate to the 3rd type and have deficits in visual processing and have trouble working with patterns I haven’t yet been able to break down into clear rule sets. Things rush through my head at the level of explicit logical propositions and deductions, and everything else is like this distanced inaccessible morass that’s really hard to be aware of or interrogate. I’m definitely capable of taking in contradictory propositions and won’t always intuitively see the pattern fail, however, given that I ceaselessly over-analyse everything, repeatedly, I’m likely to spot the anomaly before long. I’m constantly extrapolating from data in quite an explicit way, so I don’t know that I share your feeling of looking up “pre-thought” thoughts, although I do have the experience of sometimes pointing towards a concept I’m currently using rather than dragging that concept out into the light of day for explicit examination. (The point of commenting is not to doubt your experiences but to say that there may be other modes of thinking within the autistic community.)
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