• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
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I can’t see my future; The problem with concrete thinking

crystal ballMy thinking is concrete, permanent, literal, and it can cause stress in areas where most people many not struggle. What I would like to discuss today is the idea of permanent thinking, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and something I see in my children (especially my 9-year-old) everyday.

What do I mean by permanent thinking?

Every thought and feeling feels…well, permanent. When I am feeling sad, or depressed, I feel completely and utter hopelessness because it feels like I will ALWAYS feel sad, depressed, frustrated, etc. I cannot see my future. I know that everything changes, but my emotions do not match this knowledge. If today is terrible, then everyday hereafter, forever more, will always be terrible.  I don’t seem to have the ability to look forward. This is a huge problem.  Most of us need something to look forward to, something to work towards, and to know that today may be better than today. But what happens when those thoughts  never cross your mind, when you feel like today is all there ever will be?

Never and Always

I notice this same kind of thinking when talking with my 9-year old ASD (in case you didn’t know that three out of my four sons have an autistic spectrum disorder) son. He in particular, out of all of us (except maybe for me) has this permanent thinking the worst. If he asks, “Mom, can we go to the movies?” I must answer first in the affirmative, and then tell him why or when.  I  must say, “Yes, we can go but I am not sure when.” Or, “Yes, but we cannot do it today.” 

If I say, “No…,” whatever follows does not register. The “no” shuts his brain right down and he immediately thinks that I mean, no we can never ever ever EVER go to the movies ever again! It can cause a outburst of “we never go, you never say yes,” or, “you always say no!”

My husband has a bit of an issue with this (having to answer in the affirmative, and then qualifying his response)—a struggle I fail to understand.

Learning from Critiques

A few years ago I was taking fiction writing workshop in which I was required to “critique” my classmates work. This is a trouble area for me because I tend to be VERY critical (or I should say I tend to APPEAR very critical).  It is not that I mean to be so much as that what is out of sync really stands out sometimes. Hubby shared a technique that he uses to deal with his staff when a correction to their work or behavior is needed.  He told me to sandwich the critique between praise. 

Immediately this felt uncomfortable, but he explained that if you start with the correction the employee’s brain literally shuts off, and shuts out whatever he is going to say next—their defenses are triggered. But, if you start out by telling them what they are doing right, then you can address what needs improvement, and finally end on a good note by telling them something else they are doing well.  In this way, they are receptive to your words because they were not already in defense mode, and they leave the meeting on a positive note, which allows them to process the correction. 

To me, this sounds almost exactly like what I was trying to explain about our son (and myself). The answer “no,” shuts down the brain to the point where they are not really hearing what comes afterwards. My psychologists said that he sees the same phenomena happening with patients that sustained a brain injury (interesting).

Thinking back…

Thinking back over my life, I can see where this kind of thinking was troublesome. In fact, many of my Theory of Mind issues—when I thought things would never change in a relationship for example—were a manifestation of my permanent thinking.  If I was happy, that is how I would always remain, wouldn’t it? What a world-jarring blow it was when things did indeed change. It’s no wonder we do not like change, we never see it coming, don’t anticipate it, and it always takes us by surprise (whether good or bad).

It’s an Intense World

Happy is ecstatic; sad is devastating; and the slightest bout of depression can cause almost immediate despair.

Do you find you “see” yourself in this scenario? Do you or your child’s thinking seem permanent? Do you find yourself thinking with the words always or never?

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.