• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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Your Other Left: Spatial problems in autism

 “You need to make a left at this corner. No—your other left” ~ Mr. Aspie Writer
Spatial problems in autism
It doesn’t happen every once in a while; it happens all the time.
Whenever I am asked for direction (I am great at giving directions because I remember street names) I stumble over which way to tell the person to turn. I will point to the left and say right, or point to the right and say left—without fail.
I literally have to pick up my hands, look at them, and remember which one I write with.  I write with my right hand.  When I get those inevitable odd stares, I just laugh and say, “38 years old and I still can’t tell my left from my right.”  Ha-ha. But it wasn’t funny, it was embarrassing.
When I am told, “it’s the first door on the right,” I automatically turn left when I get there.  It’s in the right drawer, the right cabinet… I open the left drawer and the left cabinet every time.  I always thought I just had some strange mental block or something. I mean with a 50/50 chance of accidentally turning the right way (left or right) I get it wrong 100% of the time!  What are the odds?
It never occurred to me that there might be a reason, other than my own stupidity, for my difficulty differentiating right from left.  It never occurred to me that autism could be the culprit; that I was having spatial perception problems.
When I was younger (early twenties) I taught ballroom dance at Arthur Murray Dance Studios. I needed to call out which foot my partner had to use, and in which direction he needed to move. If my partner was taking a step with his left foot, then I was doing the opposite with my right foot.  I never got tripped up.  My movements had to be a mirror image of his—always backwards, so I blamed that dance experience for my difficulty with right and left.
After all, since I taught that way for a few months, it must be the reason I still can’t tell right from left almost twenty years later.  Right?
I never did come up with a good excuse for why I had difficulty before I worked there.
Autistic children often have spatial problems; of which telling left from their right is only one of the aspects. I don’t know why this surprises me anymore, at this point nothing should.  It just seems like every day I am learning something new about myself; my autistic self.
Things that never made any sense, had no good explanation, made me feel silly, stupid, less-than or alone can now be explained. I have a new set of eyes with which to see myself.
Does anyone feel embarrassment over a seemingly simple task? Fumble over left vs. right? Are there any tricks you come up with to help you come to the correct answer more quickly so no-one notices? Unfortunately, my looking at and comparing my hands, often mimicking writing to remember is not exactly inconspicuous.

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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.


  1. I do the same thing and never understood why, I just always felt stupid. It wasn’t until I started driving that I was able to tell left from right, for whatever reason being able to imagine being in a left turn lane vs a right turn lane made everything click even though I had struggled for the prior 16 years.

  2. I have a cyst on my left thumb. Despite all the strategies and techniques my parents and teachers tried to get me to tell left from right, I doubt I would be able to do it if I did not have that cyst. I touch it every time someone gives me directions, because it reminds me where to go. I would have trouble remembering what hand I write with, or which hand makes the proper L shape, especially on the spot.

  3. Yes! I am currently studying chemistry after 10 years of being out of high school, to try and freshen up my mind. I’m remembering how I had so much trouble with a “plus” ion being negative, and a “minus” ion being positive. It then reminded me of how I also have similar issues with left and right. It’s such a simple concept, right? That negative ions are written with a plus sign, and positive ions are written with a minus sign. I continually get them mixed up, even though intellectually I KNOW which is which. It’s the exact same with freaking left and right. If I don’t have time to actually consider it, and I’m put on the spot (like giving directions, or TAKING directions while driving) then I end up screwing up and saying or doing the opposite. It’s always made me feel so stupid, and YES! THE LOOKS PEOPLE GIVE! They look at you with the most disturbed look, as if you’re completely mental and they made a huge mistake asking directions from you. Lol! It always made me feel just that much worse. Your mini-article really made me feel much better. No longer feeling alone is just a wonderful feeling. Thank you!

  4. I do violin hand and bow hand. Those make sense to me. I mix up left and right probably 80% of the time though.

  5. I have a case of high functioning autism and it’s gotten more mild the older I’ve gotten. I’m starting to have this problem more and more as I’ve gotten older. It wasn’t an issue when I was growing up. Am I just losing my mind?

  6. Also my dad who isn’t on the spectrum but has ADHD, he also gets his left and right mixed up often. My mom thinks he has aspie traits.

  7. I used to do this and dyspraxics also have this issue which I also think is a feature of autism. Then I always had to think harder at which is left and right and now I have no problem. I just always remember left is anything on my left side (I don’t know how to describe it) and remember anything on the right is my right. Right hand is what I write with so anything on that side is the right. But In am horrible at giving directions because I freeze and everything floats out of my brain and I tend to give the wrong directions so I am better off saying “I don’t know.” I am caught off guard and there is no script. It’s like I get temporary amnesia because I just forget for that moment and then I realize.

    • Yes, features of autism! Funny you mention the directions things because it seems that I can mimic my writing and know which side is “right,” but when I have to give directions I get that same frozen feeling. I think it may have something to do with verbalizing, if that makes any sense.

  8. I have always struggled with the difference between left and right. Whenever someone tried showing me the L finger hand trick, I argued that the right L should be on the right hand, not the left.

  9. I can do directions based on north/south/east/west or up/down (we live in a hilly area, so usually when you are turning something is going to be either up or down) but Left and Right are horrible for me. If I am driving it’s even worse, because I need my hands on the wheel, so I can’t check them!

  10. Interesting again.

    I sometimes have to pause and think about it, or do the hand trick (I just remember that it has to be palms face down). I’m not too bad at it, though.

    On the other hand, my *mother* (who is not the parent that is likely on the spectrum) *cannot* tell her left from her right. Period. Unlike you, she doesn’t necessarily get them wrong 100% of the time – sometimes she gets them right – but it can sometimes be a problem (especially if giving driving instructions). We’ve learned to say (in the car) your side or my side in order to let her know which way to turn (if we’re giving the instructions). She even has the problem of the L shape being not certain which way to turn her hands (even if I’ve told her).

    And yet, she can tell you what direction you’re facing, and which way to turn based on that, as long as she knows where she is.

    I think I’m going to mention some of the suggestions here to her; they might help. So thanks!

    🙂 tagAught

    • You are very welcome. I am finding that I do don’t too well with the hand trick. I wind up having to pretend I am going to write something down, which causes my right hand to move…then I know which is which. Drives me bonkers too because I feel silly, I feel like I should know which is which by now. LOL

  11. I remember I was not sure of left or right throughout much of my childhood. It didn’t help that I was ambidextrous, writing with my left hand but sometimes throwing a ball with my right arm (or was my ambidexterity a result of me not knowing my left from my right?). At age nine I had a breakthrough, when, during Taekwondo practice, an exasperated instructor wrote L on my left hand and R on my right hand. I looked down on my hands and notice that my left wrist had a small mole and my right wrist didn’t. From that point on, whenever I got confused about the difference between left and right I would look at one of my wrists. Eventually, it came natural and I didn’t need to think about it anymore.

  12. My issues extend to almost anything where there are two choices. Left/right, positive/negative, spring forward/fall back. Inevitably I choose the wrong way and do it time after time. Square knots are a never-ending nightmare. Glad to hear that I’m not the only one.

  13. I do notice I have to think about it a bit longer than others when there are complicated left-right patterns whether it be in drumming or dancing, but once I have the pattern, I will not mess it up, unless of course I become suddenly anxious. I’ve had so much practice with it though that it doesn’t seem noticeable anymore. My bigger problem is that I have trouble with knobs–doorknobs, shower knobs, etc. Without fail, I turn them the wrong way. I can never figure out which way I should turn the key in the lock. I’m 24 years old, with two college degrees, and I can’t open the door to my own house. I’ve just accepted that it’s a part of my brain, but the people who don’t understand that tend to make me feel uncomfortable. We have a forklift sort of machine at work, and the controls involve pushing the handle in the opposite direction of where you want to turn, and I ALWAYS have trouble with this. I’m learning to look at this like anything else in life. There are some things I cannot do, but there are many, many things I can do that most other people can’t. I’d say that’s fair. 🙂

  14. Until I was around 30, I only knew left from right because I have a scar on my right arm-I’d have to look down at my arms to see which one had the scar in order to know which way to turn. I have no idea how/ why it kicked in but at a certain point at around the age of 30 somewhere inside me I was able to sense left from right – it shocked me that this left-right sense came to people instinctually. My son had problems with left and right – the way we worked with that was we got in the car and I let him tell me to turn either right or left – his frustration with where we ended up seems to have taught him left from right…

    • I’m glad it finially “kicked in!” That is great news. Yes-I too was shocked as I often am these days that left-right sense came instinctually to others. What baffles me even more is the things that are so easy for me, are difficult for others like learning complicated theories..etc. But simple things like left-right, is difficult for me..those are the things that drive me crazy.

  15. I’m also horrific with my rights vs. lefts – I get them mixed up all the time. Partly, it’s cus I’m left dominant, but “right-left confused” so my early teachers assumed I was right-handed and confused, and forced me to always use my right hand. (Had they realized I was left handed, they would’ve taught me with my left. But they made the wrong assumption). Plus, you know, when they teach you the trick “hold your hands out in front of you, and whichever makes an “L” is your left hand”? Well, hold your left hand with the back of your hand to you and your right hand with the front of your hand toward you. Now they BOTH MAKE AN L. Flip your hands and they both don’t. How useless! I can only tell when I turn to the “North” (I have an internal compass, and I’m nearly always within a 30 degree range of north, though I can’t do any other direction on command), and put my hands on the piano I played growing up. The piano faced South, so I faced North when I played it. I knew the “left hand” has differnet parts from the “right hand” so I simply play (in the air) one of my favorite pieces. Works perfectly, every time…

  16. I was taught to know left from right OK in kinder garden. The teacher would call ‘left’, and we kids put the left hand up, and ‘right’ and we put the right hand up. Always in the same room, and on the same place. Left was towards the big wooden door, and right was towards the big grey room dividers.

    Today, when I need to tell left from right, I still imagine being in that room and tell left from right by whether it is the side towards the wooden door or the grey plates! I have to call that scene up every single time:-)

  17. I frequently mix up right and left when speaking. I’ll point right and left or vice versa. It’s very frustrating because I do know right from left, but the message gets short circuited somewhere along the way and comes out wrong.

    Also, I’m constantly embarrassed by all sorts of little goofs like this. Part of being an aspie, I guess. My biggest trick is to remind myself that the things I’m self-conscious about are probably not as obvious to other people as they feel to me. Small consolation, but it helps.

    • You made a good point. It is not that I don’t know left front right exactly, but it is not instinctual like it seems to be for most everyone else. I have to think about it because if I just try to blurt it out I get mixed up. Many times I will even say left as I am turning right–even when I mean to turn right my voice still said the wrong thing. So frustrating.

  18. Yikes! Count me in too – with both hands!
    I understand what you mean by it being embarrassing at times, but I just put my hands out – palm down – and look for the L for ‘left’. I expect that most of the time I’m likely not even aware that I am doing this, and I suppose also the need to do so no longer takes me by surprise.

  19. Sooo Glad You Shared This!!! I Do the Same Exact Thing!!! 24 Years Old and Still Can’t Tell My Left From Right lol If Someone is Giving Me Directions in the Car, We Say “Your Way” Or “My Way” Instead of Left & Right!! My 4 Yr Old has Aspergers but is Excellent with Her Lefts & Rights!! Though I Have Never Been Diagnosed – My Daughter & I Share A Lot of the Same Quirks! I Have Found Out So Much About Myself Thru Her Journey with Autism & Therapy!

    • I am glad to see so many responses, to realize that I am once again not nuts or te only one. It’s funny when I wrote this post, I thought to myself, no-one is going to respond. I am probably the only one it happens to, other ADULTS have surely learned this when they were children. I’m glad I went ahead and wrote it anyway. 🙂

  20. I still can’t tell my left from write. Right handed, but write like a lefty!

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