It was a simple story, testing the global coherence abilities of those on the spectrum. The story talked about a character wanting to decorate a bare wall. She goes to look for a painting, but can’t find one she likes. So she goes looking for a big clock.
Why was she looking for a clock? the test asks.
My brain says, “because she wanted a big clock,” or “to make up for not being able to find a painting.”
These are not the correct answers. The correct answer is “to decorate a bare wall.”
So here I am, reading the peer-reviewed article about this study, which discusses this test in fine-grained detail, fully aware of the parameters of the test and what the correct answer should be, and two incorrect ones pop into my head of their own volition anyway. Apparently, not only do I fail at global coherence, I fail spectacularly, even when trying not to. It is as though my brain willfully forgets anything not immediately and precisely related to whatever is right in front of me in any given moment, even if it was only a couple of sentences removed.
This is not what I’m supposed to be doing, by the way, writing a blog post. I’m supposed to be working on a literature review for a research proposal. But I’m stuck on the fact that I’ve been turning this big clock thing over and over in my head and it still doesn’t make sense. I just don’t get it. What does looking for a big clock have to do with looking for a painting? How did she get from painting to clock? It feels like there is a phrase missing, a piece of information that would explain the jump.
I realize, intellectually, that the only information necessary is found in the first sentence containing “decorate a bare wall,” but my brain is insisting that can’t be right because that phrase doesn’t have painting or clock in it. So how does a neurotypical (NT) know that it’s related? What am I missing?
And paradoxically, the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. It’s just an example, you might be thinking. It’s not a real person.
But that doesn’t really help. I don’t understand why that’s relevant, or why it would even come into the conversation in the first place. Are hypothetical people held to different standards than real ones? Why? What are the differences? And, more important, how do you know which is which?
It makes me wonder how I’ve ever managed to learn anything at all.
It’s a little frustrating to run up against these global coherence and ToM (theory of mind) tests in research articles, pop open their hoods, see what’s inside them and what they’re supposed to do, and still not pass them. I suppose I have no-one to blame but myself for running towards what makes me different from other people rather than away from it. I have to remind myself that I’m doing this in an effort to help NTs and autistics understand one another. So here goes:
Take the following sentences:
(A) She finished the rest of her lunch.
(B) She ate her sandwich.
(C) She opened her lunch bag.
(D) She threw the bag away.
To non-autistic people, these items are out of order, the correct order is obvious, and they probably rearranged them properly without really thinking about it; C, B, A, D.
To someone like me (a high-functioning woman with Asperger’s who appears normal in virtually every capacity), none of that is obvious. The statements seem totally unrelated, and the fact that it is simply because they are out of order (and that I put them that way, no less) just slips under the water without so much as a ripple. Worse, instead of noticing the wrong order and fixing it, my brain gets stuck trying to make the wrong order work.
This is how information appears to those on the autism spectrum most of the time; lists of apparently unrelated items which, if not provided in precise, temporal fashion, without any skipped steps or thoughts, we cannot make head or tail of. It’s only by taking all four phrases as a whole that the scene is revealed, and for whatever reason, our brains just don’t do that. It’s been termed “global precedence.” It occurs naturally in NTs, and we ASDs must fumble along without it.
The idea that the items might have been presented in the wrong order is only stumbled upon after overturning several other possibilities–if it occurs to us at all. This impairment in processing global phenomena is so persistent that even though I arranged the previous sequence of phrases out of order on purpose, with full knowledge of what the intended order was supposed to be, my brain remains stubbornly unwilling to rearrange them because of the order in which they’re presented.
The fact that there is no “she” and I created this entire exercise out of whole cloth just minutes ago is, unfortunately, of no use whatsoever. There it is on the page, and therefore it exists, and so does “she.” In fact, this “she” is now a real woman who opened her lunch bag after eating her lunch and threw it away, and I can’t figure out why. I’m thinking maybe she didn’t like what she packed for lunch and bought something else. Or maybe she forgot she brought lunch until after she ate.
If this sounds utterly ridiculous, well, welcome to my world. Ridiculousness is a part of the daily autistic experience. I think one of the reasons my anxiety is so persistent is that much of the world appears this off-balance to me much of the time. Very little makes sense. I’m just used to it.
The more I think about it, the more maddening it becomes. I feel like I ought to be able to teach myself to think differently, especially after all this time, but for whatever reason, there’s a gap between understanding what I’m supposed to be doing and simply being able to do it. It’s like driving from New York to California by way of Alaska. I mean, I’ll get there. (Two weeks after you, maybe, but dangit, I’ll get there.) But for whatever reason, I can’t just go straight from one to the other. That route is not one of the options my brain has to offer. (Luckily, I’m patient and tenacious; other people might have given up once they cleared Manitoba.)
Many times I think to myself that I just don’t want this. Yes, it’s important to me that others like myself are given every opportunity to function and work in a neurotypical environment, and I realize that my ability to see so clearly what others don’t is precisely what makes me so useful to the autistic community. But there is also a petulant little part of me that wishes that people would just say what they fricking mean and be explicit about their assumptions because having to guess all the time is unsettling, not to mention tiring. Even though I’ve learned to be a good guesser, I still don’t really know anything. It’s like studying another language but never actually assimilating it. I can communicate with neurotypicals, but my brain has to translate in order to do so; into autistic on the way in, and back into neurotypical on the way out.
It would be nice, every once in a while, if someone else made an effort to learn my language. It might be why I’ve learned enough Vietnamese to thank the woman who does my nails in her native language, and why I try to exchange pleasantries in Spanish with the my downstairs neighbor and her husband and son. I feel like I understand, even if only tangentially, what it’s like to be surrounded by people speaking a language you had to learn to understand.
Don’t get me wrong. Being an immigrant or other minority in this country is much harder than being a white, college-educated, native-English-speaking autistic; I am still awed by how much better my downstairs neighbor is at English than I will ever be at Spanish, and by how capable she appears and how effortless she makes her life seem.
Then again, I feel that way about most people. Another part of the daily autistic existence is frequently wondering how NTs know what they know. How they always just know what to do, what to say, how to act. I’ll never really know what it’s like to just “know” things.
But I will definitely say how much I like your new big clock, and how it livens up the room. I’ve learned that much. And that’s much better than knowing nothing at all.
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Yes, she was trying to make up for not finding a painting! Obvious to me. But my NTness comes through on the order of the lunch activities. Their being out of order really weighed on me. What would anyone want to confuse me like that?! I don’t know how you manage. I’d have lots of headaches and would need way more than eight hours of sleep. NTs need to see articles like this. Autism is a mystery to us. At the very least the NT parents would treasure what you write. Well done!
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