Black and white photo of man holding a large piece of tinfoil over his face.

So the latest hand-wringing over smartphones is that they remove the need for people to memorize things when using the GPS function for directions; that people don’t actually see and commit to memory their surroundings any more.

And by people, of course, they mean neurotypical (NT) people.

And I’m thinking, well, gee, that must be nice, not having to memorize things. So NTs no longer feel the need to memorize visual information when they’re making their way around. Good for them, I guess.

Aaaaaand that will never be me.

Because as an autistic, I am constantly memorizing and engaging in recall of memorized information to go about my daily business. Hygiene routines are memorized so I don’t have to rely on [nonexistent] tacit knowledge of what is appropriate. I memorize landmarks when driving along common routes (grocery store, etc.) just in case I forget whether I made a turn or not (yep, I actually do this). I teach myself to switch things on and off in my car in the same order so I don’t walk away with it still running.

I memorize things about people when I first meet them. Names are associated with objects, like pink-sparkly-phone Kate and American-flag-shoelaces George. If I don’t do this, I won’t remember the name and there is an excellent chance I won’t remember the face, either.

When I’m using my phone’s GPS, I memorize directions and how things look while I’m driving so that I don’t have to look away from the road while driving back. Autistics are lousy task-switchers. Having to interpret the information the phone is providing (silently, of course) takes away from my ability to concentrate on what’s around me. I mean, thank god my parents insisted I learn to drive thirty years ago so that I can operate a vehicle without thinking about it while I’m doing it, something that only took maybe ten or fifteen years to achieve, but I need every spare iota of mental faculty when I’m driving somewhere I haven’t been to a dozen times or more.

Interestingly, some things get memorized without my meaning to. Despite my total lack of facility when it comes to figuring out where I am in relation to somewhere else, I’m really good at memorizing where things are kept. Although faces slip by unmarked, my mind happily snaps a picture of my spice rack, the condiments aisle at the grocery store, and the reception desk at my pain doctor’s office.

I used to work at a large, multidisciplinary animal hospital with two floors and a half a dozen different storage spaces. Within a few months, I knew where every single thing was kept, even some things I never used and would never need, or those for other departments, because my mind is constantly printing and saving visual information on inanimate objects for later use. Pretty much everywhere I’ve ever worked, “ask TGA” was a common response when someone wanted to know where the spare whatevers were.

More important, my and other verbal autistics’ social skills are derived directly from memorization. We memorize social encounters and whether or not they were successful, and file that information for later use. Since intuitive social activity and communication is not an option for us, everything we do is based on some memorized social interaction or another–including those we observe between other people.

And (warning, seemingly unrelated tangent here) that’s one of the reasons I hate commercials. They show people laughing over social activities that are not funny and would not work in real life. Like stealing food from someone’s plate, or oops-on-purpose making them spill or drop something. Or, my new least favorite, writing “new friend check yes or no” on a gum wrapper and handing it to someone. I pray to god no autistic kid is watching that and thinking Oh, is that OK? Look, the other girl laughed. I should try that.

And that’s another problem. Nothing “looks” fake to us. The ways in which commercials fail to reflect real life are no problem for NTs. They take them as fiction as a matter of course, and advertising’s distortion of reality rarely rises above an eyeroll for minor annoyance.

We autistics don’t have that luxury. As I’ve mentioned before, nothing is fiction and everything is real. Commercials, posters, cartoons, memes, it all looks the same to us. Even when we understand intellectually that such things aren’t meant to be real, we can’t keep our brains from treating them as such, making it frustrating when we try and fail to employ these actions in real life and even more so once we realize how fake they are and how much of our lives we wasted thinking otherwise and trying to imitate them.

But back to memorizing. I’m never going to be in a position where I don’t have to memorize. In class the last two weeks, the articles have been all about visual rhetoric and how [non-autistic] people are better able to absorb pictorial than written information, due to their facility with central coherence.

Ah yes, central coherence. That must be nice. I have exactly zero points of reference for this, and have been unable to disentangle my frustration about it from my response to the unit overall. Basically, visual information is nothing but a wall of stimuli for me that I can’t make head or tail of.

Let me use the example of a polling place.

Poll workers are given signs to put up to make sure people move through the polling place in a single direction. They also have lots of other signs up about which table to go to for sign in, what you need for proof of ID, getting your ballot, how to fill things out, what to do with your ballot when you’re finished, and which way to exit.

A lot of these signs are simply arrows, because neurotypical people will prioritize and categorize these as the most important automatically (speaking of things that must be nice). My brain doesn’t do that. It prioritizes text because that’s what is easiest to understand. Text is only so ambiguous (although there are exceptions). So all of the signs with text on them bombard me, while those without all but disappear. And even if I do see it, an arrow by itself is not the simple guideline for me that it is for NTs. It doesn’t say to whom it applies, what it points to, or when it should be followed. And sometimes, it’s not even pointed properly, because for NTs, its mere presence is all they need.

I was a poll worker for a couple of elections back in the nineties, before I realized how ill-suited I was to that sort of work. I remember obsessing over the signs, the arrows, arguing about where they should be, suggesting tape on the floor (yeah, that didn’t happen), and overall spending a lot more time worrying about it than the other workers did. Of course, there weren’t any problems because autistics like me would pretend there weren’t even if that wasn’t the case, and, of course, NTs had no trouble at all.

Think about all of the places we see these arrows. Grocery stores, department stores, driving. Imagine what your world would be like if they were enigmas to you, if you knew from experience that they were untrustworthy. Imagine how much harder it would be to find your way around, to know where the right place–and wrong place–was to be.

That’s my life. That’s why I memorize. That’s why I can never stop memorizing.

About C. M. Condo

I am a late-diagnosed, high-functioning autistic living with chronic pain. I started this blog in March of 2014 as a way to try to process what was happening to me. It is my hope that by sharing it with you, we can both gain something, or at least learn something, from my experience.
This entry was posted in Book Two - Mind, Setting 3 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to committed

  1. Leslie says:

    Thank you so much for your perspective on this. It really helps to see an inside look at this frustration for you.


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