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Herman & Associates

Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Cognitive Style

This section contains anecdotal information collected through our clinical experience in working with many individuals on the Autistic Spectrum.  This is not research based scientific evidence.  Herman & Associates offers these observations only as points for discussion and as possible research topics in the future. 

Individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) typically have a specific cognitive style that differs from the way most of us process information.  Listed below are a few cognitive tendencies related to ASD.  It is important to note that not all individuals with ASD have these trends.  In fact, clients with ASD range from displaying no symptoms to all of them, with most individuals with ASD having some, but not all.

Individuals with ASD may demonstrate some relative cognitive strengths that are worth noting.  Generally, individuals with ASD do best when the material is rote, requires minimal abstract reasoning skill, and falls in an area of high interest.  In an academic setting, many individuals with ASD may be stronger in math, science, or history than language arts.  Because individuals with ASD often have restricted interests, one key requirement to their academic and work success appears to be a high level of intrinsic interest in the subject.  Thus, individuals with ASD can be highly successful in school and work if their high areas of interest fall in an academic or marketable skill.  However, if their area of interest is not in a marketable area, it commonly distracts them and steers them off topic.  Because these areas are intrinsic, they do not appear to be able to be taught or influenced much by others. 

Two typical areas of cognitive strength involve exceptional verbal intelligence and memory.

  • Exceptional Verbal Intelligence - While there are many limitations for individuals on the Autistic Spectrum, there are some advantages as well.  For example, people with Asperger's Syndrome typically have very precise use of language and have highly developed verbal reasoning skills, often scoring in the Superior or Very Superior range on IQ tests.  These individuals may acquire foreign languages quickly and effortlessly.

  • Exceptional Memory - In addition, many individuals with ASD can have precise memories that are rich in details.  This is especially true for contexts of high interest or high stimulation.  

There are several other areas of typical cognitive style that are worth noting.

  • Abstract Reasoning - The neuro-typical (NT) individual (e.g., most of us) uses stronger abstract reasoning skills to synthesize information coming from a variety of sources simultaneously.  This skill is especially important when trying to accurately assess complex situations such as those typically found in social interactions.  We need to process relevant sensory input (e.g., visual, auditory, tactile) while screening out unimportant sensory input, compare and contrast it with information from long-term memory (e.g., interpreting a correct meaning for sensory input, factoring in relationship variables about that particular person), monitor their emotions by reading verbal and nonverbal cues, monitor our emotional reaction to them, and generate an appropriate response almost instantly.  Thus, NTs size up the situation by paying attention to a wide variety of information to assemble a global understanding of the situation.  Nts develop an idea for the "gist" of the situation and usually have a good memory for the gist.  We assimilate a great deal of information and see each piece of information as related to the gist. 

  • Problems with Central Coherence - Uta Frith (1991), a British researcher, developed the term "central coherence" to describe the drive to organize information from multiple sources into a gestalt.  Dr. Frith noted that people with ASD have a weak drive toward central coherence and difficulty organizing details from multiple inputs.  They tend to take in information from one input at a time, sometimes hyperfocusing on one detail while excluding important information from other sources of input.  They seem to have outstanding memory for facts and may become immersed in details.   However, problems with abstract reasoning make it difficult to connect the details to make a gestalt, or whole.  Thus, the details they have collected tend to remain as isolated facts, independent of each other. 

  • Weaker Executive Functioning - In addition to problems with central coherence, people with ASD have difficulty with executive functioning.  Executive functioning is our brain's ability to absorb, interpret, and make decisions based on information.  Efficient executive functioning requires that a person be flexible when processing information.  That is, that they are able to smoothly shift from one focus of attention to another.  Individuals with ASD often report problems shifting from one task to another or from one input to another.  They tend to perseverate on one task and struggle with the ability to shift to another, or sometimes not even become aware of other sources of information.  One related factor may be that individuals with ASD tend to have sensory sensitivity.  Because they are often over stimulated by sensory information, they are commonly distracted and work to close down sensory input.  This can also disrupt their ability to smoothly shift attention from one area of focus to another.

  • Overly Simplistic Cognitive Style - Due to problems synthesizing complex information, individuals with ASD often artificially split decisions and social situations into two extremes: right/wrong, black/white, good/bad.  As one teenager with AS reported:  "You need to understand that I only see the world in terms of zero's and one's, much like a computer.  I don't understand anything else.  It's all or nothing."  This makes decisions and life much simpler.  Individuals with ASD can be overwhelmed by anxiety and their decision-making process paralyzed by understanding that most decisions are complex and involve both good and bad aspects.  Therefore, in order to regulate their emotions, the person with ASD will tend to simplify their choices by dividing them into polar opposites.  This gives them greater clarity and avoids the anxiety and emotional regulation problems associated with seeing the world as complex.

  • Intellectualization - Individuals with ASDs are easily overwhelmed by emotions, especially when neurotypicals attempt to form emotional connections with them.  They are far more comfortable relating to other's on an intellectual level.  They attempt to keep the interactions with others factual in order to control the intensity of emotional attachment.

  • Literal interpretation of messages - As a result of their overly simplistic cognitive style, individuals with ASD often have literal interpretations of messages and meanings.  They struggle to "read between the lines" and take communication at "face value."  Consequently, they interact best with other's who are straight forward in conversations and say what they mean and mean what they say. 

  • Self Relations - Related to the concept of an overly simplistic cognitive style is how the individual with ASD views him/herself and others.  Applying this notion to self-concept, the client with ASD tends to view themselves as all good/bad.  Although apparently lacking in self-awareness, the client with ASD often can become aware of an internal sadness, loneliness, and anger associated with the social isolation resulting from ASD.  This often can lead to depression resulting from overly devaluing themselves - seeing themselves as too bad.  This is connected with their overly simplistic cognitive style of viewing themselves in an overly critical manor.  Interpretations must happen regularly and the individual with ASD can learn to tolerate some ambiguity by seeing themselves as existing on a continuum with most of their actions possessing elements of both good and bad.  They are not perfect humans and don't have to be perfect, just "good enough."

  • Other Relations - The same can be applied to their thinking of others.  People with ASD can quickly dislike another when that person says something or does something they don't like.  The person with ASD begins most relationships with minimal attachment and interest in the other.  They can withdraw this attachment quickly and often need much support and encouragement from a family member to discuss their feelings and continue that relationship.  This is why many individuals with ASD drop out of therapy quickly with a family component that strongly encourages their participation.

  • Cognitive Inflexibility - In order to reduce sensory overload, minimize ambiguity, and maintain emotional regulation, many people with ASD tend to have an inflexible cognitive style.  They tend to perseverate on one idea and have trouble transitioning from one decision to another.  Instead, they tend to become fixated on one idea even when additional information is added that contradicts their original line of thinking.  With help from others especially in dealing the resulting anxiety that accompanies a change in position, the person with ASD can make the transition to a new way of thinking about a problem, but this is not an easy shift for them.

  • Learning from Experience - Individuals with ASD commonly have trouble learning from their experiences.  They have problems in two important ways:  difficulty accurately reading social situations, and trouble recognizing similar situations in the future.  The first step in being able to transfer learning involves the ability to understand the present social situation or interaction.  This involves many inherently weaker areas for the individual with ASD that have been noted above, such as abstract reasoning and reading nonverbal cues.  Because they struggle conceptualizing their present situation, their ability to encode, store, and retrieve that information from memory in an organized fashion is compromised.  Consequently, these interactions have little meaning and the person with ASD has little ability to recall the interaction in context.  They may have excellent recall of specific aspects of interactions, but they struggle to maintain an accurate context, which can only come from a deeper understanding the meaning.  The second difficulty individuals with ASD have in transfer of learning is similar to the first.  Because the person with ASD has trouble reading their present interaction, they have difficulty relating it to previously learned information.  With little ability to make connections with previously learned information and limited ability to "wing it," their verbal responses often attempt to divert the conversation to a topic they are familiar with, or sometimes they come from an over-learned and well-rehearsed script such as those they have memorized from movies or TV shows. 

  • One Step at a Time - Making progress toward nearly any goal involves a number of complicated tasks.  First, one must have a well-developed manager within one's character logical structure.  That is, they must be able to retain the overall picture while working on the step-by-step process to achieve a goal.  This involves holding the goal in mind for an extended period of time.  Second, one must be able to break the goal down into achievable steps leading toward the goal.  Third, one must have patience and be able to support oneself as one executes one step at a time toward the goal.  This relatively complex series of tasks is quite difficult for a person with ASD.  They tend to have an underdeveloped internal manager who oversees a project.  They also tend to struggle with the abstract reasoning skills necessary to understand the step-by-step process involved in obtaining a goal.  They are also generally impulsive and have trouble delaying gratification, which is an essential process in achieving a long-term goal.

  • Egocentric Behavior - Due to a variety of cognitive limitations discussed above, individuals have great trouble with in-depth analysis of their's and other's intensions and behaviors.  They struggle with both self-awareness and the ability to analyze other people's behavior.  The latter is sometimes called perspective taking.  Individuals with ASD act as if their radar is tilted inward.  That is, they are most concerned with their own interests rather than what other's think or feel.  They are egocentric and act based mostly on their thoughts and feelings.  They are generally ambivalent about others and are not consistently interested in others.  Consequently, their actions often do not take the perspective of others into account.  They impulsively act based on their own perspective without regard for others.  They frequently do not intend to hurt others, they just didn't take the other's needs into account before acting.  Thus, their actions can be unintentionally offensive to others, which contributes greatly to their social isolation and internal sadness and loneliness.

  • Adherence to rules and routines (self-appointed rule enforcers) - Due to a tendency to overly simplify their experiences, problems with abstract reasoning and cognitive flexibility, and trouble reading nonverbal cues, individuals with ASD can quickly become self-appointed rule enforcers.  They closely adhere to rules because of their literal interpretation of boundaries and are quick to assign a value to other people's behavior (e.g., right or wrong; good or bad).  In addition, those with ASD are sometimes bullied by others, which leads to a sensitivity to "fairness."  Although the social norm may be to ignore others who are breaking the rules, even to a minor extent, individuals with ASD cannot ignore the violation and quickly act to enforce the rule.  In acting to quickly reestablish the rule, those with ASD not only break the social norm, but they often become hyperfocused on correcting the rule-breaker without considering the complexity of variable at-risk.  This sometimes leads them to make errors in judgment that lead to unforeseen consequences.  For example, a store employee grabbing a child by the arm who is eating candy he hasn't purchased yet.  This might lead to the employee, who meant to simply stop the child from eating the candy, being fired for putting his hands on the child.

  • Special interests that can dominate their free time and conversations with others - Individuals with ASD (especially Asperger's Syndrome) tend to have special interests that they research extensively.  They tend to steer social conversations into this area and begin one-sided conversations discussing this topic at great length and depth without an awareness of the listener's level of interest in the topic.  There can be an advantage to their hyperfocus on this topic if they are bright and their area of interest is in a marketable area such as math or science.  However, when this interest is in a topic that is not marketable, it can lead to chronic frustration as they find very few people willing to listen to their intense monologue.

  • Minimal interest in calendaring, problems with time management and organization - Individuals with ASD often have limited interest and significant problems with calendaring, time management and organizational skills.  While they may not intend to  miss appointments, they are often hyperfocused on their own interests and lose track of time and important events in their life.  They may benefit from using cell phone or watch alarms to break their hyperfocus and remind them of important appointments.

  • Attention problems - Attention problems in individuals with ASD are often related to their limited interest in others and topics outside their own internal thoughts and fantasies.  While they can hyperfocus on their preferred topics, they demonstrate poor attention to topics of limited interest.  These attention problems are a secondary symptom to their ASD and are frequently misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Consequently, stimulant medication which is commonly prescribed for ADHD, may not only be ineffective in treating their attention disorder, it may raise their level of anxiety to the point where they experience panic attacks.

  • Uneven profile of cognitive abilities  - One consistent finding is that individuals with ASD commonly have uneven cognitive profiles.  For example, individuals with Asperger's Syndrome tend to have exceptionally strong verbal skills, which people with High Functioning Autism tend to have verbal weaknesses.  Many individuals with ASD have exceptional rote short-term memory and outstanding long-term memory for information of high interest.  They may be able to recall precise details about places they have been, things they have experienced, or factual or concrete information.


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