Autism and Relentless Analogizing: We make analogies about making analogies

Key points:

  • Autistic people have different instincts from non-autistic people. They are not broken neurotypicals. Autistic people experience the world, emotions, identity, and learning differently.
  • Autistic people create analogies to relate, and the way they show empathy is ideal for other autistic people.
  • Autistic people also create analogies to solve problems, predict outcomes, aid in communicating with other neurotypes, and to make decisions.
  • Analogizing is a natural habit of a mind that processed information in patterns of interrelatedness.

Regardless of how much the world wants to pathologize autism, the Autistic community is steadily collaborating to create our own community dialogue about what it means to be human, autistically. The ways we relate to each other, experience emotions, solve problems, demonstrate empathy, think of ourselves, communicate, derive meaning, process sensory information, move, learn, remember, interpret body language, and even the way our identity is constructed are pretty uniform among Autistic people.

So, even though like most humans we are all different, we do have enough commonalities to demonstrate that we are not broken neurotypicals. We are a unique neurotype with different instincts. We just have very different minds.

Because we are the neurological minority, everything we do that deviates from the norm is pathologized by the majority.

I’ve been on a journey to map autistic differences and build a framework for them, and I’ve chronicled my individual insights on this journey here and elsewhere. I’ve had the rare privilege of editing over a thousand articles written by autistic people from all over the world and of diverse backgrounds. My interactions with our community, and the way my autistic brain stores information in patterns, has been invaluable to helping me understand autism.

Relentless Analogizing

One staple of autistic processing and relating is creating analogies. We create analogies to relate to others, to process information, to solve problems, and to relieve stress about unfamiliar situations.

Image resembles a dictionary entry for the word analogy and defines it as, ” similarities between features of two things, on which a comparison may be based the process of making a logical inference or prediction based on the pattern of relationships between similar things.”

And of course we would analogize relentlessly. We are wired pattern thinkers. We see the Interrelatedness of All Things, and creating analogies gives us a context to fit things into patterns.

Analogizing to Relate to Others

Simon Baron-Cohen, a researcher who is often touted as the world’s most renowned autism expert, has been mostly recognized for his theories on autistic empathy. His “theory of mind” posits that autistic people are “mind blind” (that’s literally the phrase he used), an ironic theory that autistic people have deficits in understanding the mental states of others.

The theory of “mind blindness” is ironic because the theory is, by its own definition, an illustration of mind blindness, or failing to recognize the internal states, thoughts, and emotions of autistic people.

When autistic people relate by comparing one experience to their closest lived experience, they aren’t centering themselves. They’re actually showing profound empathy in ways that most other autistic people expect.

I was talking to Wolfheart Sanchez about this theory, and I— in true autistic fashion— used an analogy to explain how autistic relate in analogies.

We analogize when we don’t have a preset script in our head or a memory to use as a guide. We even communicate in analogies to illustrate for other people what it is we are wanting them to understand about what we’re communicating— because they always make the wrong inference.

This is why we tell someone how something they said relates to our experience. We are analogizing for them to relieve the burden of processing or explaining to them.

From text messages, me explaining to Wolfheart Sanchez

He responded with wise insight to further analogize why we analogize. [So meta].

Having information and a tactical plan makes it so that we feel safe. We are so often lied to and infantilized that lack of information means lack of safety, and that’s a big part of it, too.

From text messages, Wolfheart Sanchez to me

Understanding that a lack of information is dangerous for us, we are both wired for pattern recognition and socialized to need enough information so as to remain safe.

If an autistic person tells another autistic about a bad experience with a doctor, and the other autistic responds by telling them about their bad experience at the salon, there’s more to that than non-autistic people realize.

Autistic statements of fact are more like open ended questions. Whereas non-autistic people are likely to respond by validating a person’s emotions, we are more likely to offer an analogy.

An autistic person offering specific information about their lived experience is not a way to say, “I know how you feel.” That’s not factual at all. No one knows how another feels. It’s an open ended question that offers the other person room to give feedback about how similar the experiences are or if their social and emotional communication was clear enough.

An analogy [heh]

Monique is autistic. Bella is not. They’re friends. Monique tells Bella about a bad experience with her doctor. Monique said her doctor told her she needed to lose weight.

Bella reads the expression on Monique’s face and assumes she’s feeling insecure. She responds with, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. You’re not fat! You’re gorgeous!”

Monique corrects Bella. “No. I am fat.” Monique isn’t insecure about her looks or size. She’s not fishing for compliments. She’s trying to communicate her anxiety about what the doctor told her. She feels Bella is neglecting to understand her and is being dismissive.

Bella, who assumes that Monique is looking to be validated that she’s attractive, continues to reinforce that Monique isn’t fat.

Monique feels offended because she is, in fact, fat. She also does not think that being fat means that she is unattractive. She feels that Bella’s method of empathy is insulting and totally misses the point.

Monique knows that telling Bella her ideas about thinness being related to attractiveness and value are harmful, but Bella wouldn’t understand and would feel insulted and antagonized. So, Monique is put in the lose-lose situation of having to either mask to keep Bella happy or of letting her friend insult her.

Monique goes home and texts with another friend, Cheyenne. Cheyenne is autistic, too. Monique tells Cheyenne about her doctor’s appointment. Cheyenne responds, “Ugh, I had a bad experience today at the salon. The woman doing my hair told me I need to wax my lip. I’m over colonized standards of beauty.”

Cheyenne isn’t saying, “This is the same as your doctor’s appointment.” She isn’t sure what Monique means yet. So Cheyenne opens the floor for discussion by saying, essentially, “If I’m following you correctly, then you are telling me that your doctor was being dismissive by having insulting and subjective standards of healthy.”

Monique can then choose to do whatever she wants with that analogy as she processes her feelings. Because Monique never expressly stated her feelings, Cheyenne offers her best inference as an empathic way to help Monique compare and contrast.

Monique responds, “That’s gross. Talk about an overstep based on oppressive gender norms.” This is Monique’s way of validating Cheyenne’s Very Grand Emotions. Very Grand Emotions are what non-autistic people see as ideas or concepts– Truth, Justice, Solidarity, Equity, etc. They often supercede the standard emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, happiness, embarrassment, etc.

Monique continues, “I have high cholesterol and blood pressure, and my hips and knees hurt.” Again, this is a statement of fact that’s meant to be read like an open-ended question. Since there’s no conclusion in Monique’s communication about how she feels or what she’s thinking, Cheyenne makes the autistic inference that Monique is still processing and is looking for joint troubleshooting.

Image reads: Joint troubleshooting is the act of working through your thoughts with another person. For those who think deeply, it is a social way to process what’s on your mind with the input of another person (or people) who may be able to lend their own perspectives to the discussion.

Cheyenne can now understand that Monique is not thinking about her looks, but about her health. Cheyenne responds, “My blood sugar is too high, and all I’m doing is eating junk food.” This is, again, not about Cheyenne bringing the conversation to herself. She’s giving Monique a similar problem to solve. Cheyenne added the part about junk food to illustrate the why.

If Monique wants to talk about lifestyle changes related to exercise and dieting, Cheyenne has just given her an opportunity to do that. Instead of saying, “You’re not fat or unattractive,” or the opposite, “You need to lose weight,” Cheyenne didn’t state or imply anything about what Monique needed.

If Monique wants to talk about lifestyle changes, Cheyenne just gave her an invitation to start that discussion with an implied offer to go on that journey together.

If Monique wants to opine about also loving junk food, Cheyenne just gave her an invitation to do that.

If Monique wants to process what next steps or options might be, Cheyenne just gave her an opportunity to do that.

If Monique wants to just blow off the conversation and change the subject, Cheyenne just gave her an opportunity to do that.

Cheyenne also established her non-judgement of whatever Monique is thinking and erased any power differentials. By admitting to eating junk food and having health problems that are exacerbated by that, Cheyenne is saying, “I’m no moral authority. We all make choices.” She also establishes that she, too, could change some habits to be healthier without recommending a next step.

This is profound empathy that gives Monique the floor to take the conversation wherever she wants without leading the discussion.

Bella, the non-autistic friend, assumed that Monique was insecure about her size. It unintentionally led the conversation in a way that Monique would have to mask through in order to avoid seeming ungrateful or antagonistic.

Analogizing to Solve Problems and Relieve Stress

Autistic people also analogize to solve problems. Being pattern thinkers, we see how things are related. This means that to truly onboard new information, we need to fold it into pre-existing patterns in our knowledge base.

If we are going to try something new, take a risk, or even form an opinion, we need to analyze information from all the angles to predict the outcomes. We don’t want to risk undue harm to ourselves, the environment, animals, or other people.

Most people can form opinions automatically or are complacent to adopt the norms of their dominant social intersections. But not us.

We don’t do things because everyone else is doing them unless there’s a good reason to do it or we’re masking for the sense of safety it brings. We don’t want to even have attitudes that contribute to oppression.

So when we don’t have enough information to know what to expect, we analogize:

I’ve not been on a roller coaster before, but I do know that I get dizzy very easily and startle very easily. I have the experience of cliff jumping into a river, and loved the feeling of dropping. I also really love it when Dad drives too fast, even though it makes me nervous. I love the thrill of high speeds when cliff jumping or on my bike going down a steep hill.

When we need to make an important decision and can’t predict the outcome, we analogize:

If I enroll my child in this therapy, will it truly benefit her, or will it cause her to internalize she is not adequate as she is? When I was forced to go to church camp and Sunday school, it caused me to always doubt myself, even my own thoughts and emotions. When my brother’s son went through a different therapy, he started having meltdowns all the time.

If we need to talk ourselves into or out of something, we analogize:

If I keep working at this job, will it benefit me? When I left my job as a school librarian to work in an art gallery, I thought I would be so much happier— but I was wrong. But the job wasn’t the problem, the people were. When I started doing rare book repair, I thought that it would be better because I didn’t have to interact with people as much and wouldn’t experience bullying, but then I felt too isolated.

If we struggle to communicate something complex, we analogize:

No, I didn’t mean that I was sad about my doctor saying that I need to lose weight. It’s more like if my doctor had told me that I have a suspicious mole on my back.

Analogies give us a way to contextualize and explore patterns. They’re empathic communication and not intended to be selfish.

We do interpret nuance, just not in the same way. We do communicate with nuance, just not in the same way. We do demonstrate empathy, just not in the same way.

It would be wonderful if we could all move past the deficit model of autism and start learning about each other.

We’re not the ones making value judgements…

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14 Responses

  1. How fascinating. I often find myself talking in analogies. I find it interesting that this article is written as though these descriptions of how autistic people think is fact. Did your research extend beyond email communication with a peer? Of course, ya’ll may be truly experts.

    Very interesting and it fits my self-diagnosed autistic experience very well.

  2. I love this so much about my patients in the spectrum. I regularly tell some that they are masterful teachers bc of this gift.

  3. You really nailed autisic conversation. I didn’t realize that I do some of these things. I especially like the way you lay out the back and forth between Monique and Cheyanne. Now I understand why people don’t pick up on the conversational openings that I provide them.

  4. Really interesting, helped me make sense of why I do this all the time without even realising.

  5. reading this this morning made me cry … it’s so wonderful to realize that how you think and relate is nothing special – different, yah – but you’re nobody special, in an utterly wonderful way. i never characterized what i did as analogizing … i didn’t know it wasn’t something everybody did … i didn’t even know it was something i did … i just know i circle and circle to get to my main point, finding all the context relevant and NECESSARY

  6. Your example of Monique and Cheyenne show how very sophisticated, complex, and compassionate autistic communication can be! I share facts and experiences so often as a means of open-ended question and joint information processing! Until reading this, I hadn’t identified those aims as my motivation, but I always knew my comments came from a good and delicious feeling of care, curiosity, and connection. Of course it’s baffling to have my intentions and feelings misunderstood most of the time!

  7. I’ve been at my current job for less than a year and my managers seem to think I’m a good trainer. My tendency to analogize is probably a big factor now that I think about it.
    That same habit has also led people to tell me I have a really distinct way of describing things.

  8. Thanks Terra, you’ve explained something I never previously understood : in my last relationship, my neurotypical partner would be talking to me about an experience she had, I would try to emphathise by relating it to a similar experience that I’d had, and she would get mad at me and say “You always bring it back to you, it always has to be about you!”.
    That relationship ended of course.

    1. This can be a particularly difficult communication glitch in relationship, one I’m very familiar with. Personally, I don’t see how anyone can avoid being ‘self-centred’, in the sense that our primary point of reference can only ever be our own nervous system. On that premise, I always try to relate back to my own experiences as a way of offering compassion in a conversation, though it’s not always received in that spirit. I think it’s a wonder any of us can believe we ‘understand’ each other at all.

  9. This Autistic way of thinking and relating to others describes how my brain works automatically. That said, I was taught that bringing up a similar experience right after hearing the others’ can be received as self absorbed and not empathetic at all. That it might be better to give them more time at first where the conversation centers around them; like, asking them how they felt about it, or asking any actual literal question, to show that you are interested in them and their story, encouraging them to talk more about it. It didn’t come naturally (still doesn’t) but I find it makes them feel like I am really listening and I’ve been told that I am a very good listener, which I appreciate. The thing about empathy is, it may be something that a listener feels in their heart, but, unless the other person FEELS empathized with, it doesn’t really do much for the relationship. So it’s really on each individual to learn to communicate the empathy they feel within themselves, in such a way that the other person feels empathized with. I think having this conversation here is helpful in helping us realize that there’s multiple styles and expressions of empathy. But it’s still very hard to adjust one’s own bend towards expressing it the way it comes naturally, but if our goal is to make the other person FEEL our empathy, then it’s important to find out what style of communication does it for them, and try using that instead.

  10. Fascinating because I analogize constantly and never would’ve connected it to my being autistic.

    So maybe the expression “You analogizes like an autistic person!” will become a popular analogy??

    Probably a big reason I make analogies so often is because in many cases it’s the only good way to communicate a new or unfamiliar idea, and that seems to be a big part of my life.

    I’ve found that there are times when analogies can be too effective, though. Like when a person really doesn’t want to take in a new point of view that I’m communicating by analogy. In that case, they might actually invalidate the use of analogy, like it’s not a good way to communicate. It doesn’t make much sense, but I guess saying that gives them a face-saving way out of a conversation where they feel too challenged.

    Mary makes a good point. Empathizing includes expressing our empathy in a way that the other person experiences as empathetic—even if we ourselves wouldn’t experience it that way. Unfortunately, there probably aren’t too many neurotypicals thinking about what makes us feel empathized with.

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