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Autism and Relentless Analogizing: We make analogies about making analogies

Key points:

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…