Did you know your brain is a detective?

We all work out what people mean by what they say. However, there is a slight difference in how autistic and non-autistic people make sense of communication.

Non-autistic people generally only need some (not all) information to work out the gist of a situation. It is a sort of ‘saver mode’. It helps ignore what is less relevant and focus attention on what is considered important. The name of this processing ‘trick’ is ‘central coherence’ (a lot of you hear me go on about it!). Central to working out the gist of a situation is the ability to make inferences about other people’s thoughts and intentions.


The non-autistic brain generally tends to focus on social information. Somehow social and emotional information is interesting and important to our brains. What goes in comes out; a lot of what is communicated is therefore social stuff.


Some autistic people may pay attention to detail but not necessarily the social detail. Or they may pay attention to everything and then deduct what is not necessary as they go along. This is possibly why some people find it easier to reject information in order to work out what they want, rather than being able to tell you off their own back.


In communication, I so often see autistic children and adults who have to hear and think through absolutely everything to work out what is meant by what is said.


For example, the class teacher might say:


“Thankfully we got Ella in our class to tell us all what we did wrong”.
Working out if the teacher is stating a fact, is sincere, joking, or sarcastic, the autistic child has to:


Work out any previous information that indicates Ella is particularly knowledgeable.

Work out if there was any social rules broken leading to the teacher’s comment.


Work out the teacher’s facial expressions and the way the sentence has been said.


Work out what his or her peers’ reaction mean.


Most of the time, deductive processing works effectively and other people will not necessarily notice a systemising approach has been used. Sometimes the result of this process ends with a conclusion that is different to what was intended by the situation or the other person.


This is a genuine misunderstanding, but misunderstandings can be seen as lazy, wilful or obstructive by others. However, if you work out the line of thinking (and how the deductions are made) you can see that the conclusion makes perfect sense. Even if different from what is intended.


Another aspect that is generally not appreciated is how effortful deductive processing of non-autistic communication can be. It is why people fatigue, have meltdowns, or look as if they are disengaged. These negative behaviours communicate the person is ‘full to the brim’ in terms of processing communication.


The problem is also that the effort put in to making sense does not really get acknowledged by other people. It is not appreciated that the person works harder at something non-autistic people take for granted. The result is the person feels or is made to feel stupid rather than feeling they have reached a fair limit. That time out is needed!


It makes for more diverse experiences if we acknowledge the difference in how autistic and non-autistic people make sense of information. We can use this to tell autistic kids: you are not stupid, your brain has to work like a detective. It is not wrong, it is just different.