TW: suicide, C-PTSD, anxiety
I like to believe autistic people are creative thinkers. It’s my version of “I got this in exchange for that.” I have endless creativity in exchange for endless overstimulation.
And by creativity, I mean innovation.
And by innovation, I mean ingenuity.
And by ingenuity, I mean creating a thing that other people think is beautiful—joyfully beautiful, macabre beautiful, take-my-money beautiful…
Think Steve Jobs—yet often, without as much luck or glamour— picture Mark Zuckerberg, but frequently, without the boost of that much privilege—and you’re getting close.
Imagine Greta Thunberg, sailing across the ocean to emphasize she’s serious about reducing our collective carbon footprint.
Creative minds do things differently.
This isn’t to say autistic people are all geniuses or world changers. I’d warn against the Rain Man trope, and I wouldn’t go around defining a group of people by extraordinary success stories.
But companies like Microsoft realize that autistic minds provide valuable perspectives to their workforce. We see the world in a different way, which means we see solutions other people could miss.
Wise employers would learn the value of multiple lenses; of taking a photograph at an unexpected angle.
In The Future of Work by The New York Times, Susan Dominus explores how “Auticon goes one step further” than hiring the occasional autistic mind for a fresh perspective; in their office, “people who have autism are a majority.” Auticon creates spaces for unique ways of thinking. And unique needs.
Sensory sensitive minds require accommodations that allistic employees may not need. I often wonder if part of the reason autistic employees are underutilized is because we simply aren’t given environments for thriving professionally. One career I failed—high school SPED teacher—had violations of reasonable accommodations.
Given a good environment though, the autistic mind‘s tendency towards improved pattern recognition not only benefits in unique perspectives to problems, but aids in rote tasks like quality assurance. For several years, before grad school, and before teaching, I worked in QA for marketing, console games, and online games. I’m good at finding exploits that can be repeated until things crash.
This is advantageous when the nature of writing web content or developing games necessitates tunnel vision; if the creator don’t focus on the idea, they don’t make something good, and if they don’t have QA who push-and-prod, they get buggy interactivity with users. So a playful and critical mind—looking for breaks in the pattern—is an asset to a creative and focused mind realizing a vision.
Beauty necessitates equal parts ingenuity and thoughtful, quirky polish.
Related aside: I go a little bananas trying to do both of these creativity-based tasks on indie projects; while a break helps me reset, it’s hard to oscillate from idea maker to idea tester—and sometimes, I don’t feel like I have time to recalibrate.
That’s a separate blog post, though.
From my experience, it feels simple enough: if someone understands how something works, they know how to fix it, break it, and make it better. This means the trick is learning elements, principles, and design choices. If I can teach someone else how to do it, I know how to do it, and if not, I don’t understand the elementary pieces yet.
I like to think Richard Feynman’s the autistic mind that cracked this code more than anyone else—thus the Feynman Method.
He illustrates a pattern-driven, model-building way of thinking in the two books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?—and his stories light up storytelling monkey-brains, which means his perspective is much more convincing than me simply stating thoughts about pattern recognition, about understanding principles through simplicity, about different points of view. I’m telling, yet Feynman shows it.
So if this is a subject of interest, I’d recommend breaking out of the safe length of a blog post and reading one of his books.
Of course, pattern recognition manifests in each autistic person differently. That’s the value of blogs, social media snippets, tiny windows into how each of us do it.
Forbes touched a bit on the differences of people on the spectrum in their article, “Research Shows Three Distinct Thought Styles in People with Autism,” but I think it goes deeper than three peg-and-holes. Each lenses is a unique one, shaped by the neurological irregularities from developmental stages ignoring the expected agenda. A specific person results, with a new perspective, every time.
For me, pattern recognition comes online when I’m engaged in sensory or social activities. I’m most aware of patterns when I’m looking at them for the sake of looking at them, like trying to find beauty in movements of music, animals in cloud watching, or rhythmic lag in the RPG with three parallel processes in the second room of the dungeon.
(I changed it to one parallel process, and the rhythmic if-then statement, rolling in the background, no longer felt palpably laggy.)
“Looking at it for the sake of looking at it” is how I define visual stimming, so I often ask myself if self-stimulatory behavior is tied up in the pattern recognition mechanisms in my brain, too.
The social side of pattern recognition isn’t that kind to me. For instance, I notice correlations between life events and responses from the people around me: “If x happens, then this person does y.” This is why spinning in circle in my head isn’t always good.
Sometimes, over-analysis causes freeze loops in the fight-flight center of my brain; this is because I’m trying to avoid a trigger: “If y happens, then meltdown occurs; and if x happens, then person does y; therefor, avoid x.”
Since C-PTSD can snowball into shutdowns or meltdowns, social pattern recognition can lock me up with perceived warning signs from previous trauma, which can be a real bummer on my life. Pesky amygdalae don’t like that.
Yet the sensory side of pattern recognition more than makes up for the social-analysis-that-never-stops, anxiety-bomb-in-my-belly; because when I recognize patterns in the world around me, I fall in love with life.
- Autumn leaves cast in Photoshop-like gradients of red, orange, and brown.
- Ripples from stones landing on windswept waterbeds who would’ve shuddered towards the horizon anyway.
- Lightning—always late with its noise, always too early with its entrance—faster as the storm approaches; slower as it leaves; relative in its presence.
Without that love for the patterns in the bigger world of nature, and the larger picture of behavior, I’d surely return to the darker times of suicidal ideation.
I need the patterns.
- Increase cell count, add complexity, tweak performance, optimize in systems;
- Expand product line, boost options, modify marketing, optimize towards departments;
- Improve vocabulary, elaborate sentences, evaluate flow, optimize with style guides.
Once I discover a pattern that fills me with love, my interest in that subject comes fully online, and I can run with it forever. I don’t experience writer’s block because the ideas around me are endless; I just have to look for something beautiful.
One way I fall in love with visual patterns is by making resin lamps with glitter. When I’m working with micro-refracting glitters, swirling pigments, and slow-dripping two-part epoxy (or UV resin), I don’t think about anything except how exotic all the patterns feel.
As the resin undulates with the weight of the pigments and glitter, it subtly moves around, like painting on water. Like playing with goo.
Listening to birdsong also swoons me into the beauty of natural patterns.
Did you know whales carry songs across the ocean, repeating a rhythm of music around the globe?
I can turn on my imagination and try to experience that thought; I think my memories of past pattern recognitions come alive then, too. ABy the end of my life, I’ll just see a kaleidoscope of the wonderful things on this planet, refracting off one another.
Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at Kourtnie.net or Wattpad.com/user/KourtnieNet.