Flexibility and ‘common sense’

In looking at the topic of rigidity of mind in people on the autistic spectrum, Temple Grandin gives the following example:

I heard about a case where an autistic boy had a severe injury but he did not leave the school bus stop to get help. He had been taught to stay at the bus stop so that he would not miss the bus; he could not break that rule. Common sense would have told most people that getting help for a severe injury would be more important than missing the bus. But not to this young man.
(The Way I See It, p. 37)

This immediately rang bells of recognition in my mind. When I was five years old, my class teacher at school would sit on a chair at the front of the class while we were getting on with our work, and we had to line up in front of her chair to ask her anything. As I’ve mentioned before, when I was a young child I wouldn’t realise I needed the toilet until I was totally busting. I remember realising I was busting for the loo, and getting up to queue up behind the other children who were waiting to ask the teacher something, so that I could ask the teacher if I could go to the toilet. After a little while, I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I’d made a little puddle on the floor.

The teacher leapt up to deal with this, and asked me why I hadn’t told her I needed to go for a wee. I told her in bemusement that I’d been queuing up to tell her. She tried to explain to me that when I am busting for a wee, I do not need to queue up – I can then just call out and ask her, or even just get up and go to the toilet without asking. My mind couldn’t compute this at all. She’d always told us that we need to queue up to ask her anything and that we weren’t allowed to shout out or leave the classroom. And if I left the classroom, how would she know whether it was to go to the toilet or to run off?  (Another situation where, in retrospect, coloured tickets would have been handy! I could have waved a blue ticket whenever I needed the loo!)

I remember a similar situation when I was six. I was queuing up to ask the teacher I didn’t feel well. As I stood in line, I realised I felt even worst standing up than sitting down. It was hard to stay standing. I felt dizzy and shaky and was seeing black spots. I wanted to inform the teacher of this right away, but I knew I wasn’t allowed to shout out, and that I had to wait my turn. Suddenly my legs gave way and I heard myself make a strange groaning noise, and I ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor. The teacher leapt up and scooped me into her arms and carried me to what I assume was the sick room (I’d never been there before, so it wasn’t familiar to me), and then called my mother to take me home. But what I remember most clearly was how kind and concerned the teacher was. I was expecting her to tell me off, because children were supposed to stand quietly in the queue, not to make a strange noise and fall on the floor. I actually thought I’d done something wrong, because in general I was often getting told off for doing things that weren’t the norm, and which weren’t ill-intentioned.

The issue of ‘common sense’, which Temple Grandin talks about, is an interesting one. You would think it’s common sense to know that if you’re about to wet yourself, or feeling so ill that you’re about to collapse, that it’s okay to see this as an exception to the rule and not remain quietly in the queue. But I had no automatic sense of priorities – I’ve had to work those out by logic over the years. I had no idea that exceptions to rules could happen.

I have often been told I don’t have common sense. But at the same time, in different contexts, I’ve also often been told that I have a lot of common sense. I wonder whether the issue isn’t so much one of common sense, but the ability to switch from one way of thinking to another.

When I’m in common sense mode, my common sense is brilliant. I’ve learnt a lot of common sense from working in care homes – listening to colleagues say aloud their thinking process in making decisions has been brilliant in showing me how thought patterns can work. I’ve learnt through this how important it is to look at different perspectives, and at the potential overall results of various actions. So when I know I need to be thinking of something from a ‘holistic’ view, having the overall result as the priority, then my common sense thinking is great, because that is my focus.

Also, what others call common sense in me is often simply the result of my having analysed something logically, being unconstrained by the conventions of what is ‘normal’. Actually from that angle I’m at an advantage, common-sense-wise, because the ‘normal’ is never ingrained in me to begin with. I think ‘outside the box’ purely from never having been able to find the box, and half the time being unaware that a box even exists! But this way of thinking outside of the normal constraints can also lead to thought processes that are considered lacking in common sense, because I may totally fail to take something quite obvious into consideration. So it can either lead to unusual common sense or unusual lack of common sense!

But going back to learning from other people voicing their thought processes, this has been incredibly useful for me in all kinds of areas. I lived in Canada for a few years, and I find (as a sweeping generalisation!) that Canadians talk about their feelings a lot more than Brits do. For me this was enlightening to hear people put their feelings into words and to explain openly what they are feeling and why. This has been a major contributing factor to my own ability to put my feelings into words. I would hear others do it and I would realise that they had enabled me to understand my own feelings.

In general, people don’t put a lot of their thought processes into words – at least, not into spoken words that they share with others. But for the person on the autistic spectrum, hearing thought processes and feelings being put into words is incredibly helpful, for several reasons:

  • It helps in understanding one’s own thoughts and feelings
  • It helps in understanding of the sorts of priorities it’s important to make
  • It helps in learning how exceptions to rules are reached
  • It helps in understanding how other people think and feel

And so, for parents or teachers of people on the spectrum, I would really recommend saying aloud your thought processes in everyday decision-making, when you are with people on the spectrum.

For me, it’s more helpful when people are explaining something in retrospect, because then the thoughts are all arranged neatly in their brain, and they don’t go off at tangents. So, for instance, you can explain why you decided not to do something you were going to do – explain how you went through the various pros and cons in your mind, and the overall result you considered in making your decision. Here is a possible example:

I’d thought of going to the supermarket yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock, because I had some free time, but then I remembered that’s the time when the schools are closing and the supermarket gets really busy and crowded with parents and children. I find it puts me in a bad mood to be in a big crowd, and I don’t like to be in a bad mood. And it takes far longer to do any shopping when it’s crowded, so it wastes time. So I decided that going at 7:00pm would be easier and quicker, and I could have a nice relaxing evening, without being stressed from having been in a crowd.

That might seem like a daft example, and unnecessary information to share, but for myself it has been ever so helpful when people have voiced such thought patterns and decisions. It has enabled me to see that plans do not necessarily have to be followed rigidly, and that there are various perspectives to think about. It has taught me to be aware of the overall result – not just (to use this example) the result of getting the shopping, but also the result of how it affects my mood, and my day. I find that when considering getting something done, I do not automatically think of the effect it will have on me as a person, so I can be so focused on getting something done that I forget to eat or sleep. I see this not so much as lacking common sense, but lacking the flexibility of thought to remember to look at the overall effect of something on me as a whole person (eg. the ability to stand back and say: yes, I want to get this done, but is it more important than my health?).

Therefore, learning how to make decisions with the final overall outcome in mind is essential for me – and I have learnt this by other people modelling it by saying aloud their own decision-making processes. I need concrete examples to understand something – and many concrete examples, so that I can see the ways in which something can vary.