My son just graduated high school and moved in with me so he can learn life skills, get a job, and save for college. In setting up his room I gave him the desk I have in my bedroom, which doubles as a bedside table. This deprived me of a place to put my books, my phone, and various other assorted items one must have next to their bed when sleeping. My wife and I talked a lot about the bedside table I should get. She is super talented and loves to buy old things and make them new. I knew that I wouldn’t find the exact type I wanted, so after two months of going without, I decided to build my own.
I measured the area, projected what else would go in the space eventually, designed the table in my mind, and went to Home Depot and bought 75% of the materials. I sat down, put most of it together, and then made three more trips to Home Depot to finish out the bits that I knew I couldn’t predict I would need. The result is a beautiful iron black pipe frame and wood topped bedside table with an integrated light switch and an Edison LED bulb. No, you won’t find this in an Ikea. The thing that baffles, and frustrates, my wife is I did it all without YouTube, without drawing the schematic, and within a few hours.
My wife’s solution would be to either buy a new table and lamp or buy ones from a second-hand store and refurbish them. My solution is to plan, acquire materials, and build exactly what I want. Both are equally acceptable solutions to the problem of replacing an end table, but they demonstrate two very distinct ways of addressing the problem. My wife’s solution is quick, simple, and straightforward; mine is complex, time-consuming, and work intensive.
Now, mind you, I am not saying that my wife is simple-minded! She is a genius, and I am in constant awe of her ability to see simple solutions. She sees me as brilliant and is in awe of my ability to solve complex issues and create exactly what is in my head. We both respect each other’s abilities and capabilities, but we also turn to each other for insight for that thing we might be missing. For me, it is usually the simple solution, for her it is complex strategy.
My son is on the Autism Spectrum also and we recently had this same conversation. He sees the world much like I do – a system of things and problems requiring strategies and solutions. He also has a wealth of knowledge that he combines into unique views and ideas, like I did with building and wiring a table and integrated light source. However, he, at barely 18, feels stupid and hates himself when a simple solution is presented to his complex idea. I have, and still do to a degree, felt this way myself. The key here is – he and I aren’t wrong. There is just a different way.
I don’t know if all Autistics go through this, but it took a long time and still takes constant reminding that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. While I am capable of coming up with simple solutions to complex ideas, it’s more likely that all of my solutions are complex. It is just how my mind works. The advantages are that I see the strategy, I see the points of execution, I can see issues and problems before they arise and develop solutions to mitigate them.
I see in systems. I can visualize the impact on other systems. I can envision the impact of the systems on behavior; it makes me very good at what I do. But I might struggle with changing a coffee filter if the brand isn’t the one I recognize, or the box is in a different location.
The trouble is, I feel stupid when something simple is pointed out. However, I have developed a tool box to help me with this. First, I seek input. Once I realize that my way of thinking isn’t the only way (this is HUGE for an Autistic), I seek out information, I seek insight, I seek understanding.
Second, I don’t defend myself, I defend the process/project/strategy. I love defending my ideas and I do so passionately. That doesn’t mean I am defensive, it means I am passionately looking at how to make the idea better. I want to be confronted – I would rather find the hole in a strategy in the planning stages than realize I made a mistake.
Once I was in a meeting with people I knew and respected and a new person. At the end of the meeting the new person asked if we were all angry with each other. She had watched as we argued our processes, each of us as passionate as the next as we made suggestions, corrections, and pointed out the issues we saw in the project. I was surprised at her question and laughed. I told her, no, we weren’t mad at all, we were actually having fun! She was surprised and relieved, but it also boosted her confidence that her opinion and passion would be respected and desired.
Third, I have to feel safe. Attack the ideas, not the person. If you attack the person you will get a completely different type of argument and it will end all future collaboration. People have to know that if I look intense, it is because I am processing, not angry. Likewise, I have to know that the people I am collaborating with won’t be passive-aggressive, take insult if their idea isn’t chosen, etc. You have to take pride out of the process. From my experience with Autistics, we really don’t care what you think of us, we want the idea and plan respected – respect our insights and take them seriously and we are okay. If you don’t accept them, just say so and say why, and that’s fine.
Fourth, I have convinced myself that finding mistakes in my idea isn’t me being stupid, wrong, or a failure. If someone finds a hole in my plan, they are making me stronger and I am learning. While I love defending the idea so I can show the depth of my planning and mitigation, it is more important to me for my plan to be stronger after others have seen things I haven’t. That for me is the feeling of community I need – people respect me enough to help me have stronger ideas and plans. People are bought into my abilities enough to help me be better and successful.
Viewing things differently isn’t a problem. It is only a problem when one mind insists that it is the only way, or they don’t know that other ways are possible. We both have bedside tables we like, that work like we want them to, and reflect our personalities. Neither is right or wrong, they are just different. If you work with Autistic people, ask them how they see a problem and what they would do. If you are Autistic, be open to other people seeing something different and welcome it – you aren’t stupid, they just saw something with a different view. That’s a good thing and will make your move through life stronger and more satisfactory.