Welcome, Maria!

Today, Maria arrived at work wearing a light green tutu, because it’s a big day! She is about to be employed in my newborn lab, within the project Extraordinary Brains.

Today, we walk proudly through the corridors, because we’re now officially a lab! And that’s not the only victory. We’ve gone through a lot to be where we are today.

Maria, in the building for child and adolescent psychiatry, at the University Hospital in Linkoping, a few feet from our offices.

Maria, in the building for child and adolescent psychiatry, at the University Hospital in Linkoping, a few feet from our offices.


Maria is a civil engineer and teacher, and has an extraordinary brain (autism, ADHD, amazingly competent and amazingly wonderful). She has hit the wall three time after pushing herself way too far in her profession of engineering. She’ll write more in the blog about her experiences soon.

Her private life consumes most of her energy , and she has a drive and creativity that both helps and creates challenges. She loves Lego and (luckily) has a like-minded family. Her entire basement (and sometimes the living room) is basically drowning in Lego. I know, because I’ve been there!

If you haven’t stepped on her Lego, you don’t know the real Maria ;-) Well.. it might not be entirely true, but it’s not far from it…

Some of Maria’s creations

Some of Maria’s creations


Maria has spent a year in rehabilitation with Extraordinary Brains at Linkoping University, and we’ve witnessed an amazing development. Everyone who’s been close to Maria is very impressed.

When she first arrived, she was in such bad shape that she wasn’t able to turn on her computer without sort of losing it. We had to take it slowly, and find new ways of getting around her sensitivity to stress. Slowly, she’s become calmer and more secure, and slowly she’s regained her strengths — the strengths that had been hidden in the background, inaccessible due to the chronic stress..

Now, one year later, Maria has found a kind of balance in her life, and she’ll be the first member of my lab. Research Engineer Maria! I’m so very happy!

She’ll write more about this herself, but it’s big news. We are establishing ourselves in Sweden with the first employee (apart from Kajsa), and that’s an employee who’s managed to survive a rollercoaster going from complete exhaustion to self-acceptance and balance. Can it get more awesome than that?

Yay for Maria, and welcome to the lab!!


Everyone wants to be autistic these days


I’m 2. My Mom tells You I’m disappearing from her, into a world of my own. She tells you I cry a lot and that our connection has weakened. But to You I seem perfectly happy, so You tell her not to worry.

I’m 3. Mom is learning by trial and error how to avoid my meltdowns. She creates structure, routines and predictability to help us through the days. She doesn’t even consider going back to You. After all, Your professional assessment is that I’m a perfectly happy child.

I’m 5. The boys at Kindergarten want to see my private parts and I don’t know it is wrong, so I pull my pants down and loudly recite all the types of potatoes that I know.

I’m 6 and preschool terrifies me. Every real-time situation is akin to a launch into free fall. At home I scream and scream in endless tantrums. Once, Mom tells me I’ll ruin my voice if I keep screaming. The knowledge I’ve destroyed my voice haunts me for many years.

I’m 7 and bullied. Mom tells me they’re jealous of my intelligence and I believe her, because surely she must know. The ping pong table becomes my imaginary boat, and I sit there nearly motionless, playing out scenarios in my head. At after school care I’m glued to the reading couch. It’s safest to never look up.

I’m 8 and Mom finally asks You for help again. You tell me to count to 10 instead of melting down. You tell me that the other girls will stop being mean if I just try to be a bit more like them.

I’m 10 and scared, even though the bullying has stopped. I focus on being The Best at school. I have lived with constant anxiety for years, but don’t know life could be different.

I’m 13 and the social gap between me and others widens further. I’m isolated without knowing it. Excellence matters more and more, but also becomes harder and harder.

I’m 14 and exhausted. I can’t keep up. I’m isolated. My performance is dropping. I’m anxious and scared. We finally get Your attention, and You make sure I get therapy and follow-up. I’m supposed to talk about my childhood but I have nothing to say.

I’m 15 and hospitalized, because I’ve become The Best at being dysfunctional. You tell me I have to make up my mind: life or death? I don’t know the answer and the question makes me confused. Someone thinks I have an empathy disorder called Asperger’s and I don’t believe it for a second.

I’m 16 and in a state of constant panic. You say I want attention and instruct those around me to ignore my expressions of despair. They follow Your instructions, because You’re a professional, until a different professional discovers an anomaly in my brain. Suddenly, You say it’s not my fault. You say I’ll probably never live an independent life.

I’m 17. I meet a therapist who helps me find my very first words: “I am lonely”. I feel lonely. I feel unseen, isolated, voiceless. I have never been able to communicate. I have never known what my emotions are. There is only anxiety. I can’t believe I’ve never ever realized this myself.

I’m 19. I have now worked with the therapist for several years to learn to recognize emotions, and for the very first time I experience something that isn’t anxiety. It’s sadness in its purest form. It’s beautiful, and so very painful. My emotional repertoire is growing.

I’m 20 and begin to feel glimpses of true happiness. Every day, I analyze my behavior with a great deal of attention and logical thinking, and slowly reprogram my reactions to become more adaptive and appropriate. The wordless rage and anxiety disappear.

I’m 21. I lift my gaze and realize I have never faced the world outside before. I discover that, if I concentrate, I can see the people’s faces. If I concentrate on my body and the world at the same time, I can make the world slow down and perceive details in the chaos. I can truly begin to interact with others. I go on my first independent vacation. I have my first glass of wine. I look at my wristwatch and spill the wine on the pavement. My friend laughs and says “that’s classic!”.

I’m 22. I’m nearly ready to fly. Despite my transformation I still can’t stably organize my time or regulate my food intake. I get scolded for a lack of motivation, for wanting to regress to a less responsible stage. I try hard, fail, try harder, fail, get scolded, and eventually try to hide the failures, thinking I’ll work it out alone. Motivation is not something I’m lacking.

I’m 23. I’m happy and well-adapted, despite some hidden glitches in my functioning. I move far away to get a college degree.

I’m 25 and exhausted. It’s hard to keep up. It’s hard to fit in. I don’t understand why I keep being misunderstood and made out to be a warrior-type, competitive, aggressive, neurotic… But I’m still happy, especially when I’m alone. My baseline is happy, even though I admittedly spend more time away from baseline than I do around it.

I’m 27 and break down from the pressure. I barely make it to the finish line, but graduate as an A-student.

I’m 28. I start another degree, and get physically ill. Yet, I keep going, more and more isolated, and less and less sure of myself. My place in the social world is shaky. Performance-wise I’m doing fine. Studying is my only real interest.

I’m 30 and fight for my own happiness and health. My social confidence is completely corroded and I’m slowly giving up the thought of being part of the social world. I have some serious doubts about life.

I’m 32. I move again, to accept a job after graduation. I’ve decided that I’m weird and try to accept it. I struggle with everything and am juggling a paradoxical mixture of happiness and stress. It’s very confusing, but I blame outside stressors.

I’m 34 and have removed the worst stressors from my life. Slowly I realize that the social isolation, misunderstandings, organization issues and perception problems remain, no matter what I change. I can’t just keep blaming stress. There must be a constant in this equation, and that constant - logically speaking - must be Me. A door opens.

I’m 36 and have finally realized I’m autistic. I don’t just have traits - I have severe limitations that impact every day of my life. I get evaluated and diagnosed, and start a process of re-evaluating every aspect of my existence, grieve the loss of old ideas, and celebrate the seed of real self-acceptance that I feel has been planted.

I’m 38 and meet You again. You don’t know that I’m autistic and you don’t know we’ve already met. “Everyone wants to have autism these days”, you say casually, and I chuckle collegially because the situation demands it. You take another bite of your cinnamon bun. “Any plans for the holidays?”, I ask and take a sip of my coffee.

Autism and Identity

--- Katherine Lawrence ---

Human beings have a tendency to categorise themselves and others in various ways and through this, identities are forged; people identify themselves through groups to which they belong and form communities around that - for example, political beliefs, religion, cultural heritage, language(s) used, hobbies, disability, and neurology. These different aspects of identity come together in unique combinations.

Identity is hugely important for many autistics, and autism is a central part of our identity, which is why the vast majority of us favour the use of identity-first language ("is autistic") over person-first language ("person with autism"/"person who has autism"). I did an entire long blog post on it this time last year, which you can read here at 30 Days of Autism Acceptance: Day 15, and there are many articles on the subject by other autistics and allies, all easily available.

I identify as Autistic, as do many others, rather than as "a person with autism" or "having autism" because autism is integral to our very being - it affects everything about how we experience the world and is not just an add-on. I have fibromyalgia and ME/CFS but they do not define me in the way that being autistic does; I would still very much be the same person without those conditions (just more busy and less tired/in pain!) whereas if I was not autistic I would be a completely different person.

I recognise that there are difficulties with being autistic, and while a lot of those can be significantly alleviated if the world was more autistic-friendly, there are going to be times when all the accommodations in the world will not prevent a meltdown. However, I would not change my neurology for the world and I would never want to not be autistic. It has given me the ability to hyperfocus in a way that might not be possible if I was neurotypical (NT), have an incredibly retentive memory for things that interest me (although I'm still incapable of going into town or to Sainsbury's without a list if I'm going to have any chance of getting everything I want!), a level of passion that I'm not sure I'd have if I wasn't autistic, an eye and ear for detail, a visual brain (really beneficial for someone who's involved in the Deaf community and wants to be a British Sign Language/English interpreter!), the ability to think differently from others and thus put a different perspective on things and probably many others.

Having a formal diagnosis has enabled me to be confident in my identity as an autistic woman, which I went into more detail about earlier this month in the D is for Diagnosis post.

Being autistic defines me. I see many people, both autistics and parents, say that they "won't let autism define [them/their child]", but that's not actually viable, because the very nature of autism influences absolutely everything about a person: how they perceive, experience and interact with the world, how they respond to things, how they think, how they process, how they communicate, how they interpret things, how they manage tasks, how they learn... Everything.

Accepting an autistic identity is crucial for mental wellbeing. I don't mean that once you accept the identity everything is immediately going to be perfect, but it does allow for improvement and self-confidence. It helps you understand who you are and how you experience the world. If you are constantly fighting against that aspect of your identity, it makes it very difficult to progress because you are essentially at war with yourself, rather than utilising your strengths and being kind to yourself with and accepting of your difficulties. Since discovering I was autistic, I have been much more gentle with myself when I struggle, reminding myself that it's OK if I don't feel able to cope with somewhere with multiple background noises, that it's OK to request that people are clear and direct rather than dropping hints (because I cannot pick up on hints, ever!), etc. But also, I have come to recognise my strengths and utilise those.

Once I accepted myself as autistic, I became much more confident in myself. I had much more insight into myself and how I related to the world, and it enabled me to find others who shared this identity and thus find a community to which I truly belonged. I wrote a bit about this process last year in Harry Potter, autism and me. And this can be wonderfully liberating.

Accepting that I was autistic and strongly identifying so gave me the confidence and self-esteem to be fully and authentically me, without restraining behaviours and communication styles that were autistic and trying to adhere to NT standards and conventions that felt uncomfortable, unnatural and wrong. Acting NT (or at least, trying to follow conventions that would reduce the likelihood of me being bullied, singled out and excluded). Stimming in public? No longer suppressing that just because some people think it's weird! And to be honest, the more people who are unafraid to act autistically in public and are themselves, the better - it becomes less unusual, less remarkable, and will hopefully lead to greater acceptance because people will realise it is simply one aspect of humanity.

And if autistic children see autistic adults accepting their identity and being authentic and true to themselves, hopefully they will be more confident in themselves. The Deaf community has a concept called "Deaf positive", and it's all about being confident in yourself as a Deaf person, as a sign language user, as equal to hearing people, accepting and embracing your Deafness and being part of a community of people like you. Deaf youth can look at Deaf adults who are comfortable and confident using sign language in public, requesting and explaining communication needs, living happy and successful (however you want to define that) lives.

Identity Autistic Positive.jpg

Part of autism acceptance is the autistic equivalent, which I refer to as Autistic Positive. We desperately need that and autism acceptance - true acceptance - means that autistic people are confident to be themselves, accepting of how their brain works, because NT society accepts them ("acceptance is an action" is a common phrase you'll see around, and it really is - it requires people to make effort to include autistics and to not try to make us NT, to accept us as we are) and confident in their identity as an Autistic person.

© Katherine Lawrence 2018

Getting an autism diagnosis

--- Katherine Lawrence ---

Getting diagnosed as autistic can be extremely positive for many. The process can be long, hard and slow, but once the point of formal diagnosis is reached, it can be a massive relief. And this is why I am defining "diagnosis" as autism-positive and as part of acceptance.

Written by Katherine Lawrence as part of her heroic series of blog posts during Autism Acceptance month (April 2018): "D is for Diagnosis"!

For parents of children, getting a formal diagnosis can be a tumult of emotions, some positive and some negative. From the various autistics-and-families groups I'm in on Facebook, the positives of having a diagnosis tend to centre around having confirmation and validation of their child's neurology and difficulties, knowledge that they have not been bad parents and access to supports (potentially - it can often be a bit of a postcode lottery!) that can only be obtained with formal diagnosis, such as equipment, support in school and so on. Additionally, it can help them understand their child better (depending on where they look, what they read, etc).

For people like me, who grew up not knowing they were autistic, diagnosis again can cause a mix of good and bad emotions. I've noticed, though, that feelings tend to be overwhelmingly positive, especially for those who have been trying for a long time to get a diagnosis. I spent several years in the self-diagnosed camp because trying to get an assessment as an adult in the UK is difficult; in 2009–10 there was nothing in my parents' area of Essex for assessing adults, and it wasn't until 2011 that an adult assessment service was set up in the Exeter area. For me, getting that formal diagnosis was 100% positive.

Upon receiving a formal diagnosis, the feelings I and many other adult-diagnosed autistics experienced were a combination of joy, relief and validation. Some do experience negative feelings, such as confusion, anger, frustration and fear - things like, "Why was I not picked up sooner as autistic?", "What does this mean for my future?", "Will it make my life more difficult?", "Will people reject me?" and "I don't want to be autistic" (partly because of the persistently and wholly negative portrayal of autism), to name some. These are perfectly valid responses, particularly in a world that tend to be hostile, overwhelming and confusing to autistics. This is why we need proper acceptance.

Why so positive?

Knowing that your brain is not defective or broken, that it is simply wired differently, can be a massive relief. I was 23 or 24 when I self-diagnosed and 28 when I was formally diagnosed. When a friend suggested to me that I might be autistic, I looked into it and comprehension dawned, everything clicked into place and you know in cartoons when someone has an inspiration, a lightbulb lights up over their head? I could practically see that! For a long time I had genuinely believed my brain and myself to be broken, because I struggled socially, my bluntness was often perceived as rudeness, I was hypersensitive to everything, I was often considered weird and awkward, and things that came instinctively to others (e.g. comforting a crying classmate) were very difficult and unnatural to me and were very intellectualised. Once I realised that there was nothing wrong with me, that everything could be explained, I was a lot kinder to myself. And that brings a real sense of peace and self-acceptance.

Once I knew I was autistic, I indulged my inner Hermione and read as much about autism as I could get my hands on! I wanted (and still want) to know everything about autism. And in reading things about it and interacting with other autistics, I came to understand myself so much better than I had previously done. And that's a massive self-esteem boost.

Validation is a powerful thing. I respect that some people do not want to seek a formal diagnosis and they have their reasons. It's something that is currently being researched at Exeter University in the Exploring Diagnosis project, for which I am an advisor on one of the PhD projects. If anyone in the UK is reading this, sought diagnosis as an adult or chose to remain solely self-diagnosed, and would be interested in participating as an interviewee, do let me know and I can put you in contact with the relevant people! For me, being only self-diagnosed was not enough - I found myself frequently questioning and doubting whether I was actually autistic, and wondering if it was mental-health problems masquerading as autistic signs (turns out the mental-health problems were largely a result of difficulties from not realising I was autistic!) In addition, I encountered a number of people who did not see self-diagnosis as valid and I got rather fed up of trying to justify myself to them. Getting a formal diagnosis, for me, silenced the doubters (including myself!) and, more importantly for me, confirmed and validated that my difficulties (and also things I have come to see as strengths) were real, that my experience of the world and how I processed it were true and not some figment of my vivid imagination, and that I was definitely autistic.

As well as this, when I lend my voice to campaigns such as Not Locked In (last year) and the ongoing Judge Rotenberg Center campaign with Cal Montgomery and Kieran Rose, having a formal diagnosis gives more weight to my voice than if I were only self-diagnosed, and means it is more likely (not guaranteed by any means, because people like to throw functioning labels around by claiming that I'm "too high-functioning" to advocate for "low-functioning" (their words, not mine) and the "Not Like My Child" card (of course I'm not like your child - they're 6 or whatever and I'm 33!)) that my voice will be listened to, because I am considered a "genuine" autistic. I wish that self-diagnosed autistics were afforded the same level of value as those of us who are formally diagnosed, but that is not currently the case.

Having that formal diagnosis has given me so much confidence to be authentically me. I don't hide my stimming, I'm open about not making eye contact and why, and it means that I don't hide my autism generally. When I go for job interviews (rare, because my physical disabilities significantly restrict how much I can do, and because I'm autistic certain environments are unworkable for me), I can inform them beforehand that because I am autistic, I will not be making eye contact due to the physical pain it causes me. I am autistic and proud to be so! 

As I said in yesterday's post, C is for Community, getting that diagnosis has helped me feel more part of the autistic community than when I was only self-diagnosed, due to the validation and confidence explained above. And I've made some amazing friends there. I'll talk more about that later this month in S is for Social Media.

In getting a diagnosis, I now know that I am not alone, that there are many people out there who are like me and who understand me. And that's such a positive thing! There are people out there who are like me; I'm not some sort of broken freak of nature!

Autism Diagnosis.jpg

Being formally diagnosed can (not necessarily, as it depends on people and what's available in your local area) enable you access to (appropriate) supports and accommodations that you may not be able to access without a formal diagnosis, such as support in education, assistive technology, therapists trained and/or specialising in working with autistics, and so on. Many places will only consider those with a formal diagnosis, possibly due to limited resources, the risk of doing harm with an unsuitable approach or for insurance purposes (more in the US than in the UK), for example. While such things are meant to be based on needs rather than diagnosis, having a formal diagnosis can make the process easier and quicker. Also, knowing that you are autistic can make it easier to determine particular techniques that work for us but not necessarily NTs and vice versa.

Getting a formal diagnosis has been immensely positive and has enabled me to accept and be confident in my being autistic.

© Katherine Lawrence 2018

When eye contact hurts – a personal account of a common autistic trait

--- Joost Wiskerke ---

For most people making eye contact with someone else is natural, effortless and painless.

Now, instead imagine that the other person’s eyes are two piercing laser beams. It probably won’t feel natural to look into them anymore. If you try, it will require effort, and if you do succeed – even for a short moment ­­– it will be painful. You wouldn’t want to experience that, right?

It may surprise you, but the laser beam analogy is actually not far off from how I experience eye contact, most of the time. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I attended a couple of seminars given by autism researchers, that I learned that many autistic people have similar experiences. That’s why I wanted to write this post for Extraordinary Brains.

(FYI: I don’t have an official diagnosis, but I do strongly identify with several traits commonly associated with autism, including a tendency to avoid eye contact.)

Eye photo cropped.jpg


What I would like other people to understand about me

Many people may never think, or understand, the fact that making eye contact can be a real burden. These are 5 misconceptions that I commonly encounter:

1. I may be looking away, but I’m still there!

This is by far the most common problem. People think I’m not paying attention to a conversation unless I make eye contact. In reality, most of the time, my eye contact and my attention are completely independent from each other. My brain frequently doesn’t even really register what my eyes are seeing during a conversation.

2. I’m not trying to hide anything, and it’s also nothing personal.

When I don’t make eye contact, it doesn’t mean I don’t want the other person to see my eyes. It doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of myself or that I'm trying to hide something. It also doesn’t mean that I dislike the other person. Guess what… I don’t even make much eye contact with my own wife! However, it can certainly mean I'm not entirely comfortable or that I'm using all my brain capacity for the ongoing conversation (but more on that later).

3. Please don’t judge the book by its covers.

My lack of eye contact may make me look a bit socially inapt and closed off on the outside, but on the inside, I’m a really kind and fun person who is social, intelligent and very loyal. Just ask my friends, colleagues and family :-). I’m convinced that it would be easier for me to meet new people if making eye contact happened more automatically. And I know of at least one concrete example where this type of misunderstanding threatened my academic career (I’ll get back to that topic too).

4. The phrase "You can learn to make eye contact, just practice" is not super-helpful.

Yes, it is true, but in my experience only to some extent. Despite years of training, I still easily forget to make eye contact when I talk to someone. At other times, I may want to make eye contact but fail to do so, or I do it too intensely and end up staring (it's hard to get it right!).

5. Moving your face into my field of view as a cue for eye contact isn’t subtle.

And I usually don’t think it’s that funny. Sure, using body language may be less harsh than straight out telling me. But honestly, when somebody tries to catch my gaze by maneuvering their head around, I usually first get confused, wondering what they're doing with their head. After that, I feel the same embarrassment and frustration that I experience when somebody verbally confronts me with my weakness.

Making eye contact: my perspective

Honestly, making eye contact is a nuisance to me. Calling it my nemesis may even be more appropriate. Despite years of effortful training, I can pretty much still only do it by willfully forcing my brain. And I rarely enjoy it. On the other hand, not making eye contact hurts too. A lot actually. But in a different way. I’ll try and explain myself.

When making eye contact doesn’t come naturally

Feelings of fear and anxiety are definitely part of the equation. In fact, for the longest time I was convinced that my problem was related solely to some form of social anxiety. But more recently I’ve come to think that social anxiety isn’t quite enough to explain my problem. I’ve been insecure about how to make eye contact my entire life, no matter who the other person is. The more I think about why I find it scary, the more I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that this particular social behavior just doesn’t come natural to me. It really just doesn’t!

Rather than being a fluent process, eye contact to me goes more like this:

The first crucial step is that I have to actively remind myself to look at someone. Then, as soon as I consider making eye contact, my brain will start ruminating: “Is this a good moment? If it is, for how long should I keep my gaze focused on the other person’s face? Is the other person reciprocating the eye contact? If not, why not?”. And this type of frantic internal questioning will continue non-stop for the entire time that I’m trying to make eye contact (irrespective of whether I succeed or not). It makes the act a real challenge! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished my brain would deal better with looking at faces and making eye contact.

Feedback and self-analysis have helped

Earlier in this post I described how feedback from people can be very confrontational. That’s not to say that I never want people to cue me though. It helps me deal better with eye contact. For years, one of my close friends has regularly been pointing out when I’m not making eye contact with her. She does it with a lot of compassion and patience. It has helped a little, just like years of training and analyzing myself have helped a bit.

I’ve also learned some camouflaging strategies. If often look just above or below the other person’s eyes. In group settings, I typically try to focus my gaze mostly on one person. The latter tactic combines particularly well with another oft-used social strategy of mine: Navigating social situations by using a “social wingman/wingwoman” (someone I know is socially more fluent and assertive than me). In spite of the progress, looking at people while talking to them is still not easy for me, and it feels unnatural.

Autism research made me realize why eye contact is exhausting and can even be painful

This brings me back to start of my story when I talked about how autism research has given me new insights about my problems with eye contact. As a scientist, I regularly get the chance to attend seminars about research conducted by others. While working at Rutgers University, two seminars by autism researchers made a particularly strong impression on me. The first talk was about how faces are an incredibly intense sensory input (eyes are probably the biggest contributor here!), and about how this can be a problem for autistic people who can be hypersensitive to sensory input. In the second talk, the speaker mentioned that autistic people often described eye contact as almost being physically painful. Both of these stories resonated with me.

Understanding my own deficits better

I’ve long known that during a conversation it’s much easier and calmer for me to look at stationary objects – floors, walls, ceilings or skies are particularly good for this purpose. Listening to those seminars a couple of years ago made me understand that the reason why eye contact is incredibly exhausting and hugely distracting for me is not just that it doesn’t come naturally, but also that it constitutes a massive sensory input that floods my brain.

Faces – and particularly eyes – have so many visual details and convey so much information! They move a lot too! Add to that my brain’s tendency to get hyper-focused on random details, and its limited capacity for multi-tasking… The problem becomes obvious. After all, the brain has a limited energy supply. Looking at people while they are speaking is one thing. That doesn’t seem to exhaust my brain too much. While talking myself, looking at someone is a lot harder. In a cognitively-intense or emotional conversation, there's virtually no way I can cope with eye contact. The problem gets magnified if the other person is unfamiliar. My brain just doesn’t have the capacity to process it all.


I struggle with eye contact, but I also know it’s a big deal in social communication

I admit that I often have had (and continue to have) thoughts along the lines of “I should just give up, it’s too hard to make eye contact”. Or in my frustration I may think something like “why is it such a big deal [to others] anyway whether I make eye contact or not?! Can I not just be accepted for who I am?” At the same time, I know that acceptance from others doesn’t solve all problems. Body language – including eye contact – is simply too important in social communication.

Making eye contact in my professional life

I think one area where I most often wished for some level of acceptance is at work. As an academic scientist, I sometimes feel hampered by my inability to naturally make eye contact during meetings or while I’m giving a presentation. Unfortunately for me, salesmanship and being good at presenting work are increasingly valued skills in modern-day’s highly competitive scientific community. At least I can compensate my weakness in this area with making strong presentations and knowing my s**t. Compensating is much harder while “networking”, e.g. mingling with other scientists at a social event. Like in most other professional sectors, networking is an integral part of advancing one’s academic career. Here, I feel my limited capacity to make eye contact is a real handicap (the fact that making small talk isn’t really my strong suit doesn’t help either). And this handicap can sometimes have severe consequences.


How a lack of eye contact almost ruined my academic career

Years ago, I was interviewed by a committee for a prestigious program in neuroscience at my university. I had explicitly been asked to apply for the program since I was one of the top students in my year. Job interviews are a nightmare for most people, and even more so for autistic people. This interview definitely felt like a nightmare to me! I couldn’t make eye contact at all and felt horrible throughout it. Afterwards I beat myself up for doing such a poor job. A short while later I found out that one of the professors in the committee was hesitant to accept me into the program because I had come across as socially immature and therefore wouldn’t be a great “poster boy” for the program. I only made it into the program because my mentor convinced the committee to let me give a presentation about the research project I had been doing in his lab. This happened in 2005, but it still hurts that that professor initially judged me for my social skills rather than my academic ones.

Making eye contact can enrich social interactions

In my personal life, I luckily get a lot of acceptance from the people around me. But that doesn’t solve all my problems. I’m fully aware of how useful eye contact can be in social interactions. And powerful! I’ll never forget how I once made an elderly woman cry because I made eye contact with her for the first time during her final session in our psychotherapy group. My eyes told her that I cared about her. I also know that omitting eye contact makes me miss a lot of emotions and subtleties in people’s words. I do think that missing body language can at times be a strength and make conversations easier (at least when the other party communicates in a similar way) – when you rely on verbal communication alone, there is less to misunderstand. Much more often though it makes me miss jokes, or it prevents me from accurately identifying others’ emotional states. I’ll give you another anecdote that nicely illustrates that last point.


If I had looked into her eyes…

Years ago, I completely missed the fact that a girl was in love with me. For months! I had been interacting with her regularly, but just didn’t realize there was anything more to our conversations than them being enjoyable. Until one day, when we walked into each other while I was out for lunch with a friend. When the girl left our table after a couple of minutes, my friend – who didn’t know the girl – said it was super-obvious from the way she had looked at me that she was in love. I didn’t believe it. Surely I would have seen signs of it before, right? Of course, it turned out my friend was right. And although I couldn’t reciprocate the girl’s feelings, my confidence still got a nice boost!

How looking at faces currently helps me understand Swedish

I’ll end this blog post with a completely different advantage of looking at people that I recently discovered. Since moving to Sweden last December, I frequently try to follow conversations in Swedish. Although Swedish is somewhat similar to Dutch (my native language), it isn’t easy for me to understand it. However, I’ve noticed that it really helps to pay attention to people’s bodies, and particularly their faces. Without this added visual information, my brain understands a whole lot less Swedish. Don’t get me wrong though – it’s not like it’s any less stressful or exhausting for me to look at people who speak Swedish. Or that I’ve all of a sudden started making a lot of eye contact in Sweden. As a neuroscientist, I simply think it’s interesting that my brain seems to prefer to avoid looking at faces during conversations in Dutch or English (languages I’m fluent in), whereas it appears to really benefit from the visual input when I try to listen to a foreign language.

The take home message of my long story

Eye contact will probably always remain a struggle for me. In every conversation I’ll have to choose whether or not to engage in it. But I know there’s a lot to gain from moments of successful eye contact, so I’ll keep trying. At the same time, I hope for understanding from other people when I do look away.

© Joost Wiskerke 2018

Love & Autism: My Neurodiverse Marriage

--- Anonymous ---

Finding a partner when you have an extraordinary brain can be difficult, and perhaps this is sometimes extra true for those of us who are autistic.

We live with a messy mixture of strengths and difficulties, and because every autistic person is completely unique, there are no simple guidelines. Many of us feel isolated, many of us are single, and many of us don't even know where to begin!

But here I won't outline the difficulties that we face or deliver a bullet list of solutions. It's just my own story about a marriage that seems to be sustainable for our particular combination of two unique autistic brains.


Opposites on the same end of the spectrum

My husband and I are both autistic and highly intelligent, but apart from that we're polar opposites in terms of strengths and challenges. Actually, we're quite a comical illustration of how broad the spectrum is.

He gets overwhelmed by eye contact and can't understand body language. I'm hypersensitive to social cues but often misunderstand them, and I maintain eye contact with an intensity that can penetrate the comfort zone of the most extroverted neurotypical people. I'm debilitatingly sensitive to touch, lights and sounds, whereas he fails to notice intrusive inputs and doesn't know where his body is in space.

I pick up between-the-lines communication, but don't know how to respond, and my sense of humor is sarcasm-based and rather bizarre. He can't for his life pick up hints or understand irony, and likes slapstick humor and teasing. I use metaphors – he doesn't.

He stims by touching his hair whereas I spin on chairs and walk in circles. I do it in secret; he does it without awareness. He is heavily into repetition and rituals, while I can't easily form habits or organize my days. We both need to live in a small, simplified world, but for completely different reasons.

We're both socially insecure. He shuts down in large groups and calls me his social wingman. I melt down after social events and hold on to him in public places.

My first impression of him was that he was overly opinionated, and his first impression of me was that I was quite intimidating. But we became friends and gradually got to know each other over a few years. But obviously, he wasn't "my type" and I wasn't his.

Fast-forward another few years and we're married. How did this happen?


Challenging social expectations 

I said to him from the beginning that I wasn't girlfriend material. My internal template of a romantic relationship contained certain building blocks. Unconditional closeness, frequent or at least regular sex, babies... I just couldn't see myself living in a romantic relationship without constant sensory overload.

I resisted, but we talked. We talked about our fears and dreams, about our weaknesses and needs. He was scared to lose his personal space and his other friends. I was scared that I'd disappoint him. We were both scared to end up suffocated. We were both scared of being heart-broken.

Once all our fears were out in the open, they were less of a burden. I began to think of our relationship as something that we were about to create, in our own way – not according to societal assumptions. Years later, we still get confronted by new challenges, but so far we've navigated through them together.


Merging sensory differences into physical connection

Naturally, one of our earliest challenges was that of our very different sensory experiences. Touch and intimacy are integral to bonding.

At first, I didn't tell him how hard it was for me to be touched. In the meantime, he couldn't read my non-verbal cues and adapt his actions to them. He was also facing his own battles, because he'd always been overwhelmed by physical contact and scared of making mistakes through his poor social intuition. This could all have gone terribly wrong, but we've tried to find words for it, and are gradually figuring it out.

I've broken down many times. I've hated myself, I've tried to conform, I've tried to let go. He's faced the pain of never knowing whether I'd flinch or invite him. Intermittent, unpredictable rejection can be a deal-breaker for any relationship, but add some autistic inflexibility and you can probably imagine how lost he's felt at times. What are the rules today? He just never knows.

We could've given up early on, but we keep trying to turn to our common strengths: verbal communication, honesty and loyalty. Understanding each other's fears, reactions and limitations has saved our marriage.

Gradually, he has developed social interaction strategies for my different sensory states, and he simply asks if he's not sure. This way, he uses his intelligence, pattern recognition skills and verbal strengths to navigate an otherwise tricky social territory. I, on the other hand, help him with his insecurities by using words, rather than my body language, to guide him, and I don't get offended or upset if something goes slightly wrong. We can both feel safe.

Step by step we're finding our very own ways of being close, and we are close. Every morning and every night, we wrap ourselves around each other and share warmth and peace. And every now and then we converge for a verbal evaluation of how we feel about our physical connection. We always agree that things aren't perfect, but so far we've wanted to keep going.


Bridging communication differences

Our equally autistic but very different communication styles have clashed majorly! There have been times when things seemed impossible, and we still need to put some serious effort into resolving misunderstandings every now and then.

My personal logic is that potential issues should be addressed before they grow into a problem, and I prefer to just ask if I suspect that someone is burdened by frustration. His experience is that a problem has to be near-deadly before you confront someone with it, and he easily gets flooded with defensiveness and emotions upon direct confrontation. See the problem?

It took several serious clashes and a lot of talking before we began to understand each other's perspectives. I had to respect that my confrontations caused emotional overload (the analogy with sensory overload really helped me understand this). I try to approach him a bit more carefully. He had to understand that I don't build up resentment before bringing things up, and that my tone of voice doesn't match my intentions. He is less easily threatened these days.

Other times, when I'm near a melt-down, I can get unreasonably passive-aggressive. He puts his foot down and tells me to stop lashing out at him, and this helps me take responsibility for my behavior. Once we're on the same team again, he sometimes embraces me to help me through it. Other times it's better if I withdraw to a dark room and wait for it to pass. The important thing is that we don't get lost in irrelevant arguments.

We've come up with little tricks. They're mostly verbal, because that's how we roll. He might say "I'm feeling very attacked by you right now" or "What do you actually want me to do about this?" I might say "My tone of voice might sound angry, but I'm really not angry", or "I'm trying to control a melt-down but it's leaking out as aggression, I'm so sorry". We're coming up with strategies as we go, and we are trying to be patient with each other.

Both of us have a lifetime behind us of repeated misunderstandings and multiple flavors of social isolation. We both have a voice inside that says "You're a failure and no one likes you". Both of us can get completely stuck with this thought, and it can completely block progress in conversations. So for our relationship to work, we face the continuous battle (anti-battle?) of self-acceptance.


Embracing what can't be changed  

Sometimes we're not on the same wavelength and just can't be. Sometimes we wish that we could change each other, and very often we wish we could change ourselves.

I sometimes cover my ears when he speaks because I suffer from the volume. Sometimes I interrupt him in the middle of a sentence to ask him to keep his voice down. He's somehow learned that this isn't criticism. It isn't easy for him to live with my sensory defensiveness, but he works hard to accept it for what it is.

He's often wished that I could merge better with his family and friends. I've been known to hide from Skype conversations, withdraw from social occasions, and decline invitations to events we were invited to as a couple. In the beginning, I wanted to hide my difficulties and he had no way of bridging the gap between me and his friends. He was being crushed between guarding my privacy and preventing misinterpretations. These days I'm less secretive, so he can simply say I'm too overwhelmed to visit, while I can try to show my love in other ways. This problem won't go away, and it'll always require continuous mindfulness, in terms of expectations, flexibility and planning.

I used to wish we could share each other's sense of humor better. But gradually that's disappeared. Somehow, we are both learning to appreciate jokes that we don't intrinsically enjoy, and we are learning to accept our own failures to "get it". We try to focus on sharing the joy instead of focusing on what we don't share. There's definitely a lot of hilarity in situations when overt-seeming jokes completely fly over the other person's head. I make fun of him and he makes fun of me. That's fun. And we both have other friends that are better targets for the type of jokes we personally enjoy.

Another example of mutual accommodation is how we take care of our home. I have executive functioning deficits and can get disorganized, mildly speaking. He has obsessive-compulsive traits and wants things spotless. Luckily, we both make a real effort to meet halfway (although towards the tidy end of the tidiness spectrum because it's way nicer there!). I keep my piles in one place and he makes an effort to not go crazy. And I happily clean the house as long as he reminds me.

It's different for everyone, but for us, verbal communication is our best tool for figuring out how to live with each other and ourselves. That includes our continuous process of deciding what can be improved, what can be accepted, and how to learn to embrace all of it.


Nothing's ever perfect, but that's okay

There is a lot to the ongoing mission of keeping a relationship alive and healthy. Finding the right person is bloody hard, especially when you're autistic. Once that barrier is overcome, it's a continuous journey of social engineering and self-acceptance. Nothing's ever perfect and it doesn't have to be. I think a relationship can be successful through the creative use of strengths such as loyalty, morality, empathy, or whichever assets you can find inside yourselves. For me and my husband, the future can't be certain, but so far... so good...

5 ADHD-Doubters You Might Encounter in College

--- Maggie Pecsok ---


Some people just do not understand the concept of neurodevelopmental conditions. To be fair, I’m diagnosed with one, and have been studying them for three years, yet I still find them hard to wrap my head around. It still hurts, though, to feel misunderstood.

Here are five hyperbolized archetypes of “ADHD-Doubters” that you might encounter in college. They are conglomerations, exaggerations, and expansions of my personal experiences.


1. The Ignorant Friend

The most common doubter you will encounter. Your diagnosis does not make sense to your Ignorant Friend. Maybe you were acquaintances for a long time before he eventually found out that you have ADHD, and his picture of ADHD does not fit with his perception of you. He asks you some offensive questions about it – questions which make it clear that he thinks your diagnosis is merely an exaggerated reaction to “being a kid”. You’re disappointed, but you understand that he can’t see into your head. Depending on the friendship, you either arrange a heart-to-heart and try to get him to understand, or else accept the limitations of the friendship and never bring up ADHD again.


2. The Condescending Significant Other

A painful manifestation of ADHD doubt is when another person attributes ADHD symptoms to your personal character. In the context of romantic relationships (or even close friendships), this misconception can be toxic. Beware of the Significant Other who views you as someone to be “taken care of”. If you detect this sentiment, a serious conversation is needed. If the conversation doesn’t stick, evacuate immediately! Few things are more disempowering than a partner who views you as incompetent.


3. The Competitor

One night, you’ve invited friends over for a small party, and the conversations get personal. When you share that you take medication for your attention deficit, she suddenly oozes bitter jealousy. This ADHD-Doubter wishes she could take Adderall because she is trying to get into law school and needs to maintain her GPA. She seems to have concluded that since you are not visibly or catastrophically “disabled”, your are gaming the system by taking Adderall. You shrug, “Well, the doctor says I need it,” then quickly change the subject.


4. The Puritan Roommate

Freshman year, you are crammed into a dorm room the Dursleys would have reserved for Harry Potter. It’s a new space, new routine, new everything, and you find it disorienting. Your rigid-minded roommate believes that efficient adaptation to college simply requires self-discipline and hard work. In many ways, you envy him, and for many reasons, he resents you. The main point of tension: everything on his side of the room is at a right angle, while you have a more, um, “intuitive” system. Not wanting to be disrespectful (or perceived as such), you work to maintain a tidy living space. You apologize when you make mistakes. You might stay friends with the Puritan but you do not room together next year.


5. The Benevolent Professor

When having a deep talk with your favorite Professor about your future, you mention that your experiences navigating life with ADHD have really shaped you as a person. She is incredulous. “You have ADD? But you’re engaged during class.” You explain that you’ve learned how to compensate. Plus, you love her class, so it’s easier to pay attention in it. From her praise about “growing up”, “overcoming ADHD”, or “getting through it”, you realize she does not understand the idea that ADHD will always be a part of you. 


Navigating college life with ADHD is going to lead to some misunderstandings. Sometimes you meet people whose brains don’t understand your brain. When this happens, it can hurt to feel misunderstood. But having an extraordinary brain is so worth it.

© Maggie Pecsok, 2017

My brain just won't do it: Autism and sensory chaos

I've struggled with this for as long as I can remember, yet almost nobody knows. I've become an expert at compensating for it. But every time my sensory processing deficits leak into my daily life, I face another battle to regain self-acceptance. 

I have autism, which makes me unique, loyal, honest, and objectively a pretty cool person. No seriously! But one thing I really wish I could change is the constant chaos caused by my sensory hypersensitivities.


My brain isn't efficient in deciphering the world around me – it does so very slowly and not in real-time. In a familiar environment I have few problems. But introduce me to a new room, and I will most likely struggle. 

It's alright if my interactions with the new environment are straightforward. Say for example that I'm going to a meeting with a new person in a new building. I can use a map to find the building and I can find the room as long as it's in a logical place. Upon entering the room I will quickly establish the location of the visitor's chair, and that's often all that I need.

But say instead that I'm going to a social event at an unfamiliar venue. Upon entering, I must quickly scan the environment so that I can figure out where to hang my coat, who to walk up to, and where to get a drink. But as soon as I walk in, sensory inputs bombard me from all directions. There are tables, windows, glasses, smells, shoes, voices, dresses, people, music... 

I'm unable to process this into meaningful information like "walk towards the couch and say hi to Ryan". If I can buy myself "processing time", say, by chatting with a good friend while looking around the room, I might be able to behave like a regular person for the rest of the night. But if I don't get this extra time, or if I'm simply too tired, I can be so at a loss for context that I leave unannounced or break down and cry in the bathroom. May I introduce the infamous Autistic Meltdown, which must be hidden at all cost. 

I'm intelligent and emotionally pretty well-functioning. I don't have social phobia, and I'm not even particularly shy. If the circumstances are perfect and I can compensate well, I can give the impression of being happy, social, strong, emotionally stable and fun to hang out with. I struggled greatly with social interactions when I was younger, but these days I can do it, through well developed compensation strategies – many of which have formed subconsciously over the years. 

Yet, in every new social group I join, I tend to gradually build up a reputation for being quiet and slightly neurotic. The discrepancy can be confusing even for me, and it's painful to be regarded as shy or antisocial when that's not what I am. I just need things to be predictable and quiet! 

I am just autistic. 

Often, my symptoms of sensory processing deficits are subtle and without much consequence, such as not remembering places or details because I never actually took them in. Other times, it can get really debilitating. For example, when I woke up the first morning in a B&B, I knew I had to walk down the stairs, find the breakfast area, figure out how to serve myself breakfast, and presumably interact with the host in some way. I stayed in my room for several hours longer than I wanted, because I knew it would be such a challenge. I wasn't shy. It was just an absolutely overwhelming sequence of events to orchestrate. When I went to the university library for the first time, I sat down in an armchair right inside the entrance, and used my smartphone to study the library website for floor plans and other clues, before I felt ready to lift my gaze and begin to make sense of the physical environment. In college, I consistently avoided departmental functions. In my private life, I've generally – and sometimes subconsciously – found excuses to avoid social events. Eventually most people stop inviting me, which is both a relief and a source of immense pain. 

Most of the time my mentality is: "What's the worst thing that can happen?" I do keep pushing myself to do the things I struggle with and I've had quite an amazing life as a result (though perpetually exhausting). But truth is that I do fear the irreparable social situations that can result from not being able to make sense of the environment. 

Take this example from my early childhood: We were leaving the swimming pool and walked through the exit gate. Even though I could see another person approaching, I turned around and determinedly closed the gate right in front of them, then walked out of the building. Mom was upset and told me that people had been whispering and wondering what was wrong with me. I felt immensely embarrassed and stupid. Even though the sensory information had reached my consciousness, it wasn't synthesized into anything meaningful, such as "A person is approaching; therefore, do not close the gate". 

I have many unpleasant childhood memories of moving through a chaos of anonymous inputs without meaning, and even stronger memories of the social consequences of some of those moments. In my adult life, it has been even worse in some ways, especially in my 20s when I was still trying to go to social events and kept blaming myself very harshly for the social shortcomings that resulted from my brain's regular failures to compute the world.

Then there are the little things that don't matter quite as much. I can't cope with team sports and I find it hard to cross the street when there is traffic. When I tried to play laser strike I got so overwhelmed that I hid in a nook and cried. If someone gives me verbal instructions, like "grab a fork from the second drawer to the right of the fridge", I generally have to ask for a couple of repetitions while trying to figure out what it means. I find it hard to understand movies and most of the time I end up with no recollection of them afterwards. I watch them over and over to compensate.

I've found numerous little tricks for creating that little window of extra time that I need to process novelty. The main themes are: 1) preparing myself by visiting a venue before an event, 2) avoiding messy places, and 3) using my strengths to compensate. For example, if I'm going to get hands-on training on a new laboratory technique, I find a way to go to the room beforehand and map out everything that's in it, making sure I know how every piece of equipment works in detail, and finding out everything I can about what I'm about to learn (Google is my best friend). Then, in the training session, I am faced with minimal novelty and have a fair chance of avoiding a meltdown. This is a crazy-sounding approach, but it works, and the bonus is that I become a technical expert and efficient troubleshooter. The downside is that people think I'm obsessive-compulsive or insanely overambitious. 

But truth is that I'm really just trying to survive.

It's not fear. It's not something that I can "get over". My brain just won't do it. Sadly, the most successful strategy for dealing with the social consequences of it is to be alone, which is a strategy I sure have implemented throughout most of my life. When I make friends, I quickly find myself in untenable situations where I no longer can comfortably avoid parties or no longer can hide the disability. So I avoid making casual friends, and I pretend to be much more antisocial than I really am. 

But things have gotten better! As an adult approaching middle age, I'm beginning to just simply explain that I have sensory processing problems and therefore have some limitations. To my surprise, there have been no adverse reactions. It's okay with people if I go out for a quiet walk in the middle of a party to regroup. It's okay if I ask colleagues for some extra time to process new information. Learning to simply explain things without drama seems to be the key to acceptance and inclusion for me. Implementing this strategy and forgiving myself for failures is a continuous process though. 

I will always have this limitation, but I'm discovering that social isolation is not the only way to live with it. 

A discussion on cognitive tests in high-functioning autism

--- Anonymous ---

For all of us, our behavior is what is visible; it is what defines us in the eyes of others. Yet, behavior is only the end result of multiple internal processes that – in our own eyes – define our identity. As a high-functioning autistic individual and neuroscientist, I experience two distinct discrepancies in my interactions with others. First, my rich internal world cannot be adequately expressed by my behavioral repertoire. Second, the social response of neurotypical people often mismatches my intended behavioral output. My curiosity becomes aggression. My concern becomes skepticism. It is disorienting and painful. A very common experience among autistic people is that of a lifetime of repeated misunderstandings, and a lifetime of being severely underestimated.

One setting where it is particularly important that neurotypical and autistic people understand each other is during a neuropsychological evaluation. Cognitive tests are designed to tap into specific functions of the brain, such as the ability to organize or remember information. To work, these tests generally require intact sensory and motor systems, and they need to be given in a setting where the subject is minimally affected by stress, noise or performance anxiety. There are many potential confounds in testing autistic people, such as sensory sensitivities, coordination deficits and problems with novelty. 

Here, I will focus on a less recognized challenge: the difference in thinking style between autistic and neurotypical people.

Highly logical, detail-oriented information processing can provide an enormous advantage academically or professionally, but in other venues it can be a barrier. Few people are unaffected by the highly artificial social setting of a cognitive evaluation, but for an autistic person the interactions can come across as outright bizarre. Kate, who recently wrote about her intensely negative experience of a research study, described feeling humiliated by the scripted questions and “silly” test materials. These are her words regarding a test involving judgments about the “trustworthiness” of a series of faces:

"I told the tester that I did not know any of these men so how could I possibly know if they were trustworthy — and anyway, of all racial and ethnic groups, white men have proven to me to be the very least trustworthy, so I didn’t trust any of them. But I still was asked to flip through every one of the fifty pictures, and say, ‘no, not trustworthy,’ because I didn’t know them. This was absurd."

It is not that difficult to understand both sides. Tests are standardized; there is little flexibility. The scripting is the same for everyone, autistic or not – that is part of what makes them valid. But there are aspects of the autistic mind that are poorly compatible with the way cognitive tests are designed. 

Or, rather: 

There are aspects of cognitive test design that may prevent them from accessing the autistic mind. 

Kate was not trying to be nitpicky; she was expressing her honest confusion. And note that, in this case, on this test, there was no evidence of a purely social deficit, even though her test scores must have been abysmal.

I believe there is a very autism-specific confound in many neuropsychological tests: the performance of an autistic person may reflect a hyper-logical thinking pattern rather than an inability to read faces, empathize, or whatever the test is measuring. This is a true barrier to understanding the autistic mind and a potential confound in research studies attempting to assess cognitive function in autistic people.

When I went through neuropsychological testing in the mid-nineties I felt the same type of confusion, although I was unable to articulate it at the time. I was presented with cards with drawings of people. They were not real people. They did not feel anything. The stories I could potentially make up about the drawings were literally unlimited. I could pick any scenario, ranging from a shallow interpretation of the immediately obvious visual information, to a dark twisted Kafkaesque fantasy that would surely strand me with some ominous psychiatric diagnosis. I had a literally unlimited repertoire of interpretations that could all be considered realistic, given that nothing about this situation was realistic. 

Performing the test required significant mental acrobatics to streamline my mind into some acceptable output. Again, the interpretation of my behavioral output did not match my internal reality.

The consequences of hyper-logical thinking are not limited to tests of imagination or social function. Give me instructions for any test and I will probably see ambiguities that are invisible to the neurotypical individual. If you tell me to name “each of the objects”, and then point at only one, my brain struggles to switch from “Each object” to “Whatever object you point at”. If you want me to pair a cartoon dog with one out of four cartoon objects, my brain will immediately form associations for all the objects. 

I have to model the neurotypical mind, and realize that you want me to simplify this exercise to a stereotypical association between a dog and its bone. 

To pass the test, I must wrestle my complex mind into petty generalizations. That is not something I am good at, and it sure can be disabling, but it does not necessarily reflect a deficit in the function that the test aims to isolate. And to characterize this possible confound, it will be necessary to start a dialogue between scientists and people with autism.