Paying Attention While Autistic

The first draft of this post started with the phrase, “When I was a kid….”  But that’s not entirely true.

When I was kid, and to this very day, when I go out in public with my mother I can count on at least one exasperated command to “pay attention!”  Usually, she’ll say it while she’s yanking me out of the way of some grocery cart or stroller I didn’t see coming; my failure was in paying adequate attention to my surroundings (and, presumably, embarrassing her).  Once in a while, though, it’ll be when we’re trying to find one another in a crowd, or in a grocery store.  “You were looking right at me!  Didn’t you hear me calling you?  Pay attention!”

I have never not been paying attention.

I have, this past week, been reading Olga Bogdashina’s Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome*, in which Bogdashina presents the hypothesis that it is our differences in sensory intake and processing that lead to autistic “behaviors” and the so-called “triad of impairments” (in social functioning, communication, and imagination), which are themselves identified via behavior.  Early in the book, she raises the issue of “mono-tracking,” or the need to attend to only one sensory input at a time, tuning down or shutting off the others so that the input from the one can make sense.
This is exactly what happens to me in public, and it’s why thirty-odd years of Paying Better Attention has done jack for my ability to avoid being reprimanded for not paying attention.
Let’s use the “trying to find each other in a crowd” example.  Imagine that you and I, having attended the same show at the same busy auditorium, have managed to get separated as the show ends and people flood out of the auditorium.  (Maybe I was on stage, or you ran to the bathroom, or whatever.)  If you see me across the lobby, wave, and yell my name, I will probably not acknowledge that you’re even there – even if I”m looking right at you.
Here’s what I am doing:
  • Trying to block out the unbearable noise of a crowd of yammering people,
  • Trying to move with traffic to someplace I can see better,
  • Trying to avoid getting in the way of everyone else trying also to move somewhere else,
  • Trying not to breathe very hard, because most people have no idea how overwhelming the combination of soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, softener, body spray, hairspray, makeup, etc. is when you can smell ALL THE THINGS,
  • Trying to block out noises you probably can’t even hear, like the visual “buzz” of the fluorescent lights and the synesthetic screaming agony of the carpet (all auditoriums have synesthetically torturous carpet, as do all funeral homes, most hotels, and most doctors’ waiting rooms),
  • Noticing every single face individually (I can’t “chunk” them by “not blonde so not ____, wearing a blue coat so maybe ____,” etc. as I’m told many NT people can),
  • Hoping none of them are people I’m supposed to recognize, because in this context I’m probably not going to recognize any of them, and if I look someone full in the face that I’m supposed to know – say, because they’re my officemate – and don’t acknowledge them then that is hella rude,
  • Hoping none of them recognize me, because I don’t have a script for “standing around in a sea of people after a performance” and I will thus not know what to say and also be seen as hella rude,
  • Trying to identify, in the sea of faces I have to look at individually but not recognize, the one person I’m supposed to be able to recognize (you),
  • Acknowledging that I probably won’t recognize you, because unless we spend a great deal of time together in crowded auditorium lobbies, your face is just as alien-because-out-of-context as everyone else’s (this is called associative prosopagnosia and is such an impairment for me that I warn my students about it at the start of every semester: “the first time you come to my office, please introduce yourself again, because I literally cannot recognize people out of context”),
  • Wondering what that waving thing is in the distance,
  • Realizing that the waving thing is an arm,
  • Realizing that the arm is attached to a hand,
  • Realizing that the hand and arm are attached to a person,
  • Wondering if it is a person I am supposed to know,
  • Wondering if the person I am supposed to know is waving at me,
  • Wondering if, if the person is someone I am supposed to know and is waving at me, if the person is the person I am supposed to be looking for (you),
  • Wondering if, if this is the person I am supposed to be looking for (you), what I am supposed to do about it.

These are cumulative, by the way, not concurrent.  I don’t stop trying to block out the voices or the carpet or the smells when I see someone waving at me.  I don’t “switch tracks” and stop looking in order to start hearing, which is why even if you’re yelling my name, I probably don’t even hear your voice, let alone comprehend it.  As I get closer to identifying you in a crowd and remembering that I am supposed to walk over to you, each step in that process gets harder, not easier.

I get why this frustrates my (NT) mother.  Normal people aren’t “supposed” to be unable to identify their own mothers or the sound of their own names in a crowd – or, if they do, they’re not supposed to be unable to do anything about it.  But this is one of the many, many things that being autistic means.  I just wish I knew how to explain it to her.


*also Richard Kluger’s The Sheriff of Nottingham, which is superb if you like your historical fiction to contain actual history

7 thoughts on “Paying Attention While Autistic

  1. THANK YOU for this!!!

    My son is 7, and he always seems like he’s going to crash or get crashed into when we go to places with lots of people. To me (NT mom), it seems like he’s not watching where he’s going, and sometimes it really looks like he’s not – like he’s just doing what he’s doing and not thinking about what could happen. Like he wants to go to “x”, and heads that way, not really getting that others are in his path. What’s hard is his autism is usually at a level of “passing” as NT, so I can’t always tell if it’s just him being a kid, or if it’s a processing thing that we need to work out. I’d love your input, and I’m going to check out the book you referred to.


  2. 1. Olga Olga Olga all day long. Olgaaaaa. Olga. That’s all I have to say on that matter.
    2. See, now this is interesting, because we’re actually people with close to the opposite problem, even though we seem to experience a lot of the world in very similar ways. I also have filtering issues, and even also have the “central coherence” problems with perception that most other autistic people have…but I actually also have such severe ADHD on top of being autistic that I have the attention span of a gnat. For everything. Forever. So like, you describe struggling with the fact that even if you are “paying attention” so to speak, there are so many sequential aspects of the task that aren’t automatic or simple for you that it looks like you aren’t paying attention. I actually fuck that stuff up because I’m not paying attention.
    3. Weird theorizing: The mono-focus that you’re referencing is a trait that I think is applicable to a lot of autistic people (it’s really cool too) but not all–I feel like a lot of autistic people don’t have very good cognitive flexibility, whereas some of us have excessive cognitive flexibility. People who have an unusually difficult time with flexibility will like think of everything as discrete thingies that don’t connect naturally or that don’t make a big whole thing. But people like me who have too much cognitive flexibility, it’s like everything is one big thing that’s always changing and that you can’t keep looking/hearing/feeling one spot for more than a second. C


  3. Reblogged this on Walkin' on the edge and commented:
    REALLY interesting, and an important issue – definitely helps a parent manage their frustration to know this – and it helps us be better parents to know this too!


  4. Yes, that is what it is like, except that I am also in a large power chair and trying to navigate my way through this chaos of mind, sensation and people – while trying not to have a rage attack.


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