Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all safe and well. In this week’s blog, I want to talk about a subject that often comes up when people talk about what autism is like. It’s something often used as a stick to beat autistic people with, but it’s also something that has been cited as a great strength. Can you guess which side I’ll come down on? Maybe you’ll be wrong! Maybe the whole issue is more complicated than anyone is giving it credit for. What I’m talking about is that well-chewed old chestnut, black and white thinking. But before I get onto that, a couple of personal updates:
I’ve spent a lot of this week wishing my time away, hoping next Tuesday will come quickly, as that is when I see the physiotherapist. I’m on some fairly strong painkillers because of the shoulder problem I’ve mentioned before. It struck me the other day that while the painkillers have taken the edge off, they haven’t taken the pain completely away. Which makes me wonder how bad it would be if I stopped taking the meds. The shoulder has started sending pains all down my arm into my middle finger, which is worrying, and not just because the middle finger is important for gestures of annoyance! I’ve also had a bit of a recurrence of the back pain, with twinges shooting down my leg. I’ve got to get this sorted out.
On a more upbeat front, I was recently contacted by Women Of Autism, a support, advocacy, and mentoring group for autistic and neurodivergent people. They asked me if I’d contribute an interview to their #ActuallyAutistic Culture and Identity Project. I was delighted to be asked, and said yes without reservation. I read the other interviews on their website, and was blown away by the sense of kinship and shared experience I felt with the contributors. It’s all too easy for autistic people to become isolated, and this sense of kinship and belonging is so important. You can read my interview, and follow the links to the other content on the Women Of Autism website by clicking here. So, onto the main theme of this week.
There are certain words, phrases, and terms that can have different meanings in different contexts; they have one meaning in casual conversation, and a different meaning in a technical context. A favourite and oft-cited example of this is the word theory. In casual usage, the word theory is often deployed to mean something like an idea, or a suggestion for how something might work; a usage more closely in line with the word hypothesis. But in science, theory means something else. A scientific theory emerges when a hypothesis is put forward; a suggestion for how something in nature might work, and how the idea could be tested. Following this, in good science, rigorous tests are carried out to try to prove the hypothesis wrong. If it can’t be proved wrong, and it appears to be an accurate model of how the matter in question works, it becomes a theory. Eventually, a theory can become so successful, so completely accurate are all its predictions, that it is considered a law (in the scientific, not legal sense – ooh look, another example). Confusion emerges when someone tries to use one of the meanings of a term in the wrong context. There once was an incident of this type that has become a legendary source of hilarity for my son and me. You had to be there, so I’m not going to try to make you laugh with this, but there was an acquaintance of mine who stormed onto a Facebook post many years ago, because he was angry at some of my rationalist status updates. I’d been quoting Richard Dawkins quite a bit. Anyway, this guy commented saying “it” was all theory and supposition. Oh dear. Considering the “it” in question was the theory of evolution, he was right if, and only if, he was referring to the scientific use of the term theory (we’ll let “supposition” go). Obviously, he wasn’t. He was denigrating the established theory of evolution, which is scientifically proven beyond all reasonable doubt, by employing the term theory in its casual sense. To this day, my son and I use the phrase, theory and supposition, as a substitute for, willful ignorance and stupidity. But what has this got to do with autism, and black and white thinking?
When I decided to start looking into the stereotypical view that autistic people are black and white thinkers, I first had to get past some annoying NT language; Autistic people suffer from black and white thinking, for example. You know the type of thing. But once I mentally forced myself past that issue (I’ve covered the words have power issue before, and will again), I had another problem. Did I actually understand what the term, black and white thinking, actually meant? I mean, I thought I knew. It meant thinking things were either one thing or another, with no vague, disputed or grey areas between, right? It often specifically applies to morality, ethics, and perceptions of right and wrong. And so in the popular stereotype, autistic people, as black and white thinkers, will view a given behaviour or ethical/moral issue as definitely either right or wrong, good or bad, and fail to distinguish subtler issues which can sometimes make such obvious divisions untenable. It’s basically saying autistic people can’t think about this type of stuff clearly. That was my understanding of the black and white thinking issue, but I like to fact check myself, and I knew I had not done much looking into this.
When I’m looking to learn about a new subject, quite often one of my first jumping-in points is Wikipedia. This is something certain people will meet with howls of derision, because Wikipedia isn’t accurate, right? Because anyone can go on there and edit stuff. There’s no control! This attitude annoys the living heck out of me, for many reasons. First of all let me say, you don’t have to believe everything Wikipedia tells you for it to be a good starting point for research. Wikipedia articles have links to verifiable sources. Secondly, if anyone thinks that published books are automatically more trustworthy and factful than a Wikipedia article, that person needs a reality check. (For anyone who clicked on that link… see what I did there?)
Yes, I’ve just had an autistic digression. Back on track, now. I looked up black and white thinking on Wikipedia, and was actually surprised by what I found. Firstly, the article calls black and white thinking, Splitting; which is defined as a “failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole”. This seems like an incredibly specific definition that does not necessarily match up with the stereotypical understanding of not seeing the grey areas. I followed some links, and tried to get my head around this. Maybe any psychology experts out there can help me, because it’s possible I’ve misunderstood the issue here. It seems that splitting is seen as a defence mechanism, although I am unclear what is being defended against. Splitting is related to various personality disorders, and is seen as unhealthy and unhelpful, as it prevents more balanced, nuanced thinking. The behaviour appears to emerge in childhood, and may affect the child’s relationship with parents. Depending on what you read and which specialist you subscribe to, this could mean, for example, seeing mommy as good and daddy as bad, or seeing an individual parent almost as two separate people; the good mommy, and the bad mommy. I’m barely tickling the surface here, as it is obviously a huge subject in psychology – a proper description is going to be book-length, and can’t be done here. It does seem, however, that this splitting is not a conscious choice. Depending on your interpretation, splitting is either a disorder itself, or the product of a personality disorder. Autistic people are used to being told they have a disorder, however inaccurate that may be. And there is certainly a financial incentive for the autism industry to keep autism classified as a disorder. But in any case, is this strict definition of splitting what is meant in all usage? It’s not uncommon to hear people use the term black and white thinking in general life; it’s not confined to realms of psychology and mental health professionals. I used to hear it regularly in the workplace when I was in management, along with its synonyms; rigid thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, and so on. There appears to be the more technical definition of splitting, or black and white thinking, used by mental health professionals (a defence mechanism that emerges in personality disorders; a failure in mental functioning) and a less technical use which refers to decision making; the mental choices one makes when categorising a person, behaviour, or ethical issue.
Let’s hit the subtotal button here: The term black and white thinking is open to misuse.
So, here is the question: Is there a possibility that crossing over the two usages of the term from one context to another could be causing a problem for autistic people?
To start to answer the question, I have some very unscientific, anecdotal evidence. I’ve been in touch with other autistic people asking their thoughts and feelings about the black and white thinking stereotype. One of these people insisted their thinking was indeed extremely black and white; that everything they experienced in life fell into categories of either good or bad, right or wrong, etc. This person also said they have been diagnosed with certain personality disorders that are not reflective of all autistic people. However, most of the autistic people discussing the issue had a very different outlook. Four main points regularly emerge from autistic people reacting to the black and white thinkers label:
- It is the more casual deployment of the black and white thinking label that we autistic people have to face in daily life.
- We are more than capable of seeing the grey areas.
- But we are not reluctant to draw a line and say something is definitely in the black or white area to the sides of the grey areas, when that is clearly the case.
- Neurotypical people tend to use the grey areas defence to avoid thinking clearly and decisively about an issue, possibly to avoid offending people who might disagree with them, or just through intellectual laziness.
What this seems to mean is that, in general terms, autistic people are able to identify something as right or wrong even in the presence of grey areas, when appropriate. It’s not necessarily that we don’t appreciate the existence of nuance and grey areas; it’s just that we can spot when something in a situation that neurotypicals may find complex clearly falls to one side of the grey areas.
Subtotal: The black and white thinking used by autistic people is often a considered decision, not an error.
Let’s have some visuals to help explain.
Above, is a monochrome spectrum; black at one end, white at the other, and gradated greys between. This is the type of thing many people, neurotypical and autistic, visualise when we started talking about the grey areas. It implies there is one interpretation; good or right, at one end, and another; bad or wrong, at the other, but it’s complex because the two ends blur into each other in the gradual greys, so where can you draw a line? When neurotypicals accuse autistics of black and white thinking, they think we cannot see the greys. But also, the neurotypicals seem to use this as an excuse to not admit the existence of the black and white areas at the ends. So, while neurotypicals might claim ownership of nuance in principle, through an autistic lens, what they actually appear to own is this:
Yep, just shifting sands of grey. A refusal to see the blacks and whites. In this mindset, the only absolute is relativism*. Autistic people will recognise this mindset in neurotypicals, but with some pretty colossal caveats. You see, it’s not even that simple. This apparent refusal to see the blacks and whites; this resort to the grey areas defence that neurotypicals so often rely on when they point the black and white thinking finger at autistic people, is a mirage. All too often, the grey areas defence only emerges as a reaction to someone drawing an ethical line, and calling something definitely right or wrong, and when they don’t agree with the opinion. On other occasions, it is not at all unusual to find neurotypicals sticking to an opinion, an ethical stance, a moral position, and refusing to acknowledge all arguments to the contrary without consideration. For example, how many non-autistic people claim that being gay is wrong, or a sin, and will not brook arguments to the contrary? Not all of them, of course not, but there is a hell of a lot of homophobia out there. Conversely, the vast majority of autistic people tend to be very accepting and non-judgmental of others’ sexual preferences. So let’s just go with this example of think that being gay is morally wrong. Many people hold this belief on religious grounds. It is common among Christians with very fundamental – some would say extremist – views, based on things like the Old Testament description of homosexuality as an “abomination”. Religious belief, by definition, is based on faith, which in turn, by definition, eschews all logic. People who hold this view are effectively thinking like this:
Full-on, rigid, black and white thinking, with no grey areas in-between. Yes, you could argue some autistic people will hold this view, but statistically, that would be a tiny minority. The stats show that a larger percentage of autistic people identify as LGBTQ than the rest of the population. I happen to be straight, but I’m 100% supportive of the LGBTQ community. I don’t accept black and white views of sexual morality (queer = bad, straight = good) in this context; there are huge grey areas here, with liberty, personal expression and personal fulfilment being the drivers, not some bronze age, superstitious woo. Now, what generally happens when you cite an example that people don’t agree with is that those people will jump on the example and argue it to death, using all kinds of flawed logic and emotional reasoning, and the “right to an opinion”, completely missing the overarching point: This is not about sexuality. The same arguments can be applied to issues of capitalism, healthcare, criminal prosecution, free speech, assisted suicide, abortion rights, and so on. Many, many issues actually do have difficult grey areas to navigate. However, the point is that to function in life, you often have to make a decision either to admit something is right or wrong, in spite of mitigating grey areas, or, a little more complex, to treat something as if it is right or wrong, in order to be able to move on. This is the foundation of much of the system of justice in the western world. Courts have decided people are guilty of crimes in the face of conflicting evidence, sometimes tragically. My life experience, and the experience of many autistic people I’m sure (comment to disagree) shows me that usually, the very people who accuse autistics of black and white thinking are the same people who will argue flawed opinions to the death in the face of all logic against it, and often those opinions are, “gay is bad,” or “killers should get the death penalty”, or “autistic kids need therapy like ABA,” and so on. In other words, they go full-on hard black and white when it suits them, but accuse autistics of black and white thinking when they don’t like a logical decision to come down on one side or the other of a grey area.
Subtotal: Neurotypical people often use the black and white thinking label against autistics to deflect from their own hypocrisy.
To summarise the point:
When an ethical point comes up, and there are complexities involved, an autistic person will choose their opinion from one of three options:
If the autistic person comes down with the opinion that they cannot determine whether there is a right or wrong in the issue due to the complexities (grey areas), and a neurotypical person does not agree with this position, it’s likely the autistic person will be characterised as being unable to make moral or ethical judgements because of being autistic.
If, on the other hand, the autistic person is able to work out a definite right or wrong in the issue, but a neurotypical person does not want to pin their opinion down, it is likely the autistic person will be characterised as suffering from black and white thinking, because of autism.
Bizarrely, if an autistic person puts forward a definite right or wrong opinion on the issue, but the neurotypical person believes the opposite, then the autistic person is still likely to be characterised as having black and white thinking! Often, the neurotypical person cannot see the possibility they might be thinking in black and white, or just be plain wrong, if the debate is with an autistic person; it must be the autistic person at fault. Being able to level the black and white thinking label at an autistic person means the neurotypical person does not have to rely on logic to justify their argument.
Obviously, this does not happen all the time. Many, many neurotypical people are very capable of critical thinking, and reasoned debate. But the sad truth is that in day-to-day life, doing the ordinary things, at work, at school, in social situations and online, autistic people have to put up with the black and white thinking accusation, and the neurotypical grey areas defence, pretty much every time we have an opinion on something. Problems regularly come up in social or semi-social settings, in which autistic people might be very willing to stand up and say, “Whoa, that is out of order,” about something that neurotypicals kind of ignore, or consign to the grey areas, because they don’t want to upset anyone. Their emotional reasoning and justifications override their sense of justice, leaving the non-conformist autistic person looking rude. I’m gonna stick my neck out and say if you’re an autistic adult reading this, you have almost certainly experienced that scenario.
Subtotal: The black and white thinking label is used by neurotypicals to exclude and other autistic people.
Due to the fact that the term black and white thinking has its roots in psychology and psychoanalysis in reference to personality disorders, and can seem to carry academic weight. But in most daily situations in which the term is levelled at autistic people, it is used in the colloquial sense; insinuating that autistic people do not have the intellectual capacity to recognise grey areas. Not only is this untrue, but it is often an unfair reaction based on the neurotypical tendency toward emotional reasoning, intellectual laziness, and conformist behaviour. On the other hand, when autistic people do point out that something is not in a grey area, that it falls somewhere in one of the black or white areas beyond the greys, it is often as a result of a strongly ingrained sense of justice, a sense of the individual right to think freely, and the refusal to conform in the face of ignorance or herd behaviour. The non-conformist position is hugely important here for autistics. Autistic people are the type of people that would have called the cops for Kitty Genovese. Autistic people are the kind of people who would have told Stanley Milgram to shove his electrodes where they’ll sting. And I’m cool with that.
Subtotal: The black and white thinking deployed by autistic people is a great strength.
Conclusion: So, we’ve established that the term black and white thinking is open to misuse, and despite having an authoritative, academic sound to it, it’s actually aimed at autistic people in a very colloquial way. The fact is that the black and white thinking used by autistic people is often a considered decision, not an error. Conversely, neurotypical people often use the black and white thinking label against autistics to deflect from their own hypocrisy. Furthermore, the black and white thinking label is used by neurotypicals to exclude and other autistic people; it is part of a social trend to see autistic people as lesser, disordered, which helps keep the money rolling through the autism industry. In truth, what we find is that the black and white thinking deployed by autistic people is a great strength.
*The fact that an autistic person can make such a statement must really throw the cat amongst the pigeons of neurotypicals who think autistic people cannot think relativistically. And the fact I’ve slipped a metaphor into this comment must really burn.
Well, that’s all for this week. Thank you for stopping by. Until next time, take care of yourselves, stay strong, and be yourself.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.