NOTE: A short edit has been added to this blog post – one paragraph at the end of the main text.
Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. As always, it’s good to have you here. Well, I’ve had a mixed week. Last week, you might remember, I was on something of a high, as I’d had an offer on a house accepted. I’m desperate to get back into a home I own, rather than being in a rented flat, and I was so optimistic about this house… but market forces and greed got in the way. My offer had been accepted by the vendor after a “best and final offer” process. I got in touch with my mortgage advisor, and started thinking about which solicitor to use. And then on Monday, I got a message asking me to call the estate agent. When I called, I was given bad news. Someone was gazumping me. A person who had previously made an offer had come back with a figure “significantly higher” than the accepted offer I had made, and the agent said they were duty-bound to let the vendor know. I explained I would not be prepared to go any higher; I had made the offer in good faith, and expected the vendor to stick to the arrangement. Tuesday afternoon, I got the message that the vendor had decided to go with the higher offer. I’m annoyed, as you might expect, but not disheartened. I’ll just keep looking and trying. I don’t like the fact that the vendor reneged on our deal, but money talks. There’s nothing to gain by being emotionally upset by this. Logically, it’s the vendor’s house, and he can behave how he wants when trying to get the most cash for himself. It would be pointless for me to be emotionally upset because someone else was too greedy to keep their word. That’s why I’m able to pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again. I haven’t always been able to react this way to setbacks, but it’s a skill I’ve learned, and recognising this gave me a lot to think about in terms of how, as an autistic person, I think and feel. And that gave me the subject for this week’s blog.
I am sometimes baffled by neurotypical interactions when I’m involved in them in person. It’s hard for me to get to grips with the shifting loyalties, emotional reasoning, casual lies, and vagueness of neurotypical behaviour when I’m facing it in real time. But I am something of a people-watcher, and given time and space I can usually see right through neurotypical motivations. I think this is one reason that readers of my fiction often comment how realistic my characters seem. One big difference I notice between autistic and neurotypical behaviour is the incidence of critical thinking and emotional reasoning. However, the differences are not as clear cut as some would imagine. Allow me to explain…
When you encounter any issue in life, whether it be a problem, a challenge, or even something pleasant, there are different ways you can approach it mentally. Pleasant things are by definition easy to deal with, so I’m going to focus here on how people mentally approach problems or unpleasant situations. When some difficulty arises in life, there are a variety of mental positions one can take in relation to it. It’s possible to see a problem as a potential learning experience, and to approach it with appropriate inquisitiveness. Slightly differently, you can see a problem as a challenge to be overcome, and approach it with determination. You can see a problem as a threat, and be appropriately frightened by, or aggressive toward, it. And on and on, through myriad human responses to situations. If I take my experience with being gazumped as an example, I could have mentally approached this setback as an injustice, one of a series of injustices I have experienced through my life. If I had taken this approach, I would almost certainly have had a negative emotional reaction to it. But I didn’t do that. Now, if you think I’m going to trot out some platitudes about positive thinking, you would be wrong. I’m far too pragmatic for all that. The mental approach I took was that this situation was – in part – beyond my control. I could have entered into a bidding war for the property, sure, but my finances don’t stretch to that, and I think it would have been financially imprudent to attempt it. The experience has served as a reminder of how overstimulated the property market in the UK is right now, and of how verbal contracts are not worth the paper they are written on. It reminds me that most people will like to think they have principles, but those principles are easily diluted when money is added to the mix, sometimes to homeopathic (im)potency. The situation has also served as a prompt for me to mentally position my search for a new home as a marathon rather than a sprint. All this just means I have chosen to see the experience in a pragmatic way. This mental positioning has allowed me to pick an appropriate emotional response; being justifiably annoyed, but happy to carry on. Not everyone is able to deal with a troubling situation by thinking it through first, and then choosing an appropriate emotional response, though. As a self-confessed people-watcher and scholar of human behaviour, I see many people react to all kinds of situations in a direct reverse of what I have described. They seem to be at the whim of their emotions, as they simply don’t take time to think things through first…
A couple of weeks ago, I was an innocent bystander at a situation in which someone, let’s call her Sandy, reacted emotionally – with absolute fury, including doors being slammed and profanities yelled – because someone else, we’ll call him Danny, had a conflicting agenda. I would class the behaviour I saw as a neurotypical tantrum. It was completely unnecessary, as the conflicting agenda was beyond anyone’s control. I understand why this conflict left Sandra in a difficult position, but she achieved nothing with this response except making herself feel worse. In fact, the outburst pretty much ensured Danny would not be open to finding ways around the conflict, as he counter-reacted emotionally by choosing to be deeply offended. This event really happened, but in some ways it’s a silly and rather too obvious example of reacting emotionally. People react emotionally all the time; for example, impulse buying and accumulating debt. What happens when people react emotionally to a situation before thinking it through, is that they then go on to choose a mental approach to the situation which is based on their emotions, rather than on any critical thinking. As a result of the confrontation I described above, I’m pretty sure that Danny will now see Sandy as someone who is volatile and unapproachable, whereas Sandy will find a way of blaming Danny for the agenda conflict, and will thus consider him as not being a team player in future. As a result, their relationship will probably never be the same again. So, what has this all got to do with autism?
It would be very easy for me to say there is a neurotype divide between critical thinking and emotional reasoning. Autistic people are often stereotyped as coldly logical and unfeeling, whereas non-autistic people might be seen as more passionate. But that picture is not accurate, and indeed conflicts with other unhelpful stereotypes of autistic people, for instance that we are prone to tantrums (with the word tantrum being deployed by people who do not understand what an autistic meltdown is). The thing is, many non-autistic people are excellent critical thinkers who exhibit great emotional restraint, sometimes in the face of awful provocation. Critical thinkers, especially those who speak truth to power or establishment or convention are often subjected to emotional provocation by reactionary, emotional thinkers.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason why an autistic person cannot be an emotional thinker. While autistic people do have, I believe, a tendency toward thinking styles based on logic, fairness, honesty, and reasoning, this is not automatically a given. This is because people of all neurotypes are creatures of both nature and nurture. My natural tendency has always been towards thinking logically and calmly, applying reason wherever possible. However, my ability to reason during my youth and early adulthood was impaired by my circumstances; a difficult upbringing, gaps in my education, and being unable to properly process my emotional responses to sensation, due to not knowing I was autistic. This meant I could often veer wildly between approaching situations critically and logically, and approaching them in a somewhat chaotic, emotional way. This only changed when I pursued completing my education, and developed the tools to put my natural critical thinking tendencies into play consistently. Before this late development, I was the kind of person who could be an incredibly logical planner and thinker in the workplace, but still be a wildly emotional thinker in my personal life, indulging in all kinds of risky behaviour as a result.
The older I got, and the more life experience I gained, the more I became a critical thinker. It might be assumed that this is simply what happens when one matures, but experience of people-watching tells me this is not necessarily the case. I’ve watched from the sidelines as seemingly stable mature adults have ruined their own lives through emotional reasoning. It seems that, much like the way I used to be able to think critically in the workplace but only emotionally in my personal life, many people have the ability to make reasoned decisions in their lives, but their deployment of reason is often haphazard and ad hoc. I’m going to stick my neck out and say this: The vast majority of people tend to mainly use emotional reasoning in their lives, and do so to the detriment of themselves and others. Do I have any evidence to back this up?
Unfortunately, the evidence I have is, by its nature, anecdotal. Like I said, I’m a people-watcher, and a scholar of human behaviour. But I would say the simple fact that racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia exist in the world is evidence that far too many people use emotional reasoning, as there is no logical or moral justification for such behaviours. It’s interesting that people in the autistic community, generally speaking, are much less likely to behave in such abhorrent ways. There is a strong tendency toward fairness and logical thinking in autistic people, but it is only a tendency, and like anyone else, we autistic people are subject to indoctrination from our environments, particularly during childhood;. Like I said, we are all creatures of both nature and nurture.
I see other examples of emotional reasoning in many people, particularly around finances. The number of people who will borrow hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy their houses, and will steadfastly refuse to learn about how a mortgage works is quite staggering. I worked in mortgages for a couple of years, so I’m speaking from a position of experience, here. For many people, the workings of a mortgage seem daunting and complex, but they just plough on regardless, without understanding the implications of their mortgage deals. This quickly becomes apparent when interest rates change, or when a fixed-rate term ends. Logically, a problem does not cease to exist simply because you refuse to think about it, and yet this is exactly the approach many people take to their finances, and how they get burned when they over-extend on mortgages. You will remember, I hope, that I refused to get drawn into a bidding war on the house I wanted, because I understood my finances and refused to over-extend myself. But sometimes, you hear people say things like, I have my heart set on that house. Sadly, no amount of desire will alter the reality of your financial situation, but that doesn’t stop many, many people from making bad financial decisions every single day. The option here for a bit of stereotyping is to say, Well, Darren it’s okay for you autistic people; you’re all brilliant at maths. Well, actually, no. As someone who is autistic but also shit at maths, and has mild dyscalculia, I can tell you that thinking critically about your financial decision-making merely takes a little effort, a calculator, and a willingness to both think hard and learn. But far too many people don’t want to think hard; they just want to do what they feel emotionally, and then build up mental arguments to bolster their emotional position, regardless of how nonsensical or risky that position is.
Is there a neurotype divide or not, though, when it comes to critical reasoning? My experience, and what I see from observing other people, leads me to conclude that most autistic people have a greater tendency toward logic and critical thinking, and most non-autistic people have a greater tendency toward emotional reasoning, but in both cases, we are also directed in our thinking by the influences of our nurture; our social privilege (or lack thereof), our education, our parenting, religious influence, and so on. However, I’ve not exactly presented a knock-down scientific argument, here; just my observations, and so I’m more than happy to be corrected in my thinking by anyone who has done serious research in the subject. See how it works?
Incidentally, if you’re interested in improving your financial decision-making, you might want to have a look at my son’s excellent blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE.
EDIT: Additional thoughts…
I’ve decided to add a paragraph to this blog post after initial publication, as I felt I may have misrepresented things a little, and perhaps appeared somewhat disingenuous. I have two quick clarifications to make. The first is very straightforward, the second perhaps more important. Firstly, then, it’s all very well me talking about choosing a well-reasoned mental approach to problems in life, but it’s worth remembering this: Sometimes, you can think things through very carefully, apply all the logic you can muster,… and still get it wrong. It’s a human trait. Sometimes, there might be a flaw in one’s logic that only a third party can spot. Sometimes, your logic might be good, but you are lacking key facts; garbage in, garbage out. If I was on my high horse about thinking things through, please forgive me. Secondly, it may have come across that I was saying if you stop and think before allowing emotions to run riot, that you will never have an emotional crisis. This is of course, nonsense. Sometimes, our emotional responses are overpowering. Sometimes, circumstances mean we are unable to think things through, for a variety of reasons and pressures. Also, some problems present themselves purely an emotional level. This is certainly true for me when I suffer a sensory overload. The reaction I have to sensory overload is visceral, unthinking, and overpowering. No amount of me mentally talking myself through it changes how I feel. Having said all this, I still believe that, in the most general of generalisations, the tendency to think first or feel first depending on neurotype is probably not as clear a divide as some would have it, but a neurotype tendency does exist, subject to nurture.
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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
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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.