Autistic attention I: Self-distractive behaviour

I’m feeling amused at myself, but hardly surprised. I’ve just spent a whole day writing a slab of something else entirely, intending it to be a brief and succinct introduction to this section.  In doing so, I’ve been enacting exactly what I was intending to write about in this chapter:  autistic attention. (The same autistic attention that now requires this ‘chapter’ to be divided into several seperate posts…)

Hyperfocus, metacognition, systemising, immersive learning, patternmaking, interconnective thinking, are all words that can also describe this state. Having spent several decades observing my own self-distractive behaviours, I’ve thunk a few thinks on the subject.  Here be some.

When I was four years old (legend has it), I began drawing – suddenly, with an obsessive energy that persisted daily, alarming adults with its intensity should they venture into its path.  My concentration was so deep and intense when I drew that if I was disturbed I would often lose my temper (perhaps due to the sudden interruption of dopamine flow in the brain).  I found it difficult to turn off  – meals, school, sleep – anything, really, was an interruption. 

My passionate interest in drawing extended to other areas of intense interest that also featured drawing, especially cartoon drawing:  I was a voracious collector of MAD magazines & R.Crumb comics; my childhood library also harboured a vast array of comics of all styles and from throughout history, art books focusing on draughtsmen such as MC Escher, Mervyn Peake & Albrecht Durer, books on political cartoonists, books on graphic design and illustration – it was all drawing, through many lenses, and I wanted to absorb it all.  I analysed, as if under a microscope, every style of drawing that caught my attention, and mimicked sections of it until I felt I understood the technique enough to expand on it with my own creative ideas.

By the time I reached the age of 14, I had completed a decade of intensive study & self-guided learning (isn’t that what a PhD is?) and had a very sophisticated command of linemaking ‘for my age’, across a diverse range of styles.  Of course I continued to draw, and to learn about my own process of drawing, for many decades after that, but my foundations were in that first decade of constant focused exploration.

Another capacity that developed unconsciously as I built those foundations was metacognitive thinking, especially the ability to analyse and break down the subtle steps of my creative process.  This capacity was fundamental in how I later evolved my work (without an academic qualification) as an educator – the ability to consciously deconstruct creative processes into essential elements, so that another person can access it as a recognisable sequence, aka ‘modelling’. 

This ability of the brain to scan an environment (ie anything that provides information) in order to recognise patterns and sequences, is generally referred to as systemising.  For some brains, the pattern-recognition is so innately sensitive as to seem automatic or unconscious. 

Now that I understand this aspect of my neurology through the lens of Aspergers, I can allow myself to bring this high focus, immersive attention more deliberately to anything that takes my interest, recognising this attention for the creative aptitude it truly is. 

I am much clearer now as to why ‘right environment’ has always been so crucial to whether I access that state effectively; for instance, in some environments the same intense attention easily turns inward, and not always to my benefit.

For myself, the key environmental elements are solitude and a sense of space, eliminating as many external distractions, emotional demands, time restrictions, unnecessary sensory inputs (background noise etc) as possible. 

Of course, I have always instinctively known this of myself as a genuine need, but social feedback (or the dominant ignorance of the time) often judged and reduced this need to mere ‘personal preference’. “Oh you creative types are always so temperamental” etc. Many a disgruntled and inexplicably offended person has informed me my desire for solitude is a selfish luxury, an avoidance of my ‘social responsibility’ to others, an insensitive & deliberate personal rejection of themselves. This always implies an expectation: that I compromise a sense of personal space that feels intrinsic to my being.

Once I find an inspiring theme, I like to explore it deeply, zoom in & zoom out, to experience its larger context as well as the smaller details that inform the ‘it’ of it; but the focus or function of the autistic attention naturally varies according to the individual and the context, for instance:

It may be used to deliberately seek out patterns and systems of data or information, in the active process of learning and acquiring knowledge.  Provided one’s brain is already primed with curiosity (motivation) for particular information, then research generally meets this curiosity with novelty (ie new information), stimulating the brain to form new connections, also made possible by the encouraging effects of the ‘pleasure chemical’ dopamine.  In this chemically-activated state it’s no wonder we don’t like being interrupted, and also easy to see how this state is important to the mental health of many autistic people.

Or it may be a more ‘sensory’ attention, immersed inwardly in the magnified movement of sensations within the body, or outwardly sensory eg an attention to the fluid play of light or shadow on a surface, the blurring of an object when it spins, visual details that create a certain rhythmic or hypnotic effect.  I have found that in making love I become so completely immersed in the sensations of my own body that my sense of my body’s boundary seems to dissolve entirely – I feel myself as consciousness floating in a swirling sea of pleasure sensation, with no definition between my body and my partner’s, a transcendence of form.  I’ve often wondered if autistic sensitivities have played a role in the development of mystic and shamanic traditions – it’s easy to imagine, for instance, that such an experience of sex as an altered state of consciousness, seeming to transcend the physical body, might inspire ancient systems such as Tantra, yoga, sex magick and the like, all of which, interestingly, are also traditions of carefully systemised technique.

In certain other contexts it may be that the autistic attention is important in creating a calming or stabilising feedback loop with the brain, an ordering of chaotic inputs, if the person is in a heightened emotional state (anger, anxiety, distress).  Research on brain activity in Buddhist monks while in deep meditation (another form of immersive attention) has shown an increase of activity in the (ordering) frontal lobe, and simultaneous calming of activity in the (emotional) amygdala.  Similar brain activity can be seen in the practice of playing an instrument and creating music.

Some people access this ‘calming attention’ by organising ‘things’ into a sense of ‘right place’, or patternmaking with a sense of aesthetic value or allignment.  This is not just about lining objects up in order of colour or mentally reciting mathematical formulas.  For some people, reading a book can be a form of mental ordering that has a calming effect – perhaps because it activates complex thinking, analysing symbolic space and interpreting language patterns to generate meaning.  For others the ordering is accomplished in the physical engagement with a system – eg creative cooking or tinkering with a machine, something interactive but still involving systemised thinking.  I have spent my lifetime exploring this ‘calming attention’ through creative process, some of which I describe in more detail in the Music and Illustration sections of this site. 

Which brings me to thoughts of Distraction….