Autistic attention II: Positive distraction vs denial

A feature of Aspergers I know I share in common with many other autistic people, is a pronounced sense of ‘authenticity’.  Put another way, I have a kinaesthetic response of ‘wrongness’ if something seems inauthentic, fraudulent, pretentious, insincere, unjust, unethical or patently untrue.  This trait is well-documented in research into Aspergers behaviours, and voiced in numerous personal accounts by people with an Aspergers profile.  Little wonder so many autistics report not fitting into a society that so blatantly celebrates artifice & inauthenticity, and so often ignores corruption and injustice. I suspect autism has played a significant historical role not only in the arts & sciences, but in the evolution of human rights, social activism, progressive politics and the like.  In a different way, this pronounced sense of ‘rightness’ also comes to the fore in any work requiring physical precision, deep analysis & assessment, or deliberately looking for mistakes or anomalies that need correction.

This sharp sense of what feels ‘true’ is often misunderstood (or conveniently deflected) as an insistence on being ‘right’.  People in general often make a lot of noise about ‘naming things up’, ‘telling it how it is’ and so on, but by and large ‘people in general’ don’t at all like to be shown their own hypocrisies or inconsistencies, and even become aggressively defensive at such a suggestion.  Often autistic sensitivity (ie sensitivity to signals in the environment) can behave like a radar to these incongruities, and the compulsion to correct an anomaly when there is ‘wrongness’ is strong.  And like it or not, an autistic person may genuinely feel they are ‘right’ because often, in logical terms, their observations are correct.

But in this trait, I experience a different kind of dilemma, directed inwardly, that impacts my own internal dialogues about existence, perception of reality, and mental health. It has to do with the ‘lies’ I tell myself daily, and reinforce over a lifetime, in order to maintain a coherent hologram, or notion of reality, even while seeing it as a veil to the Void. My autistic attention, at least since adolescence, has constantly returned to the interrogation of existence, and of perceptual experience – what does it ‘mean’ to be a conscious event in space and time? If ultimately there is nothing behind the veneer of material ‘reality’, in some sense everything and anything we tell ourselves will be a fabrication. This line of thinking gets tricky when I apply it to my emotional experience: it can be argued then that what I call ‘depression’ or ‘grief’ only exist because I allow them in thought; and yet ‘happiness’ and ‘love’ are equally of the same construction. Do I really agree with that? If I disagree, am I then just ‘holding onto’ depression, keeping it in mind as ‘real’ because it serves some purpose? Why should one emotional state matter more than, or differently to, another?

Unrelenting happiness

Way back in the ‘New Age 90s’, I observed (and explored) the ‘positive thinking’ zeitgeist of the time, including the ‘human potential movement’. I saw it quickly become a cultish Industry, within which many people displayed the predictable fervour of the ‘converted’. Even within a ‘movement’ that apparently promoted personal freedom and ‘being yourself’, there were still expectations that one conform to an agreed code of behaviours, there were still judgmental and elitist attitudes, and plenty of ‘spiritual one-up-manship’.  In this cultish ‘unrelenting happiness’, there was little tolerance for depression or any other measure of perceived ‘failure’; nor was there much intelligent consideration of the unique perceptual insights depression can offer, in case it compromised the (over-simplistic) Agenda: ‘you create your own reality, you choose everything in your life, and if you’re depressed you’re just choosing to be negative‘.  It seems to me there are some patterns in oneself, across one’s lifespan, that may never be changed; no matter what you throw at it, the pattern will not go away or ‘get better’, and the only response left must be of deep, active acceptance.  Far from a passive resignation, this practice of deep acceptance can have its own enduring impact over time, enabling a more expansive mental framework.

Some things work some of the time, some things only ever work once, some things work in unanticipated ways or at unexpected times. There is no One Size Fits All for any conversation with ‘reality’.

Since childhood, I have often had people telling me I was ‘just being negative’ if I voiced a contradictory viewpoint, or questioned the deeper integrity of this or that notion (I now discover that I was just being my ‘true autistic self’). Perhaps my instincts are more aligned with the sceptic reserve & stoic realism of old – that is, to gather more data, understand the thing from many angles, yet respond to ‘the thing’ as it exists for me in the present, through utilising my ultimate resource, my own consciousness.

One of my dilemmas was, and is still, around the notion of pretending a positive attitude.  During the 90s I made many sincere efforts to reshape my thinking: one method involved writing and internalising daily affirmations, positive messages to the subconscious. I met a lot of people who swore by this approach, and for myself I noticed certain results sometimes, but they were too inconsistent or downright dissonant to feel it was a reliable system.  Overall I may have developed more resilience in my thinking, but at the back of my mind was always the sense that fundamentally I was lying to myself; it created too much dissonance between my apparent experience of reality (eg depression, anxiety, poverty, failure etc) and the ‘positive’ reality I was attempting to convince myself of. My post-idealist elderself tends to think that tenacity & persistence (not to be confused with ‘optimism’) are what have ultimately kept me existing – qualities also often reported as common Asperger traits*. 

While I have had many transformational experiences during states of deep trance, formal hypnotherapy never worked on me because I was ‘too conscious’ of every subtle nuance of suggestion, every quirk of the hypnotist’s language and tone, and my conscious mind remained alert to the ‘lie’ of it.  And yet, I can also see how we all ‘hypnotise’ ourselves on a daily basis, with the habituated self-talk we use to shape our reality in any given moment.

Another example of this dissonance for me is the notion of ‘forgiveness’: like an apology, I feel forgiveness can only be meaningful if genuinely felt.  My natural tendency is to consider a person or situation from as many angles as I can, but there are still some people whose behaviour will simply never warrant a genuine feeling of forgiveness from me.  If we’re honest with ourselves, to practice total acceptance of every person one encounters in life, to truly walk the talk, demands an unfaltering commitment and no compromise, no exception.  How many of us are truly prepared to confront themselves at such a level? Most of us have limits, however virtuous we may think ourselves.

Emotion-neutral reframing

So constructing an artificially-induced ‘positive attitude’ has a very kinesthetic ‘wrongness’ to me, even when intellectually I can see the sense in it.  Of course, ‘in every moment I have the capacity to choose’.  Of course, ‘a good feeling feels better than a bad feeling’.  Of course, ‘choose to feel good’. But somehow it seems to me that nothing exists without everything it’s not, and choosing only what feels good will inevitably bring its various ‘others’ into sharper focus.

Another approach I explored in the 90s was NeuroLinguistic Programming, an interesting system of brain change developed by Richard Bandler & John Grinder in the latter 1970s, extending on the work of hypnotherapist Milton Erikson and family therapist Virginia Satir. The central ideas of ‘modelling’ & ‘reframing’, the logical systemisation of how to effectively Change One’s Own Mind, were ideas I found immediately intelligent and inspiring.  It didn’t require emotional content, catharsis or spiritual allignment, it didn’t rely on a story or an analysis – early NLP work took the attitude that whatever the brain was doing (helpful or unhelpful), it was doing it exceptionally well, and exactly as a functioning brain ought to, according to whatever it had learned – the neural programming. The work of NLP then was focused on adding extra, more useful options to a system (the brain) that was not broken, but naturally primed to continue doing a great job with whatever input it’s given.  I liked that this approach to thinking sidestepped binary judgments of positive / negative.

But I get a bit tangled when these approaches seem to advocate merely ‘simple’ distraction of the mind, that is, ‘positivity no matter what’.  Obviously some people use this ‘positive distraction’ to avoid and deny uncomfortable experiences, or to avoid taking responsibility for something in their own behaviour. But I know for myself, being so alert to my own thought processes (remember that ‘autistic attention’?), this particular brand of ‘positive distraction’ carries its own built-in dissonance; being conscious of one’s own avoidance, and of something that will not resolve by avoidance, implies conscience, and the questions of Conscience are many – hence the dissonance.

Somehow, I seem to engage better with systems and techniques that emphasise detachment from any judgment or measure of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.  By detachment I don’t mean an absence of feeling, quite the opposite.  I mean a certain perspective of the mind – the Witness – that acknowledges each moment as process-in-motion, as transient and mutable, without quantifiers to judge it as a ‘this’ or ‘that’.  This state of mind requires active application of focused attention – mindfulness, or an attitude of observing – and does not intend anything, no outcome, no attainment or solution; but a natural outflow of this state seems to be a deeply active acceptance of whatever is being experienced, as it is being experienced, and until such time as another experiencing occurs.  This can be a challenging state of mind to maintain on a daily basis, especially if the many variables in a day are magnified via autistic sensitivities, and even moreso in moments of crisis. At times the analogy of a rollercoaster is particularly apt – you know you can’t stop the motion, you can’t get off, closing your eyes won’t stop the fact that you are vibrating forward at an intense rate, so you might as well keep your eyes open and be IN it.

This mental discipline is not the same as ‘being positive’ or ‘being happy’.  In my experience, applying one’s mind in this way often includes feeling extremely uncomfortable, in that any state of discomfort is fully felt.  To persist, with an attitude of acceptance, even when one is suicidal, or destitute, or feeling utterly powerless to change a situation…..this requires deep internal resources and a command of one’s intelligence beyond simplistic either/or (positive/negative) thinking.

For instance, if my partner & I are in an angry conflict, I may still feel & express my anger in context, while maintaining awareness (the witness) that really we are engaged in a process of communication, and that our conflict will pass at some point just like any other experience. In the midst of the conflict, I most likely will still feel intense hurt, defensiveness, outrage, confusion, vulnerability, panic, resentment, despair etc, but if I can manage to maintain presence of mind, I can help guide the conflict toward a place of better understanding or at least a sense of relative harmony.

Of course, this takes energy, and there are times when I know I’m too overloaded to access that capacity; then I have to remove myself from the situation, to isolate myself and process alone. Though it may seem to others that I’m scuttling away to ‘hide’ in my ‘special interest’, I’m actually choosing to utilise my ‘self-distractive behaviour’ (ie autistic attention) to help my brain reorder itself when it’s in an overly-heightened emotional state. This is not to deny what I’m feeling, or pretend the difficult situation doesn’t exist, but to recalibrate the emotional noise in my nervous system.  The ‘special interest’ becomes a form of active meditation (immersive focus, exercising the brain’s frontal lobe) that sets up better conditions for neural balance and intelligent detachment.

For myself, by far the most effective way I reorder my brain is through creative activity. Throughout my childhood, drawing had a calming effect. Later, through drawing, painting, and sculpting, I developed a more consciously meditative approach, using creative process as a deliberate tool for setting up a dialogue with Self and transmuting emotional distress into balance. These days, I find creating, recording & editing music the most effective creative focus for my mental equilibrium.

* For many autistic adults, sheer innate tenacity and persistence may be the only reason they have survived against severe odds.  Personally, and in the context of chronic depression, I see persistence, ie the will to continue (not optimism), as a proactive and creative choice, though not necessarily recognised as ‘happiness’, ‘positivity’, ‘confidence’ etc.  I’ll interrogate this idea in further writings.