Autistic brains take in information differently to the majority for four reasons.
- The majority brain takes in about seven pieces of information at a time – autistic brains don’t have that filter and can easily be processing a lot more!
- Our ‘holding’ memory gets full quickly because of this. This means we can forget things as soon as they are said because the memory is too full. It also means that some bits of information get written over. This means it can take a few seconds longer for information to get through to our brain – a bit like a traffic jam slows cars down.
- Between all the information coming in and our differences in executive function which makes identifying what is important difficult at times, we can end up with our brain not focusing on what we would like to. So instead of listening to the person talking to us, we’re focusing on the sound of a bird outside or the itch of a label on our neck.
- The neurotypical brain tends to shortcut decisions so they can easily decide whether information is important or not important on the seven bits of information coming in. Autistic brains tend to evaluate decisions looking at all past history and future outcomes, so when things are more unfamiliar or with less predictable outcomes, our brain is working really hard evaluating the 70 or so bits of information coming in.
This also affects what our brains choose to process.
If information is interesting to us, or links to our interests, our brain automatically ranks these as important and will work on that first. That’s the information that’s likely to stay in our long term memory. We’re much more likely to remember things linked to our interests because that is where our brains make the strongest connections. So we have a superhighway to it, instead of an overgrown dirt path. This is known as monotropism.
The only thing that our brains put higher than our interests is information relating to our survival. So if something hurt us once, we may not be able to let it go and we’ll keep looping on it over and over, trying to find a way to avoid that hurt the next time (this is called perseveration).
It also means that if there are unfamiliar things around us, our brain tends to focus on those things because they are a potential threat. And if there are things that are really familiar to us, and so safe, our brain doesn’t think they are important and so ignores it – like the clean clothes waiting at the bottom of the stairs waiting to go to your room.
Having too much information to process at once, or process too fast, can cause our brain to overload and then we struggle to think properly. If we keep on overloading our brain, then it gets overwhelmed – we get very anxious or angry, and it becomes really hard to think. Finally, if the brain can’t cope any more it can trigger a meltdown. Dino brain takes charge to protect us from the information overload.