This study made me think about the last time I tried eating out during the pandemic, just after my county had risen a level and allowed limited indoor dining. It was very uncomfortable, and I couldn’t settle in. Only later did I realize that, counter-intuitively, a mostly empty, somewhat cavernous restaurant with music playing and only three other tables somehow was more of a sensory distraction than that same restaurant when packed with customers. It’s as if a full house becomes something of a single background din, but a mostly empty house becomes all loud and distracting echoes.

Thinking about this study also made me think about autism’s rigid thoughts and behaviors, and its restricted interests, in that I realized that, over time, having a few routine places to go for coffee or a meal trains the staff to know your habits—what you ear, where you prefer to sit, whether or not you’re open to small-talk—which reduces the cognitive stress and strain of being out in public in that particular place.

Which then made me think more about those rigid and restricted aspects of being autistic and I found a new way to think about things. It might not match the actual neuroscience (or maybe it does; I’ve no idea), but this really puts things into a helpful context for me.

I’m not one of those autistic people who argues against pathologizing autism. I think parts of being autistic are pathologies, but I think we get wrong what are those pathologies.

Restricted interests and rigid thoughts and behavior aren’t the pathology. Instead, inhibited filters against stimulus and limited attentional resources are the pathology; the restrictedness and rigidity are the adaptations to manage that pathology.

There’s a little bit of monotropism here, in that monotropism is about attentional resources and its theorists suggest that “the restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior and activities and the restricted interests … follow from the monotropic tendency”.

I suppose I’m simply suggesting that the monotropic tendency itself is the result of, or perhaps is defined by, having in the first instance inhibited filters against stimulus and limited attentional resources.

This would help explain why popular “treatments” such as Applied Behavior Analysis are so resoundingly rebuked by so many autistic people: when we move to (literally of figuratively) beat out of an autistic child their restrictedness and rigidness, we are waging a war against the adaptations with which the autistic brain manages autism’s true pathologies.


  1. The other thing I thought about is how often aloneness in autism is equated with loneliness, when they are rather dramatically two different things.