The Neuroergonomics Of Being Autistic

Emily Willingham writing for Aeon on so-called “neuroergonomics” ends up with one of those pieces that should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t really understand what the big deal is with being autistic, even though she’s not overtly writing about autism here.

Just about every parent will have a personal version of this scenario, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic: it is evening after a long workday. You are getting dinner started, but it’s like trying to cook in a blizzard. The children are crying, the spaghetti’s boiling over on the stove, your phone starts buzzing with a long-awaited call after a job interview, the doorbell just rang, and you’re the only adult in the house.

Now imagine someone came up to you in the middle of all of this and said: ‘Hey, I have some chocolate here. I can give you this chocolate right now with five bucks or, if you wait a half hour, I will give you the chocolate and 10 bucks.’ As you gently try to peel a toddler from your lower leg while reaching to turn off the stove burner, you say: ‘Put the chocolate and the $5 on the counter and go away.’ Making this quick decision means you have one less thing to think about – and one person less in the kitchen. You don’t have time to make what looks like the better choice of just as much chocolate but twice as much money, if only you could wait.

You’ve experienced this, but now imagine experiencing it every day, with possibly everything that happens to you along the way, on a hairier trigger than is the case for you. That’s pretty much being autistic.

The brain, Willingham explains for those still not quite clued in, “has a finite capacity, with access to a finite amount of energy”, and the “deliberative system” at issue is the prefrontal cortex which when under a sufficient degree of stress can suffer “a decision-making collapse”—leading to “more impulsive decisions when we’re overloaded, unable to apply the deliberation we’d like”.

This is as good a description as any of why I’ve grown increasingly insistent that people give me time and space for answers and decisions. It’s why, even before the revelation of my diagnosis, colleagues at a nonprofit used to let me go for a walk before I weighed in on a suggestion or idea. It’s why I agreed to a job coach’s suggestion that I pursue a job placement in our first session, rather than first working through the usual weeks-long job development process. It’s why I prefer teletherapy to in-person sessions; the familiar environment of my own home produces less strain on more than just my prefrontal cortex, leaving me room to explore the things that are actually before us.

In addition to noting the uses of technology to take some of the cognitive load (e.g. the ways in which my bookkeeping, calendar, and reminders apps keep my budgeting, bills, appointments, and prescription medicines on track) Willingham describes some aspects of neuroergonomics that would be pretty familiar to any autistic person.

We can also adapt daily tasks to diminish the cognitive load they impose. Pinpointing ways to reduce high-demand activities to something more rote is one tactic, such as having the same thing for lunch every day. Another strategy is limiting the number of high-demand activities that must be done at once, such as choosing next-day clothes the night before, instead of when we’re also trying to get children out the door to school. One of the most straightforward neuroergonomic accommodations we can access is allocating tasks into uncrowded time windows so that they don’t pile up all at once. If making the week’s dinners on an uncluttered Sunday afternoon saves you from five evenings of the ‘overwhelmed in the kitchen’ scenario, that could be an adaptation worth making.

Emphasis mine. These basically is what some autistics refer to as samefood and (in the case of simply limiting one’s wardrobe instead of picking the night before) sameclothes. These aren’t merely a matter of what neurotypicals might deem rigid tastes or preferences but in fact are cognitive adaptations that keep us from getting derailed by decision paralysis over normatively “simple” things like choosing what to eat or wear.

The autistic need for structure and predictability in an uncertain and sensorily-buffeting world whose intrinsic field pushes us to “conform and perform” essentially is an innate sense of neuroergonomics.