Curse Your Novel And Unexpected Betrayal

Last year I talked about how the idea of the brain as a “prediction engine” might help explain why things like algorithmic and context-collapsed social media feeds give me so much cognitive pain, given that for autistics “the need for a predictable environment can be almost a sort of prime directive”.

In a recent Psyche piece (about the idea that autistics are more rational; I don’t even want to go down that particular, nagging rabbit hole here), the authors reference the suggestion that autistic brains have differences in this predictive wiring.

More specifically, some theories of brain function characterise the brain as a prediction machine: it learns from past information and experiences to create models of the world that can be used to predict what is likely to occur. This allows for quick cognitive processing and speeds perception, as we don’t have to wait for sensory inputs before acting or making a decision. Depending on the context we are in and how uncertain we are in a given moment, our reliance on past experiences and predictions versus novel incoming information may shift. Several theoretical frameworks have suggested that in autism, the balance between prior knowledge and incoming input is shifted towards the latter. For perception, reduced reliance on predictions could make incoming sensory input (even very familiar input) seem novel and unexpected.

Emphasis mine. I find this interesting not only as one possible variable when it comes to sensory sensitivities (in addition to research suggesting that our brains might hold onto sensory input for longer than is typical) but as one possible reason why autistic brains reportedly resist habituation (rendering treatments for trauma such as exposure therapy less successful for autistic people).

The rigid and repetitive behaviors that are among the factors used to define autism, then, become a way for the autistic brain to try to impose order and predictability—something autistic people themselves report as their own lived experience. The idea, I suppose, is that a “defective” prediction machine might require more overtly and obviously predictable input—often in the form of self-directed repetitive behavior—in order to achieve some degree of order in a disordered environment.

If so much of everything seems novel and unexpected, it’s no wonder we experience such anxiety and so commonly report and experience overwhelm/shutdown and overload/meltdown. It’s no wonder so many of us experience such general damned tiredness just from, you know, daily living.

It makes me think again about how occupational therapy’s evaluation of me for developmental coordination disorder yielded the somewhat startling but perhaps not so (ahem) unpredictable idea that all the extra work my brain has to do just from being autistic combines with the extra processing it’s doing to methodically control my movement and coordination, resulting in fatigue.

To wit: to what degree are my internal sensory inputs (e.g. my proprioceptive and vestibular senses) also routinely experienced by my own brain as “novel and unexpected”, making my dyspraxia that much more taxing? Is my “defective” prediction engine impacting my motor skills? Just how much extra work is my brain doing every day?