Processing Metaphor

I just posted an entry about autistic processing and what I believe makes autistics just different enough to get that label but makes neurology such a vast and diverse thing.

You can read the long entry in its entirety here.

I know not everyone will actually take the time to read that massive entry, though. It was huge and I have a hard time containing my rambling nature.

So, after getting all those thoughts off my brain I thought I’d try to be concise and condense this theory a little. If you find anything below interesting, but still confusing you could always find that same section in the longer blog entry.

The Computer Metaphor and Processing

We all have to process and take in information. The external stimuli of the world around us comes in, hits our brain, and our reaction to it goes out.

So our brain is like the actual physical components to a computer. The hardware, if you will.

The way we process the world is like the platform used on a computer.

Everyone processes things on a Mac, Windows, or Linux platform, much like it is in the real world.

I’d hazard to say that those who are neurotypical (“normal” brained, or NTs) are the Mac and Windows versions. Their software comes preset to understand most other software around it.

The atypical brain is like Linux. It can easily run any program the other two do, but it does so a little different. Some programs are a lot like what you’d expect, and easy to pull up (double click). Others require having to go in and manually type up the prompt and have the hardware search for what you’re looking for.

Essentially, autistic individuals are living in a world they can decipher and make sense of, but in some instances the basic programming of their software requires extra steps.

Programs Themselves and How We Filter the World Around Us

On all these separate systems we have to pull up various programs in order to function. For most NTs you have a toolbar for the programs you use the most, a desktop, and the files in your actual system. You do a quick search and can easily double click what you need.

I’d say most autistics have their own toolbars and easy to access files on their desktop. Things that we do on a regular basis. I’m a stay at home mom so my dishes, feeding the kids, and all the little programs that come into keeping kids alive are all on an easy to access area.

In some cases, though, it might not be as easy to access these programs and you have to go in to a terminal and type in the command you want it to do.

This can make for some occasionally slower processing time between a request and a reaction. It can also make switching gears without notice a little tough.

I’d also hazard to say that the autistic brain pulls up a separate program for each individual sense. These programs run in the background at all times, sometimes minimized, sometimes not.

Some NTs require a separate program for a sense or two, but I’d guess not a separate program for all senses at all times.

I’m also somewhat empathetic and other people’s emotions are on another separate program that runs in the background at all times.

I also think that sometimes our internal hardware gets a little crossed or our awareness of things is so dialed up that external stimuli can pull up multiple programs that most NTs have just one program running to process it. For me, a lot of my auditory and visual senses also feel physical. Like fluorescent lights that vibrate and buzz behind my eyes, I see, feel, and hear the lights all at the same time.

Updating Programs

Any time we learn something brand new our system has to write a program out and update itself. Learning something that furthers our knowledge of a thing is more like an update to that already written program.

If we haven’t done something for a long time and we pull up an old program that took a little time to find in our brains, after we’re done doing that thing it’ll update our system and the next time we need to use it it will hopefully be that much easier to use.

My socialization program is often worked over on updates all the time. I have scripted conversation starters that’s a program on it’s own. I’m sure even some NTs have this as well but theirs might be part of their regular social program.

I imagine that most introverts are a lot like I am, and if they’ve been really social for a while they need to unwind and let their system update and restart. A bath, a book, a movie, a glass of wine. These things could help us allow the time for our system to properly take the current updates.

Some programs, on the other hand, update flawlessly for us and don’t require a full system reset. These would vary from person to person, of course.

CPU, RAM, and SSD – How Quickly We Respond and Store Information

The CPU is the central processing unit in any computer. This is the hardware that’s the main brain. It takes information in, then sends signals to the rest of the system, telling it what to do.

RAM is random access memory. It’s the equivalent of short term memory.

SSD is the solid state drive. This is a slower drive but it’s where all our long term memory is stored.

All our neurology makes up these components in this metaphor.

The CPU takes the information and decides what to do with it. I imagine most NTs have pretty straightforward wiring and sound is registered as sound, sight as sight, etc. For me, some sounds and visual things that come in to the CPU also get processed as physical sensation as well.

For some of us, our RAM is wonderful and we take in information scary fast and then do the task that needs doing, and dump the rest of the information we find unnecessary.

For others, we might have terrible RAM but our SSD drive is massive. Something will happen to us and we suddenly remember in scary detail a similar thing that happened at 22, and again at 16, and before that at 9. We’re put back in the same place with the same smells and sounds, but we’re living in three other moments before the one that’s happening to you in the current moment. The current moment is also stored immediately in long term memory and you might live five moments at once when that similar thing happens again.

However, because our SSD drives might be huge we make for excellent people to have in a situation that requires us to be hyperaware, or remember things from one similar task to the next. So, even though we might not be as fast at processing something, once we have a task down we can prefect it in a way that others can’t, because their hardware just doesn’t support it.

We also all have varying speeds on the CPU and this speed can be dependent on various factors for that moment. How many other programs are running, if there are any viruses to contend with, and how tired we are and needing our systems to cool. This is across the board, no matter your neurology.

Viruses and Your System

The easiest thing to make a connection with computer viruses to my metaphor is, of course, an illness. Your system has a virus and can’t function at full capacity until that virus is removed. It affects every single aspect of your system and ability to function. The worse the illness, the harder to get your system back to normal functions.

If you’re a chronic pain sufferer, this is also a virus on your system. The pain can suddenly increase or flare up after time and it causes malfunctioning to your whole system.

Mental health issues also fall in this category. If you’ve ever experienced depression or anxiety it can sometimes be a vicious cycle of knowing that logically your life is not that bad and you can get through this, but when you’re a sufferer of these mental illnesses it clouds and infiltrates every single program on your system. It causes it to be leached of color, joy, and happiness, and it’s often hard to see your way out of it.

Some thoughts can act like a virus too, with the inability to minimize or update and close a program, no matter how hard you try. I’d say my last two blog entries are excellent examples of these things in my own system.

Defragging, Virus Removal, and Down Time

Many of us remember the days of having to “defrag” or “defragment” our computer systems. Our computers fragment pieces of files over time in order to open that file. The CPU then has to figure out where all these little pieces are stored the next time you open them. When you defrag your system it takes all the separate pieces of those files and puts them back in an easy to access space.

Many newer systems, and various different neurologies, defrag their systems automatically.

I would compare defragging a computer to needing to take a break from things and reset their own system. Maybe you watch TV, read a book, or play a video game. Maybe you’re a little more extroverted and the best way for you to feel like you let off steam is to go out to a loud and noisy location and have completely meaningless conversations with people. You’ve heard the term “clearing the cobwebs.” I’d say at its heart, that’s how we defrag our systems.

Some people don’t require a lot of defragmenting. Maybe once a week a break from the family is needed. Maybe once or twice a year a long vacation away from home is what’s needed. For me, and I’d hazard many autistics, I require a full system defrag at the end of every day to feel functional the next day. I’ve had separate programs for my senses, for my socialization, for keeping the kids alive, for taking care of a pet. Nothing that many other people don’t have, but the big difference is that my processing power isn’t great and I have almost no RAM, but my SSD drive is huge so I’m storing a lot of the information around me into long term memory.

I also feel like if our systems are too overloaded, too often, it can actually cause a virus on our system where we have trouble closing programs or we try to open a program and the wrong one pops up.

Virus removal is necessary, too, but much more complicated. Health and wellness are not easy things to delve into, and how they affect our brains are even more complicated. But it’s important to understand that some of us have constant depression, anxiety, or pain that we can’t simply defragment or fix. It might be something that is there all day, every day, no matter what we do.

Meltdowns

So imagine for a moment that you’re constantly having to restart your system from updates, on top of programs that are “extra” compared to most of the population. Then something goes off, like a routine is shifted, plans change, or you have emotional components involved that you don’t normally deal with. Or maybe you’ve just been busy and you haven’t had a chance to fully defragment your system daily. It’s no wonder meltdowns happen.

There are two types of meltdowns I’ve personally experienced. The first is a sort of full paralyzation. Suddenly you go to pull up a program you’ve used a hundred times or more, like doing the dishes, and your paralyzed. That program is stuck loading because there’s too many other programs adding strain to your system. This particular meltdown is a paralyzation that suddenly all the programs in your system have to shutdown and reload. It might be hard to speak, move, or function in any way at this point.

The second type is the meltdown that looks more like a tantrum but it’s not someone trying to get their way or being whiny. This usually happens to me when I have been trying to do too much and suddenly my system becomes so overloaded all the programs start opening and closing on their own accord. Sounds might be intensified, emotions might boil over, or the act of trying to do one more thing is just too much. It ends up with a crying meltdown, usually partly paralyzed since it’s hard to respond when your system is on such an overload.

Once your system reboots itself (it could be a couple of minutes, or hours, or even days) it takes time to pull up all the separate programs required for you to run again. Language might be difficult for hours or days. The ability to do the “simple” tasks required to live, like shower, eat, and take care of your basic needs, become hard to do.

The positive side to these meltdowns and paralyzations is it’s our systems way of protecting itself. When we’re on such a big overload, instead of blowing up the system, it shuts down and carefully restarts the basics.  

Burnout

We all get overloaded. Sensory overload on top of social overload on top of emotional overload. Many of us autistics work on those overloads on a regular, often daily, basis. But the end result is a burnout.

This is true no matter your neurology. We all experience periods in our lives that we just need to recover and recoup and pay attention to our own health and emotional well being.

The big difference between an NT burnout and an autistic burnout is that the autistic will lose a lot of the programs we’ve worked hard all our lives to create and load.

When I’m in a burnout my socialization program I spent years working on malfunctions and I’m back to my basic social skills program that is confusing to most NTs and often frustrating to me.

My “remember eye contact” program that runs in the background constantly might suddenly forget to load at all.

If depression and anxiety have added viruses to a system most of us start working off our basic programing again, too. The barely surviving programs.

So a burnout can suddenly look to the outside observer that the autistic is “acting different” or “not themselves.” The truth is that this is the most raw and honest you’ll probably see the autistic. Be patient, you’ll be on the same wavelength again, but look on the positive side that you’ve been allowed to see the individual at their most basic programing. That means they must trust you.

I would hazard to say this goes both directions, too.

Fans and Cooling as Fidgeting

Fans and cooling systems on computers are used to keep the system from overheating. The more programs you run at once, or the higher memory and processing that a program takes, the hotter the system runs.

I would hazard to say that most NT’s experience an almost flawless cooling system. I’m sure they have the occasional hiccup where it’s hard to think of a word, you can’t remember why you walked into a room, or you’re multitasking like crazy and suddenly can’t focus on all the pieces. I’m sure there is something NT’s need to do on some level to keep their system cooled in those instances.

For me, in order to be out in public I usually need my massive amounts of rings on my fingers that I fiddle with. If I’m thinking hard about something, working on burnout mode, or am chalk full of anxiety and depression, I fidget with the rings on my fingers in order to help organize my brain and keep my system from going into a meltdown mode just from processing the information around me and running the correct programs.

I also sometimes fidget when my emotions are overwhelming me. This could be happiness, anger, depression. Sometimes I feel so much I think I’m going to burst out of my skin.

I imagine someone being happy flappy in public is the equivalent of my constant spinning of my knuckle rings.

Conclusion

We all have our things. This is very true. This is what makes neurodiversity so important. If the world with filled entirely with people that process things the exact same way we wouldn’t have breakthroughs in any fields. When everyone runs on the same system we lose a key piece of what makes this world so interesting and important. Diversity makes it so we can see the world and problems in the world from all possible angles.

The autistic individual is disabled because we’re at constant odds with the sensory information around us, but we’re also at constant odds with the way our society is organized. The confusion, depression, anger, and anxiety that come with having to decipher the way our world is set up around us can be exhausting. But allowed to be in the right space, with the right task and people, and to be accepted for exactly who we are will open up a world of possibilities for seeing things in a different, bigger, and sometimes more helpful way. If allowed to give our systems it’s full breadth we can be some of the most creative, empathetic, hardest working individuals I know.

If you have other thoughts, ideas, or questions I’d love to hear them. Comment below, message me, whatever you feel.

And, most importantly, Thank You For Reading!

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5 thoughts on “Processing Metaphor”

  1. You’ve created a very useful, interpretive metaphor. Yes, I read the long version the other day, and believe that’s essential for a writer. This concise iteration is important for the reader, too. Thank you for bringing these visions to light. I’m sharing your insights. Respectfully, Marilyn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I’d thought my already lengthy post probably would have been several hundred words longer getting into that detail. My knowledge of the difference between the two is also not up to par to fully integrate it into the post. But, I’d hazard to say that I could make the argument for one being those with Asperger’s or “high functioning” autism and the other being for the so called “low functioning” autism diagnosis.

      Some more research on my part would be needed for the full metaphor between the two though.

      Liked by 1 person

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