ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

    ASA Homepage
Saturday, July 15, 2006: 8:15 AM-9:30 AM
Narragansett Ballroom C
#1933- Theory of a Different Kind of Mind: Understanding Autistic Thinking
Theory of mind describes the phenomenon that individuals on the autism spectrum often have difficulty understanding the mental processes of others. Ironically, the general population faces difficulty in relating to the unique perspective of individuals on the autism spectrum, including more literal interpretations, predominantly visual or verbal thinking, and innovative processes that provide a new way to look at the world. This session provides perspectives to help the general population understand and recognize such thinking processes.

Presenters:Lars Perner, Ph.D., San Diego State University, Assistant Professor of Marketing - Lars Perner is an Assistant Professor of Marketing San Diego State University. Dr. Perner holds a Ph.D. in marketing, an M.B.A., and a B.A. in political science and psychology. He became interested in autistic spectrum disorders after being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome late in life. In addition to his work in consumer psychology, Dr. Perner has written on the paradoxes of autism, abstraction and other cognitive processes in autism, perspectives on autism, and self marketing and college preparation for individuals on the spectrum. Dr. Perner operates several web sites on autism, including .

Gerald (Jerry) Newport, B.A., Math, Self, Author/Advocate/Spouse of AS mate and with AS - Jerry Newport, 57, discovered autism when he saw "Rain Man." Before diagnosis with Asperger Syndrome in 1995, Jerry founded AGUA, peer-run adult ASD support group in Los Angeles, where he met Mary, also Aspergian. Both appeared twice on Sixty Minutes and wrote three books on Asperger Syndrome. "Mozart and the Whale", movie inspired by the Newports, should reach American theaters in 2006. A joint autobiography with that name - due from Simon and Schuster in January 2007. The Newports have worked in tax consulting, gemology, piano tuning/repair and finance. They live in Arizona with one Cockatoo, eight Cockatiels and two Parakeets.

Phil Schwarz, Asperger's Association of New England, Vice-president - Phil Schwarz is Vice-President of the Asperger's Association of New England (, a board-member-at-large of the Massachusetts chapter of the ASA, and a member of the program committee for Autreat, the annual conference/retreat of Autism Network International ( He is the father of an autistic son and a daughter in the broader phenotype, and an Asperger's adult himself, married to a non-autistic spouse. Professionally, he is a software developer. Some of his thoughts on being a parent on the spectrum can be found in his essay "Wearing Two Hats" (

Julie Herndon, OTR/L, BCP, New Horizons Regional Education Center, Pediatric Occupational Therapist - Julie is an occupational therapist in the Center For Autism of the New Horizons Regional Education Center that serves school districts on the Virginia peninsula. Although she has always had a sense of not fitting in and has worked with students on the autism spectrum for 20 years, she only recognized her place on it in 2004 when she met another adult with Asperger's Syndrome that sparked the epiphany. In her free time, she participates in an adventure club, where she met her husband of 4 years, expanding her sensory horizons and studying Ki Aikido for mind-body coordination.

Charlie Collura, B.A., ANCA(R) Foundation and ANCA(R) Foundation, Vice President - Self-diagnosed, Charlie is a graduate of McMaster University and the cofounder of Naturally Autistic® ANCA®` and the non-profit ANCA® Foundation. He has eighteen years of experience working with autistic children and adults in the public school, group home, community and consulting settings.

Leonora Gregory-Collura, Dip., RBSTTC, ANCA(R) Foundation and ANCA(R) Foundation, President - Diagnosed in the early 1990’s. She is a Graduate Teacher of The Royal Ballet, London England; choreographer, writer, lecturer, consultant and cofounder of Naturally Autistic® ANCA®` and the non-profit ANCA® Foundation. Leonora's writings and direct teaching on the cognitive development of autistic children have made her a sought after teacher and speaker. Her tireless support of autistic children and adults has impacted greatly on the lives of Autistic People throughout Canada and the U.S.A

This session will address characteristics that often shape the thinking of individuals on the autism spectrum. We will emphasize the large variations between individuals. Some issues that are covered:

- Visual vs. non-visual thinking. One panelists comments: “I consider myself to be a very strong visual thinker. I tend to think in pictures as some individuals with significant autism had described. Whenever I hear things, I tend to translate the concepts into pictures that I could see in my mind. I have a significant learning difference with auditory process deficit and minor autism. I learn the best through the visual channel, which explains why I had to learn to read first when I was five before I learn to talk. I feel that my mode of learning and thinking is a major link to my enhanced creativity in the visual arts. I consider myself a natural in that I could produce good pieces of artwork without expanding a great deal of effect, compared to other skills. On the other hand, I need to expand a great deal of effect to do well in sports, such as tennis.”

- Rules and their significance: The existence of clear rules is often a source of comfort and reassurance to people on the spectrum. Vague rules, however, can be a source of frustration as can “new” rules or “reinterpretation” of existing rules.

- Empathy: How can a person have difficulty seeing what others are thinking, yet have tremendous concern for others and for social justice? One panelist comments: “My concern for social justice was probably purer because it was based on my views of fairness and rightness without any concern for the social context. For example, in 1957, when my family visited Williamsburg, Virgina, I was shocked to find segregated restrooms. My disappointment in this was so loud and noticeable that my father quickly took me a distraction, a maze garden at a historic mansion.”

- Abstraction, literal, and non-literal thinking: People on the spectrum are said to lack abstraction abilities; yet, many have very abstract interests. Why? One panelist comments: “Social abstraction is one thing but math is attractive to some of us because of the logic in it. I found geometry to be very reassuring that way.” Another panelist comments: “There is a difference between *abstraction* and *vagueness*. Abstraction with rigor we can do; ‘abstraction' that is really just shorthand that omits context we are not likely to intuitively share or sense, we can't do as well. Therein lies the difference.”

- Theory of mind--understanding and acceptance of others' perspectives and views. Understanding in general and understanding “in the heat of the moment” are different things. One panelist comments: “Theory of mind applies to anyone who is able to gain appreciation of different ways of thinking of anyone other different from him or her. Though those with autism tend to be more systemizers and less empathizers; I do not see them being worse in theory of mind than the general population. After people have spent a lot of time with those who are different from them, they can learn to appreciate their differences and develop a feel of how they think. But, of course, one can never know exactly what it is like to be someone else since one is not someone else. For example, when I worked in food service many years ago, I got to know the preferences of the clientele, even very different from my own. We served mostly blue collar workers at Boeing at Washington State. I had been a health food nut for many years and came from a high educational background. Occasionally, we put out special promotional deals that included some more exotic dishes such as black bean soup and pumpkin soup. I told the managers that these things would not go well and they did not. The clientele went for the more familiar dishes with lots of meat and potatoes -- American favorites. I loved the more exotic dishes the best, especially the vegetarian ones. The managers did not appear to have autism. But, I had better theory of mind than them. Though people with autism tend to empathize less, they could still have greater concerns for civilizations at large and for the world. Some of my friends with autism fit this profile. I am like that too. I consider myself more of a systemizer, but yet I have great concerns for the world and the environment and try to do all that I can to help preserve it and make it better. Empathy for different individuals and for the whole world are totally different concepts.”

Another panelist comments: “Some of my social ‘theory of mind' developed from my early interest in humor. Originally, I was intimidate by this, commonly viewed in movies and cartoons. I thought the tantrums of Donald Duck were too close to mine to be funny. Jerry Lewis wasn't funny to me because we had the same first name and his whining was too close to home. By the age of six, I discovered that people who could make others laugh seemed to be popular. That resulted in endless observation of "funny men" on TV and of course, funny distaffers like Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen. From those and other comedians, I began to understand humor from a very logical, structured point of view. In general, I learned that people laugh because they expect you to say one thing when you say another. That is the general rule and over the years, I added many variations tot that. Another early discovery was that if you don't act if something is funny, it sounds even funnier.”

On the topic of “mindblindness,” one panelist comments: “There is also the perspective that mindblindness has its benefits that could improve the outlook of NTs if they gave it a try. For example, status doesn't play a role in interaction so first impressions involve no prejudice. We just expect honesty, respect and following the rules. Since we have a good eye for details, we can tell great life stories full of them. We're attracted to patterns and will notice what's out of place to fix it or just revel in its uniqueness. Wonder is under-rated and considered a child-like experience but it's a daily one for me that I'd never give up. Who pauses at a great sunset anymore? My sensory system doesn't process body awareness very well so I don't read body language except at an intuitive level but I have great fun on adventures like white water rafting, rock climbing and scuba diving to feel my body move through space with high emotions enhancing the sensory feedback loop. When it comes to empathy, we're more comfortable with nature's unconditional embrace. When intuition takes the place of sensory systems on overload, synchronicity is a great way to make connections from chance events, creating patterns and forging on into the great unknown of tomorrow. Uncertainty is terrifying when you don't know what to expect from your vast knowledge banks, but extrapolating to disaster (as my husband calls it when I create worst case scenarios) is just the counterpart of hoping for the best.”

- Initiating, understanding, and responding to humor. There is a belief in some circles that people on the spectrum tend to lack a sense of humor. Those who have been exposed to a diversity of people on the autism spectrum have seen otherwise. Because humor is, in many cases, based on contrasts to social understandings, the reality that many people on the spectrum do not intuitively hold these understandings suggests that such attempts at humor will be perceived differently. One panel member comments: “There are specific forms of humor that spectrum folks tend to gravitate to. They have to do with the establishment, breakage, interference, and mis-juxtaposition of patterns. Puns are in this category. This is no accident: patterns are fundamental to us. See more about this below in my comment about bandwidth.”

- Reacting and adapting to change and transitions: Changes and transitions can be very frustrating. We explain “cascading” effects into the understanding of rules, sensation, predictability, and exhaust.

- Cognitive style, sensory overload, and “bandwidth.” Bandwidth is a fundamental determinant of autistic cognitive style, sensory needs and preferences, behavioral adaptations, and aesthetic sensibilities. Mismatches of bandwidth between sensory input and our ability to process it produce effects ranging from sensory distress (and defenses against it such as rigidity), to the sorts of adaptations we make in order to manage with the bandwidth we do have, such as an intellectual (and aesthetic) keenness for patterns, variations within patterns, and interference between patterns.

- The "Social Delusion" and our lack of it: why we don't instinctively engage in the kinds of group-oriented behavior that NTs do. One panelist comments: “ I think there are a number of benign or beneficial delusions that most members of the non-autistic population develop, that are diminished or absent in us. What Aspie visual artist Daina Krumins calls the "social delusion" in non-autistic people the tendency to assume that one can reliably fathom the emotional and motivational state of others, is one such. We don't presume to have such abilities, and we don't ascribe such abilities to others -- so we feel less gravitational ‘pull' than non-autistic people into group-oriented behavior.”

- “Details first:” how we get to seeing the forest for the trees. One panelist comments: “I think our cognitive style is bottom-up rather than top-down (as seems to be the case among many in the non-autistic majority): we build gestalt from details, and must acquire enough of the details first, in order to arrive at a gestalt.”

As people on the spectrum, we differ in our views and perceptions as much, if not more, than does the general population. In creating this proposal, vigorous discussion took place between participants. As such, different panelists will present different perspectives on and insight into the phenomena under discussion.

Learning opportunities: The purpose of this session is to help parents and other people who work with individuals on the autism spectrum understand “autistic thinking.” From presentations and informal talks, it is our experience that parents and professionals, upon having our thinking processes on various topics explained, often gain significant insight into the experiences, thoughts, and perspectives of people on the spectrum with whom they interact. Such individuals are, then, much better able to understand the original of the behaviors and attitudes they see expressed. We aim to illustrate autistic thinking—and its diversity—in these selected areas and are prepared to take questions from the audience on topics not addressed.

Contributions to best practices: Understanding autistic thinking will help parents and professionals better relate to the experiences and perspectives of those with whom they work. This, in turn, will help adjust intervention methods to address the more pressing problems currently experienced. An improved understanding will also help parents and professionals assess the realism and feasibility of achieving various desired objectives, based on the cognitive, sensory, and emotional context of the individual. Further, parents and professionals will be in improved position to help the person on the spectrum communicate his or her thoughts to others less familiar with autistic thinking tendencies.

See more of The ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)