Thinking, the act or process of producing thoughts, allows humans to make sense of, interpret, represent or model the world they experience, and to make predictions about that world (1). One very important aspect of thinking is imagination - our ability to think of something that has not been experienced before. Being able to create images in the mind is an important element of problem solving.
One of the characteristics of autism concerns how people think and process information. Some autistic individuals can be highly analytical, enabling them to imagine things or determine patterns or relationships between things in very unusual ways (see section on Skills and Abilities). However, autistic individuals have a very rigid way of thinking. This may mean that they prefer things to be done in a certain way or may have difficulty accepting change or other points of view.
In this section you will find a description of some of the characteristics of the unique way autistic individuals think as well as suggestions on how to best support the person. Some of the characteristics of this unique way of thinking include:
Autistic individuals prefer situations that are predictable as this gives them a sense of being in control. Tight deadlines or changes that are introduced last-minute may result in feelings of anxiety if the person has not had sufficient time to process the information and to come to terms with the new situation. As a result, people with AS may enjoy doing mundane or repetitive tasks. Due to their attention to detail and their ability to focus, even tedious tasks are completed accurately and competently.
Focused way of thinking
Autistic individuals tend to have a very focused way of thinking, with a keen eye for detail. As a result, they are able to produce highly detailed and quality work. However, due to their rigid way of thinking, they may generalise about things or events, sometimes based on only a single occurrence. They also tend to think in very black-and-white terms. They may have difficulty considering other points of view or may insist that only their own opinion is correct.
Autistic individuals may have very specific interests. They may enjoy doing the same activity again and again or may develop extensive knowledge in their area of interest. Being so focused on a particular topic or activity may mean that they show little interest in other things.
Autistic individuals are often perfectionists, with a keen sense of justice. As a result, they may be highly opinionated about what is good and bad and how other people should behave, and may communicate this openly. However, despite being critical of others, autistic individuals may be extremely sensitive to criticism themselves.
Organisational skills / time management
Due to their focused way of thinking, autistic individuals may have difficulty shifting their attention from one activity to the other and may therefore find multi-tasking challenging. Other people may have difficulty with time management. They may be unaware of how long a task will take to complete and may have difficulties defining timelines or meeting deadlines.
Stick to the plan / keep it simple
When planning a project, consider all tasks involved before communicating them to the person. Ideally, ask the employee to complete only one task at a time and only provide them with the necessary information they need to fulfil that task. If possible, provide advance warning of any changes so that the person has sufficient time to adjust to the new situation.
Focus on what works well
When providing feedback to the person, do not place too much emphasis on what is going badly as the person may have difficulty processing this information and may feel inadequate. Instead, focus on what is going well so that the employee knows to continue to focus attention on this positive aspect of their performance.
Do not micromanage
Due to their focused way of thinking, preference for routine and possible sensory issues, autistic individuals may approach tasks in a very particular and sometimes roundabout way. Let them work at their own speed and do not micromanage them as this will make them feel uncomfortable or inadequate. Focus on the outcome, not the method of getting there.
Keep a sense of humour
Try not to be offended by an autistic person's candid opinions or frustrated by their insistence on doing things a certain way. They have no intention of being discourteous or annoying.