Posted by: Michael Miller | 2014/01/10

Autism and problem solving

A while back I saw a great meme on Facebook that said, “Autism: It’s not a processing error, it’s a whole different operating system.” Having an autistic son and knowing how he acts, his intelligence, his quirks, etc. (as well as being somewhat of a computer geek myself) – that saying really hit home and is about as accurate as they come.

Autism: It's not a processing error, it's a whole different operating system.

Autism: It’s not a processing error, it’s a whole different operating system.

The sense of logic that young Matt often demonstrates can be amazing. And it’s not just Matt, other kids with autism often look at a set of instructions, a puzzle, or even just a general, daily, task and their minds process them in ways the rest of really can’t understand.

In a sense, their way of getting from Point A to Point B takes a much different path than the straight line that the rest of us might take. (Then again, maybe an autistic mind takes the straightest path and the rest of us tend to over-think and curve around.)

In the example below, a teacher asked her autistic student to put six words in alphabetical order. The response is kind of amazing if you think about it.

Autistic child puts words in alphabetical order

A teacher asked her autistic student to put six words in alphabetical order.

Now. Are those answers wrong? Perhaps in the sense of how we would interpret the instructions, yeah. Yet in the student’s mind, no way. They read the assignment and followed the instructions in a much more literal sense. Not wrong, but different.

Action Thomas

The other day Matt brings me a random Chuggington train of his and just the face from one of his Thomas trains. He tells me, “Daddy. You make an Action Thomas.”

Because the “Chuggington” train wasn’t a “Thomas” train, the face was essentially incompatible. They’re two different brands; two different parts of two different toys.

“Sorry, Matt”, I said. “That’s not a Thomas train so you just can’t attach a face to it. It won’t work.

Matt took my answer and walked away. Less than :30 seconds later – :30 seconds he yells, “Action Thomas!” and shows me the train with the face perfectly attached.

“How, the hell, did he do that?” I wondered. I was amazed.

Upon closer inspection, here’s what he did:

Going down the stairs to our basement, my wife had hung up a lot of the twins’ artwork from school. There were drawings, colorings, glued-on stuff, etc. Some of them were scotch-taped to the wall; some were stuck there with wall gum. Matt had simply removed a piece of the gum from the wall, applied it to the back of the “face” and stuck it cleanly to the front of the train.

An instant, albeit pretend, Action Thomas.

Action Thomas

The end result: a pretend Action Thomas

Brilliant, really. I sure didn’t think of it and my wife and I both know that Matt’s twin brother wouldn’t have thought of it. Yet here he was faced with a problem and his mind provided what is really an out-of-the-box solution.

Now. Are there other 5-year old kids out there who could’ve done this? Sure. I’ve no doubt of that. But certainly not all of them. I’d even think the overall number would be relatively small.

The point is not to underestimate an autistic mind. Because they might not talk, socialize, or even think like the rest of us doesn’t mean they can’t talk, socialize, or think. They can and do – and in ways we can only try to make sense of.

A different operating system, is all…

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  1. Mike … think back and recall some of what I felt the future holds for Matt. It’s gotta be somewhere in your archives.

    Your story reminds me of a management decisions I made some fifty years ago. I was managing installation of a new IBM computer system for a large NYSE company — a 65K, 360/30 housed in a 1440 sq.ft. computer room. LOL … we all have more power in our watches soon and phones now.

    Anyway, one day my lead operator wanted me to interview a fellow from the plant whose job was to clean up the tailings chipped away from 12500 horsepower marine diesel cylinders. The guy was not at all familiar with any part of computing and certainly one who would be entrusted to operate a multi-million dollar computer system supporting 2,000 factory workers (union workers no less so any foul up with those folks meant problems).

    My lead operator Jim thought I should hire the guy because of a unique skill. He used to amaze the IBM systems engineers and other. They would ask the guy to multiply any seven digit number by any other seven digit number and this fellow would, without help, correctly tell them the answer. So that was the interview. He did it for me and I told Jim if he would train the guy (we were looking for an experienced operator), go ahead and hire him which we did.

    I knew from my IBM days testing for new hires was oriented toward the ability to think logically. A logical mind sees things differently (see where I am going with this?) Math, music and bridge involve logic skills so test questions had a lot of that stuff. Interesting part was asking the fellow how he did in math in high school — said he was mostly a C student. A bit of a shock there. He told me the teacher would put up a math problem on the board which he innately knew the answer. When called upon, he would give the correct answer but could not explain how he came up with the answer. Of course, the teacher found fault rather than explore the brilliance of this kid and gave him a C grade.

    My point in all this is not to say Matt is brilliant in the same regard. I am saying, your patience and understanding as well as delving into the mind of a special person may give you and Monica rewards in life well beyond what you can imagine now.


  2. Oh, I forgot to mention the last I knew of this bottom of the rung clean up guy from the foundry, he became a top level computer programmer after I recommended him to our programming manager. He was a wonderful and reliable mainframe computer operator and he deserved a promotion. My management style was to develop the abilities of employees and move them on to better jobs. Sadly, many managers do not hire individuals who are better but hire weaklings as a way of protecting their own jobs. Major mistake in my view.

    Another less talented systems programmer on my staff was denied a raise which I felt was a mistake by my boss. Crestfallen is how one would describe my guy so I suggested the programmer look for another job and made a recommendation for a job I knew to be open. He got the programming job and last I heard he was working at the Ohio State University School of Medicine. Better future. More money. I soon left for the same reasons.

    The not so secret way to grow in those early days was, “Find a job, then look for a better one.” See why I have little sympathy for those disgruntled McDonald’s worked who protest for more pay? They just don’t “get it.”


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