Quirk Monster #10: My need for processing time as an autistic person
Last week someone asked me for some time to sit down to learn more about an area of my expertise. I paused to process that information and they immediately — and innocently — suggested that maybe they were talking to the wrong person.
During that pause, my brain was flooded with information.
In my head I instantly visualised a large volume of thoughts at once. What does my calendar look like for the next two weeks? Crap, there’s a long weekend coming so I’ve lost a day. What do I already know about this topic? What should I read up on to make sure I’m giving this person the most accurate and up-to-date information so I don’t let them down? How might I structure this conversation? What questions should I ask them? What might this future conversation mean for me? For my team? For my organisation? Who else would benefit from this? What do I already know about this person? Where do they fit? How might we work together? What opportunities might this conversation lead to? I also considered all the possible outcomes and all the resulting pathways in my head as images kind of like that scene from Frozen II.
Frozen to the spot, my pause lasted around 3 seconds. Quick, but long enough to falsely give the impression that I might be hesitating or that I might not be the best person to talk to. Definitely not quick enough to provide that person with the confidence that I am.
When the comment — which came across without a trace of malice — was made, all those images in my head scrambled and blurred together resulting in yet another pause. That comment gave me even more information to process on top of the original image stream. What did I do wrong? Does this person think I can’t do this? How can I fix this? How can I show them that I am the right person to talk to?
Additionally while this was happening, I was also having to process all the sensory information coming at me from a brightly lit kitchen with a backdrop of multiple conversations running against the constant sights and sounds of a ping pong match.
It’s a lot to take in when you have a brain that takes a bit longer to process internal and external information.
Processing time is a need that I share with other autistic people. I’ve been given consent to tell you about a friend of mine who is also autistic. His brain needs more processing time than mine does and at one point in his career, his then-colleagues viewed his conversational thought processing pauses as ‘blanks’ which they took as a sign of incompetence. Despite being a high performer, he was told that his ‘blanks’ weren’t acceptable in that team and he was firmly pressured into transferring to another area of the company. I’m sure you can guess what the alternative was. He was undiagnosed at that point in time, but that shouldn’t matter because autistic or not, different people think in different ways every day and don’t get kicked out of teams or have their livelihoods threatened for it.
And yes, there are tools. I’m quite comfortable asking for a moment to think, but in those moments, conversation tools don’t always work because I have to access those phrases in my mind amongst all the noise, so it still takes time.
Autistic or not, you need to give people space to think. Resist the urge to write people off if they don’t immediately give you what you need from them. Lose the ‘a good game’s a fast game’ mentality. Slow down and learn how to meet people halfway.
To be clear, I’m not saying the person from last week has written me off as useless because I paused. Not at all. That conversation simply reminded me that this is something you need to be told about. It provided me with a nice neutral example of what’s going on inside my head when I’m processing that I could talk you through.
Not all of my processing time experiences have been this benign. I’ve lived through similar experiences to my previously mentioned friend at multiple scales and negative impacts and it’s honestly not OK. Ableism and discrimination against people who think differently is what’s really unacceptable.
Autistic thinking style varies from person to person and is an example of diversity of thought. You need that if you want to succeed. You need us if you want to succeed.
This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.