Autism and Multi-tasking

a person laying on the floor with many different laptops and tablets heaped before themIt is often said that Autistic people cannot multi-task. I have noticed that I am unable to multi-task in many of the more popular ways, a prime example being having a group conversation, especially one that breaks up into more than one sub-conversation.

However, I can do things like touch typing notes while looking at slides or pages I’m note-taking from while simultaneously taking other notes from a power point at the front of the lecture room (though I could not tell you a single word the lecturer said. That has nothing to do with multi-tasking, though. I never could hear lectures no matter what else I was or wasn’t doing.

In elementary school I realized (after dared by the teacher to come to the chalkboard and do so) that I could write the same sentence forward in Spanish with my right hand and backwards in English with my left hand, simultaneously — slowly, but all my handwriting is slow so the speed doesn’t really count here. My cousin once walked in on me getting some work done in her kitchen one morning, right hand typing one thing on my laptop and left hand typing something different on my iPad and she helped me to realize that my work style is somewhat unusual.

I have met many other Autistics who could engage in interesting combinations of multi-tasking. I’m also reminded of a scene from Mozart and the Whale, a movie based on Mary and Jerry Newport’s book of the same name about their relationship, in which  Isabelle (Radha Mitchell’s portrayal of a fictionalized Mary) is shown painting a picture with her left hand (upon which a bird is perched) and composing music with her right hand. In another scene, she says that she wants Donald (Joshua Hartnett’s version of Jerry) to hear her paintings and see her music. The implication seems to be that her multi-tasking comes from a synesthetic  place in her brain where the painting and the composing are facets of the same task.

I am beginning to suspect that it is not at all true that Autistics cannot multi-task or always multi-task very poorly. I am beginning to suspect that we have gained that reputation only due to neurotypical forms of multi-tasking being privileged as “normal” while many Autistic forms of multi-tasking are “othered” as freakish or savant splinter abilities. I do not think it is freakish or wrong to work on two computers at once. I find it a very useful way to work. I might have notes on one computer from which I am writing on the other. Or I might be consulting a to-do list on one while I execute it on the other. Sometimes I’m writing on one computer while researching aspects of what I’m writing on the other. And I know I’m not the only Autistic who uses more than one computer simultaneously. I’ve watched Autistics of all ages regularly using multiple computers together, often much more proficiently than I.

So my strong suspicion is that Autistic people can and do multi-task, often quite well. But our means and methods of multi-tasking are quite different and the tasks we are able to multi-task on are so different from neurotypical multi-tasking that we have been described by many, if not most, researchers and writers as being unable to multi-task at all. Obviously, some of us are better at some kinds of multi-tasking than others (for example, not all of us are able to integrate our sensory inputs and multi-task among them sufficiently rapidly to safely operate a motor vehicle.) But I would argue that everyone has difficulty with some types of multi-tasking that come easily to most others. And I know from observation that many Autistics multi-task delightfully in some areas while not at all in others.

Elmindreda unintentionally backs up my hypothesis with an article discussing the sensory issues underlying an apparent lack of multi-tasking ability when it comes to a one-on-one conversation in a café. As explained, the difficulty is not due to a lack of multi-tasking ability but rather to so many of the aspects of a chat over coffee being things that come automatically to neurotypicals but Autistics must actively work for. With so much cognitive overhead being taken up by these tasks that are not automated in us, we appear to lack multi-tasking when in reality we actually are multi-tasking as hard as we can, just to keep up. As Camus said, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”

 Eileen Parker writes about being poor with multi-tasking but the actual description of what is happening looks more like autistic inertia — trouble figuring out how to get tasks started — than a trouble with multi-tasking. Half her to-do list cannot be done, the other half is too unrelated. Plus she admits that she keeps adding things to the list before she’s even decided what to do about the things already written down. Multi-tasking, as I understand it, is less about making a pie and going to the post office at the same time as it is about making a pie and a roast and some vegetables and some rolls at the same time, arranging them to all be finished at the proper time for a coordinated, hot meal. I can do this latter type of multi-tasking but I usually have to look over the tasks first and perhaps even make a timeline showing when each action in the kitchen must occur.

Making a pie and going to the post office would either require me to be in two places at once or to make a pie and then go to the post office while it is baking, being careful to get back to remove the pie from the oven before it burns. While this requires timely coordination, it’s not the sort of thing I tend to consider when talking about true multi-tasking — that is, switching among two or more tasks seamlessly enough to present the illusion of doing both at once.

I can seamlessly switch between knitting lace and reading the sub-titles on a foreign film because both are things that require my eyes and brain and the knitting also requires my hands. I am sitting in one place, mainly only needing to shift my eyes and thoughts back and forth. Although the author of Life with the Quirky Boys points out that it’s because I’m a very experienced knitter: “I can’t watch TV and knit at the same time because I have to watch my hands to get the stitches right and then I lose track of what’s happening on the show. But I have friends whose hands fly through without a thought and they can simultaneously follow the most intricately plotted show with no problem. Knitting is a rote activity for them.” Cleaning up old papers and baking a pie are not very related at all. One could alternate aspects of the tasks, but actual multi-tasking is not very likely to occur.

Piroflip on Wrong Planet can multi-task: “I used to fly radio controlled model helicopters; a skill that requires very precise multi-tasking. Although not an expert I did learn to fly very quickly whereas many struggle for years to learn the basics. Flying a model heli is like trying to balance one egg on top of another egg in each hand.” User Alexptrans pointed out another interesting example of multi-tasking that many Autistics are quite capable of: “What about playing two different melodies in counterpoint, one with your right hand and the other with your left?” But perhaps flying a model helicopter or playing an intricate piece of music are not actually examples of multi-tasking since they are whole tasks in themselves? These examples of multi-tasking may be like the multi-tasking involved in knitting lace and not as much like the multi-tasking involved in knitting lace while simultaneously reading a foreign film.

“Multi-tasking” comes from a particular brain region called the thalamic reticular nucleus or TRN. The TRN is like a switchboard that tells the rest of the brain what sensory input to focus on. As you might imagine, the TRN is quite active when the brain is manifesting what has been called the “cocktail party effect,” which is the ability of some brains to hear one conversation while several other conversations are occurring nearby. I, like many Autistic people, do not have a very well-developed cocktail party effect. My TRN gets overloaded by all the input and doesn’t have a good system of filtering to decide which sounds are important and which can be ignored. My brain ignores none of the sounds and, as a result, little to no actual meaning makes it from my ears to my comprehension.

Francis Crick, best known for his work with DNA, first hypothesized this role for the TRN and his theory has only very recently been tested in a mouse brain model. These experiments also showed a connection between the TRN and the prefrontal cortex — when the prefrontal cortex (known for its role in executive function, decision making, and emotional regulation, among other things) was inactivated, the TRN went haywire, unable to complete its filtering tasks. So the question neuroscientists have now is whether the differences in multi-tasking abilities among Autistics is due to a different prefrontal cortex, a different TRN, or perhaps both.

This is a deficit model, however. The researchers are looking at Autistics as having a deficit and non-autistics as being the norm. Their research is aimed toward figuring out how to “fix” us so that we are more like non-autistic people. But what about those of us who demonstrate exceptional multi-tasking abilities (often while simultaneously exhibiting great struggles with the sorts of multi-tasking non-autistic people do automatically)? Why is there no research aimed at discovering what makes us so great at the things we are great at so that others can benefit from understanding our neurology?

I don’t so much mind studies of the TRN. I think they can be quite useful. But I long for the day when this sort of research becomes more egalitarian. I yearn for researchers who realize that our divergence is not simply a problem to be solved but also an opportunity from which all of us can benefit. We can all learn from one another. Do not assume that Autistics are only here to learn neurotypical ways of being. Do not assume your ways are always the best. Our interests, talents, and brain structures are intrinsically valuable. Respect our divergence! You have much more to learn from us than you realize.

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