A Modest Bayesian Proposal: What if the #autistic developmental path is a cumulative process?

Transparent Polycarbonate Construction Layers
layers upon layers upon layers… they all make us who we are

For those who don’t read about these sorts of things, there’s a method of updating a hypothesis (what you suppose might be happening) based on ever-increasing amounts of data. It’s called “Bayesian inference“, and it’s all about adjusting, based on a continuous flow of additional input/data which can alter your view.

You think something is the case…

The driver ahead of you is not moving, when the light turns red. So, you think they’re not paying attention.

Then you get more data

You see their head is lowered – they’re not sitting up straight

and you realize something else might be the case…

Maybe they’re fiddling with their radio, or they dropped something on the floor of their car. 

Then you get more data,

You beep the horn, but you get no response. They are still not moving.

and you realize something else might be the case…

Are they sick? Have they collapsed?

And then you get even more data,

You get out of your car and go tap on their window – sure enough, they are slumped over and unresponsive.

and you realize something else might be the case…

They’re also convulsing. They’re having a seizure. This changes things entirely.

In the space of a few moments, maybe a few seconds, your whole perspective has changed. And that sort of thing happens to autistic people countless times in our lives – sometimes in a week, or a day.

Bayesian inference is a process of refining your opinions and outlooks, based on ever more data. And the process of doing so really mirrors what I’ve seen myself and many other autistic folks do over the course of their lives.

I personally believe that autistic / Aspergers folks aggregate our knowledge stores from observation. We don’t just unconsciously “pick up on signals” from the rest of the world around us and unquestioningly develop as though we’ve always known those things, like the rest of the world seems to. We actually pick up signals in specific, focused ways (being strongly influenced by our sensory processing variability), and we consciously work through that input to update our knowledge stores about what things mean, and what we should do about them.

We autistic folks actually think about our world. We actually “do science” when we interact with it. I’m not just talking about Aspergers folks who are “high functioning”. I’ve read accounts by “severely autistic” (sorry) folks, who talk about the same process — studying their world, reaching conclusions, observing more, updating their conclusions, and so forth.

What we know and what we do is the product of a “lacquering” type of process, where successive layers of additional information are added, in sometimes painstaking, minute detail.

That’s definitely how my mind works. And I firmly believe that’s why it’s taken me so danged long to get my act together and get the hang of “adulting”. My life has been an extended process of trial-and-error, with each new batch of errors adding to the overall data stores I had about whatever I was doing.

Sometimes it takes a while to make all the right mistakes. But I seem to have made more than my fair share. And that means I have a truly impressive “toolbox” of experience to draw from. At this point in my life, that’s a plus. Because this is when I need all those tools — when the rest of the world is collapsing around me, and I’ve got to make arrangements and manage things – preferably with a narrow margin for error.

It’s so much easier for me now, to figure stuff out, because A) I’ve learned from so many mistakes, and B) I know exactly how to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. I’m not as derailed by many folks, by my screw-ups. So, I screwed up. What else is new? Main thing is to not get down on myself about it, and keep moving.

But back to my original assertion: that Autistic people develop through Bayesian Inference.

If this is the case (and I believe it is), then our development needs to be aided by a continuous stream of additional data, adding on to what we think we know, correcting our outlooks, and moving us forward. Assuming that we know things “we should know” is no good. We need active input. We need to do science. Even if the information we’re receiving isn’t fun or easy to talk about (relating to our physical needs, fluids, uncomfortable emotions, awkward situations, etc), we still need to be exposed. We need to be taught — and in an objective and scientific manner.

It might sound uber-nerdy, and maybe it is, but if that’s what it takes to train us and refine us and bring us along into full participation in the world, then so be it.

Enough of the “autism cure” talk. Enough of the judgment. We’re just different. We’re built differently. We have more synapses (don’t be jealous, all you NTs). We make more connections. We’re excruciatingly connected to the world around us, even if the rest of the non-autistic world can’t tell.

What — just what — might happen, if we accepted that, and worked with it as a strength, rather than something that needed to be eradicated from the planet?

What indeed…


15 thoughts on “A Modest Bayesian Proposal: What if the #autistic developmental path is a cumulative process?

  1. This field was intentionally left blank

    Wow, amazing post! I can relate! My brain works in similar kinds of layers and refinements as well; and I definitely spend a hilariously disproportionate amount of time pondering the world, to various scales and in various contexts 😊 Constantly updating my system when faced with ever-growing, endlessly-accumulating information. Never afraid to change my opinion when presented with the new information, either lol. Which makes me seem wishy-washy to some, but meh 😉

    I love your use of “adult” as a verb, too! Awesome 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

    Hope your day is going smoothly, girl! Hang in there; half done 💜

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks heaps for this post!

    Have been wondering this for ages as I’ve noticed in my own life over decades that I’ve ” grown” in a multidimensional manner. I never had a “plan” of what my life would be but always felt constricted when the horizons were narrowing and equated that state with ‘ death ” the end of my life.

    The cumulative process has taken me to many different realms via diverse areas of interest/study/ exploration/experience and ever growing curiosity and stuff ups. Humans stuff up! Learning from our mistakes is possible if we are aware of what is ” required” which for us doesn’t come naturally and has less certainty even for Nts in a multicultural society… whose norms/mores?

    To understand I need ” context’ / ” seeing” ramifications across areas as broad as possible that feed into existence…. a ” whole..istic” approach … not looking for ” holes… as in holistic” 🙂 but how everything interrelates …. so the broader/ greater/ deeper/ personal/ observational/philosophical /historical/psychological etc aspects , layers all feed into evolving context … from this comes perspectives .

    I feel all autistics are constantly in the process of understanding our life experience and beyond.

    We are constantly confronted by, and /or absorbed by existential consciousness , however , we have a need to recognise the necessity of “time out” to process it all. Ironically we are ” consciously conscious” most of the time, not that this figures in various versions of ToM . Much here could be expanded upon.

    In earlier decades I did’t have much problem ” filing ” information but then the layers and interconnections were fewer … all dependant upon experience and time…. continually expanding…if this ceases then there’s no point in being.

    Now an annoying result of this cumulative process in the concrete world is that I find it soooooooon! difficult to know how to file info/stuff/papers etc as there are so many crossovers ( i need hard copy … partially a product of my personal historical context, physically making notes, tactility etc and facilitating visual recall).

    I find recording my thoughts easier, albeit much less legible, in handwriting… somehow the physicality, intimacy of it facilitates the connections more than using a keyboard… apologies for possible lack of coherence. here… whereas an autistic friend finds the reverse having grown up in the computerised world.

    This also happens in my mind regarding retrieval of info/experiences etc… so much pops up and decisions must be made as to the start middle and ending avenues in communicating… at times receptivity of audience is unknown … and often there is no audience as I’m pretty well a recluse nowadays.

    May be clumsily put but “conventional language and structures” are not always adequate to communicate as we well know.

    To be taught in an “objective and scientific manner” with relevance to the physicality of living our lives is crucial, as you so rightly say. Somehow I think this will only occur when autistics are taught by autistics.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. VisualVox

      Oh, that totally makes sense – and I can relate. Over the years, as my own connections have expanded, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to pick and choose “on the spot”. Take job changes, for example. Once upon a time, I’d just think, “Oh, I need to do something different, now,” and I’d go out and get a new job. But now, there are so many variables I’m aware of, and so many possible pitfalls, that I’m frozen with indecision. I know I need to make a change (I think – no, I’m not really sure), but getting started is just impossible. So, I sit tight.

      I’m much more reclusive now, myself, as well. I prefer it. It’s SO much easier – and more pleasant, I have to say.

      Conventional language and structures… they’re fine, but we need more. So much more.

      And yes, autistics should teach autistics. Especially elders mentoring younger folks. Turning to NTs is a losing proposition, from where I’m sitting. Logically, it’s implausible that they would ever really help us in the way(s) we need.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Even with the best of intentions NTs are not equipped to really help us apart from assisting /facilitating avenues whereby we, autistics, are able to achieve, operate constructively using autistic dynamics in providing ourselves and each other opportunities for growth.

        Yes! They are the ones who can’t handle difference in fact when we consider what the mainstream accuse/label us to be and then observe mainstream behaviour, revealed thoughts ((speech, written) about us it becomes obvious there is a great deal of projection going on from their side.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. VisualVox

        I agree. We have a different neurotype and a different culture, in fact. At least, that’s what I think. And NT folks are too insular (usually) to do a good job of translating across that gap without favoring themselves.


      3. Carl Rogers & person centred therapy approach, humanism, self actualisation, “projection” .. gain greater awareness of self and personal growth…. *

        Many mainstream psychologists in mid 20th century were still hooked on Freud whilst others followed a personal growth… self actualisation path from work of Maslow, Jung etc…..

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I like this post and I get the theory as it relates to me. What I don’t get is how allistics might learn stuff if not in this way. Is there an alternative route to building up the information required. Or am I still thinking about it “too autistically” (for want of a better phrase)?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. VisualVox

      Thanks – I’ve been thinking about this, too. Maybe they think in terms of “lots of people do it, so I’ll do it, too”. Herd mentality? Not to be unkind, of course, just thinking “aloud”. Kind of a “frequentist” approach (my understanding of frequentism is severely limited, as you may deduce — I’ll have to fix that.)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I just had to look the word up. I needn’t have bothered. I couldn’t get my head round the explanation at all! You can tell me when you’ve figured it out…

        We need to find some deep thinking allistics to explain to us how they think. See where the similarities and differences lie. That could be a cool discussion.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. VisualVox

        I just talked to a “frequentist” friend of mine. She explained it very well – I’m not sure it necessarily applies to allistic though/relating patterns. Maybe our style is so granular, we can’t help but be explicitly Bayesian, but they don’t actually get to the level of detail that we do, so they’re neither Bayesian or frequentist… Dunno. Always interesting to wonder, though! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Agreed.

    By the way, I was thinking earlier that a year ago I still had no idea I was autistic. After my assessment in May I think yours might have been one of the first blogs I came across. And you’ve always been so kind and helpful with my questions. Thank you so much – I’ve really appreciated your input 🙂 xx

    Liked by 4 people

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