Cognitive sensitivity refers to a person’s ability to create a cognitively stimulating environment when interacting with a less experienced partner while being attuned to this partner’s emotional state (ScienceDirect Opens in new window).

Strictly speaking, sensitivities is not the best term to describe cognitive phenomena typical in autism. However, in some way at least, the word does stress both positive (‘seeing’ unusual connections, extraordinary abilities, etc.) and negative (e.g. difficulty in dealing with verbal abstractions) implications of the autistic modes of thinking. We can say that autistic people perceive, feel and remember too much (Markram et al. 2007).

We will consider the following features of autistic cognitive processes:

  1. extraordinary abilities
  2. ‘seeing’ unusual connections and unconventional patterns
  3. (autistic) logical thinking
  4. subconscious thinking.
  1. Extraordinary abilities

There are many different phenomena we cannot (yet) explain (such as, for example, synaesthesia Opens in new window and savant syndrome Opens in new window), and for now what the best researchers can do is suggest plausible theories and hypotheses that can shed some light and/or inspire more research. No matter how extraordinary these phenomena may seem to us, the majority accept them as real, whether we fully understand them or not.

  1. ‘Seeing’ unusual connections and unconventional patterns

When thinking we often divide the whole into parts, that is, think about separate things, while missing the whole. (It is ironic that we accuse autistic individuals of not seeing the forest behind the trees, while categorizing Opens in new window and classifying parts of the forest in our minds all the time and losing the big picture of our reality.) That is why we are often bewildered:

whenever things seem to go wrong or awry… sometimes things seem to go wrong when in the bigger picture all remains satisfactory. Things are fine, but we are yet able to see and appreciate that point. Our emotional reactions get in the way, so this type of situation provides us with an opportunity to adjust our perception and thinking, to learn something, to improve our understanding of things and to grow, to mature a little in wisdom. (Culliford 2007, p.62)

In contrast to the verbal thinking of non-autistic individuals, autistic thinking is mostly sensory-perceptual.

When a nonverbal person thinks, there are no words going through his mind, only sensory impressions such as visual images, sounds, smells, taste and touch sensations. The closest analogy Opens in new window is remembering a dream.

Gelernter (2006) writes about the cognitive spectrum that is changing its version every day:

the most analytical one is when we are most awake; as we grow less awake, our thinking becomes more concrete, and when we start to fall asleep, we begin to free associate and finally reach the wholly nonlogical, high concrete type of thought we call dreaming.

In terms of development, we race out the cognitive spectrum in reverse: babies and children think concretely; as they grow up their thinking becomes more analytical (Gelerner 2006, p.167).

Conversely, in autism Opens in new window, the quality of visual thinking may depend on the state the person is in, and even the time of day; for instance, thought images are clearer and most detailed when the person is drifting off to sleep (Grandin 2006).

Being a spatial thinker means that a person represents things in their mind with a multidimensional model. This way of thinking brings both disadvantages and advantages.

  • On the one hand, it is more difficult to do things that are sequential (one-dimensional and in linear progression).
  • On the other hand, it is easier to see certain patterns of the world and infer things from those patterns.

Since people with autism think with their subconscious they can see the decision-making process that is not perceived by normal people (Grandin 2006).

Many autistic individuals have their own systems for interpreting their surroundings. For example, Gunilla Gerland (1997) had her own internal color system which she used to connect information about different places (worlds), such as the nursery or the garden.

The colors helped her to interpret other people’s feelings as well as her own, the atmosphere of different places, and so on. It was the colors generated from the inside that assisted her in detecting connections between the places and people.

  1. (Autistic) logical thinking

It is logical to assume that perceptual thinking gives us an unbiased (less biased?) approach to any problem. People who think perceptually are not restricted by traditional conventions.

In contrast to normal sequential thinking that involves analysis, the progression from simple to complex, organizing information in linear deductive reasoning, spatial thinking involves a synthesis, an intuitive grasp of complex systems (often missing the steps), simultaneous processing of concepts, including reasoning (from the whole to the parts), use of imagination and generation of ideas by combining existing facts in new ways (creative thinking). It is influenced by visualization and images and awareness of space.

Spatial, holistic and synthetic functions are thought to be associated with the right hemisphere of the brain (West 1991).

Logical thinking without interference from emotions also seems to be quite common in autism (especially in Asperger syndrome, AS), for example:

My thought processes …through good times and bad, have been mathematically logical… I put too high a premium on logic and rationality, giving short shrift to the emotions. (Schneider 1999, p.20)
  1. Subconscious thinking

Temple Grandin (2006) hypothesizes that in most people language covers up the primary sensory-based thinking that humans share with animals.

Sensory-based thinking is subconscious in most people, while those like Temple Grandin think with the primary sensory-based subconscious areas of the brain. When well developed, this brings certain advantages not available to others.

For example, normal people have difficulty in conceptualizing multidimensional processes (Johnson-Laird 1989), which can be linked to unconscious processes operating ‘in a space of a higher number of dimensions than that of our perceptions and conscious thinking’ (Matte-Blanco 1988, p.91).

  1. Types of intelligence

Several types of intelligence can be distinguished, and different tests have been designed to measure it.

Table X-1. Rational intelligence: Thinking with a brain
Cognitive abilities (both verbal and nonverbal) are tested with specially designed tests and the results are reflected in the intelligence quotient (IQ). As in non-autism, cognitive functioning in autism involves both positive (such as, for example, acuteness, perfect memory, detecting patterns, seeking unusual connections) and negative (for instance, inability/difficulty in shifting attention between stimuli of different sensory modality, difficulty in dealing with abstractions) features. As the IQ tests have been designed to test normal features of cognitive development, they turn out to be meaningless in testing autistic cognitive intelligence — thinking with a brain.

Measuring non-autistic people by [the autistic] type of development would often find them failing miserably and appearing to be thoroughly subnormal by autistic standards. (Williams 1996, p.235)

By distinguishing between subconscious and conscious perceptual processing, we can distinguish between conscious and subconscious types of intelligence, the latter with little conscious awareness (unknown knowing).

They roughly correspond to Bergson’s definitions of intellect and intuition (or intellectual sympathy), with intellect being external, looking on reality as different from life,

but in intellectual sympathy ‘one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible’ (Bergson 1944, p.23).

Bergson points out that analysis reduces the object to already known elements that are common to it and all other objects; analysis can be seen as a translation into symbols and expresses a thing as a function of something other than itself.

Unlike intellectual sympathy (intuition) that leads to the inwardness of life, intellect ‘goes all round life… drawing it into itself instead of entering it’ (Bergson 1944, p.194).

Bergson’s intellectual sympathy can be seen in the phenomenon experienced by some autistic people: losing oneself in stimuli to the extent that one becomes resonant with them (terms introduced by Donna Williams).

The person can merge with different sensory stimuli as if they become the stimulus itself. Some autistic individuals are able to be in resonance with their surroundings — colors, sounds, objects, places, plants, animals, people. These are very real experiences that can be called spiritual experiences Opens in new window.

    The data for this work have been resourced from the manual:
  1. Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Different Sensory ... By Olga Bogdashina