One of the major contributions by Sigmund Freud to psychology was the idea that a lot of what defines our personality lies outside of conscious awareness. Freud illustrated this idea by using the analogy to an iceberg. The mind floats like an iceberg and only its tip begets conscious awareness. Otherwise most of the mind lies below the surface. According to Freud a significant portion of our behavior and personality is dictated by the unconscious mind; that is, what lies below the water.
I believe that autistic individuals differ from neurotypicals in that their personality is dictated by conscious means. They are very much aware of what is going on around them even when they are not able to understand the same. In effect, they live in the present by paying close attention to those events currently happening around them. As such, their primary goal is to avoid things, avert loss, and overcome anything that may provide an obstacle to their present endeavors. Mindfulness living entails a certain lack of spontaneity. Reassurance is brought about by the safety ingrained in both repetitions and rituals. In this regard, a high level of compulsivity is how an autistic individual attempts to gain control over their present circumstances. Their habits, rather than subconscious urges, are compulsions.
I suspect that living in the present and constantly trying to make sense out of everything is a very laborious process. It certainly requires a lot of mental work and energy expenditure to consciously work out all of the details affecting your current life (see previous blog on autism burnout). It makes you devote your efforts to the task at hand and makes multitasking quite difficult. Indeed, autistic individuals may take more time speaking because they are consciously choosing their words. They must devote time and energy figuring out what and how to do things. When this capacity to self-regulate is overwhelmed maladaptive behaviors may ensue. They are not able to overcome challenges in life and find it more difficult to overcome environmental/situational exigencies. Furthermore, this breakdown is propitiated when the individual is feeling strong emotions; when they are highly upset. Unfortunately, this is when they need self-regulation the most. It is then that, all of the sudden, their actions become responsive to urges. You could say that the autistic introvert then becomes the autistic extrovert.
Mindfully living in the present helps explain some of the executive dysfunctions observed in autism. A person living in the present makes it difficult to plan for the future. Goal setting is sabotaged. They can’t avert things that may hurt them in the long run. This makes autistic individuals act impulsively. This is not to say that they act without thinking; rather, they act without considering all possible scenarios, -especially those that have to do with the future consequences of their actions.
Not all autistic individuals are alike and some of these features may be more prominent in some individuals rather than others. Boosting executive functions may be a way of dislodging a child from living exclusively in the present. It will inhibit impulsive behaviors, help manage complex behaviors, and strengthen self-regulation. Cognitive scientist are developing many different interventions aimed at boosting executive functions. Some of the more exciting options now include computer gaming programs for children.
Autism Updated: Symptoms, Treatments and Controversies. Amazon Publishing, 2019.