"Does the autistic brain have problems processing sensory and emotional information? My husband [on the autism spectrum] rarely follows through with what he originally agrees to do [or later, states he did not understand what I said, or simply does not remember the conversation at all]."
The sensory systems are also involved in “emotional processing.” People with autism spectrum disorder vary in their ability to process information emotionally, in part because at least one other sense often doesn't work well (e.g., it would be difficult for spouse with an auditory-processing issue to figure out whether his wife’s voice suggests composure or irritation). Also, many of these individuals have a hard time using their emotions or desires to process information and act appropriately in interpersonal settings.
Processing is a system that helps people select, prepare, and begin to interpret incoming information. People with ASD who have difficulty with processing may have a range of problems related to regulating the use of incoming information.
There are five processing skills:
1. Cognitive activation is a form of “active processing” that connects new information to what has already been learned through prior knowledge and experience. People who are “inactive processors” are unable to connect to prior knowledge to assist their understanding of new information. In contrast, “overactive processors” are reminded of too much prior knowledge, making it difficult for them to maintain focus.
2. Depth and detail of processing controls how intensely people can concentrate on highly specific data. It enables them to focus deeply enough to recognize and remember necessary details. People with ASD tend to remember a lot of details that relate to their area of special interest, but may not remember much outside of that interest.
3. Focal maintenance allows the person to focus on important information for the appropriate period of time. Individuals on the spectrum may not concentrate long enough on some things, and may concentrate too long on others.
4. Saliency determination involves selecting which incoming information is the most important. People who have difficulty with this control may be distracted by things that are not relevant and miss important information being presented.
5. Satisfaction control involves a person’s ability to allocate enough attention to activities or topics of moderate or low levels of interest. People with ASD with poor satisfaction control have difficulty concentrating on activities that are outside of their special interest.
Here are some signs that your ASD husband has difficulty processing information:
- tries to understand the meaning of each word you are saying rather than being able to automatically understand the whole gist and general meaning of your sentence
- processes too little or too much information
- processes one word that you say, but then thinks of something completely unrelated to what you are saying
- only pays attention to exciting information or highly stimulating activities
- misses a lot of things that are obvious to you
- may have to repeat himself several times before you understand what he is saying
- has trouble picking up the main ideas in conversations with you
- has problems shifting focus from one subject or activity to another
- has difficulty connecting new information with information already known
- has an idea of what he wants to say in his mind, but when he attempts to share the idea, it doesn’t come out right
- focuses too superficially or too deeply on information you present
- focuses too long on just one detail
- focuses too briefly on important aspects of the conversation
- can't distinguish between what is important to you - and what isn't
Resources for couples affected by ASD: