Cognitive style

I have a particular cognitive style, which means that I have difficulty with some of the broad or vague concepts and tasks that are very much a part of Higher Education.  These have often lead to an inability to begin tasks.

Area of Asperger’s Syndrome Example Issues I have experienced in Higher Education Solutions that would have helped me
Cognitive style Getting started I need to get to grips with a whole topic before starting any work on it. I need to know and understand what I am going to do/say/write before I can start, then I plan backwards until I reach the first step and can then begin. Up until my final year I had difficulty explaining my thesis topic to anybody because I didn’t have any answers. I can’t give an incorrect answer, or an incomplete interim answer, I have to know and believe what I’m saying. I am writing up my thesis starting with the results, and leaving the introduction til last. Encourage and check essay plan, perhaps providing an example; suggest working backwards.
Global vs local cognitive style Very detail oriented, unable to grasp important global interpretations or implications, difficult to work from the general to the particular and back again, difficult to summarise or provide an overview (fear of loss of detail). Constructive feedback, with examples where it has been done well; less emphasis in mark scheme for introduction/conclusion if main body is good.
Weak central coherence I need a purpose to my reading, a specific thing I am looking for or question I want to answer (a ‘tree’). I cannot just ‘read around the subject’ to gain an understanding of the area (‘balloons’), because I need a branch, and preferably the whole tree in place first, in order to tie the balloons to it as I am reading. Otherwise I am just trying to hold on to a lot of information in my head, lots of loose balloons, and there is a finite number that I can hold on to before they float away. Even a single paper/chapter I am unable to hold in my head, or form an overview that I can call on, unless I had the tree in place first to peg it to. If setting reading prior to a seminar, provide the questions you will ask at the same time as the reading list, otherwise the student may appear not to have bothered doing the reading as they cannot answer surprise questions.
Cognitive flexibility I have great difficulty changing between tasks (eg writing two different chapters or running two experiments at the same time) as I have to be completely “inside” the task I’m currently doing. It would be difficult to keep changing topics or activities in a session as my thought processes have quite a lot of momentum once they’re going in a particular direction. Set tasks sequentially rather than concurrently. Try not to cover too many things in one session.
Difficulty making mental leaps and assumptions Something may seem obvious to most but perplexing to me because I am not able to transfer skills very easy across settings or people – particularly abstract ideas requiring imagination or things that have never occurred to me. I also can’t generalise myself across different situations – When I’m not completely inside the task at hand I don’t think I know anything about it. I have to remind myself that I have run lots of experiments before I will be fine with this one, and I could understand that experiment well enough to write about it before I started this one, so I will be able to understand it again once I go back to it. Analogies, labels and comparisons help me to form scripts, schemata and rules for new situations/ people without starting from scratch – “John is officious”, “Treat this woman like a senior colleague”, “Collect your data just like last time but using this other questionnaire”.
Black and white thinking I often only perceive two extremes of an issue without the ‘greys’ in between; views like television channels – it’s either one or the other, it can’t be both or inbetween. People can be viewed as perfect or terrible, and minor slights can cause irretrievable breakdowns in student-tutor relationships. Don’t confuse this with being judgemental and don’t penalise. Describe what the third channel is like and it might be added…
Short term memory I have to make lists for everything and keep a detailed diary as my memory, particularly my prospective memory, is terrible. This has knock on effects for my organisation and time-management. Put anything important in writing/email or allow me to write it down at the time. Break longer term coursework goals into smaller short term goals.
Decision making Open questions: “So what are you doing now?” – Unclear what information you want: “I’m standing here talking to you”, “I’m going home (after we finish talking)”, “I’m doing a PhD…”“Tell me about your research” – Unclear what information you want, and in what order, and in how much detail: Topic, title, department, year, supervisor, what I’m looking for, what I’ve found, what I want to find, why I’m doing this research, do I enjoy it etc. Be more specific – “So what are you doing after we finish talking?” “What’s the title of your thesis?

© Catastraspie, 2012.

9 Responses to Cognitive style

  1. arifmvega says:

    In several weeks of searching this is the first detailed reference to aspergers in higher education I have been able to find. Thank you for posting it. Just my two cents…. I would like to see more. I will be going back to school for the first time in 12 years (in a lot of ways you could say the first time in 18 years. or even my entire life), hopefully with some options in special education. Are you working with a special ed counselor? What are they willing to change?

    I understand a university is a particularly good place to put an aspie. What do you think about the differences between university and community college atmospheres? Not that I have a choice, a university would have me thrown out on my head, but I am curious anyways.

    • catastraspie says:

      Thank you for your comments! 🙂 I’m glad you have found the materials helpful. I have had support from my university’s disability and dyslexia team (roughly the equivalent of a special ed counselor I imagine) – including extra time in exams, extra time on assignments, a separate room for exams rather than the exam hall with hundreds of people, tutor awareness of AS and how it may affect me, and a scribe for some exams (someone who writes my answers down as I dictate them). The university had a legal responsibility to make adjustments because I had a formal diagnosis, and they did help – I don’t think I would have completed without them.

      Being in the UK I am not entirely clear on the differences between a university and a community college. Perhaps you would give some examples of the challenges you think you will face so that I might understand. Good luck with your return to school, I’m sure that your self-awareness will help you succeed.

  2. Quarries and Corridors says:

    This is an extremely good list!

    I’d add that even when asking specific questions, it’s important to give context to explain *why* you’re asking them. If you have an overall aim like planning a work schedule or updating priorities, you’ll cause considerably less confusion if you open your line of questioning by explaining this and outlining what you’re hoping to achieve from the conversation than if you ask a series of specific but contextless questions.

  3. Ashley says:

    This is literally the one of the best things about Aspergers I’ve read. I relate to it in almost every way. I’ve been trying to find things about Aspergers an high education written by someone who actually has Aspergers not something written about what studies say and such. I think its amazing how you know what you need to do and how you think. I’m still trying to figure out how to put my thinking processes into words to express to people. Some of things you said relate exactly to me specifically like decision making, short term memory, cognitive flexibility. Some of the others things I haven’t comprehended yet, which is another problem I have. I know I don’t understand something but I can’t figure out what I don’t understand. I guess thats why I find it amazing that you know these things about yourself and you know what you can do to fix them.

    • catastraspie says:

      Hi Ashley, thank you for your comments on my blog, and sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve just had a baby and my brain is a bit mashed! I’m glad you’ve been able to relate to my musings, I’d reflected on them for quite a while before putting fingers to keys, so I’m very pleased that they make sense! 🙂

  4. Ramona says:

    Thank you so much for this list, I feel like it will really help me communicate my difficulties to my tutor! It’s so hard to put into words what your difficulties are exactly!

  5. Gone Wild says:

    How funny! I just finished a post on my blog, about my peculiar way of dealing with lists, from the bottom up. Lists drive me nuts! In principle, if your list is longer than 10 entries, and the items don’t relate to a common theme, then it really isn’t a list!

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