Persistently there is a belief that autistic people are stuck in a rut, they have a singular special interest, they are only interested in that interest and often that they are incapable of multi-tasking. This belief is wrong. For some autistics it is partly true, for some, it is quite true and for many, it is patently false.
This is a pervasive stereotype, it’s as pervasive as the use of the dreaded functioning labels, I have written about the shortcomings of that particular issue here. Just as it is wrong to assume a person’s ability to function in one situation is likely to be the same in all situations so it is wrong to assume that autistics can’t and don’t multi-task.
So persistent is this stereotype that we autistic people even fall prey to it and are known to ask each other what our “special interest” is. This is a question that I have never ever found easy to answer, I believe this is partly due to never having a singular focus interest, and baulking somewhat at the idea that my interests are somehow special and non-autistic people’s interests are hobbies.
The truth is that we autistics can and do multi-task. Just as the rest of the world’s population the difficulty we have with it varies as widely as there are people on the planet. Luna Lindsey has provided some insight into how this difficulty has particular outworkings here.
It’s absolutely dumbfounding that people don’t actually understand this.
We humans seem to thrive on routine. But even more potent than routine is predictability. I’ve heard teachers talking about how if the autistic child in the class is going to have a change in a routine then a meltdown is imminent. I think in many cases what is closer to the truth is that predictability has been derailed, that the autistic child suddenly has not a change of things to be done but that an imposition into the predictability of their day, environment etc is suddenly in a state of flux. Sensory issues that were in check are suddenly more potent, anxiety is raised and so forth.
The destruction of predictability is far more of a barrier to successful multitasking for some autistic people than a lack of routine.
But of course, a routine can also be super important to some of us too.
As the saying goes. “If you’ve met an autistic person, then you’ve met one autistic person” We are myriad, just as non-autistic people are myriad.
Personally, I can and do multi-task. At different times in life, this has been more or less successful. In my last long-term employment situation, I did this a lot of the time very successfully. I worked in an office environment where I managed to successfully complete and manage a bunch of tasks and responsibilities. This position was eventually derailed. The reason was most definitely in reflection, not the inability to have a routine but the absolute lack of predictability. My boss would regularly ring in and blast the predictability of things out of the water.
In the end, I had a kind of meltdown response and walked out. In the aftermath of this, I think I have been in a kind of burnout experience for the last few years since. I managed to work with that constant derailment for a bit over two years. It would, in fact, happen every single day, multiple times a day. In the end, it took its toll.
Currently, I manage a range of competing for important things in my life. I manage my faith life, my interest in web development, my interest in writing, my interest in running and of course my interest in online autism advocacy and offline autism advocacy.
There are times where I find this difficult, but I manage it. I have many running friends who are not autistic or neurodivergent and they have just as much difficulty in maintaining interest in the areas of their life that are outside of the running community.
Having difficulty managing multi-tasking is not an issue of autism, it is, though, an issue of being human.
In recent times, I have managed to uphold my autism advocacy interest, involvement in an autism research organisation, membership with my local running group, and completing an online course. I have to juggle all these things, I have to make decisions on a day to day basis about which of these interests will be of most importance and which will have lesser importance than other days. I have managed to do all this in an environment where I have lost my marriage relationship and begun a journey of transitioning to my true gender.
So please tell me again how autistics are too single-minded, too focused on their special interests and unable to multi-task and manage competing demands.