“You are exaggerating”, “you are too sensitive”, “you take everything as a personal attack” are phrases that some autistic people (not all, of course) are used to hearing. Why are we sometimes attributed an “excess of sensitivity”?
Several factors would intervene in this judgment: our literalness, emotional lability (the tendency to go from one emotional extreme to another in a rather abrupt way), alexithymia (or difficulty recognizing certain emotional states) and a concept called dichotomous or polarized thinking, which will be the subject of this article.
Dichotomous thinking consists of conceptualizing the world, experiences and relationships based on strong, rigid and, normally, exclusive or mutually opposed categories. According to this way of thinking, it is common to classify others as “friends or enemies”, to feel that you have failed miserably in a task if you have not reached absolute perfection, or to refuse to start a personal project if you are not sure that you will be able to complete it.
Having certain dichotomous thoughts is frequent in our society (in the same way that it is feeling anxiety about an unknown situation), but, in the autistic population, it seems that this percentage increases. This is quite logical, if we pay attention to the autistic idiosyncrasy; the reduction of the world to certain immovable categories is an adaptive response to the unpredictability of social relationships, the ambiguity that governs our interactions with others, and the overwhelming amount of stimuli that surround us.
Frustration and mental exhaustion
According to Aaron Beck, one of the initiators of cognitive therapy, thoughts reflect a person’s configuration about himself, his history, his expectations, and his emotions and behaviors. Therefore, our way of thinking influences our emotions, and these, at the same time, influence our behaviors. And this also happens in an inverse way: our actions have a direct impact on our mental configuration and on our way of feeling. For this reason, it is very common for a person with a tendency to dichotomous thinking to also experience any event with great emotional intensity (feeling authentic and genuine pain because of a small argument, or excessive euphoria at pleasant news), and that the expression of that emotion is equally polarized (through inconsolable crying or jumping for joy).
In autism, dichotomous thinking sometimes prevents us from appreciating the shades of social interactions (a negative comment towards us does not necessarily imply that this person hates us), and a slightly positive event can be experienced with the same emotional intensity as a spectacular news, without being able to establish a hierarchy of importance (both cognitive and emotional) between one experience and the other. Of course, all autistic people are different, but this tendency to live everything very intensely is quite common; neurotypical emotionality, on the other hand, does not usually reach these peaks of exaltation, and the feeling (whatever it may be) also fades more slowly, in a less abrupt way. Both ways of feeling and thinking are valid, but we must find a fit between all of us to live together optimally.
Can dichotomous thinking, taken to the extreme, be harmful? Of course. The constant desire for invariance, the demand for precision in banal conversations, intolerance of opinions that we judge stupid or lacking in logic, among many other issues, can cause social misunderstandings and, most importantly: they carry consequences for the person with this rigid view of the world. Frustration or irritability because of injustice then appear (this is not necessarily bad, but it causes a lot of suffering), and even depressive symptoms.
We must learn to make our cognition more flexible in order to survive and have peace of mind, to understand that we can never control everything (this world is based, to a large extent, on implicit rules, on agreed social codes and rules), but without ever forgetting our own identity, and also demanding that neurotypicals have empathy with us and make an effort to specify, be explicit, anticipate unpleasant events, schedule tasks, and, ultimately, make our lives a little easier. Because, in the end, without a mutual effort among all the people who shape the neurodiversity of the world, there is no possible coexistence.
Hyperfocus, conflict resolution
Dichotomous thinking is part of a particular way of perceiving and feeling, and therefore it is perfectly valid. It is true that we should try to make our cognition more flexible if we live immersed in social misunderstandings for this reason and if, in addition, it causes us suffering, but we should not stigmatize anyone for having an emotionality and a way of categorizing the world that do not adapt to neurotypical standards. In addition, polarized thinking, as we have already seen, responds to an adaptive survival strategy, and it also has positive aspects.
How does dichotomous thinking benefit the autistic person? It is, in many cases, a great ally of hyper-focusing, of conflict resolution, of decision-making, of perseverance to achieve logical, plausible and realistic objectives. If we are capable of imagining the extreme consequences of something that we must solve (discarding the shades, the greys, the doubts that cloud our judgement), it will be much easier for us to deliberate, to choose an option that fits with our deepest desires. In addition, people with this type of thinking are usually very clear about their tastes and preferences, they are consistent with themselves, they defend justice and honesty above everything else, and they have great internal logic.
Lastly, I would like to comment on a very accurate assessment by psychologist Daniel Millán: polarized thinking is usually seen as a deficit or as a dysfunctional characteristic because it is associated with meltdowns, states of extreme dejection, and uncomfortable expressions of discomfort. However, this type of thinking works in both directions, and therefore the joy is equally intense, overflowing, fantastic. And, in these moments of complete happiness, no one thinks that we have emotional regulation problems, or that we are exaggerated, or that our way of thinking and feeling is invalid or maladaptive.
Beck, A., Rush, A., Shaw, B. & Emery, G. (1979). Terapia cognitiva de la depresión. Desclee de Bouwer. Madrid.
Caballo, V. (1998). Manual para el tratamiento cognitivo-conductual de los trastornos psicológicos. Vol. 2. Siglo XXI. Barcelona.
Caro, I. (comp.). (1997). Manual de psicoterapias cognitivas. Paidós. Buenos Aires.
Millán, D. (2021). Guía autista: Consejos para sobrevivir en el loco mundo de los neurotípicos. Editorial Lulu. España.
Oshio, A. (2009). Development and validation of the dichotomous thinking inventory. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal.