Perseverance, Aphantasia, Sentinel Intelligence, and Imposter Syndrome (transcript of ep. 7, S. 1 of Autism and The Podcast)

Autism and The Human Podcast (ep. 7, season 1)

Welcome to the Autism and The Human Podcast. This is episode 7 of season one. Today’s episode is a compilation of old articles I wrote for my WordPress blog. After the last few episodes, which took a lot of time to research, I wanted a bit of a break. I thought I could accomplish this while still sharing something new with most of you. I will include all the chosen topics in a new transcript post for the Autism and The Human episode, but they will essentially be the same as old posts on my blog by the same name. In addition, most of what I want to talk to you about today won’t involve content warnings. 

First, I want to explain the concept of “Perseverance” to you, which should not be confused with “perseverance.”

Perseverance is steadfastly doing something, even when it’s difficult. The payoff is delayed.

PerSEVERance is a little different. It’s when you sever that task from everything else and pursue it with a single-minded focus. When pursuing things close to the heart, most people consider themselves capable of tremendous focus. That still doesn’t fall into the category of perSEVERance.

I will use my father as an illustration of what real perSEVERance can look like. My dad had a coworker who left and came back ten years later. When this coworker returned, my dad picked up their last conversation in the exact spot it had ended.

This trait can cause confusion and miscommunication. My dad sometimes has a hard time with Twitter because the short form causes his point to be lost. His long threads online, and his conversational topics in person, can easily make people become aggravated and sick of hearing from him. This is especially true because he stays on the same topic for days or weeks. 

There are industries where employers are starting to recognize the trait of perSEVERance as a potential asset. Silicon Valley has recognized the benefits of having autistic people do many tedious aspects of coding. It would be awesome if someone heard this podcast and thought to themselves, “Maybe I should try hiring an Autistic person for this task other employees have lacked the focus to accomplish.”

Autistic people need opportunities in the workforce. More unemployed autistic people per capita exist than any other disabled group. These unemployment rates are lower than the reality because they don’t count people who have never tried to get employment or those who have given up trying. Maxfield Sparrow said, “In the United States, thirty-five percent of Autistic eighteen-year-olds go to college. Of those American Autistics with university diplomas, only 15 percent are employed. This 85% unemployment rate (among college-educated Autistic adults) is massive – the general population’s rate (at all education levels) is only 4.5 percent” (Sparrow, 2018). 

The next thing I want to tell you about is “Aphantasia.” 

Quirks and Quarks on the Canadian Broadcasting Channel (radio) presented a segment about Aphantasia on June 25, 2016. The episode was called “When the mental image is missing.”   

Aphantasia is the word used to describe having a reduction or absence of the ability to visualize in your mind. In theory, a person could go their entire life without ever realizing their lack of visualization abilities was atypical.

Visualize, mind’s eye, picturing, imagining—our language is littered with words about mental imagery. Why do so many people with Aphantasia go through life thinking the general public doesn’t know how to accurately describe memory and is prone to hyperbole? Relating to experiences you don’t share is challenging. It could be easy to miss the fact your experiences aren’t average.

I have watched movies based on books that were so well done, that I’ve found myself thinking I’ve seen the movie before. An example of this is the last two movies in the Harry Potter series. I can pick up a book I have read and loved, and the words come to me before I read them. This must mean I have visualization, right?

Quirks and Quarks have me wondering if it’s more complicated than that, especially after mentioning the correlation between autism and Aphantasia. Temple Grandin has often described thinking in pictures. Other people have connected Synesthesia to autism. For Autistics, Aphantasia appears to be another common experience of visualization.

Going back to my experiences, my initial reaction to the Quirks and Quarks segment was that I clearly am not an Aphantasiac…then I began to consider my problems with mental math and spelling out loud.

I’ve always known I have issues with these things. I have often used the word dyscalculia to describe my issues with math, but I always understood the problem was in visualization. Teachers would hound me to see the numbers in my mind. I couldn’t. Spelling bees were hampered by similar issues, much to the annoyance of teachers who knew I got perfect marks on the tests. They assumed I was being wilful. With my stubborn streak well documented, it didn’t seem a large leap to make.

After listening to Quirks and Quarks, I decided to test a hypothesis. I tried to imagine the beach.

Nothing. My mind was a black screen.

The story was different when I added feelings. I tried to imagine the beach near my sister’s place. It’s a long beach that gets roasting hot. Every summer, you see people start out towards the water with no shoes, then catch the look of panic on their faces when they realize their feet are burning and it’s as far back for their shoes as it is forward to get to the water. They make a mad dash to the water and gasp with relief when the cool waves hit their feet. When I added all these emotions, images flooded into my mind.

Accusations of Autistic people lacking emotions are misinformed. My memories seem to be intricately wrapped up in feelings, to the point I can’t access certain memories without first remembering the emotions. My sister says she remembers more about my marriage than I do. Most days, she is right. In order to remember certain things that happened, I have to remember the ugly emotions. It’s easier to forget.

An author interviewed in the Quirks and Quarks piece said her writing is filled with florid descriptive passages because she experiences Aphantasia. Her way of accessing memory is through words. That makes complete sense to me. The other man interviewed describes a much more pattern-related system, which I’ve also witnessed with autistic people.

A Twitter mutual of mine (Emily @invisiblegirls99) described her thoughts on this topic as nebulous. It is a fantastic word to use. It brings to mind the intricate patterns within the structure of the brain.

There are many implications I haven’t come close to pinning down. The Quirks and Quarks segment opened a window of insight into myself that might have taken a long time to happen organically. It’s cool when that happens.

Next, I would like to tell you about “Sentinel Intelligence.” 

Have you ever walked into a room and immediately knew something was wrong? What about before you walked into the room?

For years I have watched stereotypes and cliches comprise the majority of representation of autism in literature, television, and film. Some aspects of these portrayals were true to my life, and others were not. As the expression goes, if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person. One portrayal has always been problematic for me: The idea that Autistics have a low emotional quotient (EQ). The suggestion I’m incapable of empathy is ridiculous. From what I’ve seen of many other Autistics, it’s an absurd assertion in general.

Simon Baron-Cohen has built a career out of characterizing autism as a zero-empathy disorder. One vicious blogger I had the unfortunate luck of stumbling across quotes Baron-Cohen’s credentials at length, then proceeds to use them to mock actually autistic people having the audacity to claim any degree of reliable self-knowledge. I won’t give the name of her blog because I don’t want you guys to seek her out and be attacked. She says the only reliable way to know if an Autistic person has empathy is to ask a third party. She backs this up with things Simon Baron-Cohen wrote in “The Science of Evil” that reflect the blogger’s opinion. I wonder what a third party would say about either of their capacity for empathy? The names they’ve given to their work show a lack of empathy, without even glancing at the content. 

It doesn’t take long to find articles and research which show the view of autism is shifting towards what I’ve observed. Autistic people experience overloads of empathy, to the point where it’s hard to process and exhibit appropriate reactions.

The blogger I mentioned above tried to address this theory by saying unexpressed empathy amounts to no empathy at all. The ableism of this opinion is staggering. If a person only communicated through sign language, would she say they weren’t talking because they weren’t verbalizing? If they used a wheelchair for mobility, would she say they weren’t really moving?

If I am overwhelmed with empathy towards someone, my face might become deadpan. This can be my silent meltdown expression. By her logic, I don’t actually have feelings if my face doesn’t match my emotions.

I suffer from anxiety. It can range from mild, all the way to clinical depression. Some triggers for anxiety are hard to avoid. It took me a long time to trust they weren’t figments of my imagination. These can come in the form of sensing the emotional state of people around me, sometimes before seeing them.

I’ve had times when I woke up with overwhelming dread. This feeling was accompanied by sweating, shaking, stomach aches, migraines, and panic attacks. On each of these occasions, it turned out someone in my life was suffering some kind of catastrophe. There was one occasion when the closer I got to school, the worse my stomach hurt. When I got to school, I found out a classmate had died. Maybe you’re thinking the symptoms earlier in the day were unrelated to finding out about the heightened stress levels and emotional upheaval; a mere coincidence. I never believed it was coincidental, and recently I stumbled upon a possible name for the phenomenon.

Sentinel Intelligence is the ability to sense threats that are undetectable by most people. People with high intelligence and heightened anxiety are more likely to exhibit Sentinel Intelligence. It’s connected to altruism and raises empathetic ability. This phenomenon flies in the face of Simon Baron-Cohen and the blogger’s theories. It confirms what I already witnessed to be true of many Autistic people. 

Finally, I want to talk to you about “Imposter Syndrome.” I will be talking about this from the perspective of a teacher as well as an autistic person.

I recently began listening to Angela Watson’s podcast, “Truth for Teachers.” Each episode I listened to had valuable information and advice, but Episode 114, called “Seven ways teachers can push past imposter syndrome” was the one that made the most significant connections to my own experiences. 

Many people have experienced moments where they felt like a fraud. I think it’s helpful to remember we aren’t the only ones who feel this way. People who’d be considered wildly successful struggle each day with the idea that everyone is going to discover their admiration is misplaced. Actress Meryl Streep wonders why anyone would pay to see another of her movies. Scientist Albert Einstein saw himself as an involuntary swindler because the esteem people had for him didn’t match his estimation of his contributions to science. Although he accomplished more than most people, Einstein still felt the weight of all the questions he never answered, or worse yet, didn’t even think to ask. Comedian and actor Mike Meyers admitted to worrying that everyone would figure out he had no talent. People in every profession, at every level of success and in every stage of life have had moments where they felt like the praise someone gave them wasn’t earned.

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Angela Watson’s podcast focused specifically on advice for teachers who are struggling with Imposter Syndrome. As an educator, I see how struggling with feeling like a failure drains energy away from students. I’ve seen colleagues agonizing over how Pinterest-worthy other classes were. As a high school teacher, I don’t face the same kind of pressure as elementary teachers to have creative bulletin boards and a continually changing display of student achievement on the walls, so I rarely spend time worrying that my classroom isn’t pretty enough. My concerns revolve around the turn-around speed of assessment, the effectiveness of assessment as a tool for growth and the ever-present guilt about not putting in enough time with extracurricular activities. My worst fear is probably the same one that gave Angela Watson nightmares: That my students might run wild and display complete contempt for the classroom and school rules. I live in fear that someone might ask me to explain my classroom management plan, after which I would have to admit that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.

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It is not my intention to present Angela Watson’s advice about overcoming Imposter Syndrome as my own. I want to clarify that the main points of advice below are from the podcast already referenced.

  1. “Remind yourself that self-doubt is a natural part of being self-reflective and wanting to be your very best.” Angela Watson

I worked with a teacher early in my career who admitted extracurricular activities were his priority. Binders were lined-up along the back wall of his classroom with lesson plans and handouts for each day of his courses. He told me those binders had remained the same for ten years and felt that was justified because history doesn’t change, which is an objectively false premise. Of course history changes, but only if we are open to changing the way we think. Society is moving away from supporting the idea that the victors get to write history. There was a more significant matter I was concerned about than the question of his priorities: How was he demonstrating self-reflection in his practice by teaching this way? He believed he was demonstrating efficiency and forethought, which had the added benefit of allowing him more time for coaching. If another teacher did the same thing but got out the door by 4:30 without having any more work to do for the day, people would question their commitment. That was never going to happen to a teacher who put in the kind of coaching hours this guy did. Making this observation so early in my career led me to form the following impressions:

a) The high school educators who were most likely to be considered the most valuable to administrators strongly resembled the kind of students who tormented me when I was a high school student.

b) Administrators didn’t care how reflective and adaptive you were as an educator, as long as you were willing to be a pack-mule when it came to extra-curricular activities.

These impressions seeded dread in me about my future as an educator. I am introverted, which seems to affect my ability to lead extracurricular activities more than it impacts my classroom teaching. I guess that it’s due to the increased number of parents and community members with whom I am required to communicate. My awkward confession for the day is that I’m afraid I might be more comfortable with students because the balance of power tips in my favour in a way it doesn’t with parents and community members. I hope that fear is unfounded.

I began to be afraid that I would never be seen as an effective teacher if I couldn’t get past my paralyzing dread of instigating and leading extracurricular activities, regardless of the work I put into other areas. As you can probably tell, that didn’t stop me from developing as a reflective teacher, but it did mean that I let the fears sit on me more than many educators would.

2. “Observe your Imposter Syndrome triggers and thoughts without judgment.” Angela Watson

I’ve already outlined why it’s important to be a reflective teacher. Angela Watson recommends we do this without self-judgment.

3. “Use feelings of doubt to help you experiment with teaching styles until you figure out what works for you.” Angela Watson

Maybe that teacher I mentioned in my first point went through years of trial and error until he crafted what he saw as the perfect lesson plans, and he didn’t want to deviate from what had been successful. Life is all about change, which means that you are stagnating if you aren’t changing. Each group of students is different. If we treat them all the same, we are going to have to put a lot more time into classroom management than we might have when we initially created what we thought was the perfect lesson plan. Our life experiences change us as educators, and the world changes. If we don’t adjust our lessons to accommodate these changes, we are going to find those perfect lessons we developed become less effective over time.

4. “Accept that it’s impossible to please everyone, and use criticism as an opportunity to reflect on WHY you’ve made your choices.” Angela Watson

Most of my career has been spent teaching in First Nations (Indigenous) schools. In many of these schools, there were staff members or even leadership who didn’t quite understand what most of the staff were trying to achieve. It can be challenging to stand in the face of someone who is telling you that your culturally sensitive lesson doesn’t fit with the colonizer curriculum, especially if that person is your administrator. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to do what you are sure is right for the students. I am happy to say that I never saw the teachers around me waiver from their vision or convictions. You will have at least one parent, student or administrator who thinks you are ineffective in some way. Make sure to practice self-reflection, but don’t waiver from the essential things that you know are right because of that one person having a different opinion.

5. “Be honest with your students when you don’t know what you are doing.” Angela Watson

In the interest of complete transparency, I have this strategy down to an art. It might have something to do with being autistic, but I never hesitate to admit it when I don’t know something or something is outside my standard skill set. My students have never gotten angry or teased me about not being sure. They enjoy the process of discovering the answer as a team.

6. “Find a colleague who’s willing to be your Imposter Syndrome Co-Conspirator.” Angela Watson

Angela Watson points out that the easiest way to find a person who reveals when you’re letting Imposter Syndrome get the best of you is to be that person for someone else. Being willing to admit that you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing isn’t the point of this strategy. It’s having someone in your life who can help you feel confident you know more than you’re giving yourself credit for, even if it’s to remind you that you have the life-long-learning skills to educate yourself about the missing pieces.

7. “Change your self-talk so Imposter Syndrome propels yourself to be even better.” Angela Watson

Just like so many things in life, having a positive attitude can help you overcome Imposter Syndrome. Don’t wallow in self-doubt. If you don’t know the answers you are seeking, get to work finding them. You’re a smart and resilient person. You can do this. Tell that little Eeyore in your brain to settle down.

The second part of Imposter Syndrome that I want to explore is more personal. As an Autistic person, I find that Imposter Syndrome is so ubiquitous it becomes difficult to understand there is an alternative. Autistic masking is not only encouraged, but expected, and it causes anxiety at a level that most people would have trouble understanding. I’m not talking about the kind of anxiety you feel the night before a major assignment is due or even the kind you might experience when you have to get up in front of people to speak. What I’m talking about is the kind that makes you lose the ability to speak for long periods or the kind that makes you have a severe panic attack that you must go to the hospital. It’s the kind that makes you start shaking at the memory of something you said twenty years ago.

It’s relentless.

It’s insidious.

It’s pervasive.

It’s the kind of anxiety that makes you question whether you might not be a human being after all.

Choose some aspect of your identity. Now imagine that the majority of what you saw in various mediums misrepresented that aspect of your identity. That would naturally cause a great deal of anxiety. When the average allistic individual experiences an overwhelming feeling they are a fraud, that comes from their impression of themselves not quite matching with how other people see them. When the average Autistic experiences Imposter Syndrome, it usually includes questioning whether they are a fraud as a human being. If you are confused about where this might come from, ask yourself if you’ve ever witnessed someone talking about an Autistic person right in front of them as if they were a piece of furniture. Ask yourself if you’ve ever read an article that talked about Autistic people having eyes made of black glass. Ask yourself if you’ve ever read an article that implies we are blank canvases or empty vessels. Ask yourself if you’ve ever heard autistic people being referred to as a tsunami or an epidemic. The list goes on and on.

When you consider all of this, it isn’t hard to understand why an Autistic would question their basic humanity as part of their experience of Imposter Syndrome.

I guess this is the part where I need to make some useful suggestions about how to deal with it. I am going to divide this advice into two sections: One aimed at allistic people and the other at Autistics.

Advice for Allistic People

  • Stop buying magazines with shitty takes on autism, written by non-Autistic people. Stop watching television shows or movies where allistic actors play Autistic characters.
  • Stop buying books with Autistic main characters where the author isn’t also Autistic.
  • Stop turning to parents of Autistic children for your information.
  • Stop turning to Autism Speaks for your information. Autistic people tend to think of Autism Speaks as a hate group because the organization creates fear of autism as part of their marketing. 
  • Stop speaking about Autistic people as if they aren’t even there.
  • Stop using Autistic children as prop pieces for your mommy Vlogs.
  • Stop making Autistic people feel as if they are invisible. They already feel that way.  When an Autistic person tells you that they have these doubts, don’t tell them that they are wrong to feel that way.
  • Be an Imposter Syndrome Co-Conspirator in the same way you might be for an allistic friend. Help them realize they have the resources to figure out what they don’t know, and that what they don’t know isn’t a bottomless well. 
  • Don’t question whether an Autistic colleague is qualified to do the same job you perform when their credentials are the same or better than yours. 
  • Don’t ask Autistic people what their superpower is. Our society is conditioned to measure a person’s worth by how much they contribute to society, and monetary contributions are considered more valuable than social ones. We see evidence of this in the way the contributions of men to society and home often are valued above those made by women. Shows like The Good Doctor are popular because the main character contributes something there is no doubt in anybody’s mind is valuable to society. It would not have the same fan base if it were about an unemployed Autistic man with the same challenges. His worth as a human being is directly measured by how useful he is to allistic people. Not all Autistic people have amazing talents to explain why their life is worth living. On the other hand, most people aren’t required to demonstrate some extraordinary talent to justify basic human dignity.

Advice for Autistic People 

  • Keep in mind all the advice I gave to allistic people. Try to remember that the origin of the average allistic point of view is media misrepresentations of the experiences of Autistic people. Don’t exasperate the problem by allowing those same sources to be your primary source of information and education. 
  • Don’t feel obligated to educate allistic people. Your emotional and mental labour is just as valuable as theirs. You don’t owe them a second of your time. 
  • Don’t feel like you can’t put an allistic person in their place without an explanation about why you are doing it. Let them figure it out.
  • Remember that the work you put into learning something is every bit as valuable as anyone else’s work.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you that your credentials are less valid. 
  • Remember that nobody can tell your story as well as you can. Don’t let other people speak for you. 
  • Regardless of whether you have formal education or contribute to the economy, you are worth something as a human being. A dollar sign can’t represent your worth. Refer anyone who thinks otherwise to the Nazi propaganda of “Useless Eaters.” Ask them if affiliation with this ideology is something they want. If it’s exactly what they were aiming for, you already know how much of your mental time they are worth. 

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