Of Gears and Brain Goo

I had a few hours of hyper-focus heaven today while I worked on my research paper, and now my brain is pleasantly fried. I do, however, want to get a blog post written today as well, and that means a) getting my brain to spin back up again, and b) getting it to switch focus to something new. Hah! That meant ten minutes of staring at a blank text editor window while every idea I’ve ever had for a blog post mysteriously went missing.

That switching gears thing is tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, I can actually get through a flurry of simple tasks in rapid succession—but spend some time on something that requires more focus, and it’s like my thoughts get physically stuck to it. It takes effort to pull them away, and some still get left behind, lingering on the previous project like sticky gray goo. That leaves me with less to apply to the new project, and a nagging sense that I’ve left something incomplete, even if I haven’t.

So that’s where I am right now. I figured I could at least write about this difficulty from the midst of it, but my brain’s still pretty stuck. I do have a couple more things I want to get done today, including more writing on yet another project, but at least that one has some momentum behind it. I think I can at least jump on and see where it takes me. Bye for now!

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Autistic Memory

Today I am thinking about memory. There seems to be a growing body of research into difficulties (or at least differences) with autobiographical memory in autistic people, especially when it comes to episodic autobiographical memories, which are recollections of specific events in your own life. (This is in contrast with semantic memories, which have to do with remembering knowledge about the past, like your old phone number or high school locker combination.)

I’m not familiar with every aspect of this research, but I’ve come across several references to it lately and it got me thinking. I do feel that I have less-detailed autobiographical memories than many people I know, but I wonder whether this is due more to actual differences in memory mechanisms, or if it is a matter of attention and emphasis.

I remember getting back together with a high school friend after we had both graduated from college, at least five years after high school. She could rattle off all sorts of events that had happened to both of us going back to when we met in third grade—class field trips, school assemblies, things individual classmates or teachers had said and done. She remembered people’s names from way back, too.

Me? I barely remembered anything she mentioned. High school (and everything before it) was blessedly behind me, so why would I remember it? None of the incidents or names my friend brought up had any relevance to my life anymore, so I rarely thought about them. A lot of things did come back when she brought them up, and most of the rest at least rang a bell, but even that didn’t jog much else loose from my own memories.

Similarly, I will forget about things that I have done that were really important to me at the time, even things I did for years. Oh, right, I sang in a community choir for three years. Oh, yeah, I spent a year attending a study group learning Scottish Gaelic. Sometimes these things will just pop into my head, as when I recently remembered the months I spent playing volleyball on two different teams in an adult recreational league in my mid-twenties. And when I hear someone else recount an experience that triggers a similar memory, I can bring it back up, as when I worked with another Air Force veteran for a while and we regularly swapped training stories. (But I will tell you, if you ask me an open-ended question about anything, including my past, my mind will reliably go blank and not serve up any answers at all, even if they’re in there.)

So the fact that they do sometimes pop into my head indicates that the memories are there, they were formed, they’re just not at the front of my mind. And that’s why I think the issue isn’t so much that I have a deficit when it comes to autobiographical memory—I just don’t feel the need to dwell on my own past. Compared to all of the other things I could be thinking about, my past history isn’t all that interesting to me; I’ve been there, done that, you know?

(As an aside, this does lead to funny conversations at times, when I bring up something I used to do because it came back to mind during a relevant conversation, and the person I’m talking to is stunned that they never knew I did that. It just…hadn’t come up before. I mean, I’ll acknowledge that I’ve done a lot of interesting things, I’m just not interested in listing them off for people.)

I guess there is an assumption that just because I was there, it should be important to me. But memories of people and social events are not privileged in my mind; they get pruned like anything else. People forget all sorts of things when they don’t need to remember them—a fact I have been painfully reminded of as I work through a math review for the GRE—and autobiographical memories are no different.

Think of it this way: given how intense autistic interests can be, and how often we can end up coming to know (and remember) all sorts of fascinating facts and info about our passions, isn’t it possible that we just don’t want to devote a whole lot of mental energy to storing and recalling information about people and events that aren’t in our lives anymore? That’s how it feels to me. I’ve got better things to think about than who my fourth-grade homeroom teacher was.

(P.S.: I think there is a lot more to be said about memory in autistic people, and there is definitely a lot of variation in how much or how well people remember. It even varies wildly for me, because I will sometimes get a very vivid flashback of something I thought I’d forgotten. So all of the above should be taken as one person’s random musings on the subject, which may or may not be generalizable.)

Irons in the Fire

I have a lot of irons in the fire right now. I’m technically on summer vacation from school, but work has been busy, and I am trying to use the summer to get ready to take the GRE and finish up the research project that will be part of my application to grad school. Plus, I am trying to expand the offerings in my Etsy shop (just added new things last week!) and my husband and I are exploring a new business venture that he’s been thinking about for a while. I also want to get back into a regular schedule of posting on this blog, possibly even increasing the frequency of posts. It’s kind of a lot to manage.

(I’ve always liked that expression, by the way: irons in the fire. It feels solid and businesslike, in a hands-on, creative kind of way. It’s a lot more appealing than saying I have a lot of balls in the air, because while I do kind of like the juggling metaphor, I’ve never been very good at juggling, so it makes me feel like all of those balls could come crashing down around me at any minute. No, better to frame them as irons in the fire, as if I were a blacksmith forging pieces of my life.)

Long-term projects are particularly hard to keep up with at times. I start out with the intention to work on something a little bit each day (with wiggle room for off days) but when there are multiple such projects, it gets to be unwieldy. Not only is there often not enough time available once outside commitments are met, but some projects require more sustained attention than “just doing a little each day” will allow. So one thing I started trying this past week was designating a different project for each day of the week; my responsibilities on that day are then to take care of any paid work I am scheduled to do (and any other appointments and such), and then spend at least a couple of hours on that project. It’s like an additional work schedule, but one that I am fulfilling for my own work.

So far I like it. I made a lot of progress on three different projects this week, and being able to really get into a hyper-focused groove with them was highly satisfying. I left one day (Sunday) as a “miscellaneous” day, where I could work on anything that called out to me, catch up on things that hadn’t gotten done due to unforeseen schedule changes, or just take a day off and relax. I ended up doing all of the above today, which left the day feeling very productive but also nicely paced; I didn’t feel rushed to get particular things done, I just did them.

It helps that I really enjoy working on these projects, so spending most of the weekend being productive in this way doesn’t leave me feeling like I never get a break. Researching, writing, crafting, and reading are all things I look forward to doing, so having a whole weekend to pursue them does feel like a break. But I suppose I’ll have to see how it goes in the long run.

On the practical side, I drew up a weekly schedule on my home office whiteboard, and added recurring reminders to my to-do list for which project to focus on for each of the days. That way the schedule is constantly visible to me when I am in my office, and I get a reminder each morning when I look at my list of tasks. Both of these things are really helpful as executive function supports, as well as general memory aids; I’ve been using Todoist to manage my project to-do lists, and I’ve really come to appreciate the benefit of having some things be more visible by using a whiteboard. My husband and I have a household whiteboard on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, where we see it all the time. This has really helped keep both of us on track with things that need to be done, especially one-off or time-sensitive tasks that could easily fall through the cracks.

My main concern with this plan is that there are some days when I am just not in the right frame of mind to work on a particular project; if I didn’t sleep well, for example, writing can become hugely difficult. So designating a set day of the week for each project may not always pan out. But if I can remember to be flexible and just swap days with something I can work on, I still think it will be manageable. That already happened this weekend, actually, and I just made use of my “miscellaneous” Sunday to catch up.

So I’ll see how it goes! Just have to keep forging, one iron at a time.