One of the most defining characteristics of autism is the drive for clarity. We autistics want to understand. We want things to be clear. We want things to make sense in our heads.
Yes, most humans also appreciate clarity and understanding. However, an autistic like myself will obsess over clarity.
Here’s an example from my own life.
After a conversation, I’ll review what happened in my mind. I’ll suddenly think, “Wait, what did he mean when he said that? Could he have meant this? Or that?” My mind will keep populating with different ideas and scenarios, endlessly trying to find clarity.
It can be very, very hard to let something go.
In psychology, we often refer to this as “fixation.” Our autistic minds fixate on something and we will continue to focus on it until we have the outcome we want - which is usually clarity and understanding.
The trouble is, clarity and understanding are not always available. Despite our mind’s best efforts, we cannot always figure out what that person meant in the conversation.
The same goes for other life events. For example, I’m in the process of moving, and there are endless unknowns that my brain keeps trying to figure out. Some things I can find answers to, like the rough number of boxes to buy. Then there are things I cannot find answers to, like how depleted will my energy be due to moving? How much will I miss my sister? What should I do to minimize the hardship of this move?
Even as I write these questions, my mind is thinking, “Wait a minute Jackie, you probably could figure those out. You could analyze all of the times you went through similar things and extrapolate how depleted of energy you might feel. You could also assume you’re going to be depleted and put in stopgaps and …” AND AND AND.
This is where I get sucked into the clarity trap. My mind thinks it can figure it out for me. It wants to help me. It wants to provide me with answers and accompanying peace. So it will churn and churn and churn, when in reality I cannot have all the answers. I can just have really good guesses.
Again, this is a human trait. What is different about autism is how often my mind will do this and the frequency with which it does it. Furthermore, autism is also evident in how difficult it is to pull me away from these thoughts.
It is very difficult to reason with myself logically when my mind is in “seek clarity mode.” It is clear from this essay that I understand I cannot have all of the answers and clarity I want. But in the moment, my mind yells, “Fuck that! Yes, you can!!!”
This is why I often tell my autistic clients that trying to logically reason with our brains when we are fixated on something will not yield much positive results. Cognitive Behavior Therapy would tell us to slow down and examine every thought for cognitive distortions (ways that our brains are behaving illogically). However, our minds can see the cognitive distortion that is present and then yell, “I don’t care!! I want it my way!”
We may be able to see that we are looking at things with a negative perspective or that we are applying one small situation to all of life. The minute a neurotypical person realizes something like this, they can use that ammunition to change their thought process.
It is usually not that easy for an autistic. An autistic in the throes of rumination and fixation will be painfully aware that there are many cognitive distortions present, and not be able to help themselves. This only makes matters worse. Not only are they fixated on something they cannot solve, now they feel ashamed that they’re doing it and can’t seem to stop. This is the brain’s drive for clarity that can be debilitating.
In our best moments, our relentless pursuit of clarity helps us solve problems, connect with others, invent new things, understand complex topics, see new patterns, and more.
In our worst moments, our desire for clarity can trap us in our minds and keep us from enjoying the present.
This is why I tell my clients that the best thing they can do in these moments is to distract themselves. Don’t try to think your way out of it - it’s seldom going to work. The best thing is to distract yourself with other thoughts and activities so that your brain is forced to let go of the fixation.
For example, when I find myself in a state of unhelpful fixation, I do a puzzle AND watch a TV show. The combination of the two challenges my brain enough that I cannot think about the topic at hand and it begins to dissipate in my mind.
The right distraction strategy depends on the person. Some people prefer an engrossing computer game or a vigorous walk while listening to a podcast. The key point is that the brain needs to be challenged enough to stop thinking.
I’d love to hear what strategies help you when you’re stuck in the clarity trap.