black chalk board on white wall

High-Functioning Autism And Having Encyclopedic Knowledge

Let’s talk about High-Functioning Autism today. High-Functioning autism is a condition in which individuals have difficulty communicating, maintaining relationships with other people, and are often intellectually impaired––to the point of having encyclopedic knowledge (pertaining to an encyclopedia or everything that there is), but not being able to apply that knowledge in real-life situations.

An example of someone having high functioning autism would be Sheldon Cooper from the show The Big Bang Theory. He has difficulty understanding the nuances of language; he doesn’t get sarcasm or satire (this is called “Concrete Thinking” by psychologists); he has trouble using subtle language like metaphors, and he initially doesn’t understand humor at all until his friends explain to him that not everything is literal. He also has trouble making friends––he initially doesn’t start conversations with people; he’s indifferent towards the company of others; and he doesn’t understand normal social cues like body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice (this is called “Affect Blindness” by psychologists).

man writing on whiteboard
Photo by Cleyder Duque on

What Is Concrete Thinking?

Concrete thinking is when a person can understand and solve problems by using real objects, sensory details, and examples. It also means that the person prefers to use such things when trying to comprehend abstract ideas like emotion or mental processes.    

To illustrate this type of thinking, consider Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin. While they were all brilliant people who contributed remarkable ideas in their respective fields of study, they did not excel at abstract thinking. For example, while Einstein marveled at the laws of nature and had many fascinating thoughts about them, he did not have an imagination for science fiction. In addition, both he and Newton lacked interest in explanations for psychological phenomena such as mental illness. This lack of interest, which can be considered concrete thinking, was notably present in both men. These ideas are not original to this article but are included here for further illustration of the concept.

Concrete thinking is also sometimes known as “particularized” or “sequential” thinking. It refers to a way of understanding and interpreting information that focuses on individual details rather than abstractions or wholes.

The opposite type of thinking is called generalizing, where people think about concepts instead of particulars. While not inherently better or worse than other types of thought patterns, it means that each person has their own specific perspective based on personal experiences and the way their mind works.    

While there are similarities between different people’s thoughts due to commonalities between their sensory experiences, each person’s thought process is different. Individuals tend to think about things in unique ways due to the specific memories and mental processes they have developed over time.

To illustrate this point, let us imagine an individual who is presented with a math problem involving squaring a number (multiplying the number by itself). A person who likes to work with real objects would approach the problem by drawing two rectangles of equal size and multiplying one by the other, then comparing that answer to the original problem. This would be described as thinking “with their hands” or tactilely.  

 Someone who prefers using numbers might solve the same problem by making paper airplanes out of scrap paper. They would then fly them up into the air and see how far each one traveled (the answer to the problem). This would be called thinking “with their eyes” or visually.

Einstein contributed another way of thinking without using his hands: He imagined himself running on a beam of light, considering what would happen if he was traveling as fast as light itself. This is known as thinking “with your ears” or auditorily.  

For those who like metaphors and stories to solve problems, they might consider how many times an object with a certain volume of space (a cubic meter) could fit inside a larger object. For instance, this individual might imagine that each time orange is cut into four pieces, one can fit all four pieces into the same space where the orange originally was. This is associated with thinking “with your nose” or olfactorily.

Studying the way that individuals learn can help teachers, parents, and care providers understand how to best support children in their academic work. According to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, concrete operational thought typically begins at about age 7, but some children might not develop this type of thinking until they are 11 or 12 years old.  

Concrete operational thinkers use logic along with past experiences to solve new problems. Consequently, these children often enjoy role-playing games, imaginative stories involving real people or animals, hands-on experiments that produce observable results, and jigsaw puzzles or other tasks requiring them to place parts into their proper place.  

By contrast, abstract thinkers have thoughts that are not anchored to real-world objects. They learn best by studying concepts and relationships—for example, the alphabet is learned as a whole rather than each letter one at a time. Abstract thinkers might like reading or writing stories about events that never happened in the physical world, collecting information for an encyclopedia entry, listening to music without any pictures involved, and completing survey questionnaires.  

These different types of thought processes can be exacerbated by people’s preferences for specific sensory input. For example, some children might prefer looking at diagrams or videos rather than books with only words on the page; these students would benefit most from an environment where they could zoom in on images to study them more closely.  

Those whose senses are more in tune with touch might learn best when using clay or modeling dough.  

More observational students may prefer watching live demonstrations rather than reading about how to do something new.  

For abstract thinkers, it is helpful to engage with symbols that represent real-world objects, such as diagrams of the solar system. These individuals will benefit from studying things that cannot be directly perceived through one sense alone, for example, by hearing a lecture about astronomy without looking at any pictures. They prefer to solve math problems without having their physical environment changed (no moving around) and need ample time to process what they have heard before responding, making them good listeners who will only speak when they feel ready to do so.  

couple having sex and using smartphone

What Is Affect Blindness?

Affect blindness, also known as emotional blindness, is a form of unintentional blindness in which the person suffering from it fails to recognize their own or others’ negative emotions. Although they are not blind to physical stimuli, individuals who have to affect blindness may fail to see the importance of issues that should be emotionally salient. They lack empathy and tend not to appreciate the needs and perspectives of other people. 

Not being able to identify his wife’s distress after she tearfully revealed his infidelity, Rick experienced affect blindness firsthand after he found himself unable to offer physical comfort or express any form of concern.

Rick’s wife, Laura, had just told him she was pregnant with his child following recent fertility treatment. However, Rick had been sleeping with his coworker for several months and wasn’t even aware that Laura was trying to conceive. Although Laura initially felt relieved that Rick didn’t know that she knew about his infidelity, her relief quickly turned into despair when she realized that Rick would never be able to appreciate the gravity of what he’d done.

“I thought I could come clean about everything and spare myself the guilt of keeping it a secret anymore, but Rick just doesn’t get it! This news should have made him excited, not upset! He’s the one who told me not to worry so much about getting pregnant, and he should have been thrilled when I told him!”

In response to her distress, Rick offered Laura a hug which she reluctantly accepted. However, as soon as he felt her break down into tears, Rick pulled away from his wife and began apologizing profusely for ruining the moment. Overwhelmed with guilt and shame, he then abruptly left the house, saying that he needed time alone to think things through.

He has no idea what just happened. He thinks I’m crying because I’m mad at him! Good God, does everything have to be about him?

Although affect blindness is common among criminals on death row who do not realize that their behavior has devastated lives beyond their own, it is most often associated with those who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Affect blindness can be extremely problematic for both the person experiencing it and their loved ones since the condition robs them of emotional vibrancy, and they cannot appreciate certain situations or experiences that they should otherwise know to avoid.

Despite having high-functioning autism, Sheldon does have encyclopedic knowledge––ranging from astronomy to quantum physics. He often corrects his friends when they are incorrect about their own knowledge of science/math. However, this encyclopedic knowledge isn’t useful in life situations. Sheldon doesn’t know how to use socially acceptable language, nor does he know social norms––leading to other people thinking that he is rude, inappropriate, or even a “weirdo.”

While Sheldon does have some difficulty understanding social cues, most people who have this disorder don’t have as much trouble as Sheldon does. In fact, someone with high-functioning autism may not even show any signs of the condition unless a psychologist diagnoses them and points out their differences from others––because they already know how to mimic other people’s behavior in order to fit in.

Someone with high-functioning autism could sometimes be misdiagnosed/over diagnosed with other conditions like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) because it affects the brain similar to other neurological issues like Autism or Asperger syndrome (which both can cause a person to be socially awkward or have other developmental issues.

There You Have It

If you liked this article and would like to read more about autism spectrum disorders, please check out our other articles on Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Autistic Savant.


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