On Multitasking

Much has been written about the autistic person’s lack of multitasking ability. I was rather surprised by these claims and will attempt to explain why by giving a personal, inside perspective on it.

Some of the issues I will list below aren’t included in the diagnostic criteria for any form of autism, even implicitly, but rather connected to labels like synaesthesia or auditory processing disorder, but sensory issues of one kind or another seem to me to be sufficiently common among autistic people that I believe it is something worth looking into.

My hypothesis, based on my own experience as well as that of my friends, that it may not always be an inability to multitask per se, even though it may seem that way to an outside observer, but may instead be an inability to fully emulate neurotypical behaviour when lacking the necessary, high-level automation.

To illustrate, let’s say I’m at a café with a neurotypical friend and we’re having a conversation. From what I’ve understood, his conscious actions are on the level of eating a bit of cake, following the flow of conversation, making comments that come to mind and occasionally daydreaming about off-topic things.

In the meantime, simply listening to him, I have to consciously, deliberately, in real-time…

There are also usually more things than this going on, for instance related to eye contact, but I think these will suffice to get the point across.

Doing all of these things at once is almost impossible, but for a while I can manage to do most of them quite well, and during that time I can give a person a semblance of a normal conversation. Naturally, doing all of this means I’m noticeably slower at responding and means I tend at times to drift off topic and make irrelevant remarks or even completely lose sight of the current subject. I may also lose myself in any fascinating little detail around me, the way light reflects off a cup, or a complex geometric pattern on the wall. Finally, it also makes me very tired very quickly, which makes the sensory issues worse, wearing me down even faster.

If, while all of this is going on, I have even the slightest memory of having bought anything before sitting down, then it’s a good day indeed. Usually, I will have to be reminded of my food and drink several times before I will do anything about it. Eating or drinking can actually help somewhat, as I get an excuse to look down, thus removing much of the unpredictable visual input, but it’s hard to remember at the time. On the other hand, concentrating on the conversation can make me miss most of the taste, which can be quite irritating. It may also go the other way, with a taste crowding out what people are saying.

That was listening. Talking has other, similarly difficult issues.

Thus, while it’s quite true that I’m markedly less capable of “simply” sitting in a café, “just” chatting and having a cup of tea, than the average neurotypical is, I suggest that rather than a lack of multitasking ability, it may be a lack of built-in automation, especially of higher-level tasks. I would like to think I’ve become quite adept at multitasking with what I do have; pattern analysis and visual thinking.