FutureTalk logoWhen a computer is running multiple apps, it often slows down. That’s because unless it’s programmed to do so, a computer, unlike a person, doesn’t automatically try to prioritize tasks based on their importance or urgency—it simply processes everything as best it can. That’s a situation that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can relate to—but it doesn’t mean their capacity to process is diminished. They just approach the task in a different way.

That was a key takeaway from our latest FutureTalk presentation by Jonathan Chase, an autistic self-advocate and mentor, whose mission it is to increase awareness and understanding of autism. Jonathan explained some of the primary challenges faced by people on the autism spectrum, showed how those challenges are similar to those that everyone faces daily, and gave an incredible demonstration on how he processes music in a visual way.

A different experience

Diagnosed with autism at age 14—late by today’s standards—Jonathan endured a tough childhood full of bullying and misunderstanding. Things improved dramatically when he discovered music—specifically, the bass guitar—and devoted himself to playing in bands.

After several years as a professional bassist, Jonathan began volunteering with autism organizations. Since then he has worked tirelessly to support others diagnosed with autism. He has also strived to help people understand that the condition represents not a deficit, but rather a different way of experiencing the world.

Processing sensory data

One way that difference manifests itself is in the realm of sensory processing. Jonathan warned attendees not to make assumptions about how other people process information, and therefore about what they need. He, for instance, has a phobia of balloons because the sound of a balloon popping causes him physical pain, much “like a punch to the gut,” he explained.

Other people on the spectrum may experience the subtle flicker of fluorescent lights as an unbearably powerful strobe, or be overwhelmed by the sensation of the individual fibers of their clothing rubbing against their skin. But, Jonathan pointed out, all of us—from someone who can’t bear to wear turtlenecks to someone who has trouble figuring out whether or not their boss is being sarcastic—are on the spectrum to some extent.

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Throwing shapes

Another major difference exists with regard to social understanding and communication. “We don’t know what the rules are unless they’re explicitly stated,” Jonathan said, relating the story of an office encounter that caused him great anxiety. When someone greeted him by saying “How are you?” then walked away before he could respond, he struggled to understand. Eventually, he worked out that the question was rhetorical and really meant, simply, “Hello and goodbye.”

“Give us clear instructions and a little extra processing time,” he said, “and we can do anything.”

To illustrate how differently some people on the autism spectrum experience the world, Jonathan took out his bass guitar. The shapes, grids, and lines he sees when playing and listening to music attest that there is more than one way for human beings to “process” information. To see his fascinating demonstration, be sure to check out his full FutureTalk in the video below:

Don’t miss our next FutureTalk

For more information about our FutureTalks series, make sure to join our Meetup group, New Relic FutureTalks PDX, and follow us on Twitter @newrelic for the latest developments and updates on upcoming events.


Note: Event dates, participants, and topics are subject to change without notice.


Christian Sinai is the Community Relations Manager for New Relic in Portland, Oregon. He is the community lead and liaison for our local outreach efforts, and manages initiatives such as the FutureTalks PDX technical speaker series. View posts by .

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