You’ve probably heard people saying that it’s good to “think outside the box.” Some people describe autism as thinking outside the box.
But in my experience, it’s a little more complicated. The way that autistic people experience the proverbial box can be both beneficial and frustrating in different situations.
The phrase “thinking outside the box” is believed to originate from the “nine dots” puzzle, which can be traced back to 1914. The puzzle involves 9 dots in a 3 by 3 grid. The reader is then challenged to use only 4 straight lines, sometimes without lifting the pen, to connect all 9 dots.
The most common solution involves drawing lines outside of the 3 by 3 grid:
The phrase “thinking outside the box” is (over)used to mean thinking creatively to solve problems in a way that isn’t immediately apparent. Its opposite is thinking in common, average ways.
So do autistics think outside the box?
Sometimes. I guess. I’d certainly like to think of myself as a creative genius.
But Dad says I’m not a genius (sigh), and I still don’t know how to solve world hunger or racism (double sigh), so I suppose it wouldn’t be accurate to say I’m an incredible out-of-the-box thinker.
Instead, it would be more accurate to say that I can barely see the box at all.
My brain is full of ideas. I start many fictional stories and even finish a few of them. I dream intricate and imaginative dreams. I could talk for hours about the stories in my mind, though I don’t because other people lack the interest and attention span.
And when I’m talking to non-imaginary people, I still have no idea what’s normal.
You see, sometimes thinking inside the box is helpful. Many of life’s problems have right and wrong answers. For example, if your friend is crying because her dad is sick, a conventional response (like sympathy or comfort) is almost always better than an unconventional response (like discussion of space travel).
Being free from a thought-box can be fun and useful, but it turns out that sometimes you really need to know where the box is. Sometimes you want to settle in there for a while.
And maybe, if you squint hard enough, you might be able to see a fuzzy cardboard cube shape. But there’s a lot of room for error, and mistakes come with a social cost.
Dealing with the problems that arise
We all know that it can be cool to think outside the box. I like my imagination and my unique solutions to problems.
But not recognizing where the box is can also be acutely disabling, especially in a world that isn’t always patient enough to describe it.
When people cry, I do not typically talk about outer space. That is (a) because I don’t want to at the moment, and (b) because I have studied where the box is and set up markers of its approximate boundaries.
As in, I study social rules and expectations in order to figure out how I’m supposed to respond. (It turns out validating their feelings usually helps a lot, so I implement that algorithm and they start to feel better.)
Did you know that this blog post was written by someone who has a real internship? Well, now you do.
And it’s kinda scary, because suddenly it’s clear how clueless I am.
I work remotely and part of the job means messaging my boss. And it turns out I don’t really know where the box is when it comes to messaging your boss. Especially when you are still getting to know them and their expectations.
I can send a weird message and think it’s normal. I can send a normal message and think it’s weird. It’s like I’m trying to play “pin the tail on the donkey,” except worse than my 7th birthday party, because that time I could see through the blindfold so I put the tail on the wrong place on purpose to be fair to the other kids, and in this case I am genuinely confused.
So I ask. I ask if it was okay to say that. I try to get a sense of whether I have made an utter and complete fool of myself because yet again I stumbled right past the box that everyone else already knows how to sit in.
It’s way harder than school. My years of practice at school meant that I could place my box-location markers in very accurate places and impress my professors 98% of the time. I knew what to say, how to say it, and how to do the type of tasks that were assigned to me.
But a new environment has new rules. And all of a sudden, my old setup is knocked over and I’m left with a messy blur.
And all I can do is pray that someone will be willing to put up with me long enough for me to find a good box to sit in.
When you can be penalized for things you didn’t even notice, you have to work much harder to make sure that you meet the same goals.
People comment on how nice I am. How I’m kind and positive and cheerful. They say I’m cute.
They don’t know that I have to be. I need to survive in a world of blurry or invisible social land mines. If you’re sweet and cute and smart, people might forgive you for the mistakes that you never knew you made.
People see how friendly I am and they say “oh, autism is a social deficit, so she must be VERY high-functioning since she’s so charming.”
Even if the charm conceals a puddle of confusion and anxiety.
I rely a lot on a positive environment and helpful people in order to get by. All I can do is look for truly good people who’ll respect me no matter what.
What to do
Autistic (and some neurodivergent) people might be reading this and thinking “yeah, this is my life and it stinks.” Non-autistics and neurotypicals might think “this sounds hard and I wonder how I can be helpful.”
I’m still young and struggling with things, but I can offer a little advice that you may or may not find helpful.
If you can’t find the box
- Try reading/watching tutorials (like wikiHow) to help you learn where the box is
- Ask what’s wrong if someone seems upset with you
- Don’t be afraid to say that you’re confused. Here are a few scripts to try:
- “I’m having trouble figuring out the expectations here. Could you clarify, please?”
- “I’m confused. Could you help me understand what you want?”
- “How can I help you right now?” (Yes, you can say this to a crying person)
- “What do you need?”
- Be kind to people, not just as social insurance, but also because it’s a good thing
- Try to forgive yourself when you flounder in new situations. It’s not your fault that it’s hard. Keep doing your best and trust that the box will become clearer with practice.
If someone you know can’t find the box
Most of the time, they’re not trying to be “bad” or “rude,” they’re just confused and trying to figure out how to do things right.
- Respond with caring instead of judgment when you see them struggling
- Never make fun of someone who’s having a hard time
- Assume positive intent unless they exhibit intentional unkindness
- I.e., start with “maybe she was rude by accident” instead of “maybe she totally hates me”
- Autistics are not known for subtlety. If they hate you, it’ll likely be obvious
- Tell them where the box is. Once they know that, they can act appropriately. I know this is an abstraction, so here are a few examples:
- “Your dad looks pretty upset. I think he needs some alone time. Let’s go hang out in your room.”
- “I don’t want to talk about what’s wrong. Right now, I need a fun distraction. Could we do something nice together?”
- “Late replies don’t mean that I’m mad. They just mean that I got busy or distracted. It’s not because you did something wrong.”
- Let them know if they’re apologizing too much. Try saying “I promise I’ll tell you if you did something wrong; you can stop apologizing for being quirky”
- Be clear if they’ve crossed a line. They may not realize that they did. Say “That hurt my feelings” or “Please do X instead of Y because of Z”
- If they act startled or confused when you do this, don’t assume it’s because they don’t care. It might be because they’re surprised that they completely misjudged things and now they need to figure out how to fix it.
- Avoid making negative assumptions about personality or competence based on their social struggles
Many of these tips are just about being a good communicator in general.
Difficulties finding the box can be disabling in an impatient world, especially as a person gets older and the stakes get higher. It’s a confusing and frustrating problem with no easy solution.
How can the world get better? Perhaps with more learning and understanding. Autistic people are going to need extra help learning about expectations, especially as they transition to new phases of life. Understanding and helpfulness on the part of non-autistics can make it a little easier. And, of course, lots of wikiHow articles.
Do you struggle with finding boxes too? Do you have a loved one who does?
Since I don’t have clear solutions yet, all I can do is tell you that you’re not alone.