Strategies used by autistic people to overcome processing issues

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Strategies used by autistic people to overcome processing issues

Processing issues of various kinds are very common in autism. They can be the sole cause of the social communication issues that are the hallmark of an autism diagnosis.

Often, autistic people have no idea that they have an issue with processing. Many develop their own coping strategies to mitigate against the resulting difficulties. Occasionally such coping strategies develop into a strength that can lead to positive things such as employment. Other people develop maladaptive coping strategies that have a negative impact and prevent them from obtaining and maintaining employment.

The reason why people use strategies in an attempt to overcome their processing issues is because everyone has a desire to connect and fit in with others to a greater or lesser extent. Everyone has a desire to be able to communicate with other people. The problem with autism is that processing issues often create barriers to meeting these needs that can be difficult to overcome.

Ironically, the failure to connect and fit in makes people assume that the person does not want to connect with other people. Difficulties with fitting in and social interaction makes it appear that autistic people don’t want to fit in and connect with other people. Often, it is assumed that they have no interest in people.

Good coping strategies

Useful coping strategies that individual autistic people have developed and which potentially make them attractive as employees include:

  • Picking up on key words and phrases and making an educated guess at the meaning, often using patterns. This works well when the topic is familiar and well understood, but can fail badly with unfamiliar topics and when instructions are precise and it is important to pick up on all the detail. The level of communication skills that can be achieved using this technique, can make a person highly employable in jobs which require a strong knowledge and understanding of a certain topic, including ones which require a high level of problem solving ability.

  • Developing the ability to analyse complexity. This is a very rare skill, which can be developed initially as a strategy to get by in the complex social world. This is not a strategy that will solve social communication issues, but it can enable someone to get by. People who develop this rare skill can be very valuable employees for a sympathetic and understanding employer who is prepared to capitalise on their strengths and not force them to do tasks they struggle with. This requires an element of job carving.

  • Being very well prepared in order to minimise surprises and the need to ‘wing it’. When combined with knowledge and insights, this can be a very useful skill for jobs that require giving presentations, training, or guided tours, for example.

  • Being organised with good attention to detail in order to ensure that everything runs smoothly. This can result in an autistic person being very efficient and productive resulting in an ability to meet deadlines with high quality work.

  • Reliance on routine. Autistic people who thrive on the structure and familiarity of routine are often able to excel at some of the repetitive and mundane tasks required for certain types of jobs.

Note that having processing issues often affects only the processing of incoming information. Internal processing speed once the information has been assimilated can be very fast. Processing issues generally do not affect reasoning or problem solving skills.

Maladaptive coping strategies

Some people whose processing issues cause them problems develop maladaptive coping strategies that hold them back and prevent them getting anywhere near achieving their goals.

  • Hiding lack of understanding by agreeing to everything. This can be particularly problematic when dealing with the job centre, for example. You can get into serious trouble if you don’t do something you have (apparently) agreed to do to the point of having your benefits stopped. We have spent a lot of time sorting out these kinds of issues with the job centre, for the people we help.

  • Hiding the inability to understand what you are being told by rote learning everything. That is, memorising as much information as possible, usually based on repetition. This can include memorising how people in general behave and react in specific situations (taking no account of individuality).

  • Hogging the conversation with a particular special interest that few other people share. Most people find this very off putting and the autistic person who is actually doing their best to connect, finds themselves rejected.

  • Engaging in social chit chat via picking up on key words and phrases and saying something about them in a desperate attempt to connect with people. People who do this can appear to make friends quite easily, but such friendships quickly fall apart when the person realises that the autistic person is unable to hold a meaningful conversation.

It is very common for autistic people who have developed these kinds of strategies to be labelled as unintelligent. People cannot see beyond the communication difficulties to the intelligent person who is longing to connect with others and be understood.


In order to help someone effectively, it is vitally important to identify both the maladaptive coping strategy and the processing issue that has led to it. Then you can work on replacing the maladaptive copy strategies with more constructive ones. It is important to tap into the person’s interests when doing this.

For example, we have had good success in replacing rote learning with better coping strategies with transformative results. ​We have written up such a case​.

This approach also works on children and in fact it is better to replace maladaptive coping strategies sooner rather than later. If a child is simply agreeing to everything for example, it is important to give them a better coping strategy, even if it is only to ask for time to think about it.

It is also vitally important to investigate an autistic child’s intelligence more thoroughly than is achieved in an IQ test. Processing issues can cause a perception that a child is less intelligent than they really are, leading to low self esteem, low confidence and failure to meet educational potential. It is important to work out what is going on and then to find strategies that are appropriate for a particular child.

Aspiedent can help

Aspiedent CIC specialises in problem solving to a solution in these kinds of situations. This is done by first asking loads of questions in order to get as much information as possible about strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes. We then create a holistic profile (an Integrative Cognitive Profile) and provide recommendations. These are normally life transforming for the adult or child concerned.

If you are interested in finding out more, ​get in touch​.