Autism and the Fascinating Power of Associative Thinking

And what happens when your mind doesn’t think in a linear way

Dog headDiego, my 26-year old son with autism and intellectual disability, loves the word “similar”.

On one of our runs the other day, he began to recite this litany of similarities between movies:

“Holes is similar to Indiana Jones”, “Talladega Nights is similar to Elf”, ” “Slum Dog Millionaire is similar to Jungle Book,” “Aquaman is similar to The Little Mermaid, ” “Alice in Wonderland is like 13 going on 30…”

He would’ve gone on indefinitely had I not interrupted him to ask, “How’s movie X similar to movie Y?”

Holes and Indiana Jones are similar because “they both dig”. Talladega Nights and Elf are both comedies. Slum Dog Millionaire and Jungle Book are both in India. Aquaman and The Little Mermaid are both in the Atlantic.

And, my favorite, Alice in Wonderland and 13 going on 30 are both dreams.

Diego’s psychiatrist calls Diego’s recitations “flights of ideas”. I call it “associative thinking”. The following are a few more examples of how it works:

A few months ago, as I was paying for repairs on my car, Diego saw a stuffed duck toy on a counter. He took his cell phone out of his pocket and said:

“I’m gonna take a picture of the duck. I love it. I’m gonna take a picture of the duck because I eat duck from Costco. I like Donald Duck. I like Daffy Duck from the Looney Tunes. I saw Donald Duck in Disney.”

Here’s the silly little duck that triggered the associations:

Little duck stuffed animal
Duck on a counter at Toyota dealership and shop. Image by Author

Images are often instant sources of associations, and Diego always takes pictures of them.

We were in the lobby of an apartment building the other day and Diego noticed a big coffee table book with an image of a black feline on it. As expected, he whipped out his cell and took a photo as he voiced his thoughts out loud:

“I’m taking a picture of the panther. The Black Panther from Africa. Chadwick Boseman was the Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman passed away. He was in 42. He was African American like Denzel Washinton from American Gangster”

On yet another run, Diego and I came upon a young woman and her dog. Diego stopped and looked at her straight in the eye and said, “Cane in Italian.” What in the world does he mean? I wondered. Usually, I can tell what he’s referring to.

Suspecting the girl might feel uncomfortable about a random guy on a run abruptly stopping, staring at her, and uttering, “Cane in Italian”, I interjected, “This is my son Diego. What’s your dog’s name?”

I needn’t have worried. Like almost everyone we’ve ever encountered, the girl sensed Diego’s goodness.

After a few exchanges, Diego stated, “You were in Italian class.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember,” she said (though I’m not so sure she actually did).

Turns out she and Diego had been in the same Italian class in high school a decade ago. Diego had recognized her right away. Seeing her dog, the sentence “Cane in Italian” just came out of his mouth.

“Cane” is Italian for “dog”. Should’ve been obvious, don’t you think?

And here’s one more example: 26 minutes into a hike in Camden, Maine, Diego noticed an ant on the trail and said: “Look. An ant from Bug’s Life. It’s Flick.”

Such animal/ movie character associations happen all the time when we’re out and about. A rabbit is instantly Thumper (Disney’s Bambi) or Lucky Jack (Disney’s Home on the Range), a deer is either Bambi or Faline (both from Bambi), and a seagull is Orville (Disney’s The Rescuers Down Under).

In Diego’s brain, a visual stimulus often begets an association which begets a second association which begets a third association, and so on. It all happens quickly and the amazing thing is he can put it into words as it’s happening.

I usually know what Diego’s talking about when the stimulus is visual, even if I may not understand the association’s source. The original stimulus need not be visual, however. It can be a thought or an event.

When it comes to thoughts, the anxious kind renders Diego’s “associative thinking” most evident.

I know an anxious thought is tormenting him when he begins this recitation associating various anxious memories:

“Airplanes get grounded due to bad weather. I’m already 26. It’s a New Year. Let’s pray: Our Father….”

“Airplanes get grounded due to bad weather” refers to the time our flight to visit my sister was canceled due to, well, bad weather. “I’m already 26” and “It’s a New Year” are things I’ve said to him to try to get him to calm down. Praying is what Abuela and many others do to feel happy.

As to events, here’s a recent example of “associative thinking” at work. Some weeks ago, Diego’s friend Owen called with the sad news that the family dog, Gus, had passed. After saying he was sorry for the loss, Diego reminded Owen that he’d be seeing him soon, and suggested: “We’ll watch Coco and All Dogs Go to Heaven.”

Get it? The death event elicited Coco, while the death-of-a-dog event triggered All Dogs Go to Heaven. Both movies prominently feature dogs, death and the afterlife.

Diego’s often hard to understand because his speech can be slurred and rushed and because what he says sometimes doesn’t seem to make sense. But if you dig deeper, you’ll find there sure is meaning behind everything Diego says.

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4 Reasons My Autistic Son’s an Amazing Travel Companion

And how he makes the experience better for the group

Young man in front of fountian
Diego at Bar Harbor’s “Fontana di Trevi”

This summer, my family was supposed to go to South Africa on vacation, a huge deal given that we’ve never been anywhere in Africa and that my son, Diego, who has autism, has long been obsessed with African animals, from the dung beetle to the springbok.

With the pandemic, we obviously cancelled the trip. Actually, we “postponed it” to summer 2021, as Diego often reminds us.

I didn’t plan to go anywhere this summer beyond Connecticut, where we live, and New York City, where my other son, Andres, lives. Last minute, however, I asked my sister if Diego and I could join her on a week long trip to Maine.

I asked knowing she’d say yes even though she’d reserved to stay in places meant for seven, not nine, guests. My six siblings and I are used to crowding more people into a place than the number it’s supposed to accommodate.

Luckily, no adult males other than Diego were going, so we wouldn’t have to worry about needy humans who find it problematic to sleep three to a bed meant for two people or to share a bathroom with nine family members.

Our Maine trip was magical and made me realize what an amazing travel companion Diego is.

For starters, Diego can sleep anywhere, with anyone.

Getting a good night’s sleep is always important and there’s no better person to share a bed with than Diego. Once he lies down, he does not move or get up for at least nine hours.

It’s quite extraordinary. He sleeps as if lying in a coffin. When it gets bright, he’ll cover his eyes with his forearm or pull the sheet over his head. Other than that, he’s still.

Then there’s the refreshing fact that Diego hardly ever complains.

He doesn’t seem to mind situations that typically bother the youth during family trips. He doesn’t ask if we’re there yet or how long till we get there. He doesn’t mind which bed or room he gets — which is great, since he doesn’t have it in him to say no if someone asked him to trade.

He does complain about stuff that normally aggravates him, like not heading out to eat at 7:00 pm when the plan was to go out to eat at 7:00 pm. But such complaints are to be expected and easy to appease.

Diego’s agenda is to be part of the action and group, to spend time with us and have our attention. You’ll never hear him whine that we never do what he wants to do, like I do when our family of four goes on vacation.

Another great thing about Diego is that he’s predictable and follows the rules.

When we set off on the eight-hour journey to Maine, we decided on two rules for the trip: no complaining and having fun. Since rules are for following, as everyone knows but few take to heart the way Diego does, all I had to do if Diego started complaining (which, as explained above, he hardly does) was to remind him of the rules.

Diego’s day has a rhythm. His silly hour is at around 6:30 pm. His constant talking subsides at approximately 7:00 pm, a little while after taking his meds. He gets really sleepy at 8:30 pm and wakes up between 7:30 and 8:30 am.

Finally, Diego’s up for anything. Not only is Diego fine with any plan, he thoroughly enjoys each one. We went to the beach in Acadia National Park and he didn’t hesitate to get in and frolic in the freezing cold (55 ºF, or 13 ºC) Atlantic. We hiked the unexpectedly difficult and quite dangerous Beehive Trail and he happily forged through.

Man in the ocean
Freezing cold water in Acadia
two hikers climbing
Hiking the super steep Beehive trail.

Aunt Lole is going for a walk? Diego will join her. And, if the moment they get back from their walk I decide I now want to go on a walk? Diego will join me too.

Ask him to carry the water bottle, empty the dishwasher, take the garbage out, and you always know his answer will be yes. Lately, he has taken to responding with, “I did it because I love you.”

Yeah, Diego sure knows how to make himself endearing, generalizing the “because I love you” to various situations, such as: “I need to say good-night to dad because I love him,” and “Can you buy me an iced tea because you love me?”

Food’s seldom a problem for Diego, as long as there are gluten-free options, given his Celiac condition. He’s as excited to have french fries from McDonald’s for lunch as he is about seafood stew at the fancy restaurant.

It’s not that outdoor activities just happen to be his thing. He was the same when we went to Rome. He was just as excited about visiting museums and monuments, associating what he beheld to his favorite movies or other things he had seen elsewhere.

In Bar Harbor, he actually said the fountain (the one shown in the picture above) was just like Rome’s Fontana di Trevi.

Diego doesn’t have the safety skills to go out and explore on his own, but that’s OK. He’s game for everything and finds magic in things big and small in all kinds of destinations.

Diego’s certainly a trip.

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