Tendril Theory

Green tendrils curling around each other

When I’m focused on something

My mind sends out a million tendrils of thought

Expands into all of the thoughts & feelings

When I need to switch tasks

I must retract all of the tendrils of my mind

This takes some time

Eventually I can shift to the new task

But when I am interrupted or must switch abruptly

It feels like all of the tendrils are being ripped out

That’s why I don’t react well

Please just give me time

To switch tasks when I’m ready.

Tendril Theory – eisforerin

I came up with “Tendril Theory” when someone in a support group asked for a good way to explain executive function, specifically the challenge of being interrupted or having to switch tasks suddenly, to a neurotypical person. The image and words came to me all at once. It took me a few weeks to sit down and draw it.

I think the reason this resonates with so many people is that a lot of different kinds of brains work in a similar way – not only for autistic people, but also people with ADHD, and neurotypical introverts. So if this doesn’t describe you, it probably describes someone you know.

Tendril Theory – eisforerin

Tendril Theory is very relatable to monotropic minds that enter attention tunnels and flow states.

When focused like this an Autistic person can enter a ‘flow state‘ which can bring great joy and satisfaction to the person experiencing it.

However it can make switching between tasks and other transitions difficult.

Monotropism

Many people with autism are stressed individuals who find the world a confusing place (Vermeulen, 2013). So how does someone with autism achieve a sense of flow? McDonnell & Milton (2014) have argued that many repetitive activities may achieve a flow state. One obvious area where flow can be achieved is when engaging in special interests. Special interests allow people to become absorbed in an area that gives them specialist knowledge and a sense of achievement. In addition, certain repetitive tasks can help people achieve a flow like state of mind. These tasks can become absorbing and are an important part of people’s lives. The next time you see an individual with autism engaging in a repetitive task (like stacking Lego or playing a computer game), remember that these are not in themselves negative activities, they may well be reducing stress.

If you want to improve your supports to people with autism from a stress perspective, a useful tool is to identify flow states for that person and try to develop a flow plan. Remember, the next time you see a person repeating seemingly meaningless behaviours, do not assume that this is always unpleasant for them – it might be a flow state, and beneficial for reducing stress.

What is ‘flow’?

We need flow states. Don’t tug us out of flow states. Don’t cut our tendrils.

Behind the waterfall - Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland

Waterfall, Iceland, Springtime, Spring - Flowing Water, Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Entering flow states – or attention tunnels – is a necessary coping strategy for many of us.

Fergus Murray

If you imagine that an autistic kid at school is likely to be wrenched out of their attention tunnel multiple times every day, each time leading to disorientation and deep discomfort, you are on your way to understanding why school environments can be so stressful for many autistic students. If you can avoid contributing to that, you may find that you have an easier time with your autistic students: try entering into their attention tunnel when you can, rather than tugging them out of it. Parallel play is one powerful tool for this; start where the child is, show interest in what they’re focused on. If you do need to pull them out of whatever they’re focusing on, it’s best to give them a bit of time.

Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles

Monotropic minds need caves, deep spaces for deep work where interruptions don’t rip out the tendrils of high memory state work.

One of the more interesting ideas emerging from attention capital theory is the surprising role environment can play in supporting elite cognitive performance.

Professional writers seem to be at the cutting edge of this experimentation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the near future, we start to see more serious attention paid to constructing seriously deep spaces as our economy shifts towards increasingly demanding knowledge work.

Simon Winchester’s Writing Barn – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

The costs of interruptions have been studied in office environments. An interrupted task is estimated to take twice as long and contain twice as many errors as uninterrupted tasks (Czerwinski:04). Workers have to work in a fragmented state as 57% of tasks are interrupted (Mark:05). 

For programmers, there is less evidence of the effects and prevalence of interruptions. Typically, the number that gets tossed around for getting back into the “zone” is at least 15 minutes after an interruption. Interviews with programmers produce a similiar number (vanSolingen:98). Nevertheless, numerous figures have weighed in: Paul Graham stresses the differences between a maker’s schedule and manager’s schedule. Jason Fried says the office is where we go to get interrupted.

Based on a analysis of 10,000 programming sessions recorded from 86 programmers using Eclipse and Visual Studio and a survey of 414 programmers (Parnin:10), we found:

  • A programmer takes between 10-15 minutes to start editing code after resuming work from an interruption.
  • When interrupted during an edit of a method, only 10% of times did a programmer resume work in less than a minute.

Research shows that the worst time to interrupt anyone is when they have the highest memory load. Using neural correlates for memory load, such as pupillometry, studies have shown that interruptions during peak loads cause the biggest disruption(Iqbal:04).

Programmer Interrupted

People need roughly 23 minutes to go back to their tasks after a major interruption, but the plot deepens if you’re a programmer. Add at least 10 minutes to the forced break (the minimum amount of time you need to start editing code again) and there you go — that’s a solid half hour you lose whenever someone approaches you. It gets worse if that interruption is planned.

They also found out that the worst time to be interrupted is when you have the highest memory load. The silver lining of being interrupted comes into play when the person can either suspend their working state or reach a “good breakpoint” —this way the impact can be reduced. However, transitioning from a high memory state to a low memory state takes about seven minutes, so the interruption is (almost) never without consequences.

And it’s gone —The true cost of interruptions

Further reading,

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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