“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”
― Albert Einstein
When life seems like one long, puzzling matrix of random connections: problem solving becomes a survival skill. So far, I have not survived very well.
What’s in the mix?
Attention is key to problem solving, as is planning and most of the other executive functions. The core skill is being able to come up with an action plan. This skill depends heavily on your ability to think flexibly and monitor yourself and your performance.
What’s the Problem?
The main problems I struggle with involve social or emotional intelligence, or applying the appropriate level of detail. Coming up with a suitable action plan is another issue. Knowing when to stick to it and when to adapt it is equally problematic. And, of course, there are some problems that are totally invisible to me.
It’s funny really, I am a good problem solver in some respects. I can use logic to reach a solution and take emotion right out of the equation, even when assembling flat-pack furniture! Although that’s a skill I have developed with age. When I was in my twenties I used to have regular meltdowns when trying to put one together. Yet, I have managed to resolve some thorny issues.
A couple of years after my wife and I were married, we had to move quickly, due to harassment, into a house in a new neighbourhood. It became immediately apparent that the situation we had moved into was much worse than the one we had just left.
Our new neighbours were party animals and we regularly witnessed clan warfare outside our front door. Gangs of youths would regularly go into battle with iron bars, bats and missiles of all types, the police would only arrive for the post war meet up. We had jumped out of the frying pan right into the flames of a burning neighbourhood.
That was the problem. Now, how was it to be solved?
My wife turned to grief, regret and anger in almost equal measure. We both experienced anxiety. We stayed out of the house as much as we could. When we approached the border of the neighbourhood on our return, our stomachs would knot up. I was in knots most of the time. I decided to make getting the hell out of Dodge my number one goal. I formulated a plan.
Emotion had no place in that plan.
The first problem was that we had just moved and the local housing manager, who had taken a dislike to us for reasons I still don’t understand, wouldn’t even consider us for another move.
Number one of my action plan was to find out exactly what our rights to move were. We were renting from a social landlord. I knew that gave us more options than being private tenants. This was way before the internet and Google. I hit the local library for information on housing law, liaised with advice agencies, got my local councillor and MP involved. I didn’t stop there.
I knew that my wife’s health condition would make us a priority on the waiting list, should we get on it. So, I mobilised our GP, my wife’s consultant, her occupational therapist and physiotherapist, who all agreed to support our application to be rehoused.
Six months after we had moved in, I obsessed day and night, wrote many letters and considered every angle I could. During those months my wife’s and my own health, both mental and physical, had declined so much that we were taking a cocktail of meds to get through. Any semblance of a plan was long faded. Only my obsession kept me going.
In the end, it was a chance call to a national housing charity that gave me the ultimate leverage I needed. They informed me that our landlord had to consider our request to move if we could prove our circumstance was exceptional. That part was easy.
Our landlord had allowed our former neighbour to harass us despite the fact that she was breaking the terms of her tenancy agreement. They ignored our complaints, refused to take action against our neighbour and, for a long time, refused to allow us to be considered for a move.
Then, when we were desperate enough, they offered us a house in the borough’s worst neighbourhood knowing that we would feel compelled to take it. The effect of moving into a gang war zone had led to a visible decline in our health. I laid this all out in a letter to the area housing manager.
We finally moved out, into a small, quiet flat, a couple of months later.
During the whole process I jumped onto any piece of information that gave us any hope, and approached anyone and everyone for help. I made waves but, had I been organised, we would have made landfall much sooner.
Still, when it comes to emotional or social issues, the problems never seem to get solved.
Puzzles: Social and Emotional
Repairing relationships has been one problem that has plagued me for years. It’s sad to admit, that I have had only two friendships my entire life, and both of those were dysfunctional. One problem I struggle with is knowing how to regulate contact.
One friend wanted, what was for me, a claustrophobic level of contact. I put up with it because I felt that a smothering friendship was better than no friendship at all. This particular friend was also extremely negative. It was not until I met my wife that I realised just how toxic the relationship with him was.
The other friend I had moved away for work. I visited him occasionally and saw him when he retuned home to visit. When he returned home for good I went to see him. Soon afterwards contact abruptly stopped . To this day, I still don’t know what happened. Maybe I didn’t keep enough contact up in this friendship? I honestly don’t know.
This is a good example of me missing the problem altogether.
Even if a problem doesn’t depend on emotional or social skills, I may still struggle. My approach may be highly detailed or superficial.
Where’s the Forest again?
Have you ever seen the Big Bang Theory?
If so, you will probably be aware of the character Sheldon. The show’s writer’s seemed to have given him every conceivable trait of Asperger’s, which is annoying. However, the character illustrates well the hyper detailed approach to problem solving many of us on the spectrum share.
There’s an episode which shows us Sheldon trying to choose a new computer console. His ridiculously detailed and convoluted methods for deciding which console would be best drives him and Amy, his partner, to the edge of despair. Although exaggerated for comedic effect, this episode shows how we on the spectrum get bogged down in detail when problem solving.
At the beginning of the Corona Pandemic I decided to buy myself a weights bench so that I could work out at home. Every one seemed to have exactly the same idea at roughly the same time. It seemed that everyone else had the sense to order one quickly in anticipation of the inevitable rush.
I needed a bench that folded down small enough to fit into a specific space, have a simple folding mechanism, and be strong and stable when assembled. I scoured Amazon, E bay etc. for a good brand, with the right dimensions. I checked every review, considered the weight loading, thickness of the tubing, locking mechanism for the back rest, number of incline positions and so on.
By the time I had found one I was happy with the estimated delivery time was three months from order. By going down the comparison rabbit hole I had missed my chance altogether. That same process has played out so many times in my life. I am incapable of doing what most people do and simply buy something because I like it, or base my purchase on a few important details.
Anxiety and perfectionism, two common traits of ASD, may be key drivers of this hyper detailed approach to problem solving . We are constantly worried about making the wrong choice, of getting it wrong. Maybe this is a consequence of getting things wrong socially all of our lives. The anxiety itself may be completely out of proportion to the problem and may be heightened if our mental resources are already depleted.
Clearly my problem solving skills could do with overhauling. So, what now? Well, I will continue to explore how other executive functions have, and continue to affect me, and investigate ways to improve them.