Thursday, March 27, 2014

Night-blooming Flowers: Sudden skill acquisition and extreme context-dependence

There was a graphic that went completely viral in both the autism parent and theater communities of Facebook a while ago, which makes occasional reappearances.  It’s a performance report note from the stage manager of a popular children’s show.  In one matinee performance, there had been some chattering from the audience at one point.  Afterward, the stage manager had learned from one of the teachers what the source of the commotion had been:  an autistic little boy, who had, as far as anyone knew, never spoken before, had suddenly started talking to the teacher sitting next to him all about what he was seeing.  No one had even thought that he knew his teacher’s name.

A couple of parents who commented were skeptical of the account.  While I resented the incident being passed around as inspiration porn by many, it was entirely possible, I argued, that under new and unique circumstances, a kid had displayed an ability for language that he’d never demonstrated before.

I was indignantly lectured by one mother about how autism is a neurobiological condition that can’t be cured by the magic of theater.

But being able to do something suddenly for the first time, or under specific circumstances, or gain in speech abilities, isn’t recovery from autism; it’s a really common experience, if not usually that dramatic. Autistic people can possess extreme sensitivity to environmental detail, patterning, and circumstance, and it can affect our abilities in any given moment.  Hadn’t they ever had something similar happen?  Was this really not a thing that non-autistic people experienced?

They didn’t know what I was talking about.


We do gain skills without necessarily being drilled or pushed, just in ways that might not be apparent to observers.  Just because progress or learning aren’t being displayed to others does not mean they aren’t happening.  An ability probably wasn’t learned or gained at the moment it was first displayed, but has been “under construction,” internally, for a long time.  Things that are intuitive and easy to typical people can require long periods of interior fermentation and distillation in order to develop, and then for us to feel safe or comfortable enough to use them.

And then seemingly suddenly, when the time or circumstances are right, there they are, like a night-blooming flower.

That uncertainty about whether they will ever show themselves doesn’t make it a miracle when they do; it means it took the time or circumstances it took for that to happen.

I’ve also said before that I feel that very few of my autistic traits are, themselves, positive or negative.  They’re all double-edged swords.  Disabling or painful in one context, necessary or pleasurable in a different context. 

Amanda Baggs has characterized autism not as a specific set of permanent deficits, but as a particular way that the brain allocates cognitive resources. 

That an autistic person might suddenly display an ability they’d never outwardly demonstrated before, or be able to do something under extremely specific circumstances or specific kinds of stress that they can’t do under typical, everyday circumstances, is neither magic nor miraculous.  It’s a common aspect of being autistic, and it’s one of my favorite parts.  It’s part of how being autistic works that distinct skills can develop at atypical times, and seemingly in isolation from other aspects of development, or are usable in extremely specific contexts when they aren’t normally.
Part of presuming competence is maintaining awareness that just because a skill has never manifested itself yet, does not mean that it never will.  And that just because someone might, in fact, never gain some particular skill, does not mean that they won’t gain others.


Once, in the first summer I lived in my apartment, I planted some pots of morning glories out on my fire escape, where they could trail up the railings.  I saw their long, spiraling buds form, and anticipated their blooming.

Then something strange started happening.  I would get home from work in the afternoons, and the buds that had looked healthy and ready to burst that morning would be withered and dead looking.  I thought that somehow they were dying before they ever bloomed.  I couldn’t figure out what could be happening to them.

On a rare day off, I went to take a book and cup of coffee out to the fire escape to enjoy the mid-morning sun.

All the morning glories were in gorgeous, bright pink bloom.  I realized they must only open their buds at a certain angle or intensity of sunlight.  Once they did, the flowers only lasted for few hours before wilting.  Nothing was wrong with the plants.  That was just what they did.  They weren’t the same as marigolds or tulips.

-Moonflowers bloom only at night.
-Four o’clocks bloom only in shade or late afternoon; you can trick them with an umbrella.
-Nasturtiums flower only in arid conditions; they never will if they get too much water.
-Giant corpse blossoms can bloom only once every several years, or even several decades.  That doesn’t mean they don’t, just because someone could watch one for years and never see it happen.

-The seeds of some native prairie plants can germinate only after exposure to the intense heat of a wildfire.

As a kid, I didn’t pick up bike riding at the same age as everyone else I knew.  It just didn’t work for me the way it apparently did for everyone else, and I couldn’t stay upright without training wheels for much longer than was socially acceptable.  Discouraged and embarrassed, I gave up and threw my bike into a corner of the garage.  Months or years went by, and I didn’t look at it or touch it or attempt to practice.  I couldn’t ride a bike.  That was it.

Then one day when I was 8 or 9, I just felt like I probably could.  I dug my bike out of the garage and on the very first try, started riding in perfect circles around the driveway.

For a long time, I couldn’t summon the coordination necessary to blow my nose.  Then one day I just could.  I was 17.  (I was driving before that.  I could drive before I could blow my nose.)

One day I just understood how to make my bed.  I was 31.

Gain in abilities, even when sudden and seemingly inexplicable, is not recovery from autism; the fact that we learn very differently from other people is intrinsic to autism, and one of those differences seems to be, very commonly, that immense periods of internal processing, combined with specific circumstances, can be necessary before a skill can be externalized.

There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything particularly miraculous about it.


  1. Yes, this.

    I have never developed in a steady, smooth progression of ability. My development in all areas is uneven and sudden. I will plateau for what seems like an endless amount of time, and then suddenly I will have an epiphany and improve markedly.

    For example, I was unable to throw a ball. For years and years I was unable to throw a ball, past the time when such an inability in a little girl is considered cute and long past the time when adults had started lecturing me on applying myself, and then on getting serious, and then on not being a disruption because they knew I could throw in the right direction at least if I really wanted to. And, finally, past when they just quit letting me throw things because I "obviously didn't want to".

    Then, one day when playing baseball with my gym class at around 13, a new kid asked me to toss them the ball. Other kids groaned, knowing the ball would as likely go straight up in the air and hit me in the head as go in the direction I wanted it to. I tossed it anyway, and it few strait and true. And the other kid caught it easily.

    Riding a bike was similar. I used training wheels until I was seven. My father took them off my bike and refused to put them back on when my six-year-old sister was riding circles around me. One day when I was eight, I felt ready. I got on and just rode.

    Two months ago, I finally got the hang of getting out the door in the morning properly dressed (i.e. all clothes clean and worn properly - no inside-out shirts or forgotten underwear or mismatched socks), groomed (hair and teeth brushed, medication taken, face washed, showered if necessary), and with all critical items remembered.

    Most of my gains in skill have been achieved in this way: a sudden jump with no warning and no apparent trigger.

  2. My experience has been much the same. I have autism and dyscalculia and both act very similarly. I struggled for years to do basics like tie my shoes or add double digits. Sometimes I lose skills I had for brief periods through shutdowns or with math skills.

  3. Thank you very much for this. I'd like to reblog.

  4. I'm sure it happens with "NT" children too, only parents & others are not paying attention. I know when my daughter (diagnosed with PDD-NOS) said "I love you" for the first time, but I don't know when my "NT" son did.

    This reminded me... I'm from Mexico and learned English since Kindergarten. We hosted US students during the summer and, because they were there to learn Spanish, we were not supposed to speak to them in English, period. One day one of the students living in my house was just not understanding what I was saying, so I finally said it in English. I still remember the shock in her face! And that was some 30 years ago. : )

    Thank you for your post!

  5. I call it the "developmental leap" and my son has done it since he was a baby. No gradual acquisition of skills, instead several weeks of extreme crankiness and then, boom! Walking, or speaking in complete sentences, understanding how to better function in the classroom, etc. Your post, and the story of the theater experience, make all the sense in the world.

  6. I call it the "developmental leap" and my son has done this since he was a baby. No gradual acquisition of skills, instead a few weeks of extreme crankiness and then, boom! Walking or talking in complete sentences or understanding how to better function in the classroom. Your post, and the theater story, make perfect sense to me.

  7. How wonderful to know. Thank you for sharing!

  8. This is wonderful to know. Thank you for sharing!!!

  9. How wonderful to know. Thank you for sharing!

  10. a very inspirational piece. My 7 year old son has some difficulties, one being blowing his nose. This gives me hope. He's great on his bike though. ;-) Keep up the good work!

  11. Great blog and gives me hope for my 7 year old son who has slight autism. As an example, he's been great on his bike for years but nose blowing doesn't come natural to him. Keep up the good work!

  12. Oh nice article and nice examples... it sure gives me something to think about, cause I know for sure, 1 thing that I learned all of a sudden.
    It was a judo technique that I was always struggling to understand and I decided not to put any effort anymore in mastering this technique, untill all of a sudden in the middle of an important match, I made the technique, to my own surprise and since that moment I became a powerfull weapon, with which I managed to win several matches.

  13. Oh nice article and nice examples... it sure gives me something to think about, cause I know for sure, 1 thing that I learned all of a sudden.
    It was a judo technique that I was always struggling to understand and I decided not to put any effort anymore in mastering this technique, untill all of a sudden in the middle of an important match, I made the technique, to my own surprise and since that moment I became a powerfull weapon, with which I managed to win several matches.

  14. It took me about 15 minutes to learn how to ride a bike as an adult, even though I have never done it before, and yes, I am autistic..
    Oh, and the funny thing about bike riding is, apparently neurotypicals can learn it much quicker as an adult than as a child, like for instance it might take them less than 2 hours to learn it whereas it would have taken them days to learn it as a kid. Maybe it's because adults (and older kids) have better coordination than (younger) kids do, but with autistics, there is the additional angle of environmental changes that does not apply to neurotypicals, so the change in length of learning time may be even more dramatic for a non-dyspraxic autistic.