Bottoms-Up: The Innovative Thinking Style of the Asperger’s Mind
By Samantha Craft
Appreciating the “Bottom-Up” Method
As a collective, myself included, individuals on the autism spectrum have been recognized to have almost effortless associative thinking skills and to be prone to “bottom-up” processing. Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of science at Colorado State University and prominent author who speaks of the challenges and strengths of autistics, associates her autism with her successful contributions to the industrial design of unique handling devices for livestock that benefit both livestock business and animal welfare. She states in an article by The New Idealist (which can be seen here):
“I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then pick out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all of this resource down into one short paragraph . . . That’s something that I’m good at doing… I’m a bottom-up thinker—I take the details and put them together.”
Drawing Conclusions from Prior Learning and Memories
In 1970, a cognitive psychologist, Richard Gregory, argued that an individual loses 90% of the visual information taken in from the retina to the visual cortex in the brain, and that this gap of information results in a person developing a hypothesis to make up for the deficit. He theorized people make inferences about the sensory data they perceive based on what can be recalled of past experience. Gregory cited that individualized perception is an active process that cannot be separated from memory and personal internal processes.
In other words, the average person, when taking in his or her immediate environment, is analyzing and drawing conclusions from the utilization of prior learning and memories. The analysis of one’s environmental situation is reached as a direct result of applying a broad and overriding hypothesis to what is happening—a hypothesis based on prior knowledge. Any action that follows is therefore a direct result of inference based on past experience.
Wherein the typical-minded person is taking in the concept before the details, based on collective memories, the autistic mind, due to a bombardment of sensory clues, is taking in the details before the concept.
Taking in Details Before the Concept
In contrast to the typical person, let’s consider the mind of someone with Asperger’s syndrome or otherwise on the autism spectrum. That individual is highly influenced by the senses, and takes in events and circumstance in a complex sensory-based-fashion, and less by an automatic, instantaneous-formalized hypothesis. As the autistic brain is prone to take in multiple stimuli through multiple sensory channels, all at once (an action that often leads to what is called ‘sensory overload’), the autistic mind is processing multitudes of fragmented details. Based on this comparison, it is logical to conclude, this act of processing multiple sensory data for an autistic, becomes frontrunner to the act of logically formulating a memory-driven hypothesis.
Wherein the typical-minded person is taking in the concept before the details, based on collective memories, the autistic mind, due to a bombardment of sensory clues, is taking in the details before the concept. This “details before the concept” idea is a definer of the bottom-up process approach to thinking. An approach that is indispensable to innovative thinking.
Bottom-up thinking is said to take place through a process of taking in details and building up from there. The fragmented bits and pieces are structured and categorized, and then an induction is made—a process that brings rise to something. This thinking style involves formulating connections with other examples to make sense of what is occurring, and then capturing the commonalities between the connections into something concrete. In total, the bits and pieces are being reassembled into something that makes sense and leads to a resulting conclusion.
The “Top-Down” Approach
Top-down processing occurs when inferences are made based on a general idea—something that overlaps to define the whole of what is being taken in. It is a concrete-driven act of processing that is dependent upon the previous parts of information to clarify data. The top-down approach to thinking incorporates an embracing belief, rule, or law to deduce something about a particular instance or circumstance, and is dependent upon connections from past experience and memories. A top-down approach to reading can be thought of as taking in the whole of the paragraph instead of deciphering each word separately.
It is a common practice for psychologists to show autistic patients photographs of human facial expressions that depict emotions (usually a sectioned off portion of a face displaying only the eye region), and to ask what emotion is being depicted in the image. Some mental health professionals utilize this examination technique to determine whether or not the patient has challenges in recognizing emotions. The problem with this common strategy is that the autistic, due to a common bottom-up thinking style, isn’t used to taking in one fragmented clue and using that one piece of data to make one conclusion. The autistic mind isn’t used to taking one general idea (the concept of sadness) and applying it to a circumstance (watery eyes). Autistic individuals are used to taking in multiple input and data throughout the waking hours. Deciphering what one still image of a person’s emotional expression is depicting requires an individual to use top-down processing—to look at the facial expression and connect it to an overlapping generalized emotion. Those on the autism spectrum, for the most part, are not used to thinking in overall generalizations. In fact, we are usually wired quiet the opposite—we are used to thinking outside the box.
In the business world, this top-down approach can be seen as higher-level management being the primary decision makers, and the bottom-up approach would incorporate a collective decision making schema. Overall, a top-down approach is effective in times of urgency, requiring quick decision-making tactics or when there is a need for consistency and timesaving measures, such as when all the upper management use the same performance employee review template for consistency.
When a worker senses upper management is imprinting their individualized approach of the right way to do business, the bottom-level workers automatically feel left out of the decision making process.
The “Bottom-Up” Approach
If something needs to be taken care of speedily, in most circumstances there is no time for filtering through mass employee-input and coming up with novel ideas and theories. If something needs to be swiftly detoured, aborted, or avoided, top-down management is a necessity. However, an ongoing and consistent top-down style of management usually leads to lower employee satisfaction and retention rates. When a worker senses upper management is imprinting their individualized approach of the right way to do business, the bottom-level workers automatically feel left out of the decision making process.
A bottom-up approach is ideal when there is a need for innovative ideas and solutions in the workplace. An innovative workplace, with a bottom-up approach doing business, by default, implements an incubator for out of the box thinking. Collaborative brainstorming is a natural bottom-down thinking approach.
Personally I (much like Dr. Grandin), in any type of data collection, require many examples before I reach a final conclusion on my own and before I put a plan into action. An example can be found in how I am writing my current book about the workplace and Aspergers. When I find a new bit of information (such as the concept of bottom-up thinking), I collect 20 or more bits of that same information from various sources (books, articles, journals, videos), and then compare, contrast, and logically decipher which makes the most sense to include in the book. (This article you are reading now is a sample from my upcoming book and a result of hours of research using the bottom-up approach.)
I look for patterns in repetitive data, theories, and conclusions. In another example, when I watched my 100th video on autism or read my 100th article, I went back in my mind to all the other information I had seen before, and pulled out patterns and repeated data. I sought out connections and confirmation of probable truths based on a collective, not a singular.
In short: I don’t take things at face value.
Marcelle Ciampi, M.Ed. (aka Samantha Craft), a respected autistic author and community advocate, is best known for her writings found in the well-received blog and book Everyday Aspergers. A professional educator, she has been featured in various literature, including peer-reviewed journals, Autism Parenting Magazine, The Mighty, Project Aspie, Art of Autism, and Different Brains. Marcelle works as the Senior Recruiter and Outreach Specialist at Ultranauts, an engineering firm with a neurodiversity-hiring initiative, and is a consultant for Uptimize and Spectrum Fusion. A contributing author of Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism, Marcelle speaks globally on the topic of neurodiversity. She also serves as the founder of Spectrum Suite LLC, the co-founder of the Spectrum Lights Inclusion Summit, co-executive of NeuroGuides, and a contributor to autism organizations internationally. Some of her works, especially The Ten Traits, have been translated into multiple languages and been shared in counseling offices around the world. She resides in the Pacific Northwest with her sons and life partner.