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What if science is to neurotypicals what life is to autistics…

September 17, 2021

Scientific thinking comes naturally to me. The way I sit back and observe in order to form a hypothesis to test. The way I listen more than I talk. How I experiment broadly and (often) wildly, off-script even rather than seek to be guided into safe spots with boundaries and expectations. And finally,how I interpret and accept failure, the drive within that keeps me going, lapping up every opportunity, every lesson. Noticing everything, testing everything, accepting everyting. This is the art of paying attention.

Being autistic means I process language and thought differently to neurotypicals (most people).

This doesn’t automatically mean I don’t or can’t undertstand things that people say, it’s more that I have to think about it more. I seem to have come without an ‘assumption’ or ‘instinct’ button in that department, or more accurately that I do have one but mine came without the software (I have to build the software). Anyway, over the years I’ve been teaching science I’ve noticed just how much some basic (in the fundamental rather than judgemental way) concepts struggle to be understood. That no matter how many different ways I try to explain, demonstrate and encourage, these concepts are met with a puzzlement that locks down the bit of the brain that adopts new information.

Anyway, after another two of these moments this week something finally clicked to me. What if science is to neurotypicals what life is to autistics…

Example A: When water isn’t water.

Often I’ll ask a client if their formula contains water. I might phrase this in different ways depending on what other information I’ve been given at that point (water phase, diluted surfactants, extracts that are not oil based) etc. Often the client will say no.

Sometimes the answer is no and they are correct but quite often their formula does contain water, they just didn’t think of their ingredient that way.

Common thinking roadblocks I’ve come across include:

  • Thinking that Aloe Juice or Gel is not water.
  • Same for Milk, fruit juice, extract-only water phases or honey.

Progressing from there we have:

  • That glycerin extracts don’t count as a ‘water phase’ (Ok, this one I can understand to a point but remember, I’m talking to people who call themselves formulators/ crafters of cosmetics or whatever and lets not forget that many people still think glycerin is oil, oily or oil-soluble).
  • That many ingredients are blends that include water as supplied (again, definitely something that takes a bit more looking into but again, these are formulators)

Example B: The ingredient can only take one form.

While my customer base is global, there is a concentration of people to whom I interact that are on the same seasonal weather pattern as me. Every time the weather gets cold here I get people calling up worried about their oils going cloudy or gritty, their preservative ‘frosting over’ or their waxes being ‘so hard they can’t get them out of the container’. The most common conclusion to these dilemas I get are that the material has expired, is the wrong material or has somehow ‘gone wrong’. The same thing happens in reverse when the weather warms up.

Sometimes a change in form of an ingredient, especially separation in ingredient pre-mixes, can be a sign the ingredient has expired but in these cases it’s just your regular melting, freezing, evaporating or condensing. The same process most adults accept with water (steam, liquid, snow, ice) but struggle to apply in other settings.

My reflections

As a teacher I welcome these misconceptions as teachable moments. These are moments where you can explore the current conception with the student / brand owner or whatever and walk them through a thought process that (hopefully) opens their eye, granting them an ‘aha’ moment. Often that does happen but it doesn’t always. Sometimes when it doesn’t happen I have to accept that I may not be the teacher for them and that I’ve failed, at other times it may just not be ‘their’ time to discover that – their brain may have the capacity but not the receptivity.

So how is this like being autistic?

When observing these interactions in detatched ‘scientist’ mode while actively participating in them , it seem to me as if the student/ brand owner has tried to make sense of the situation at hand by scanning their brain for an answer among the things they already know. Only the ‘already know’ box doesn’t encompass their whole lives, it only stretches to THIS part of their life. It looks to me like they have a brain cupboard for cosmetic science stuff – a silo or bucket I guess you could call it, a place that is in no way connected to any other information or experience they have.

This situation is also common in teaching, they call it ‘classroom smart, life challenged’ or something like that. An example of which may be the student who can do the math calculations in the classroom with ease because they have their ‘school’ mindset on but put a money sign in frot of the numbers and send them out shopping and they can’t figure out how much change they should get from a 50.

In autism terms this is also quite common. In my personal experience (the only one I’m qualified to share) it has two key underlying causes:

1) my monotropic mindset. This is similar to the silo or bucket mentality above but in this case rather than not being able to de-contexturalise (I can easily do that), I can get stuck on one idea or track and have trouble stepping outside of that zone to gain a broader perspective. In this context I could also call this hyperfocus or flow for me, in the neurotypical type scenario I’m comparing it to, the thought origin may be the same or may well be that no other options are within the frame of reference/ can be imagined. This is often the case when the experience level is low – in that case, it would be a case of jumping to a conclusion.

2) The Overwhelm. Being autistic for me means being easily overwhelmed by the possibilities and input that is all around me. If I’m not in a state of flow, I’m like a boundary-less sponge, soaking up anything and everything, often struggling to work out what is useful and what is not. For many students/ brand owners I talk to in this context, I have to keep in mind that the cosmetic science world is all unfamiliar to them. It’s a world where many act confident on the outside but are actually very vulnerable on the inside. Being overwhelmed for me is made ten times worse when I am in an environment in which I feel alien (which is most places). This is not a state of mind that is condusive to ‘best self’ thinking and again may be driving some of the struggles I observe.

So what next?

As always I’m sharing this with you in the hope it serves to open up thought processes and conversation that may help us all communicate better and be kinder to each other. While it is sometimes frustrating for me as a teacher and mentor to be confronted by these situations it is not (and I repeat NOT) because I think of these questions and/or situations as stupid or pointless. It’s more because I don’t always have the time or buy-in from the people asking to dig deep enough to help resolve this misconception and empower the individual.

I also want to make it clear that I am not implying all neurodiverse people can ‘do’ science and no neurotypical people get it, that’s just the thread of thought that gave me this ‘aha’ moment, affording me a compassion boost and an energy injection to tackle these questions in another way.

Whether my clients are really stuggling in similar ways to my autistic self or whether that’s just my misconception (or projection) I don’t know and don’t know that it matters. What does matter is that we carry on encouraging people to think of their cosmetic science endeavours both more critically (scientifically) and more broadly as that should allow the mind to expand and relax.

And with that I’ll leave you for today.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2021 12:18 am

    This is a really interesting blog! Thanks for sharing!!

    Feel free to read some of my blogs 🙂

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      September 18, 2021 4:40 am

      Thank you. I’m bookmarking your blog as you’ve also got some great insights .

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