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Right-Brain People in a Left-Brain World

Peter Myers "Autism"
Cerebral hemispheric organization

The fact that the human brain is asymmetrical is well known. Each hemisphere has its own way of perceiving and interpreting information: the left one, verbally, and the right one, non-verbally. In typical development the dominance of the left hemisphere is established when language develops, and from this point it determines the intellectual processes of abstract thinking and logical reasoning. This hemispheric lateralisation manifests the full intersensory integration and integration of sensory processing with language thinking. If in early development this integration does not occur, it results in various disabilities and impairments.

In the general population between 90% and 95% of people have a dominant left hemisphere and use left-brain logic (convergent thinking); the remaining 5% to 10% use a different thinking style (divergent thinking). The dominance of the right hemisphere in the general population does not lead to any disability, however, as the functions of the left hemisphere are not impaired. They have a different pattern of lateralisation: their right hemisphere or both hemispheres play a crucial role in language (Banich 1997).

Language processing becomes more left-lateralised in NT children and more right-lateralised in autistic children during the first few years of life (Eyler, Pierce, Courchesne, 2012; Flagg et al. 2005; Redcay, Courchesne, 2008). Atypical lateralisation of the functional language network, increased reliance on visual processing areas, and increased posterior brain activation have been reported in ASD and proposed as explanatory models of language difficulties. Autistic individuals show reduced lateralisation for language due to stronger right-hemisphere activity (Herringshaw et al. 2016; Pearson & Hodgetts 2020). [This reduced language lateralisation is associated with autism and, to some extent, with autism-like traits in the general population (Jouravlev et al. 2020)].

However, as autism is a heterogeneous disorder/condition, autistic individuals have highly individualised patterns of both extreme right- and leftward deviations, particularly in language, motor, and visuospatial regions, associated with symptom severity. For example, autistic individuals with language delay show more pronounced rightward deviations than those without language delay (Floris DL et al. 2021).

In her book The Jumbled Jigsaw: An Insider’s Approach to the Treatment of Autistic Spectrum ‘Fruit Salads, Donna Williams uses the left brain/right brain framework to differentiate between Asperger syndrome (ASD-1) (with left-brain dominance) and autistic – both so-called low- and high-functioning – individuals (with right-brain dominance) (ASD-2/3).[1] Donna explains how brain specialisation might illuminate the functioning of people with autism and Asperger syndrome:

- If left-brain processing is about verbal language, conscious awareness and ability to process language for meaning, about logic, intellect and reasoning but also about focusing on details, then it might indicate Asperger syndrome (ASD-1).

- If, on the other hand, right-brain processing is about ‘artism’, creativity, intuition and about the non-verbal skills of spatial awareness, pattern, form, theme and the ‘feel of something’, yet without the ability to sequence, and a tendency to get the global sense of something but lose the details, this would equate more closely with what often presents us as both the abilities and disabilities of ‘Autism’.

Thus, using the right side of the brain to make sense of the world allows huge sponge-like absorption of incoming information or experiences but sorting out and interpreting that flood of information results in problems. This could have advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, these masses of unfiltered information may later lead to awareness of all kinds of bits and pieces the person may be unable to account for. On the other hand, even if they eventually work through this flood of information they may be unable to directly and consciously access or express anything about this because they weren’t consciously aware at the time, so they may be more likely to appear learning disabled. (When it is triggered from the outside, they surprise not only those around them, but themselves as well with the knowledge they have never thought they have. It is sort of ‘unknown knowing’. (Williams 1998). They might accumulate as much as 95% of information preconsciously, without learning (Williams 1996). By distinguishing between preconscious/subconscious and conscious perceptual processing, we can distinguish between different types of intelligence: conscious and preconscious – the latter with little conscious awareness (‘unknown knowing’).

Left-right hemisphere integration problems

Another issue is, left-right hemisphere integration problems that affect a child’s ability to connect his thoughts to words. So he often speaks ‘stored language’, when triggered. without meaning what he is saying, as verbal utterances are not necessarily connected to his thoughts, feelings, wants or needs. Children with these problems often acquire compensatory strategies to cope with different situations. Thus, they may copy or ‘echo’ other people’s actions or words, or they may look for any trigger to respond appropriately. If the trigger is not found, they use their ‘stored language’ (for instance, questions they are usually asked in similar situations) to trigger other people to respond, giving them triggers to react.

One of the hardest things for ‘right-brain people in a left-brain world’ is that developmentally typical (DT) people have no idea how to make use of this form of processing, not as disability, but as ability. DT people can be so scared of people functioning without conscious awareness or proven ability to take account of the meaning or significance of what they are doing, that they often hold these people back, rather than challenging them into indulging themselves in patterns that relate to self-help, to going out, to being socially involved and to relate to working.

Those who work with autistic (‘right brain’) individuals (ASD-2/3) should be able to work within the’ autistic reality’ to maximise the potential that person has using systems which make sense and reliable for that person, even if these may look foreign to those with different brain function or personality dynamics. On the other hand, the teaching style and educational programmes commonly used today rely on those with very good left brain processing. Many AS (ASD-1) individuals will actually do very well academically in this kind of system. It’s socially where they are usually most challenged.) (Williams 2006).


[1] Unfortunately, now, in DSM-5, these conditions are lumped together and go under ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’.

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