How to explain “black and white” thinking to a person who only thinks in “black and white”

by Nathan E. Ory, M.A.

Many individuals with autism think in “concrete” or “black and white” terms. They like rules. They follow the rules. They expect every one else to always follow the same rules. They like rules that are always the same way.
They don’t handle “gray areas.” They may not understand well the meaning of language that is ambiguous or abstract. They don’t like “wishy-washy,” “maybe,” “if-then,” and “either-or.” They frequently become quite frustrated when faced with “sometimes this and sometimes that.”

In working with individuals with these frustrations I try to explain to them how they think best, and when they get confused. I explain “black and white” (concrete and clear) versus “gray areas” (an abstract and ambiguous concept). I explain this in specific, black and white terms. You may find this a helpful starting point in your own discussions.

“Black and White” means there is just one rule.

There is a schedule with an exact time, it always the same.

All the rules apply to everybody. There are no exceptions.

There is just one way to do things.

Black and white means things are predictable.

Black and white means things seem fair and are clear.

“Grey areas” means that the rule is sometimes one thing,
and sometimes-another thing.

It is a “gray area” when different rules apply to different people
(Like at a party everyone enjoys pop, cake and ice cream, but the person who is diabetic does not.)
(Like at a party, everyone can drink, but the person who is doing the driving for the night does not.)

It is a “gray area” if different rules apply at different times of the day or week
(Like pay parking at meters only till 6 p.m. and not on Sunday.)
(Like at work, the hours you work might be different on weekdays and weekends.)

It is a “gray area” if different rules apply at different times of the year
(Like school five days a week, except Spring Break, Christmas, Summer Holidays, and Teacher Discretionary Days.)

It’s a “gray area” if something is done one way some of the time, and another way at other times.
(Like being driven to play baseball some days, and having to take the bus when there is no one around to drive you at other times.)

Grey areas are unpredictable, confusing, and seem unfair.

For the people you support who become confused about “gray areas” in their lives, it may help to explain in “black and white” terms, “This is a black and white area.” Or, “This is a gray area.”

By making this distinction black and white they may better be able to handle their confused emotions by having a clear explanation about why some things are not always the same for all people and at all times.

Nathan E. Ory, M.A., Registered Psychologist
© 2003 Challenging Behavior Analysis and Consultation

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