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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisa Marnell, OTD, MBA

Black and White OR Categorical Thinking in Autism

As an autistic person, one of the most CHALLENGING concepts I deal with every day is the following:

Things are not Black and White. There is a Grey area.

I am learning to look for the grey area, but, that said, for my entire life categories have helped me to make sense of the world.

This is a challenge for me. And it makes me want to CRY for our autistic kids and teens as they struggle to make sense of the world. They are called "Black and White" thinkers because they put things in the world into categories. But categories are NOT BAD!

If I have advice for neurotypical parents and teachers, it is to try your best to understand the following:

Categories are an autistic child's friend.

Categories may be tangible (as with mine): "The shirts I wear have long sleeves, not short sleeves."

Categories can include embracing routines to self-regulate: "I wake up, hug my dogs, make coffee, sit on the couch and put on a nature YouTube video, get on the treadmill 10 minutes later for 30 minutes."

Categories can include abstract thoughts: "That person may have been laughing at me once (not sure), so I want to avoid that person moving forward"

Categories might be rules to live by: "When people around me are joking and getting loud and hyper, I am safer when I step away from them."

Personally, I don't want to change these categories of thinking as they help ME make sense of the world.

But there are times when it helps me if people point out a grey area I am not seeing.

So, there may be times when an autistic child does not see a grey area, and your job is simply to POINT OUT that it is there. That's it. I will make this more concrete.

If an autistic child thinks a teacher hates her, she may put that teacher into a category. But if you believe that the teacher MAY not hate the child, then you might point out that there is a grey area that the child has not considered. "Maybe the teacher doesn't hate you."

Does this make sense?

What grey areas do your autistic kids struggle with?

How can you support them?

More from Dr. Lisa Marnell and Kids Master Skills . . .

If you want to learn more ways to support your autistic students, watch my FREE MasterClass that offers you proactive supports for sensory sensitive children and teens.

Register and watch it HERE:

As always, feel welcome to touch base with me by e-mail at

I would love to hear about your successes, your struggles, and any questions or comments you have! Let me know if this post was helpful.

Join my Autism Facebook group for Occupational Therapists and learn more about strengths-based and neurodiversity-affirming practice!

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