Earlier this year, I finally received an autism diagnosis after years of searching for answers to why I operate so differently from most other people in my life. Much like coming to terms with my trans identity, there is a “before” and “after” context to this discovery/diagnosis. Who I was before discovering my autistic traits and who I am after is subtly different, in the sense that I no longer hate myself for not conforming to a neurotype that does not and could never apply to me. I know now that the way my brain works both a superpower and the reason why I’ve struggled so much in the workplace despite turning around quick and proficient work. My diagnosis confirmed something I always knew on some level: that the way I perceive and process the world is measurably different from most people.
One of the principal features of my autism diagnosis is Aphantasia, a condition that does not necessarily imply autism by itself, but coupled with my other symptoms highlights how and why I function so differently from most neurotypical folks. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about in my posts that my primary career is in web and graphic design. While this wasn’t the career path I initially set out on (making money writing blogs is hard), it’s one that I took to because of my artistic inclination, my keen ability to replicate, and my technical skill with computers and code. Over the years, I have learned that I produce work with incredible speed compared to other designers, often drawing the ire of coworkers who felt that I was showing them up. I’ve curiously observed other designers watching me with awe as I turned around full websites in the timeframe it would take them to produce a mockup. I thought other web designers to be lazy for some time, buffering their time to fluff out paychecks. Still, I have only recently understood that neurotypicals usually have to go through more processes than I to reach a final product in a way that I can skip over with ease.
I do not understand the drafting process, and when I create a “wireframe,” I am essentially producing a near-final product exactly as I wish to see it. At the risk of sounding like I am boasting, my quick turnaround has always impressed employers in a way that has allowed me to not look deeply into the differences in my production style. Working fast is just how I work. Unfortunately, these abilities come with a downside — I can either work with incredible speed or not at all, and I have little to no control over when and how I experience design motivation and hyperfocus vs. total executive dysfunction.
To the point, Aphantasia means that I do not have a mind’s eye as most people do. When I close my eyes, I cannot form a mental picture, and when I dream, I dream in words, feelings, and concepts — but never in pictures. When I describe this to friends and other designers, I have been asked how I can work in my field at all. How can I produce work when my brain can’t visibly see my ideas? Many neurotypicals and those who do possess a functioning mind’s eye seem unable to fathom how creativity could form in a mind like mine.
I can thrive as a web designer because I can easily conceptualize how to turn an idea into a deliverable product. A large degree of this is because of replication. Instead of creatively envisioning a design, I pull from a mental catalog of ideas and concepts that I’ve ingested from other designers and artists over time. I mishmash these design concepts into whatever I need, which means, essentially, that I will never make anything groundbreaking. However, I am always able to produce highly professional and engaging work. That is all to say that I am not an extraordinary designer by any means, but an extraordinary reproducer who can compute quickly and produce an industry-standard work in a fraction of the time that it takes a designer who uses their creativity in more straightforward or neurotypical ways.
Because I cannot see what my brain is telling me, I have to produce it in the real world to understand what I am getting at. The regimented and technical aspects of web design are in large part why I thrive in my field. The creative aspect of graphic design has often troubled me. However, when necessary, I can pull up my learned concepts of hierarchy, spatial relationships, and straightforward design rules to produce work that utilizes my education's stricter parts. That is all to say, I am creative in the sense that I can create work that is greater than the sum of its parts, but I will only ever be able to work on the information and skills that have already been presented to me. I will likely never create anything that breaks the boundaries of what already exists because my brain doesn’t work that way. In that sense, as aphantasia feels to be both a blessing and a curse.
Discovering that the mind’s eye is a real thing and not an abstract concept used to describe the brain’s processing actually shocked me when I first learned of it. If you asked me to imagine a city street, I would know that it includes two-way streets, sidewalks, passersby, shops, taxis, and other features I remember from my life experiences and visual media. But rather than literally seeing the street as an image in my head, I experience it as concepts and words. I know what it should look like somewhere in the back of my brain, and I may even be able to reproduce that concept on paper, but my brain doesn’t produce the image — merely the idea of the image.
When I close my eyes, I see a field of blackness covered by a screen of whatever light and color make it through my eyelids. When I was a child, I pressed on my eyes to see fractals and shapes, and my doctor told me that this is rather common for children with sight issues.
I can’t really understand what neurotypical people and/or those with hyperphantasia experience in their minds. I never knew that I was “missing out” on something until my psychiatrist presented a simple visualization technique that I was utterly unable to engage with. During a visualization technique that I was asked to perform during a session, I was instructed to imagine a vessel inside which I would mentally place trauma memories in-between sessions. I found this to be impossible and gained little from the exercise.
I could certainly lament my aphantasia — I could whine about how being autistic and trans has held me back in life — I could complain that my disabilities have hindered my career progression and seen me having to exit dream-jobs because of my inability to cope with masking in the workplace — But I see no purpose in that. These quirks of my mind explain so much of why I have struggled in areas of creativity in my career, yes, but it also explains the areas in which I have excelled and have room to grow into.
I do sometimes wish that my mind’s eye worked like neurotypical folks’ if only to experience the other side of things. Still, I also am coming to realize that the differences in my brain amount to a superpower. I sit here in awe of how I have overcome a world designed to accommodate neurotypical minds, and I am so proud so of myself for surviving when the world wasn’t ready for me to thrive.