The Boston Cookie Theft

Describe this image and tell me what you see. Chances are, most people looking at this image would describe the following scene: Two children are sneakily trying to steal cookies out of the kitchen cupboard under their mother’s nose. Perhaps she is so busy and overwhelmed with mothering that she simply cannot attend to their stealth heist of coveted baked treats. Most people who would describe this scenario as such would be neurotypical. The overall image you’re looking upon tells a visual story, and the cookie heist behind mother’s back is the gestalt.

But this is something us Autistic people have an issue with. To wit, my own description of the above image known as the Boston Cookie Heist was thus: woman
“stool, falling stool
Overflowing sink, water
Cookie jar”

My husband’s was more in line with the actual gestalt of the image:

“a kid is about to fall off a stool trying to get cookies from the cookie jar
his sister, perhaps some other lady, is laughing at him
mother, perhaps on valium? washing the dishes “

My husband is neurotypical, for the most part, and the results are immediate and stark. His first perception of the image was the afformentioned gestalt(the big picture, the whole meaning) whereas I, with my Autistic brain, attended to singular details and only clued in to the big picture when I looked back and read the name of the image, “Boston Cookie Theft”. They say us Autistics are “detail oriented” but really, it is much more than that. MANY people are detail oriented, from artists to conscientious workers, salesmen who specialise in reading nonverbal body cues, and other such perfectionists. What is going on inside the Autistic brain is not simply a case of “detail orientation” but an inherent visual processing system that differs from the visual processing system in the brains of the typical human. It manifests in a series of ways, many with fancy technical names such as visual dysgnosia, visual agnosia, dressing apraxia, simultagnosia, placeblindness(Autism isn’t just faceblindness, we can be PLACEblind too), and various other disorders which manifest similar symptoms of attending to singular details, or being stuck focussed on one detail to the exclusion of others. Supposedly, it makes us experts at Where’s Waldo(that is, when we’re not visually overloaded, for attending to details can cause us to see just series of fragments that can overwhelm us).

The Boston Cookie Theft supposedly exists to weed out those of us who are “detail oriented” in our processing(specifically to diagnose simultagnosia, a condition where a person may only be able to attend to or see singular objects or details rather than whole big picture images). I have all of the above mentioned “disorders” whether they are disorders in their own right(usually through acquired brain damage) or developmental disability(in my case, autism and dyscalculia) and as such I often find myself struggling to get dressed(where did I put my legs again?) or unlock a door, turn the shower water off, find my way through a busy intersection or grocery store(all I see are intersecting lines all clashing and coming at me, Gods help me!), or the myriad of detentions I acquired in high school because I entered the building from the left instead of the right and was late to class; one time it even rendered me unconscious in a wheelchair when I sliced my knuckle open becoming trapped in an outdoor building corner while doing menial physical labour. Being in a cluttered house can feel like being drowned in a sea of thingamabobs and whatsits that you cant even begin to categorise, and good luck cleaning it up, which part of your body do you move first to begin the undertaking of clearing out the clutter?

This is a little of what being supposedly “detail oriented” is actually like. The whole of it can become utterly exhausting and some people may acquire these visual processing deficits while being in midst of sensory overload. Trying to explain this disability to those who believe autism is Rain Man or Daniel Tammet is an experiment in futility most days. Believe me when I say people get real tired of your shit when you’re late for work every single shift because you got lost 20 feet from the building and trapped in tunnel because they removed a construction sign.

For those of us with Dyscalculia we may have a different way of getting around these various literal road blocks in our developmental processing speeds. We use our hands. We go it blind. I used to be adept at getting around my hometown with my eyes closed, or through the forest in the deepest black of night because my tactile sense is so hypersensitive(of course to a fault, I AM Autistic) that I could feel my way, even though I have full vision. It is more of a functional blindness due to a processing error than anything and its easier to just know what 20 pounds is than try to read it on a scale.

It is impossible to describe what we are literally seeing and experiencing to allistic and neurotypical folk and the experiences of these little quirks of autism, and they really are inherently autistic I do believe, or at the very least an inherent aspect of developmental disability and neurodiversity, can only be explained in these little snapshots of life from inside the “Autistic’s Eye View”. Most people do not even know these things exist, let alone what to actually look for, and I suspect this forces many ND people to go undiagnosed for way too long, but that’s a story for a different day.

So when you look at the Boston Cookie Theft what did you see? I suspect us Autistics would probably be better at finding and stealing the cookies than our NT counterparts because of our inherently “detail oriented” nature and our tendency toward perseverative determination.

2 thoughts on “The Boston Cookie Theft

  1. My brain went straight to “crap, panic, get the tap” followed by concern for the falling child who I then realized was stealing cookies. I’m still rather fixated on the fact that the water had been allowed to run over that much and that the second child is not holding the stool for the first. The central “story” of the children stealing the cookie seems irrelevant next to the woman who hasn’t yet noticed water running over her shoes, the damage that’s occurring to the floor and counter, and the imagery that I can’t quite discern out the window. My urge to rush in and fix everything but not knowing whether to stop the water or catch the child falling first is exacerbated by the fact that I can do nothing but stare, imagining the train wreck to ensue.

    I enjoyed reading this. It is very helpful to find resources from people like yourself to help make concrete the ways I process information differently than others. You’ve been a great gateway for me to better understanding my brain. I will keep following.


  2. Interesting response. I definitely have some visual consolidation issues due to my disabilities but what you describe is also very standard of autistic perseveration. You seem to have clued into the gestalt(which I missed) but have become fixated on a single detail within the picture. That happens a lot between autistics and NTs when we try to communicate and the autie is paying attention to or stuck on a specific detail that is different from what the NT is focussing on.


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