Cognitive Load Theory as a Way of Explaining Neurodiversity and Executive Dysfunction

The Neurotypical world grasps at straws trying to come up with an overarching theory of Autism, or figure out what makes the Neurodivergent brain tic. In attempts to offer an emotionless, disconnected, singular theory of how we work, they forget to ask us how we work. There is also a level of cherry picking that occurs in these theories. I’ve lost count of how many exist for Autism and how they all miss several key points. For this, I draw on my experiences with Dyscalculia and impaired working memory. I have just heard of the Cognitive Load Theory, and believe it can offer, if not an objective idea, an insider’s experience of how Neurodivergence works in the brain.

First, a little bit of background; the Cognitive Load Theory was developed in the 80s as a way of explaining how individuals process and utilise information. It refers to the total amount of mental effort it takes to learn something, commit it to memory and then utilise it. It is directly related to working memory and executive functions. It is broken down into three sections, intrinsic(the inner effort associated with a specific topic), extraneous(the way the information or task is presented to the audience), and germane(the effort on the part of the audience that goes into committing the information to memory and being able to pull it up and utilise it). As you can see, a lot of things can go wrong with any one of these steps. This is most notable in learning disabilities and Autism.

It is well known that working memory and attention are impaired in Dyscalculia, and it has been observed many times over that Dyscalculics struggle with processing mathematical information and committing it to memory. Our memories just do not allow us to do things like BEDMAS. The same thing is now being observed in Autism Spectrum Disorders in the way that many Autistics have issues with sensory gating, sequential instructions, open ended questions and multitasking(that is to say, we are monotropic. We do one topic at a time. Not great for following instructions and remembering arbitrary rules subject to spontaneous shifts). The theory states that a heavier cognitive load makes it harder to process and perform. It suggests that the brain, like a computer running a bunch of back ground processes and being told to open yet another programme, can slow down or even overheat or hang altogether. Anyone familiar with Autism knows well how that results(meltdowns, shutdowns, lashing out).

A typically developing individual can generally handle a higher cognitive load(which is why we see seven digit numbers as seven is the amount of “information chunks” a Neurotypical person can load and process with little effort). It gets too heavy, and the brain gets tired or confused. Neurodivergent people typically handle a lower cognitive load and the brain gets tired out faster. There are several reasons for this too. Mainly that extraneous information is poorly organised and that there is a noted and quantified deficit in sensory gating(no cocktail party effect for us), and thus, the amount of extraneous information skyrockets and the balance of the three parts of cognitive load is damaged.

Another aspect of this is incidental processing, which is again, similar to the cocktail party effect. Neurodivergent people have a more difficult time attending to singular stimulus, especially when a lot of chaotic sensory information is incoming, yet we are objectively better at Where’s Waldo, and amazing at becoming experts in our special interests. This is likely due to monotropism. Using strategies like looking away from the extraneous, blocking out input and becoming solely perseveratively focussed on a single topic so that our cognitive load is reduced, allows for us to become specialists but it takes increased intrinsic and germane effort to get there. Thus is the imbalance of our cognitive load. With that being said,

From the earliest days of the study, John Sweller(the founder of the theory) performed experiments on individuals checking pupillary dilation as an objective means of measuring cognitive load. Pupillary dilation has also been noted in working memory tasks. Many LD people, as well as Autistics find that gaze and eye contact interfere with their ability to handle heavier cognitive load which is sometimes interpretted as physical discomfort or mental discomfort, or a problem with selective attention(do I watch your eyes or understand what you say?). This is why in some Autistic children having meltdowns, pupillary dilation and sweating has been observed. Some studies now are being done that suggest that gaze aversion in Autistic people is used to reduce cognitive overload. The same has been noted in individuals with William’s Syndrome. I can remember as far back as I have memories of people asking me why I was staring away from them and seemingly ignoring them as they talked to me. I had to look away so that I could process their words. Their faces and idle movements added too much extraneous input. I started a script to let people know I was listening, I was just putting extra effort into my cognitive load(“I am listening to what you’re saying, I’m just thinking about it”). Were I to look at your eyes, or watch any other part of your body, my brain would become easily overwhelmed and the meaning of your words would dissipate and become meaningless symbols. The sensory saturation effect that allows for senses to be dulled or filter out extraneous information(like when you stop smelling the way a room smells after spending time in it) can backfire on an Autistic person when the cognitive load outweighs the ability to process and utilise information appropriately(I can become saturated on voices and words and symbols to the point of agnosia… too much math makes me stop recognising numbers).

Informational overload can cause as many meltdowns as pure sensory overload. This is why you see Autistics meltdown over routine changes out of their control, or unable to follow instructions given to them in specific settings without a lot of effort and help. An inability to gate the extraneous causes a cognitive load too heavy for the brain to bear, and that is when meltdown occurs.

What I would like to see in the coming future is a proper, standardised set of cognitive accessibility that is aware not just of sensory overload, but the cognitive load theory. As far back as the 80s, Sweller and his team found that changing the way extraneous information and sequenced instructions were presented reduced cognitive overload in every single individual, typically developing or not. The way informational chunks are organised and designed before being presented to an audience is of utmost importance. I would like to see an end of an era of intentional obfuscation of information, and that includes academic jargon(sorry guys, most of it is meaningless anyway). Every place of employment should put to use whiteboards, picture instructions, longer allotted breaks in midst of shifts, and specified labelled organisation of objects.  As well, all employers, doctors, teachers and any other public service personnel need specific targetted training on how to present information in the clearest manner possible.

Within the world of Autism, most people speak solely about the sensory as if it were the only extraneous input that overloaded us. This is simply not true. There is a complex interplay of cognitive load and the extraneous that is hardwired into the very build and make of our brains. In the world of learning disabilities, these methods of cognitive accessibility are already being put into place(reduction of information chunks such as putting a single question on a page, or use of coloured lenses to help a person focus on the necessary stimulus) and the Autism community needs to catch up on that.

Obviously, there is no overarching one size fits all Tell All for how Autism Spectrum Disorders work, but I believe certain theories are definitely on point and present within the larger gestalt of how not only ASD, but all Neurodiversity tends work within the brain and body.


Doherty-Snedded, G, et al, Gaze Aversion as a Cognitive Load Management Strategy in Autism Spectrum Disorders and William’s Syndrome

Sweller, John, et al, Cognitive Load Theory[Explorations in Learning Sciences]

Ordonez de Pablos, Patricia, Technology Enhanced Learning for People with Disabilities

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