Human Universals and Autism

There are many myths out there about people on the autism spectrum. A recent one I experienced involved an argument that because people on the spectrum aren’t naturally social, being social isn’t a human universal (since “universal” means everyone does it — more on that, momentarily). One could make the argument that, because people on the spectrum tend to have opposite tendencies to neurotypicals, the existence of autism either proves that human universals are, at best, only quasi-universal, or people on the spectrum should not be properly considered “human.”

The latter option is nauseous, and the former option I reject. And I reject it because the assumption regarding people on the spectrum is wrong. People with autism are not naturally anti-social. Quite the contrary. There is a strong desire to be social — only, there are extreme difficulties in actually being social, in doing the right things, in communicating (literally, or properly). If the human universal involves wanting to be social to any degree whatsoever, then sociality is a human universal, since people on the spectrum do in fact want to be social to at least some degree.

Another example one could raise is the fact that neurotypical humans tend to engage in top-down thinking. Is this a human universal? Probably. Does the fact that autistics are dominated by bottom-up thinking disprove this universal? Not at all. Neurotypicals can in fact engage in bottom-up thinking, and autistics can in fact engage in top-down thinking. There is a range of which tendency dominates. It is a natural variation, and there is no one who cannot do both, even if one or the other is preferred.

I leave aside the fact that when dealing with complex entities, you have to have a somewhat fuzzier definition of “universal.” The fact that there are people who are born without legs does not mean humans are not universally bipedal, and the fact that there are people born without a moral compass (sociopaths) does not mean humans are not universally moral or share a universal moral system. To avoid the problem, one could perhaps argue more for “cultural universals” rather than “human universals,” but this really says practically the same things, since humans are always already social. Even sociopaths most of the time pretend to abide by the morals of the society into which they are born. And sometimes pretending is enough.

Indeed, people on the spectrum spend a great deal of time learning how to pretend to act “normal.” But this normal is really just part of a spectrum of behaviors and ways of thinking that lie outside the existence of the kinds of universals of which I speak. Indeed, some things — like rituals — are even more strongly desired by autistics than neurotypicals. No one would argue that ritual isn’t a human universal because neurotypicals are less attracted to them than are autistics.

One thought on “Human Universals and Autism

  1. I agree that being social is part of each person’s DNA. That doesn’t mean we all conduct ourselves the same way in the way we express our need to be social. We might have a cultural norm for how we socialize, but one does not need to follow the cultural norm to be considered social.
    The same could be said for people who live with an ABI (acquired brain injury). Post injury many change the way they function socially. That often requires others to adjust in how they engage socially with someone who is living with ABI.


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