Autism and Our Anti-Hierarchical World

One of the main features of autism is the lack of a foreground/periphery differentiation. This is particularly noticeable in hearing, since we can become overwhelmed by background noises which we cannot filter out in order to focus on the foreground. For most people it is an automatic, natural thing to filter out the background and focus on what you want to hear—typically whoever is talking to you. However, people with autism get everything at once.

However, this is also true with vision. We are easily distracted by things in our peripheral vision, causing us to look around, glance at everything. This is easily taken as attention deficit, but what it is in fact is attention to too many things at once. At its worst, it can be overwhelming. And it’s at least annoying to anyone you’re speaking to, who is expecting you to look at them the entire time.

What this means is that on the sensory level, people with autism do not differentiate between the center and the periphery, the foreground and the periphery. That is, we quite literally do not create a hierarchy in our hearing or our vision.

This inability to recognize hierarchy extends beyond the sensory. I believe that people with autism are naturally egalitarian in nature precisely because we simply cannot create the hierarchies in the first place. One result of this is a refusal to recognize work hierarchies — people on the spectrum are infamous for treating their bosses like their coworkers. This makes sense if there is something about the autistic brain that refuses to either create or recognize hierarchy.

If this is true, it makes sense of some comments that were made about some characters I had created for a novel I was writing for a novel writing class. I had a husband and wife in the novel, and people — both men and women — complained that they couldn’t tell who was “in charge” in the relationship. Consider the fact that this was a graduate level novel writing class, meaning pretty much everyone in there was left of Stalin, and you can see how deeply ingrained the typical person’s thinking is in hierarchy. I created a truly equal relationship, and egalitarian leftists objected! My thinking was able to create a truly egalitarian relationship, and nobody liked that fact.

In fact, I can think of any number of times when my refusal to recognize hierarchies of any kind created problems. Yet, at the same time, it means I refuse to treat women as unequal to men in any way, and it means I refuse to differentiate among races, ethnicity, etc. The poor and the wealthy, the weak and the powerful are all the same to me. Perhaps it is because I simply can’t differentiate among them.

Of course, this equally suggests that neurotypical people simply cannot help but to differentiate among people, to place people into hierarchies. It is a struggle for neurotypicals to recognize scale free networks, to think of men and women as equal, to not think in racial and ethnic terms, of people as unequal by any number of measures. This explains why they think social orders can be turned into hierarchical organizations, and why they think it’s desirable to do so.

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