Once I was trying to get Daniel to eat some chili I had made. I used to make a kind of chili with beans that he liked a whole lot, but my wife found a new recipe without beans and with a lot of other vegetables that Daniel is less of a fan of.
So I told Daniel we had chili for dinner.
“Is it with vegetables?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I don’t want it.”
“But you have to eat vegetables. They’ll make you grow up to be big and strong like Daddy. You want to grow up to be big and strong like Daddy, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yes. I want to eat lettuce.”
“Lettuce will make you big and strong like a bunny.”
That’s when Dylan, who was 4 at the time, chimed in.
“I want to eat vegetables and grow up to be big and strong like a cow!”
To which Daniel said, “A cow?!? You want to eat grass?!?”
This interchange tells you a lot about the difference between Daniel and his neurotypical younger brother. Dylan immediately understood that cows eat grass, grass is a plant, plants are vegetables, and therefore cows eat vegetables, meaning that if he ate his vegetables, he could grow up to be as strong as a cow.
Daniel understands that cows eat grass. While Daniel is a genius at cause-and-effect relationships and patterns, he clearly does not (immediately, at least) see conceptual patterns. He clearly does not have a broad-enough definition of “vegetables” so as to include grass, though Dylan could make that connection immediately.
Generalizing from a single example to other situations is difficult for people on the spectrum. This is one reason why we are socially awkward. Every social situation comes pretty close to being new and unique. It takes a lot of similar interactions for us to begin to generalize, and the fact that social situations are all different on some very complex levels makes learning them extremely difficult. As Temple Grandin observes in Thinking in Pictures, “autistic children need to learn everything by rote. One or two warnings won’t do” (97). In this particular case she was talking about how telling an autistic child to not cross the street may result in the child not crossing the street in front of their house, but not realizing that other streets in front of other houses is meant in that rule as well. That has to be specifically pointed out.
Grandin also points out that this inability to generalize causes inflexible behaviors (38) precisely because practically every situation is new. Everyone has been in a new situation in which they felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do or think or say. Most people like to stick to their routines to avoid truly new situations. But for most people there are few truly new situations; most situations have a family resemblance to other situations they have been in. But suppose you went through life and every situation seemed like a completely new situation. Wouldn’t you be anxious, fearful, unsure what to say or do, uncomfortable, and want to get back to what you know?
As we can see, the autistic epistemology wherein concepts are built from the bottom-up after many iterations of the perception (an epistemology promoted by Ayn Rand and Nietzsche, both of whom almost certainly were on the Spectrum) results in extreme difficult in generalizing and, thus, more rigid thinking where you have to be taught things more explicitly. With neurotypical people, many concepts are either innate or developed after only one or two examples. This means that generalization is fast and easy.
In the highly social neurotypical world, this means that many classical autistic “individuals usually learn to talk, but they remain very severely handicapped because of extremely rigid thinking, poor ability to generalize, and no common sense” (46). Of course, the last one is really just a poor ability to generalize human behaviors. And all of these have to do with the way concepts are formed.
Cows eat grass. They don’t eat vegetables.