The Uncanny Valley

There is a phenomenon familiar to those who make animated films and robots known as “the uncanny valley.” We are generally comfortable with animation that looks like the old Loony Toons cartoons, and we are comfortable with much of the extremely life-like animation we are starting to see in contemporary movies, but there is a place in between where people feel sort of creeped-out by the fact that the animation is almost realistic, but not quite. This in between place is the uncanny valley.

I have often wondered why people have such a negative reaction to me and many verbal autistics. With my education, I shouldn’t have such a hard time finding and keeping a job. In short interactions, I can appear non-autistic, I can be quite funny, maybe even a bit charming. But I seem to wear on people. I don’t suffer fools lightly, and my bluntness can certainly make people not like me. I generally try to avoid certain topics, especially at work, but even when I do my best to avoid topics that set me off on a rant, or on a lecture, and even when I’m doing my best to be funny and charming, I still find people become increasingly standoffish over time.

I believe what is happening is that people are feeling the uncanny valley when they experience my behaviors over the long term. That is what is making people uncomfortable and wanting to avoid me. There are days when I just can’t pretend, and I’m sure that on those days, the uncanny valley is being felt by others to a higher degree.

The problem, in other words, is that I’m human, but not quite human enough.

I suspect, too, that we autistics feel much the same way toward neurotypicals. In my case, though, while I felt that way much of my life, I stopped feeling that way once I realized I was autistic myself. Realizing that neurotypicals can’t help their behaviors, and no longer wishing I could fix them all and make them better, more rational, more creative thinkers, helped me realize that they were all simply different, not worse. It was a lesson in humility, to be sure.

In many ways, it’s easier for people to simply look to the non-verbal autistics and feel sorry for them and want to cure autism. They are foreign enough that it’s easy to not feel fully uncomfortable–or, perhaps, to feel sufficiently uncomfortable that wanting to get rid of them all is itself a comfortable way of thinking.

Autism is a different way of being in the world and a different way of thinking. In many people, it can be combined with other issues to become disabling. We all know that. But many of the issues people like my son and me (who are diagnosed with autism I and II, respectively) face involve the way we’re treated by neurotypicals, and the environments into which we are thrown. With the right environment, many of us aren’t disabled at all. I mean, we don’t call a fish on land disabled because it cannot walk. It’s simply not in the right environment. Even mudskippers cannot move around on land even as well as a snake. It would be absurd to call a mudskipper a disabled cheetah.

Image result for mudskipper

Perhaps if we understand that we are all feeling the uncanny valley when we are interacting with neurodivergent people, we can come to a better understanding of each other. We can come to respect those who experience the world in different ways, perhaps even come to appreciate the fact that there are people in the world who are different from ourselves, who think differently, who experience things differently, and therefore will necessarily make different kinds of contributions to the world than we could.

3 thoughts on “The Uncanny Valley

  1. I believe society as a whole can not grasp the needs of an autistic individual. As ignorant as I may be on autistic individuals I can’t help but wonder if neurotypicals just don’t under stand the dialogue needed to converse with someone as intelligent as you or others that are on the spectrum. In all honesty you are intimidating to be around. Where I embrace your knowledge and am not afraid to accept humility by openly asking you direct questions and being assertive. Others feel the need to walk on eggshells because majority of the time they know your right and you explain it in very logical terms that they don’t want to admit. I believe the deliverance of such responses on your behalf are intriguing but neurotypicals are very sensitive to honesty . Myself included 🙂
    You and I are acquired taste the people we are around just get us.

    I truly believe you were amazing at what you did and what you will continue to do. Never let someone else make you feel less than you are.
    Good luck in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I told my eleven-year-old that that he should understand the need of people to save face in a conversation.
    Of course, easier said than done for an aspie…😀
    Neurotypical people also can’t help being themselves. They (as we) tend to be far from perfect.
    Tolerance and understanding helps a lot. People mostly follow logical patterns, but quite complex ones.

    I know the feeling of strangeness, it’s like you are a different species.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s needed on both sides. So far, it’s been a very one-sided situation. Autistics are expected to understand the needs of neurotypicals, but who is expected to understand our needs?

      The interesting thing is that, from an autistic’s perspective, many of the things we’re accused of are things neurotypicals are guilty of as well–but in different ways from us. We’re accused of having no theory of mind, but from our perspective it’s neurotypicals who have no theory of mind (or they wouldn’t get us so wrong). We’re accused of inflexibility, but I tend to think of neurotypicals as inflexible. I spent my entire life thinking, “What is wrong with everybody!?!?!” only to find out that I was autistic and almost everyone else was normal.


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