A Pathological Look at Neurotypical Behavior

When you read about autism, you typically read about it as a pathology. Autistic people are viewed as being normal people with pathological deviations from the norm. Every so often you will come across an article that delineates a few of the special abilities of people on the spectrum, but even in doing so, it comes across as “well, at least there are a few positive things that come out of this tragedy.”

Autism is a structural variation in the brain’s architecture that gives rise to differences in processing and in different abilities. One may even argue that it gives rise to a different kind of mind. The vast majority of those people are in the “mild” end of the spectrum, though a great deal of focus is on the “extreme” end, with those who often cannot speak and seem to be particularly mentally disabled. This focus further pathologizes the spectrum precisely because it does not fully or even properly represent the reality for most people with autism.

To fully understand my point, I want to treat those not on the spectrum as though autism were the norm and what we now call neurotypical behavior were the minority. That is, I want to treat neurotypical people the way they treat people on the autism spectrum, from the perspective of someone on the spectrum. Because, from our point of view, you are full of deficits.

The Pathology

Irrational behaviors are one of the primary aspects of neurotypical people. Very often decisions are made without a great deal of thought or, certainly, research. This is especially true when it comes to their opinions. Whereas a sensible autistic person will do a great deal of research before developing an opinion or coming up with a proposed solution, neurotypicals have been observed to have an immediate opinion on things without, apparently, knowing the first thing about the topic. This is different from the kinds of errors autistics make from managing to miss something in their extensive research; rather, the neurotypicals carelessly won’t do any research at all before making a decision. And if they do any research, it will be at best a truncated version, as if they are impatient to come up with any answer at all rather than to make sure they have the right one.

It seems that a strong reliance on emotions is a typical reason for this immediate, almost knee-jerk, way of making a decision. As a result, it is not uncommon for them to agree with a solution that sounds good, sometimes regardless of the overwhelming evidence against the proposal, rather than something that has a track record of actually working. This seems to especially be the case in the areas of economics, the social sciences, and government. While this same tendency does allow them to respond more quickly to others, sometimes that is done at the expense of properly assessing the social situation. Fortunately, they do seem to have a particularly strong ability to make that proper assessment, so we must admit that in this particular case their pathological tendency toward immediate conclusions is often beneficial.

Having said that, there are some very strong negatives of that ability that seem to be combined with a kind of empathy that makes them more likely to identify more with people like themselves than with different people. While we autistics have a tendency to not be judgmental or biased, neurotypicals are terribly judgmental and biased. They judge people on things like race, sex, gender, deviations from the way they themselves think, culture, religion, and pretty much any difference one could possibly imagine, often to the point of hating members of other groups. Some autistics who have been raised with these people have learned these behaviors themselves, even though they are not typical to us. This makes associating with neurotypicals potentially dangerous, unless we remain on our guard against their biases.

This note on this particular moral deficit brings me to the topic of the large number of moral deficits commonly associated with neurotypicals. They have an under-developed sense of loyalty, and many do not seem to show any degree of loyalty at all. Further, they seem willing to lie about just about everything. The primary use of language for them seems to be to lie to each other. They will tell each other they look nice when they don’t; they will say one thing to one person, and another to another; they will backstab; they will tell their friends they are right when they know their friends are wrong. I could go on and on with the ways they lie to everyone.

They will also exaggerate and say things they don’t really mean. They will sometimes use words to mean completely different things. For example, I recently heard one of them say, “Give me a smack.” Which seems an odd request. But then I saw their neurotypical partner give them a kiss in response. How strange to ask for the opposite of a kiss and then to get a kiss! As a result, it can be very frustrating to deal with neurotypicals. You never know if they really mean what they are saying, you do not know if you can ever really trust them, and if you make the mistake of thinking they think the way you think, you will too often find yourself screwed over without your understanding what just happened.

Another odd behavior neurotypicals exhibit is their habit of “small talk.” From what we can tell, small talk appears to be talking just for the sake of talking. A “how are you doing” results in the same non-answer of “fine.” It seems unlikely everyone everywhere at all times is truly “fine,” so it seems that that is a non-answer to what is in fact a non-question. It has been observed that if you give an actual answer to the question, the questioner gets frustrated and impatient, as though they are annoyed that you would actually answer them. A whole conversation can actually go on like that, with general questions giving rise to pat answers so that you could actually change out any pair of people and you would end up with the same conversations each time. The vast majority of their conversations are not about anything of any substance, and, again, they seem positively annoyed if you try to engage them in such a conversation. As a group neurotypicals seem positively frivolous most of the time.

This frivolity extends to their work. They treat work as a social experience rather than as work. They don’t seem to treat work seriously or to engage in it with the kind of attention we autistics do. How any of them can keep a job is a mystery. Perhaps their ability to lie to their bosses and to pretend deference to them is what keeps them employed despite their inherent laziness. They also do have a tendency to do things exactly as they are told to do them rather than to find new ways of doing things. While one could view this as a lack of creativity on their part, in many cases it is useful to have a group of people who will unquestioningly do what they are told. If you can keep them from wasting their time socializing, businesses could make good use of this tendency to conform and engage in groupthink.

How It Feels to Be Made a Problem

I’m guessing you didn’t like the above description of yourself. You no doubt agree with many of the things listed, that they are all-too-often traits of the typical person. And no doubt many of you have made positive efforts to overcome those things—especially such things as racism and sexism. Indeed, we on the autism spectrum also make an effort to overcome what are perceived to be deficits. And yet, there are no doubt things I discussed above that you would argue are unusual, to say the least, interpretations of your behaviors. Well, guess what? That’s how we feel about many of the things we read about people with autism.

For example, we read that we do not have empathy or a theory of mind. That’s utterly ridiculous to us. We fully understand you have a mind—we just treat you like you have a mind like our minds, which results in a number of errors on our part. But guess what? You do exactly the same thing. You treat us as though we ought to have your mind, and when we obviously do not, you actually go so far as to declare that we don’t have a theory of mind! In the past people used to dehumanize others from other races and cultures using exactly this same logic. Since the person from the other culture does not act like us, they must not be human like us. We now know this to be untrue—and to be outright racist—but this way of thinking still manages to creep into studies of people with autism.

Yes, there are studies of young children involving hiding a toy, removing the child who saw where the toy was hidden, then moving the toy elsewhere and bringing the child back in where the young autistic children do not properly recognize who knows what, but where are the studies of older children and even adults? Why is it that we autistic adults don’t make this mistake? Could it be that the development of this ability is simply delayed rather than absent? Indeed, I see a great deal of evidence that people with autism have a tendency to have to learn through direct instruction many more things than do neurotypical people, who seem to have a large number of instincts that allow them to learn certain things more quickly. This is a difference in learning, not necessarily a disability or pathology. It is slower, but more accurate. As with anything, there are tradeoffs.

Finally, I want you to consider something else we autistic are always hearing. Given the negative aspects of neurotypicals listed above, what would you think of calls to fix you? From an autistic’s perspective, you would be much better people if you were more autistic. You would lie less, be less biased and judgmental, and be less frivolous. You would waste less time at work and get more work done. You would say what you mean and mean what you say. From our perspective, life would be much better for you if you were more like us. Now how does that make you feel? I can describe you as a pathology, as a problem that needs to be fixed. I am certain you didn’t like it one bit. Well guess what? Neither do we. If people would spend more time talking to us rather than studying us as some sort of black box that can only be understood by external observation of our behaviors, you may have known that by now.

Different Isn’t Worse

People with autism aren’t broken normal people. We are different. Our brains have different architectures, different biochemistry. It is driven by differences in our genes. All of which give rise to a different way of thinking and thus to different minds. Some of our minds are closer to neurotypical minds than others. It is a spectrum, after all. And some people with autism are definitely disabled when it comes to living in the neurotypical world. But then, there are extreme examples of the neurotypical mind as well—people who are pathological liars, people without morals, people who cannot seem to tell the difference between themselves and the external world. The difference is that they are closer to you, and thus seem more normal to you. To me, a man whose autism would be considered “mild,” those with severe autism seem more normal. I get how they are thinking. It is different, not wrong. And if people were more accepting of those differences, I would predict that many of our extreme negative traits would lessen considerably. We are frustrated, and that frustration comes out in a variety of negative ways. But then, consider what would happen if everyone treated you as a disease needing to be cured and not as someone who needed to be truly understood in the least?

Coming to this understanding between autistics and neurotypicals matters. Given the negative social consequences felt by pretty much everyone on the autism spectrum, we can only conclude that autism is one of the last ways of being human for which it is still completely acceptable by everyone to discriminate against. We are punished in the schools, discriminated against there, with the result that only around half graduate high school. Those who go to college don’t do much better. And even if, like me, one not only graduates from college but gets graduate degrees, one finds upon graduation that the work world is almost completely hostile to you. Not because we can’t do the work—because not only can we do the work, we will likely do it better than the average neurotypical person—but because we don’t interview well, we don’t acknowledge hierarchies, we are blunt, we come across as arrogant, and we aren’t social in typical ways.

I wrote this piece in order to help the average person understand what it’s like to be treated as a pathology. It can just as easily be done to you as it has been done to us. Does that mean you are a problem that needs to be fixed? Or does that mean we ought to be considered fellow human beings whose minds are part of the natural variation among human beings, whose contributions to society are vital for social health? We correctly recognize that acceptance of cultural, ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity results in a healthy society. Perhaps we can one day soon include different ways of thinking, different kinds of mind as well.

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Affective and Cognitive Empathy in Autistics

The issues of empathy and autism are actually quite complex. There is research that suggests that autistics have affective empathy, but are lacking in cognitive empathy. Few realize that there are in fact two different kinds of empathy. In particular, it is noted that, “ASD had difficulties with tasks requiring cognitive perspective taking, but reported emotional experiences and victim empathy that were in line with comparison boys.” In comparison, psychopaths are deficient in affective empathy, but not social.

In other words, autistics seem to be deficient in social empathy because they are deficient in theory of mind. Given that I have argued that there are serious problems with the theory that autistics have deficient theory of mind, this would also suggest that there is a serious problem with the argument that we are lacking in cognitive empathy.

Why would the researchers find that ASD have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking? Perhaps because they themselves have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking when it comes to those with ASD. They no doubt had us try to “mind read” neurotypicals, only to find we had difficulty. Did they also have us try to “mind read” fellow autistics? I know that I do a better job of understanding the feelings, thoughts, and actions of fellow autistics than I do of neurotypicals.

If I were to judge neurotypicals by autistic standards, I would have to conclude that they don’t have cognitive empathy. They seem to have emotional/affective abilities, but not the ability to take our perspective. If they were able to do that, they wouldn’t have been making the mistake of accusing us of not having empathy or theory of mind.

When most people accuse us of not having empathy, they aren’t usually making these distinctions, though. Watching us, it may sometimes seem we don’t have empathy. Rather than having an obvious emotional response to a situation, we are often standing there, calmly taking in the situation, then calmly coming in to solve the problem. People too often interpret this lack of an “emotional” response–which all too often means, “You’re not panicking and making things worse, like I am”–as lack of empathy. We in turn look at the neurotypicals’ emotional responses as irrational, ineffective, and even making the situation worse.

Of course, in turn, there are a number of situations that greatly upset us that neurotypicals don’t remotely understand. Yet our emotional responses to our things are considered by neurotypicals to be “ridiculous” and a sign of our pathology. We get upset at different things, and are calm in the face of different things; that’s all. It’s not a sign of pathology for either of us that those differences exist.

The “Double Empathy Problem”

When you learn to cite sources, you are told that you give a direct quote when you could not say it better yourself. The same is true of blogging. If you cannot say it better yourself, make a link.

The author says there is a “double empathy problem” between autistics and neurotypicals. I’ve talked about that in relation to theory of mind. Clearly we have come to the same fundamental conclusions–in no small part, because we have taken similar approaches, such as by thinking of neurotypical thinking in pathological terms.

I’ve discussed these issues here and here and here and here and here.

Suppose You Thought Like Me

I want you to imagine that you are a person for which the following traits are always true.

Suppose that you are brutally honest and truthful at all times. And that you think being truthful and honest at all times is helpful.

You call things as you see them. This likely stems from your strong tendency to take things literally, at face value. This means you tend to be nonjudgmental and unbiased. (Note: being nonjudgmental is not the same thing as either amorality or giving allowance to immorality, though we may certainly disagree about what is or is not immoral; if anything, I myself have a very strong moral code) That and your honesty ensures you present things exactly as they are, as you understand them, without ignoring inconvenient facts.

Suppose too that you are conscientious, committed to your work, punctual, reliable, and loyal. Always. Also suppose that you believe when you are at work, you are only supposed to work and not socialize. Ever.

Suppose that when you express an opinion it’s because you’ve done a great deal of research and you have thought through the patterns and complexities and the varies alternatives and, only after a long period of contemplation, come up with an understanding, a solution, or an insight.

Suppose you’re persistent and focused. Suppose, too, that you’re a highly creative thinker and are not at all prone to groupthink or following behaviors. Suppose you can rapidly recognize patterns and can engage in imagistic thinking.

Suppose that information comes at you in an almost constant barrage (and can be so much that it can overwhelm your senses and thinking), that your thoughts are always racing, that your information output is almost as rapid as your information input.

Now suppose you think everyone thinks like you, perceives the world like you, behaves like you.

Or should.

What would you think of everyone else? What would everyone else think of your behaviors and the way you treat them?

If you can do that, if you can imagine these things–and imagine what it’s like to experience someone like you (if you are neurotypical) when the world is experienced this way–you can understand why we with autism act as we do. And why you mistakenly think we lack things like empathy or theory of mind.

We don’t.

We just think you think (or ought to think) like us.

And you think we think (or ought to think) like you.

But we can’t.

And you can’t.

We’re literally of different minds.

The Language Theory of Mind

Once while watching one of his favorite cartoons, Daniel said to me, “He’s afraid he’s going to get in trouble, but he knows it wasn’t him who did it.”

I’m not sure one could possibly have a better statement of theory of mind: “he knows it wasn’t him.”

For those who think people with autism do not have Theory of Mind, I present that as Exhibit A. After all, it requires ToM to understand that a person/character both knows that someone else thinks he did something, and that he knows he didn’t do what the other thinks he did.

The cartoon in question is slapstick with no language use at all. And yet, Daniel managed to figure out who knew what about whom, including the necessary recursiveness of knowing what he himself had or had not done.

Autistics Proven to Have Empathy

Here’s a little something from the “I told you so” file. It turns out that, as I have argued before in this blog, autistic are hardly cold and unempathetic; quite the contrary, they are very empathetic and deeply moral.

The connection to being deeply moral has already been made in the past, but many have continued to insist autistics are unempathetic. Which would seem odd, given the research that shows a connection between morals and empathy. At the same time, this article continues to insist on “mind-blindness,” although it would be quite odd indeed if one could empathize without theory of mind, as I’ve noted before.

They suggest that around half of people with autism have alexithymia, which is also found in some non-autistic people. People with alexithymia have difficulty understanding emotions, both theirs and others, and this can lead to the perception that they are “cold.” I would also argue that a tendency toward rationality and practicality can also create this perception.

It seems that the study of autism has gone through a stage of creating a ton of misconceptions about the condition, and now we are seeing studies that, to someone on the spectrum, makes much more sense.