When I see autistic people, we often get to talking about just how weird people are. And as we are doing this we will also talk about the differences between having an atypical brain arrangement, which is autism, and having a typical arrangement or being neurotypical, which is most other people.
Part of what I do is try to understand the world from each individual's perspective as best I can. And in doing this, in listening to what autistic people say about neurotypical people, it dawned on me what they are talking about, because I got glimpses of this craziness. And yes, there is plenty that we do which I find kinda crazy too.
I wanted to write this article for two reasons. One is that these differences in world view between autistic and neurotypical people is often at the root of the difficulties we have in relationships between us. And the other main reason is that autistic people's observations are useful to me as one of those neurotypicals. They illuminate some of the crazy stuff I do.
Does being crazy have its uses?
We are social animals, and for millennia our survival has depended on our ability to maintain close bonds with other people. Our shift to living in towns and cities, has placed a huge strain on this.
Instead of spending almost our entire lives with a small group of people we know intimately, we are faced with interacting with sometimes hundreds of people each and every day.
We also live in environments, where we must act co-operatively but also competitively with others around us, such as in work and education. We live in a world where we must almost continually project a socially acceptable image of ourselves.
In order to cope, what we have to do is to create a social layer. This social layer enables us to form relationships with others, while also protecting the vulnerable self from harms such as rejection, judgement, and shame.
And it is this social layer which autistic people notice and have a hard time navigating. While from a neurotypical perspective we expect the people we meet to have this social layer, and when they don't, we find it confusing and frustrating. What we have is an empathy gap, and this empathy gap goes both ways.
For the next part I am going to look at some of the things autistic people say about how they find the neurotypical world.
You are always pointlessly talking
Autistic people notice that neurotypical people endlessly have conversations which seemingly have no purpose, and aren't heading anywhere. They are also filled with random subject changes, which seem unrelated to what went before - "seagulling"
If you look at chimpanzees, they spend a lot of time grooming each other, by running through each other's hair looking for lice and other parasites. This grooming helps to strengthen social bonds in the group.
Human beings don't do this. What we do instead is to talk, and most conversations are really a form of social stroking. The conversation isn't leading anywhere, because it's not meant to end. Those "seagull" moments are intended to maintain a sense of energy and sustain social connections.
Autists don't generally do this. To them conversations need to be purposeful, to be about relaying important information, solving some kind of problem, or reaching some kind of resolution.
Many autists do realise that conversations are an important way to relate to others, and may have strategies such as prepared topics to talk about, or questions to ask, which makes sudden subject change difficult for them to follow.
You do things for no reason
Neurotypicals generally spend their time linking things together, even things which are completely unrelated.
On the one hand this is helpful, because it enables us to make deductions about the motives for other people's behaviour, but on the other, it can and does lead us to link things together which are unrelated, taking us up blind alleys.
And this tendency to link unconnected things together is very strong. Take this example,
You have a coin. There is an equal chance for a head or a tail to come up, and if you toss it 12 times, then you would expect approximately 6 tails and 6 heads to come up. So if you throw 6 tails in a row, what is the chance that in the next toss a head will come up?
If you answer this intuitively, then most people will say there is a high chance of a head coming up next. Followed by a feeling of confusion, and dawning realisation when you are told the correct answer, which is there is still a 50/50 chance for either to come up next. This is then often followed by a sense that this answer is still somehow wrong. The reason why it is still 50/50 is because each coin toss is an entirely separate event, there is no connection between one coin toss and the next.
And we do this with people too. You meet your friend and they seem a little off with you, so you search through all the possible slights you might have inflicted on them and decide that the reason is because you had to rush off suddenly the last time you met, and they seemed to be a bit disappointed that you went. When in reality it's much more likely that your friend is just having an off day, which has nothing to do with you.
Autists would generally find the coin toss problem easy, but they also often miss events which for neurotypicals are connected together. So you turn down your friend when they ask you to come over to their house, and then they are mean to you the next morning when you meet them in the playground. They are mean to you for no reason!
This linking/not-linking can also cause more subtle problems in everyday conversations.
You are talking to your partner about your child who wants to give up their career, because they are unhappy. You think that this is a good idea, while your neurotypical partner is worried that they give up things up too easily. You are both at an impasse, so your partner changes the subject to talk about your other child, who you steadfastly supported and encouraged to follow a career as a musician, which was a real struggle for them.
For you this is now an entirely separate conversation, about something altogether different. While for your partner, they are pointing out a perceived inconsistency, and hoping to persuade you to do the same thing for your other child as you did for your musical one. Your partner is getting increasingly frustrated at your intransigence, while you are becoming increasingly confused as to why your partner is getting angry with you.
Compartmentalisation as it is known is generally seen as one of the "problems" experienced by autistic people. However, what is often not acknowledged is just how fundamental this difference is. It doesn't matter from which side you approach it, when you first encounter the realisation that there is this different way of understanding, it can feel like you are about to fall off a cliff.
You tell me I am just supposed to know
This is a very common feeling among autistic people. The sense that a piece of communication is missing some really important information, and when they ask about it, they get a response along the lines of "I already told you!"
The truth is that we are generally terrible at saying what we mean. For instance my friend regularly has a conversation with her husband, as they are getting near to a motorway service station, which goes something like this...
Her: "Would you like a drink?"
Him: "No, I am fine thanks."
Obviously, she really means that she would like a drink, or to stop for a loo break, but doesn't actually ask for one. While he is making a point about her asking for what she wants, by answering the actual question asked. Neither of them are saying what they really mean!
And this pops up frequently in the counselling room. When I ask the person I am with, have you told them how you really feel, they say they have, and I ask them what they said. What they usually tell me is something very much like the motorway conversation.
To understand what is really meant, requires the other person to add a layer of interpretation. They are just supposed to know! And indeed in the previous 'arguing about a child' example the partner was just supposed to know that they were still talking about the same thing.
What we are talking about is this social layer, which is designed to enable us to engage with others while also affording us protection from things like rejection, ridicule, embarassment, and judgement.
So most social relationships are a kind of game, in which we try to peer past the other person's social layer, to see the vulnerable person who exists underneath, without ever exposing them to the knowledge we have seen it. And while we will talk about their vulnerabilities with other people we know, we never do it if they are around to hear it.
Autistic people find this idea that we won't say what we mean pretty crazy, and I think they do have a point. It is a kinda craziness, and it's also totally understandable.
When you tell me a reason for why you did something it makes no sense
Autists can find the reasons we give to be incomprehensible. And from the previous discussion about how we link things together, use conversations for purposes other than information, and how we don't say what we mean, you can see why that might be.
But there is one further reason. The reality is that most people do not know themselves very well, and that can include therapists! I am still discovering things I didn't know about myself. And one reason we don't has to do with why we use reasons in the first place.
Because we are social animals we actually use reasons to navigate our own and other people's social layers. Human reasoning is in fact part of this social layer, and as such it's not well suited to perceiving nor understanding it. Our social layers are largely invisible to us.
We use reasons for three main purposes,
And these all serve a social function.
Let's work with an example,
Say I want to buy a new car. And it just so happens that I am getting older, starting to notice I am going bald (I actually am, but I don't want a new car!) and starting to feel that my masculine identity is under threat, often referred to as a mid-life crisis. So I want a particular kind of car, one that helps to restore my sense of identity.
However that kind of vulnerability would be very hard to admit to myself. So instead I decide I want a new car because I travel for consultancy work and having a higher status car would make a better impression, and so get me more work, and more money. Notice how my feelings around identity are leaking into the reason I am telling myself, and also my solution for this "problem"
Now when I tell my partner about this, they may realise or suspect why it is I really want a new car, but their role in this is to protect my vulnerability, and go along with the reasons I have given. So rather than talk about my feelings around getting older, we instead talk about money and whether we can afford it.
The reason I give, wanting to earn more money, serves all three of those social functions - it justifies the decision to myself, and it not only justifies the decision to my partner, it also serves as the means to persuade them. My reasons are seeking to meet a perceived need, while also protecting a vulnerability.
If however my partner was autistic, something very different would be likely to happen.
Upon learning that I wanted a new car to earn more money, they would look through my business projections, and would realise that the car I want would not be economical. They would then go searching for the car that fitted the brief I had given them, and select the one that was on special offer, had good fuel consumption, and high reliability, which they would present to me when I got home.
At which point I would absolutely hate the car, and then cite a whole host of reasons as to why it was unsuitable, finally ending up with "But, it's in white!"
Because clearly my car needs to be either an imposing black, flamboyant red, or at a pinch, a menacing green. And when I am asked why I don't like white, I of course say, "Because it get's dirty too quickly."
My partner might well end up telling their therapist the reasons I gave made no sense, and they would have a point.
Inconsistency is something autists notice frequently in neurotypicals. We are very often saying one thing while doing another. The feeling this can create is one of deception and manipulation. For instance, what sense would you make of me claiming that I wanted a car to earn more money, only to find me rejecting your attempt to help me do this, while insisting on a course of action that would work against my stated reasons?
Of course it does make sense, if we understand that reasons are meant to both protect our vulnerable self and engage relationally with others.
Our use of reasons is not only an act of deception, but also self-deception, which can be so deceptive we are unaware of any deception.
The empathy gap
What is going wrong is an empathy gap between autists and neurotypicals, and this gap goes both ways. It is not just a case of the autist who does not get empathy, which is often how autism is viewed.
It is more a case of the autistic person encountering a social layer, which they are not expecting, while the neurotypical person is expecting to encounter a social layer, which is not generally present.
Whenever an autistic and a neurotypical person meet, we both have to work at understanding the others world, as best we can.