Neurotypicals: Survival Savants

There is a lot of talk about what makes people autistic, but rarely does anyone theorize about what makes neurotypical people neurotypical. I propose this answer: NTs are survival savants. It’s easy to take NT minds for granted as simply “normal” and never give it a second thought, but when you deconstruct how these types of minds work, they turn out to be very specialized. Neurotypicals are well-built for filtering information in general, but particularly for filtering information through the lens of consensus opinion. Let me explain with another analogy. If people’s brains were computers, NT minds would come with pre-installed business programs that make day-t0-day tasks a breeze, including basic survival tasks, executive functioning tasks, and social survival tasks. Autistic minds may or may not come with any pre-installed software at all; when they do, the function of this software is infinitely varied and its level of usefulness is unpredictable.

computer program

What does this have to do with savantism? Well, the word savant means “one who knows”, so it could be said that people with this pre-installed specialized “software” have savant skills in these areas. Being a savant doesn’t always mean that the person popped out of the womb with the ability to play Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca blindfolded. What it does mean is that, while some effort is still necessary in order to achieve anything, the person has a significantly reduced learning curve in that particular area. You may have the program already, but there still has to be some input in order for it to be useful. So in this sense, NTs are survival savants because they are born with raw talent for picking up easily on skills that involve survival — particularly group survival.

Part of what makes someone neurotypical is the tendency to look to the consensus opinion before making a decision. There is a reason for this. The field of evolutionary psychology, while it certainly has its critics for being so speculative, is nevertheless a very interesting way to try to understand some of the behavioral traits people have developed over time that don’t seem to make much logical sense in any other context. Neurotypical minds have evolved an exquisite sensitivity to what psychologists call the “big five” personality traits — conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extroversion.


Because survival of the human race wasn’t such a given for our ancient ancestors, the survival of the tribe took precedence over survival of the individual. So it makes sense that humans had to develop an ability to intuitively sense the traits that usually indicated whether someone was going to make a valuable contribution to the group or just sit there and do all the taking. The latter type of person was likely to be banished from the tribe, which was essentially a death sentence. The resulting hard-wiring of the tendency to seek the approval of others is why peer pressure is still such an effective way to sway NTs.

Autistic people aren’t as sensitive to these traits because, by the definition I gave above, we are not survival savants. When autistic savantism is properly nurtured, though, the person may be able to make very valuable and original contributions to society. It has been speculated, for example, that both Mozart and Einstein were on the autistic spectrum. Speculation aside, there are confirmed autistic people making astounding advances in their fields right now, such as Temple Grandin. In spite of our great potential, our greatest disadvantage is that basic survival skills come to us slowly. We learn about these things much in the same manner as someone who isn’t musically inclined who is trying to understand how to perform music — explicit theory and notation are needed and many years of hard practice are involved in mastering even the most basic concepts. This is why it makes sense that most people are wired in the typical survival savant fashion; someone has to make sure everyday transactions go smoothly.

Not only do NTs tend to specifically filter social information through the lens of consensus opinion before making decisions that could affect their standing in their community, but they also have more of a general tendency to filter information than autistic people do, whether that information be sensory, emotional, or cognitive. Like the aforementioned metaphorical computer program, the survival savant’s filtering system makes life-or-death decisions easy and instantaneous.  When our ancestors saw the bushes rustling, it’s obvious why running run_for_your_life.exe would have been useful. An autistic person, in contrast, might have just sat there in awe of the way the bush was rustling because he or she ran the only program available, rustling_grass_is_relaxing.exe.


Neurotypical minds also have a real knack for day-to-day survival, making it easier for NTs to let go of details that have been passed through the “unimportant” algorithm and concentrate on the things that they have run through their “priority” algorithm. While autistic people certainly aren’t totally lacking in filtering abilities, the crucial difference is that we filter data in an idiosyncratic way that is based, not on consensus opinion, but on our own idiosyncratic internal reasoning. So this is why you’ll often see us clinging to information that you have judged to be unimportant but often means the world to us. Again, we are not survival savants, so we aren’t naturally equipped to make the mental categorizations that allow NTs to do “business as usual” with far less effort. We were, in contrast, built to specialize and innovate in arcane areas.

I think, in light of all this, it’s reasonable to conclude that neurotypical minds are crucial for basic survival and maintaining the status quo, whereas autistic minds are crucial for advancing society as long as their particular gifts are nurtured. Since both ways of being can have valuable functions, I’m not really sure if I want to be “cured”.


The Unwritten Social Rules of Aspie Culture

It’s great that there is more and more information out there about the unwritten social rules of the mainstream world. Any Aspie who aspires to have smoother social transactions in neurotypical culture can benefit from this kind of information. However, Aspies are not the only ones who experience “culture shock” — when neurotypicals sometimes find themselves surrounded by Aspies, there is probably some confusion on their part about how to act around us too. So here’s a short list of some common unwritten rules of Aspie culture that neurotypical people should remember at Aspie gatherings (these rules mostly apply at informal social events):

  1. Don’t draw undue attention to our stimming (such as rocking or hand flapping) unless it’s bothering someone who has sensory sensitivities. We’re already reminded enough in mainstream society not to do these things and we don’t have many places where we can just be ourselves.
  2. Speaking of sensory sensitivities, please be aware that common sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures can actually be quite triggering for us. If someone tells you that some little thing you are doing is bothering them, please don’t pass this off as a trivial complaint. Stimuli that you never even notice can actually cause us very real pain and suffering.
  3. It’s unlikely that any conversation will start off with light chit-chat about the weather. We can often be quite direct and honest and we often dive straight into the heart of the matter, which might be startling to you. Quite often, we’re not trying to be offensive. Unless someone is being completely overbearing and crossing your boundaries, please bear with us if possible.
  4. Don’t be surprised if people end up talking in-depth about one subject for a very long time. We often enjoy being able to focus intensely on things that interest us — after all, many of us have specialist brains. But this is actually our greatest strength because some Aspies have made amazing contributions to the world through being obsessive.
  5. Don’t take unnecessary offense if we accidentally choose the wrong tone or volume of voice. Sometimes we get excited about things that other people don’t find exciting. This also works in reverse; sometimes the things others get excited about don’t appeal to us. Another reason for this is that we don’t necessarily know what the standard “song” is that we’re supposed to play in that moment because there are so many to choose from that sometimes we pick one at random.
  6. We tend to be more exact and literal when we speak than NTs are and it would help us to understand you better if you choose your own words carefully. If you say XYZ but you really meant ABC, we will probably think you really did mean XYZ even if your body language indicates otherwise.
  7. Sometimes we may seem a bit withdrawn and this may come across as rude. Many of us have trouble making eye contact as well because it feels too intense. Some people do this in order to feel safer (social situations can be intimidating for us) and some people aren’t even consciously aware that they’re doing it at all. So if someone has to go and do their own thing in the corner for a while (like playing with their electronic device), let them. They’ll probably start engaging with you again when they’re done.

If anyone out there has any suggestions they’d like to add to this list, please mention them in the comments. Thanks!

Facepalm#1: But You’re Not A Robot!


One thing that makes me facepalm really hard is the attitude that you cannot possibly be an Aspie unless you’re an emotionless robot who despises all social interaction. Today I came across an article on Psychology Today that talks about one of the most recent speculations that Einstein may have had Asperger’s. I was reading with a great deal of interest until it was pointed out that someone who had written an Einstein biography poo-pooed the theory because Einstein’s “romantic interests and spirited interactions with people showed an empathetic relationship with others”, which is somehow supposed to convince us that Einstein wasn’t autistic! (What?? He liked people?? NOT AUTISTIC!!!) Not only does my personal experience strongly contradict this lazy assumption (if anything, I’ve had much more of that “tone-it-down” reaction in social situations because I used to get so strongly attached that it scared people) but there is also scientific evidence that many autistic people are, in fact, so deeply empathetic that it is incapacitating. Please excuse the child-centric nature of the study (which actually deserves an entire facepalm post in and of itself) — this applies to adults too.

Why Can’t I Be Totally Honest?

Here I go again writing a second post explaining something I just posted. The videos I talked about all involve “translating” what, for us, might as well be encrypted messages that are nearly impossible to decipher. So I just realized that many Aspies often ask themselves, “What’s wrong with being totally honest and always saying exactly what you mean? Why do people lie in social situations and expect me to do the same?” These are good questions!

I would say that the main reason why NTs are rarely forthcoming about what they actually mean is that it gives them plausible deniability, which in turn gives them more options. In any high stakes trial-and-error situation, it’s a good idea to dip your toe in the water in case there might be sharks in it. If someone questions why you didn’t actually go for a dip (perhaps even the shark himself wants to know!), you could say that the water was too cold instead of saying that you didn’t want to become the soup of the day at Sharky’s Landfood Buffet. Sometimes it’s not about life-or-death self preservation or about avoiding predatory people, though. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like trying to spare someone’s feelings so the shark of guilt won’t come and bite you in the butt after you realized that your honesty made your friend cry. These are only some of many reasons why NTs will often try to communicate what they mean on the sly, saying one thing while indicating something else with their speech prosody (i.e. the musical aspects of language such as rhythm and tone) and body language. Aspie honesty, in contrast, is actually quite endearing and refreshing much of the time, but the downside to this total authenticity is that it gives other people power over you and you can’t wiggle out of the awkwardness of saying the wrong thing so easily. This is something I’ve learned through direct (and usually pretty harsh) first-hand experience. It’s a trade-off where both options have value, and NTs spend much of their energy deciding between the two. For any Aspies out there who still feel after reading this that 100% honesty is never optional, power to you! But what is so appealing about the more neurotypical approach to this is that it can make one’s life a little safer, if admittedly less authentic. The choice is yours.

Explaining Social Phenomena…With Humor

Just wanted to make a quick little post about some really funny but also strangely educational videos on BuzzFeedVideo’s YouTube channel. They have a series of videos with titles like “If (insert social phenomena here) Were Honest” that has the actors explicitly spelling out the real intentions behind whatever people normally say in certain moments. What I especially like is how this clarifies the meaning behind some of the more common speech prosody that NTs use, at least in mainstream North American youth culture anyway. Even though I’m sure they’re just made for a good laugh, I think this still shows that the social world can be confusing even for neurotypical people sometimes — although, of course, their confusion about such things is usually much milder, more short-lived, and less pervasive than ours. My favorite one is If First Dates Were Honest, showing just how often people try to cover up their awkwardness in social situations where a lot is at stake because expectations are so high.

The Awesomeness of Willfulness

After I wrote my entry yesterday about social “jamming”, I realized that I left out something quite important from the discussion that deserves its own entry. One of the things that makes an autistic person autistic is a certain blindness to consensus opinion, which can also be perceived as willfulness. In other words, an Aspie will often process information and make decisions in his or her own idiosyncratic way instead of wondering, however subconsciously, what others would do in the same situation. This is simultaneously a disability and a truly wonderful thing. Sure, this way of being makes it hard to get along with others sometimes, but it takes an iconoclast to change society. It’s important to note that not everything in a society needs to be changed, of course, because stability has its virtues, but when a change is due, an Aspie is in a really good position to help spearhead it. For example, Temple Grandin said regarding the time she spent among some of the more brutal people involved in the cattle industry that it was probably her autism that protected her from being wounded by the rampant sexism that prevented women from making it in that world. The consensus opinion in that subculture was that women had no place there, so it took someone who is somewhat unaware of or even apathetic toward that consensus opinion to change everything so dramatically.

It is this same willfulness that also contributes heavily to a typical Aspie’s struggles to join the social “jam”. Sometimes an Aspie, if given unsolicited advice on how to jam “properly”, will be incredibly resistant to that advice because he or she doesn’t see why he should blindly conform in the first place. Just because the “riff” the Aspie is playing doesn’t mesh with the “song” already playing at a social function, that doesn’t mean that what he or she is “playing” has no value in isolation from that particular context. Let me use another metaphor. If an Aspie mind were a geographical location, it would be a remote island with few (if any) other inhabitants. It’s well known that geographical isolation, in the days before hyper-connectivity, produced very distinct cultures that may or may not bear any resemblance to the culture of a continent or even that of other remote islands. This is not to say that the island cultures aren’t valuable in and of themselves. It’s more a case of incompatibility with other cultures. The Aspie inward gaze provides just that sort of isolation from “continental” neurotypical culture. Just like an actual foreigner in an ethnically diverse mosaic-style culture, an Aspie has an inherent human right to retain qualities from his or her own “culture” even while learning about the “culture” of the people he or she is surrounded by. Coercing an Aspie to drop everything that makes him or her unique is similar to the conformist mentality seen in melting pot cultures where being just like everyone else is seen as every citizen’s moral duty; it is incredibly damaging psychologically. However, it’s completely different if an Aspie has decided that he or she wants to learn how to be more like others.

This is the context in which I gave advice on what kinds of social “notation” may be helpful. It’s really important to know before doing this whether the Aspie actually wants this kind of help — otherwise, he or she may feel patronized and may become very obstinate. Unlike an actual immigrant, the Aspie did not choose to be surrounded by a foreign culture; he or she was born into that situation and does not have a “homeland” to go back to when the culture shock proves to be too traumatic. Of course, it should be acknowledged that Aspies sometimes cross other people’s boundaries with their behavior; in these instances, assertiveness about the consensus expectations is justified as long as it’s not unnecessarily brutal. But in instances when the Aspie’s behavior is eccentric but harmless, why not celebrate his or her unique “cultural” point of view?

Social “Jamming”

Since I am a music composer, I like using a music analogy to explain to the average person (from here on in I will use the word “neurotypical” or NT to refer to so-called “normal” people) what an Aspie feels like at a typical party or any other unstructured social gathering. (As an interesting aside, when jazz musicians are “trading fours”, or taking turns doing solos, their linguistic centers actually light up, making this analogy even more appropriate.) Imagine that you are the only non-musician in your entire social circle. All your friends are really keen on jamming with all your other friends, but deep down inside you know that you don’t have much of a knack for improvised riffing. Sure, if you practiced a song at home enough times, you could come prepared to play that particular song and you could probably fake it well enough to get a pass. But since your friends seem to think that this approach to playing music is incredibly dorky (and they don’t even like that song anyway), you do your best to play along with their spontaneous jams even though you dread doing this. Much to your dismay, every time you try to contribute something to the jam, you get dirty looks from everyone and they exchange knowing glances with each other. And these are the polite ones. The more aggressive people in your social circle have quite often gotten really angry with you and have accused you numerous times of playing out of tune on purpose with the intent of sabotaging them. You have tried over and over again to get someone to explicitly teach you what the rules of jamming are, but the only response you ever get is “You should just know! It’s common sense!” Soon you find yourself getting invited to fewer and fewer jams, which makes the problem worse since you don’t have as much opportunity to practice with them anymore. Not only that, but you start to feel lonely and resentful of the people who have been so harsh with you. So in order to prove that you’re worthy of them, you start practicing like crazy at home with the hope that maybe someday your friends will start appreciating your efforts to play in tune and at tempo. After many frustrating and lonely years of grueling practice you may develop, if you’re lucky (and mostly by rote), a repertoire of musical gestures that is just flexible enough to be used in a variety of situations. But even after all that effort you went to, people still sometimes give you weird looks and you get invited to way fewer jams than your other friends do. After a while, hopelessness may start to set in and you stop caring so much about doing music with people. You wonder if anything you do will ever be good enough to make people like you.

This analogy is no exaggeration. It is a fairly accurate reflection of what it feels like for an Aspie (particularly a sensitive one who notices when people don’t like him or her) to try to “jam” with NTs in the mainstream social world. The Aspie may in all sincerity try to fit in but just has no idea how. He or she may indeed have spent hours at home practicing his or her conversational skills. But he or she may have missed the point entirely by only practicing talking about one of his or her special interests, which is off-putting to most NTs. It may seem annoying to you as a neurotypical person when that blunderbuss shows up at a social function, but your compassion for that person will go a long way. Trust me — your kind words and actions will probably be appreciated and remembered even if it doesn’t seem that way on the surface. Explaining to the person what’s going on is especially helpful. You could save them a lot of misunderstanding and alienation from other people by giving them a short list of the typical cues found in a generic social situation — a form of social “notation” they can take home and practice with. For example, you could start by giving them a list of “songs” that people usually play. In one kind of social situation, perhaps at a party, everyone may usually like to play the “chit-chat” song that includes a lot of “riffs” about the weather; in another situation, perhaps at a more formal gathering like a wedding, people usually play the “I’m happy for you!” song that includes a lot of “notes” like “Congratulations! You look so beautiful together!”  You can also write down typical responses to greetings such as “Hi, how are you?” that happen in generic situations. The Aspie may respond to that question with a literal account of every single emotion they felt that day and may not know that the appropriate “riff” to play in that moment is “I’m fine, thanks. You?” They also might need to know where the “rests” typically are so they’re not perceived as someone who is trying to dominate the conversation. Similarly, they might need notes about the typical “tempo” in that type of social setting — give them feedback about whether they are going too fast or getting stuck on a “measure” that the group already played. The more concrete and literal your “notation” is, the better. A lot of actual musical notation also includes notes about the feeling that the piece should be played with, and this part of the analogy applies as well. Your Aspie friend might not actually know to smile and make eye contact while saying the above words. Who knows — with enough nurturing, your Aspie friend may someday blossom into a pretty good “musician” that people enjoy playing with!