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.
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”.