A few years ago, a cop came to my home and asked whether I would like to get my passport on time. I said, “Yes”, and slammed the door, smiling. I didn’t know he wanted a bribe.
For much of my life, I didn’t know people don’t always mean what they say. A normal child knows this at the age of 4, but I was 26 when I came to terms with this. I take words literally, and this was at the root of most problems. It has been a tough row to hoe, because there were lies, lies everywhere. I called them on their lies. But they had no idea what I was talking about because they believed their own lies.
And, oh, there was something else I didn’t know. I didn’t know people were offended by disagreement. Even when people said they were offended, I didn’t believe it. But I was convinced they were serious when they ganged up on me.
I repeatedly violated an important social norm. Most people instinctively know that disagreement can be seen as a sign of disrespect. But they aren’t too conscious of this because we are expected to value truth over politics.
Normal human beings usually don’t air opinions that offend others. And they usually don’t violate social hierarchies by disagreeing with their social superiors. In other words, most people have a hard time separating ideas from intuitions of “social rank” and “empathy”.
Understanding truths despite their challenge to “social rank” and “empathy” comes easily to me. So people had a hard time reading me. When I behaved as though I didn’t mind putting them down, they decided enough was enough. I missed the initial signs of disapproval, and the soft sanctions they imposed on me. So they escalated to more serious forms of punishment, and that was when I felt something was awry. I soon learned I am an Aspie (A person with Asperger’s Syndrome, a milder autism spectrum disorder.)
One of the greatest contributions of the Hungarian-American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was to point out the obvious: Mind is a metaphor, and because there is no mind, there can be no such thing as mental illness.
The brain, however, is an organ and can be diseased. But that falls within the realm of neurology. People with “mental illnesses” usually don’t have brain diseases. They are just different. Medicines are no cure for conflicting values, aspirations and goals. The goal of psychiatry is to stigmatize, medicalize and imprison people who challenge values closer to the hearts of the majority.
All psychiatric diagnoses are ethical judgments. For example, the assumption that a child who can’t sit still and read has ADHD is rooted in the value judgment that all children ought to sit still and read. That’s nonsense. As economist Bryan Caplan points out, no one accuses a boy diagnosed with ADHD of forgetting to play video games.
Autism is No Different.
Long ago, well-wishers asked the “depressed” to get over it. It is, now, a more common assumption that mental illness is as much an illness as a physical illness.
But this is actually not a compassionate view. Such cruel compassion stems from the desire to give up personal responsibility, and to stigmatize “weirdos”. The alternative to asking someone to “get over it” is not to label and stigmatize him. The alternative is to understand people, to listen carefully, to be genuinely curious.
It is a political act to claim that someone has bipolar disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome. People believe in mental illness because they want to abdicate responsibility and wield power over the vulnerable. Society punishes people who are different. It is true, for example, that many autistics have severe disabilities, and many of them may be different in ways that normal life is impossible. But this in no way proves they are mentally ill.
Aspies challenge society’s dominant values by violating social norms. Aspies aren’t good at reading social cues. But it’s not obvious this is a flaw.
Many social norms are based on certain assumptions about human nature such as envy is ubiquitous, people are mean-spirited, petty and cunning, and that they are offended when social hierarchies are violated. These assumptions accurately describe most normal human beings. People are, at best, dimly aware of such assumptions. Nevertheless, they are guided by these assumptions rooted in introspection.
Such norms discriminate against people who don’t feel much envy, don’t care much for social hierarchies, and aren’t particularly petty, mean-spirited or cunning. It is introspection that fails outliers. It is impossible for outliers to learn all the nuances and game the system. They get into trouble sooner or later for breaking one unspoken norm or the other.
People aren’t very good at analyzing ideas.
The political and economic beliefs of the man on the street are idiotic. But we shouldn’t hastily assume we are better judges of social norms and other human beings. If anything, we judge flesh-and-blood human beings more unfairly than we judge, say, capitalism or post-modernism. Abstract, impersonal ideas do not evoke strong emotions as much as people and their ways do.
Aspies are usually not aware of the judgments others pass on them. Even when they are aware, it is impossible for them to defend themselves against implicit accusations without pointing out that normal human beings judge them harshly because, well, they are mean-spirited. The best minds of our times have largely ignored this because they do not have enough insight into themselves.
Autistics are misfits everywhere, because they violate social norms. The most popular explanation is that this is because autistics don’t have a “theory of mind”—that they lack the ability to understand that others have values, aspirations, emotions and intentions different from one’s own.
This could be because they are terrible at self-deception. Subtle social norms are usually about crimes of intent. When a neurotypical (people who are neurologically typical) man is attracted to somebody else’s wife, he may act friendly, hoping she would “reciprocate”. He is aware of these two parallel, but different versions of reality in his mind, and tailors his behavior to the context. An autistic man, on the other hand, may be less cautious because he truly doesn’t have romantic intentions. But the society judges him by the same standards. He invites trouble because he isn’t acutely conscious of the ubiquity of hidden motives and self-deception.
Philosopher Emrys Westacott thinks he would be less upset if someone stole his camera than if a colleague walks into his classroom and walks out without acknowledging his presence. Why is this a crime of intent? A colleague’s rudeness is more likely to threaten our survival than petty robbery. At the workplace, we compete intensely for power, status, resources and sex, using self-deception as our primary weapon.
We now know from our understanding of human evolution that men compete for access to women, and women compete for high-status mates in all spheres of life. Men acquire power, status and resources, for example, to get better mates. The workplace is no exception to this rule.
We judge others’ behavior based on a theory of human nature, relying on introspection. Intensely political human beings are more likely to read malice into ambiguous, but benign behavior. A rude colleague who subtly marginalizes you may be deluded enough to think you are “imagining things”. An Aspie may ignore a colleague without such intentions, for example.
I don’t lack the ability to read people, but I am definitely not neurologically typical. Deception doesn’t evoke the desired response from me, because I interpret human behavior differently. I took the cop’s words literally because I don’t have an intuitive understanding of deceptive behavior. A man who takes deceptive behavior for granted would have interpreted it more accurately. Similarly, normal human beings find Aspies hard to read because they interpret our behavior differently.
I think this is why I have always had a hard time with cryptic communication. I don’t read body language very well either, because body language is also used to get away with something, leveraging self-deception. For the same reason, I don’t know much slang, and I am uncomfortable with informal speech.
Formal, pedantic speech is a feature of high-functioning autism. The more formal your speech, the more it is quotable. The common thread: people use body language, informal speech, indirect speech, slang and subtlety more when we are trying to get away with something. These are very useful tools in deceiving ourselves to deceive others, because our real intentions are off the record. Human beings use such tactics to conspire to bend the rules, and this could be why Aspies are bad at these.
Similarly, I have always wondered why bosses don’t prefer to give direct instructions. Let’s suppose your boss envies and hates her pretty subordinate Alice, and wants her to be fired. But your boss likes Jane, another subordinate, who documents evidence against Alice.
When your boss tells you that Jane is “efficient”, that probably means you should treat her with kid gloves. So maybe she slacks off and doesn’t come to work four days in a week. But Jane is a good ally. Your boss wants you to be just as good an ally as Jane and help her fire Alice. Saying Jane is “efficient” is a deceptive method of saying, “I don’t care if Jane is a bad worker, she helps me achieve my political goals. Be like Jane.”
Aspies read such instructions literally, and run into trouble. It doesn’t occur to them that people can have such intentions and values.
Normal human beings are better at interpreting cryptic instructions, because they are good at keeping two conflicting versions of reality in their minds. This is not a virtue, but the source of human cruelty. The boss and subordinate later remember only what is “on the record”, and refuse to acknowledge their bad intentions, even to themselves.
This doesn’t mean Aspies are bad at reading all social cues. Aspies are bad at reading social cues that help people coordinate unethical activities. They hold values that conflict with that of normal human beings. So, introspection fails them. This is not a disability. This is an ethical conflict, and we shouldn’t delude ourselves.
How to Reach Them
It is a common observation among autism researchers that parents and partners often feel that autistics cannot be “reached”. I have no introspective knowledge of the workings of the minds of severely autistic people. But this not true of me or the Aspies I personally know. And this is not the impression I get from the writings of autistics.
If anything, they get this backward. Normal human beings are more interested in testing whether others are potential allies and partners than in building honest relationships or having deep conversations. When they are in doubt, they guess instead of asking.
It’s a guess culture, and not an ask culture. Much of human misery follows from that. It is harder to reach Aspies that way. If we want to be understood, we explain. If we want to understand others, we ask them to explain themselves. If we want something from others, we ask for it, instead of expecting them to read our minds. Why is this hard?
Many autistics talk mostly to find out what they need, or share factual information. They don’t engage in much small talk. When others ask questions, many Aspies give out just the relevant facts. But they enjoy conversations in which both participants argue with great fervor to prove their point.
Neurotypicals find such debates tiring just as autistics find small talk tiring. Normal human beings talk mostly to show off their value as potential coworkers, lovers or leaders. Small talk helps people to judge potential allies better, because the ability to do small talk signals spontaneity. Human beings value spontaneity because it allows them to move from one coalition to another, and change their coalition partners without coming across as calculating hypocrites. The differences in conversational styles, I suspect, is because people differ in their propensity for self-deception.
Autistics also differ in their attitudes toward religion and philanthropy. Autistics seem less interested in philanthropy that benefits other people. But this is misleading. People donate to charity mostly to show off. People don’t care much about the effectiveness of their charitable contributions.
Autistics donate the same to charity, regardless of whether their contributions are public or not. But they are insensitive to reputation only when they donate to charity. They revel in the attention when they display their special talents. For autistics, charity seems to be really about “giving”. They perhaps don’t think they deserve credit for their charitable contributions.
Religion, as evolutionary psychologists point out, is not about belief, but about building cohesive and cooperative social groups. It’s hard to get selfish people to cooperate, but religion leverages self-deception to accomplish that. Autistics are less religious. This could be because they hate hypocrisy and not because they lack a “theory of mind”.
The most popular theory of autism is that of Simon Baron-Cohen, who thinks autistics have an extreme male brain. Men are better at understanding systems (systemizing) and women are better at understanding other people’s mind (empathizing).
Autistics are better at systematizing, and bad at empathizing, and this has led to the extreme male brain theory. But this leaves much to be desired. Men seem to be as social as women, though in different ways. People with autism are very unlikely to break the law. Most criminals are young men. Men tend to over-infer women’s sexual interest, while women tend to under-infer. Autistics tend to under-infer sexual interest. Boys use slang more than girls, but autistics tend to have a poor understanding of slang and sarcasm.
If you look at autism as an extremely conscious mind, things fall into place. People who engage in conscious ethical reasoning are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to over-infer sexual interest, and less likely to be comfortable with slang which is often used to refer to questionable behavior.
The rights of autistics is an important moral issue, but there are broader issues at stake here. I believe the biggest problem confronting us is not world poverty, crime, or war. Self-deception is at the root of most social and political problems. Politics at work, in families and in other human groups are as bad as congressional politics. Even political irrationality is just one of the many manifestations of self-deception. It is quite unlikely we would come anywhere close to treating people with kindness without coming to grips with this.
There is something terribly wrong with the way human beings treat each other, and we are better off not being blind about this. There is so much to be done, and a good place to begin is by understanding strange minds.