Autistic cognition decoded for earthlings


Just for a minute, imagine …

  • not getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others, and instead experiencing discomfort when copying others;
  • and not getting pleasure out of social status or out of exerting power over others, and instead experiencing extreme discomfort when expected to exert power over others.

Then try to imagine how we experience everyday social behaviour of individuals and groups within society. One of us recently illustrated his experience of the social world as follows:

Want to understand autistic experience better? Here’s an insight: the way most decent, honest, rational human beings see Donald Trump and his stooges is essentially the same way I’ve always seen the vast majority of non-autistic people. #AutismAwareness

We have weaker social symbolic filters, resulting in a richer and more intense sensorial experience of raw information. As a result we can become easily overwhelmed in social situations, and may respond in atypical and unexpected ways.

As babies and young children we don’t tend to play “the right way” with others, which generates negative reactions, and which in turn shapes our first experiences of social interactions with other humans.

Because we notice small variations in sensory input streams, and because we are not instinctively compelled to imitate, decoding social cues can take significant conscious effort. Beyond the human social world, in the physical and biological realm, our hypersensitivity with respect to certain categories of stimuli means we are very astute observers and critical learners.

The non-social world provides us with a rich and interesting environment for exploration and experimentation.

Technically speaking, from within the established pathology paradigm, delayed or reduced habituation to new stimuli due to hypersensitivity, or needing time to distil a more nuanced mental model from the inputs, is considered to be a learning disability. The question of who is learning disabled is entirely a matter of perspective.

From our perspective anyone who trusts second hand human opinions from the social world more than first hand experiences from the physical and biological realm suffers from a learning disability.

As humans we can apply our intelligence and simulation powers (sometimes also known as mentalising powers) to two very different use cases:

  1. Understand the physical and biological realm we inhabit at all levels of scale, and explore how we can influence this realm
  2. Understand the human social world we inhabit, and and explore how we can influence this world

The second use case is highly problematic in the hands of anyone who gets a neurochemical reward out of social status and exerting power over others. This has been the curse of all human civilisations to date, and it brings up an interesting question: Why are humans still around?

I believe the answer clearly lies in neurodiversity. Humans have only been able to survive because neurodiversity within the human gene pool guarantees that there are always a few people who do not get any rewards out of social status and power.

At the same time, getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others can be a great strategy for propagating valuable knowledge – but it only really works well during times when the environment is highly stable and not undergoing rapid changes within a single generation. Throughout human history periods of reasonably stable local environments over fifty to a few hundred years will have been quite common.

Evolutionary forces thus have honed the human ability to learn by imitation, but evolutionary forces have also kept alive the genes that are needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change.

The only catch is that getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others is on a slippery slope to getting pleasure out of exerting power over others. If the latter trait is combined with a lack of empathy, the result is the human capacity for unlimited propagation of harm in the social world and beyond.

Autism professionals have yet to understand that we have a capability for advanced mental simulations, but are simply not compelled in any way to deploy this capability in the social world in the typical way.

We have to learn in very painful ways what happens if we do not oppose or at least ignore demands by others who ask us to do things that are only designed to let them or others enhance their position of power.

We are very helpful if people tell us in clear language what their genuine needs are. But there are two factors that can get in the way:

  1. Via painful application of conscious simulation powers to the social context we conclude that your perceived need is part of a social power game. In this case don’t expect us to “help”.
  2. We are in a situation of sensory overload, or you are asking us to do something that would likely trigger sensory overload.

Suppressing autistic cognition may not be such a smart idea, even in case all you really care about is the human social world!

5 thoughts on “Autistic cognition decoded for earthlings

  1. No offence intended (being autistic myself, it’s easy for me to unintentionally offend others), but I perceive one major error in this blogpost. I don’t believe that the majority of autistic people feel pain when copying others and are thus unable to derive pleasure from it, it’s simply that the vast majority of us are highly sensitive (the least pathological way I can put it) to all forms of input, including emotional. It’s this heightened empathy when merely looking at others the pain comes from, therefore, which of course impacts on our copying skills as well as our ability to process body language.

    • I refer to discomfort rather than pain. Your observation on heightened sensitivity and empathy is correct. But there are also further reasons why we don’t tend to imitate, for example when performing a specific task or working towards a specific goal. Often the culturally established way of doing things conflicts with Autistic sensitivities, and also with our moral compass when the work impacts other people – because within the context of the sick hyper-competitive culture that surrounds us, following “best practices” and meeting the expectations of employers often entails exploiting other people.

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