David Lybarger

The lens through which I view the world is created by my autism’s social dimension: it organizes my observations and experiences. You see, I am blind to social dynamics. Social dynamics are the behaviors of groups resulting from the interactions of each group member, as well as the relationship between individual interactions and group-level behaviors. This blindness rendered my life as a child, adolescent, and young adult unpleasant

In response to these early threats to survival, I studied books on non-verbal communication and conversational etiquette. This helped, but not enough. Later, I studied folkloristics, anthropology, and social psychology—and continue to do so. Combined, these efforts help me mask and are a white cane I use to navigate a world configured by hierarchically-structured groups and their social intersections.

Anyway, what does being “blind to social dynamics” actually mean? It means I do not understand authority not derived from merit—which is to say I do not understand most authority. Nor do I understand reverence for the wealthy and powerful, celebrities, the famous (people who are famous for being famous especially confound me), and fandom—it is beyond me. 

For example, I do not understand competitive sports and their fans: fans scream with rage and joy depending on how “their” team performs. Some specially mark themselves with body paint, colorful clothing, and wave flags and hop up and down. Are they mad? When a team looses I do not understand why their fans riot, overturn cars, set them on fire, and destroy city infrastructure. Nor do I understand why when a team wins that their fans riot, overturn cars, set them on fire, and destroy city infrastructure.

Competitive sports are of course about groups, which brings me to a more profound implication of being “blind to social dynamics.” I never “feel” like a member of a group. It took years to understand this because I did not know that group-identity existed. For example, I joined the Army when I was a young adult. During Basic Training, a drill sergeant explained that we trainees must develop “esprit de corps.” 

I asked, “what is esprit de corps?” 

He explained that it is “a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by group members. It is a common spirit felt by all that inspires enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for group honor.” 

“Well, that was meaningless,” I thought. “I wish people would just admit when they don’t know the answer.” Luckily I had the rare sense not to interrogate the drill sergeant further. I still do not know what esprit de corps is beyond an understanding that it is real and often directs allistics’ behavior. 

Know that I do establish and maintain meaningful, caring relationships on a one-on-one basis. Consequently, for years I mistakenly thought I “belonged to a group” when I established one-on-one relationships with each group member.

So, while I do not develop emotional attachments to groups and thus “group-belonging” experiences (the thought of them seems a little creepy) are beyond me, I am—objectively—a member of multiple overlapping groups. It is clear, now, that membership is special to people because they derive their identities from their groups. Like other autistics I, too, have an identity, but it wells from a different source. 

Because of social and other difficulties many people think of autistics as disabled—like how people think of the blind regardless of how a blind person might describe themselves. For some time I, too, thought I was disabled. Damaged. Less than. Recently, I availed myself of an exceptional therapist and the plethora of online resources provided by other autistics. Now I do not think of myself as “less than”. Further, I no longer think using blindness as a metaphor for not perceiving social dynamics works. Like notions of disability, that metaphor is no longer quite . . . right. 

Like autism, many people consider color-blindness a disability. Color-blindness does pose some challenges. It is not surprising then that the military screens recruits for color blindness. The military does not want to train color-blind recruits for jobs that encode information by color, like electronics. Yet, the military searches for the color blind because they are not fooled by camouflage. Consequently, they make superior gunners, snipers, and spotters. 

Is color-blindness a disability? Is “normal” vision a disability?

By the same token, I am not blind to social dynamics. I am color-blind. Because social dynamics are beyond me, let me tell you what I can do: 

I am immune to mass emotional contagion. Mass emotional contagion occurs when the same emotions, behaviors, and conditions spontaneously spread throughout a group. I know when people are affected by emotional contagion because the hair on the back of my neck stands up, but I am not otherwise affected: therefore, in the midst of crises and other important happenings and events such as riots and celebrations, I remain rational and self-possessed. 

I am immune to certain methods of emotional persuasion. These methods appeal to group-derived identities, or by creating a shared identity between a speaker and listeners. Consequently, most sales pitches, advertisements, and propaganda do not compromise my rationality and self-possession. Yet, I see them.  

I am immune to groupthink. Groupthink occurs when the collective desire for harmony or conformity causes irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. I detect groupthink readily and it, too, does not compromise my rationality and self-possession. Therefore, I am free to argue against irrational, dysfunctional decision-making.    

In sum, because my autism renders me unable to participate as allistic people participate in groups, I objectively perceive social-dynamic processes in realtime but am not affected. Consequently, I am more free to make choices when engulfed by a mob. I am especially sensitive to certain manipulations. I am freer to make choices while others conform. 

This lens, granted by autism, is how I view the world.  

“The world definitely needs all the different kinds of minds.” —Dr. Temple Grandin

David Lybarger

March 2023