A Thought Experiment: What if Autism was the Norm?
Updated: Aug 16
Brain scan using high-def fibre tracking. Left: Autistic brain thinking about social language; Right: Neurotypical brain thinking about social language (Photo: Walt Schneider, University of Pittsburgh)
Imagine if the majority of people had an autistic mind.
Things like having well-defined goals and using clear, unambiguous language wouldn't be considered 'having to make adjustments', just... normal working practices.
We'd be focussing instead on the non-autist's inability to see the details or to work methodically. We'd wonder why they don't get stuck into a task or topic until it's finished. Are they lazy? Are they cognitively impaired?
But we wouldn't offer help that non-autists might benefit from, like access to free, high-quality mental health services that helps them deal with the anxiety and depression they've developed after years of rejection. Or education and training for colleagues. Or schemes at schools to start developing societal empathy and acceptance of diversity.
Instead, we'd chastise them for not engaging in social skills training that makes interacting with them a little easier for us, regardless of how exhausting it is for the onus to always be on them.
We'd be unnerved by the amount of eye contact non-autists keep trying to make and irritated at the non-functional small talk they insist on engaging in. We'd wonder why they skirt around an issue or why they're so sensitive when someone says what's on their mind.
These 'quirks' would be considered okay so long as the non-autist can "make up for it" by being extremely good at something that normal autistic people aren't, like abstract thinking, superior executive functioning, good auditory processing, planning for big projects, and being able to read others' intentions. Otherwise, you're just weird.
And for that, we'd wonder why we haven't found a cure. We might even chastise parents for not vaccinating their children because we heard that that's what allows the brain to develop in such an ineffective way. Or we'd question if it's even real. Aren't most people a little non-autistic?
Depending on the profession they belong to, any 'odd behaviours' in others that seem even a little similar to non-autistic quirks will be attributed to them being in roles that are more likely to attract non-autistic people -- perhaps in HR or social work.
Though, of course, since most people are autistic, there would be different standards of sociability and non-autistic people would still have to work harder to fit in with expectations of appropriate and normal behaviour; they would therefore be at a disadvantage regardless of the profession.
But stereotypes will still benefit autistic people in these roles, by making any less desirable (socially impolite) behaviours more acceptable, especially if the person is in a high-paying and respectable profession (not software development, because, in this alternate universe, most people can already do that). "Oh, you know, people in Sales are going to be more socially-intrusive because most of them are a little non-autistic".
This is all unless you're a non-autistic male, in which case, the way you behave is likely to be closer to the way that normal male and female autists behave -- which is in contrast with stereotypes of hyper-sociability and poor systematising skills. You don't seem non-autistic (or whatever word we'd be using to highlight that to be non-autistic isn't the norm). Why? You're not extroverted, you're not bad at maths, and you like concrete examples.
After all, once you've met one non-autistic person, that's it, you've basically met them all.
Diversity isn't only about physically-observable differences (age, gender, race), but also about ways of thinking. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It's easy to focus on the weaknesses of someone you find "weird". Autism is a disability in so far as we are at a disadvantage in this society by having it, and this is a function of being in the minority.