A Thought Experiment: What if Autism was the Norm?
Updated: Sep 17
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 and drop hints rather than being direct, 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 could 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, being adaptive to change, and planning for big projects. 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?
What about those autists that don't quite fit the mould of other autists, and fail to follow the commonly understood standards of sociability, or who exhibit quirks that seem a little similar to the stereotypically "odd behaviours" of non-autistic people? Well, perhaps that explains their profession; after all, some roles are more likely to attract non-autistic people.
Autists might then get away with less desirable (socially impolite) behaviours, such as taking up your time with unproductive chit-chat about the weather every morning, because they occupy a high-paying and respectable profession (which, in this alternate universe, isn't software development because most people can already do that)."Oh, you know, people in Sales are going to be less direct and more socially-intrusive because most of them are a little non-autistic".
But, hang on. What if you're a non-autistic male? The way you behave is likely to be closer to the way that normal (autistic) people behave. Perhaps you're detail-oriented. Perhaps you have a large collection of Lego. Perhaps you'd prefer to spend time alone than in a big group of people. This is in direct contrast with stereotypes of a non-autist's 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 good 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.
TL;DR take-home message:
Diversity isn't only about physically observable differences (age, gender, race), but also about ways of perceiving and 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.
For a less sarcastic take on all this, see How inclusive are initiatives for hiring people with autism?