Suzana Herculano-Houzel

No, everybody is NOT a little bit autistic

Column_432 Not everybody is autistic

Are you “normal”? Probably yes, and for a very simple reason: mathematically, about 90% of the population is “normal” for every characteristic that can be quantified.

Being “normal” doesn’t imply anything good or bad; the term simply denotes that the distribution of that characteristic in the population is bell-shaped, with 90% concentrated near the mean, so “normal” is whoever is near the center of the distribution bell. That’s all. In a normal distribution, “normal” is, by definition, the majority.

But there are many characteristics that can be measured in the population, and everyone is at some point in a normal distribution of each characteristic in the population. Some people will find themselves at the extremes of some distributions: too sensitive – blind or deaf, for example – or too sensitive to images and sounds, extremely attuned or detached in terms of social signals and self-referential signals, extremely eager or annoyed by social interactions, ready to infer others’ intentions from every action or unable to do so. The majority of the population is not at any extreme, or only at one or the other, in this or that direction. A possible extreme doesn’t make anyone “a little bit” autistic.

The reason is also simple: autistics, by definition, are people who inhabit a particular constellation of extremes of several of these distributions. Roughly speaking, they are people who live with sensory hypersensitivity, low sensitivity to their own emotional state, aversion to social interactions due to the stress they cause, low automatic inference of other people’s intentions, and chronic anxiety. The fact that this particular constellation of characteristics appears with a certain frequency in the population is a strong indication that there are genetic factors involved, and, in fact, autism is often passed down from parent to child.

Even so, each autistic person has their own particular combination of extremes, in different intensities. Some are especially sensitive to images; others to sounds, or smells, or textures. Or all of these together. Or to a particular color, which is unbearable to the point of nausea (autistics like to compare their hypersensitivities, it’s fun and informative!). Some are so averse to social interactions that the mere idea gives them an anxiety attack, while others relish the opportunity to “study” normal people, as long as they don’t have to participate (I’m one, there’s always something I can learn about how others work). How chronic anxiety manifests itself (pain? nausea? catastrophic thoughts? constant checking?) and what triggers anxiety attacks is a personal matter, but chronic anxiety is always there.

Perhaps the most important thing is that autism is not synonymous with intellectual deficit (or genius!). There is still not enough evidence to define whether intellectual deficiencies are an expression of extreme autism or a comorbidity (I suspect the latter), just as there are people with skin problems and heart problems.

So what is the “problem” with autism? The same as being left-handed, I’d say. The world is made for normal, right-handed people. It takes a bit of work to function in other people’s worlds, but you learn.

Originally published in February 2023 in Folha de São Paulo

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