Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Observations from an autistic neuroscientist on twitter

Column_430 Observations from the aspie neuroscientist on twitter

When a disability is a superpower

Bombastic news to start the new year: it’s been four years since I found out I’m autistic. Please spare me the “nice” or “flattering” comments like “gee, you don’t look it”, or “but you look so normal”. Functioning in the world of normals, or “neurotypicals”, takes a lot of work. In addition to the idiosyncratic quirks of each autistic person, not understanding the intentions of others turns children on the autistic spectrum into a lightning rod for bullies, which explains why my childhood was hell in this sense (for the rest, my parents were wonderful and, without knowing it, did everything right to help an autistic child – I’ll tell you later).

But now, as an adult, I’ve discovered that not having the slightest notion that they’re trying to be an asshole to me has its advantages. In fact, it borders on a superpower: it’s almost impossible to insult me. And, unintentionally, I discovered that being “uninsultable” (creating words is also an autistic trait) is a wonderful way to combat trolls on social media.

A video that’s been circulating around illustrates this superpower masterfully: it’s a duck, on its back, on the ground, surrounded by cows that advance, threateningly, trying to intimidate it… and they fail, one after the other, because the duck doesn’t give a damn about the threats. I don’t know what the duck was thinking, but I know what it was doing (another autistic trait – we focus on the facts, not the interpretation): the duck acted as if it didn’t understand that the cows coming towards it were trying to make it retreat. So the duck stayed right where it was. Sensational. It’s the other people’s problem, they want to be assholes.

I realized that this duck is me and others like me whose brains don’t automatically infer other people’s intentions. I’ve recently returned to twitter for professional reasons and I’ve been having fun over the last few days with a post about my discovery that tyrannosaurs were the baboons of their time, in terms of numbers of neurons. The post went viral, which naturally means that the trolls appeared – in this case, “explaining” to me that I was obviously wrong about this and that.

The problem is that I stick to the facts and respond naturally, agreeing with what’s right and pointing out what’s wrong, and why it’s wrong, and what the correct version is. Like the duck that doesn’t know it’s being bullied (also on my twitter), not understanding that I’m being insulted prevents me from feeling insulted, which is a marvel on social media. The trolls soften up. There are trolls who apologize, imagine that, and come back calmly, explaining themselves and even paying compliments, saying it was just a joke, sorry.

I don’t recommend wanting to be autistic because of this, but my recommendation would be irrelevant because autism isn’t chosen or caught. You’re born with a different brain, and that’s it: like everyone else, you learn to function with what you have. The difference, in this case, is that I respond literally to what is said, since I don’t think I read other people’s minds, and being literal is something that “normal” people can experience, too. You just have to force yourself – as I do all the time, on the contrary – to remember that people aren’t literal…

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in January 2023

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