The aliens among us

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDec 27, 2011 2:48 AM


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Amy Harmon has a very long piece in The New York Times, Navigating Love and Autism. It's about a couple who both have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Like cancer I suspect that this term brackets a lot of different issues into one catchall label, not to mention the acknowledgment that it's a spectrum. When I spent time with the Bay Area Less Wrong community I would observe the range in tendencies and neurological diversity of people who clearly would be classified as "high functioning autistic" (to be clear, these were individuals strongly selected for high general intelligence, with a minimum threshold of around two standard deviations above the norm). The lack of comprehension of religiosity and bias toward libertarianism were two salient characteristics of this sect (though people who have met me don't classify me as having Asperger syndrome, I have these two cognitive biases myself) In any case, the bigger issue which Amy Harmon's piece brought out to me is that people with high-functioning autism develope their own micro-norms, meaning that they are often not very compatible with each other despite their deviation from "neurotypicals." There's no guarantee that you'll deviate away from the norm in the same dimension when the norm is highly multidimensional! People with Asperger are often non-conformists. This is not a bad thing necessarily, at least for society as a whole. But as explained in Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution a very strong tendency toward within-group conformity is a major hallmark in human behavior. It's probably biological encoded. So, for example, speaking with your parents' accents, as opposed to that of your hypothetical peer group, is a trait of many people with high functioning autism (or, a tendency toward hyper-formalism of speech). This is a tell for lack of group conformity. The problems autistic people have with conventional "manners," and not just basic universal human niceties, is an outgrowth of this tendency I suspect. Manners can differ greatly across societies, and require cultural conditioning. But the human tendency to want some set of regular norms does apply to those with Asperger. The diversity among this set is what results in the difficulties of negotiating conflicts (and may explain a bit why libertarians and the hyper-atheistic tend to fracture along what seem trivial deviations from the outside!). You can imagine that in some ways people with Asperger syndrome explore the full parameter space of cultural possibilities, unencumbered by the positive feedback loops of group conformity which is the human norm.

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