Opinion – Suzana Herculano-Houzel: No, everyone is NOT a little autistic


You are normal”? Probably yes, and for a very simple reason: mathematically, some 90% of the population are “normal” for every trait that can be quantified.

Being “normal” is neither good nor bad; the term simply denotes that the distribution of that trait in the population is bell-shaped, with 90% concentrated near the mean, so “normal” is who is near the center of the bell of the distribution. Just that. 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 somewhere in a normal distribution of each characteristic of the population. Some people will find themselves at the extremes of some distributions: undersensitive—blind or deaf, for example—or overly sensitive to sights and sounds, overly tuned in or out of touch with social cues and self-referrals, overly eager or annoyed by social interactions , ready to infer alien intentions from each action or unable to do so.

The majority of the population is not at either extreme, or only at one or the other, in this direction or that. An occasional extreme doesn’t make anyone “a little bit” autistic.

The reason is also simple: autistic people, by definition, are people who inhabit a “particular constellation” of extremes from several of these distributions. Roughly speaking, these are people who live with sensory hypersensitivity, little sensitivity to their own emotional state, aversion to social interactions due to the stress they cause, little automatic inference of other people’s intentions, and chronic anxiety. The fact that this particular constellation of traits appears with a certain frequency in the population is a strong indication that genetic factors are involved; and, indeed, autism often passes from parents to children.

Even so, each autistic has his particular combination of extremes, in different intensities. Some are especially sensitive to images; others, to sounds or smells or textures. Or all together. Or a particular color, which is unbearable to the point of nausea (autists like to compare their hypersensitivities, it’s fun and informative!). Some are so averse to social interactions that the very idea gives them an anxiety attack, while others welcome the opportunity to “study” normal people, as long as they don’t have to participate (I am one, there’s always something I can learn about how to 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.

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

What, then, is the “problem” of autism? Same with being left-handed, I’d say. The world is made for normals and right-handers. It takes some work for us to function in the world of others, but we learn.

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