The aliens among us

By Razib Khan | December 26, 2011 3:48 pm

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.

MORE ABOUT: Asperger syndrome

Comments (18)

  1. Melissa

    The idea that aspie girls do better than boys because of “mother hen” individuals was interesting to me. I’m not diagnosed with Aspergers, but I certainly have the tendencies. I’ve always preferred to have very conventional, but extremely nice and accepting, female friends. Perhaps that’s why most women in tech efforts I’ve been involved with tend to flounder. We all have very unusual opinions and interests, but they tend to diverge quite dramatically. Last “women in tech” lunch I had for women who program in the language I work in was filled with radical feminist lesbians and Ron Paul fanatics, who tend not to get along so well.

  2. #1, in thing that rang true from the article is the tendency for aspies to have difficulty with “agreeing to disagree.” cessation of argument over differences is a temporary truce. that migh lead to problems of long term group cohesion.

  3. Roko

    > I would observe the range in tendencies and neurological diversity of people who clearly would be classified as “high functioning autistic”

    Indeed; I remember when you met me there you blogged that I was “so normal he could almost pass as a civilian!”

    I suspect that the peculiarities of that community are merely part of a larger trend: thoughts and thought processes which are optimal for being a “nice, fun person” are not the same as thoughts which are optimal for actually ascertaining the truth about our world. Ignorance is bliss.

  4. Darkseid

    i don’t think they should feel too left out considering their interests (cats, video games, nutella, Breaking bad) are quite common. there are large sections of the internet devoted to people exactly like them…

  5. Justin Giancola

    If you’ve never read this blog drunk before, give it a try sometime. It’s woah man that’s so sweet…I love this blog… How is it that I’m now that guy? geez 😀 ! holidayz recognize.

  6. Maciano

    I know a very smart libertarian guy who always surprises me with his lack of empathy and lack of sensitiveness for social and cultural norms.

    He’ll become near angry and/or impatient at you for not knowing all the rationalisations behind libertarian convictions. At first his agitation kind of shocked me, being friendly and all, but later on it became clear to me that his anger/impatience was not aimed at me personally, just towards my *lack* of irrationality for not getting economics right. The anger probably springs from his dislike for disorderly thought, which AS also don’t deal with very well either.

    Thing is, this guy can make brilliant observations which still make his (seemingly) boorish manners worthwhile. Now I just let him correct me whenever he feels I’m “irrational” and then go on with my story. You can use some of these Aspergery suggestions for becoming more coherent yourself.

  7. leviticus

    The point about people with Aspergers not necessarily getting along, simply because they both have Aspergers, is an important one. Autism (whatever that means; a blanket term) and Asperger like tendencies have been diagnosed in my close extended family, so I’ve a genetic predisposition towards these conditions, even though I’ve never been fully diagnosed. But, for a variety of reasons, including the accent-very interesting point, I suspect I fall somewhere on the high-functioning end of the scale.

    To the point, I cause strong negative reactions from other folks with Autistic or Asperger tendencies. This is not a one-sided reaction. I also experience strong, gut-level negative reactions towards those sorts of folks. A constant source of bemusement is that people, whose politics I find abhorrent, are very amiable towards me, initiating the friendship and suffering through my rants, whereas people with whom I have much in common and I are often quasi-enemies. It’s been that way since I was a kid. Being the one Asperger-esque kid in a bunch of outgoing, well-adjusted folks, ain’t always fun, btw. It involves a lot of stressful mimicking.

  8. Linda Seebach

    My son and his wife, both nearly 40, are both fairly recently disagnosed autistics. Perhaps that was why they were drawn to each other as early as middle school. And yesterday was their 17th anniversary.

  9. “Asperger syndrome explore the full parameter space of cultural possibilities, unencumbered by the positive feedback loops of group conformity which is the human norm.”

    Does the ‘human norm’ include us? Are we ‘human’? Is there only one norm? Can you rephrase that as ‘the NT norm’?

  10. Does the ‘human norm’ include us? Are we ‘human’? Is there only one norm? Can you rephrase that as ‘the NT norm’?

    don’t be so sensitive. obviously you’re human, but you people are atypical(i say “you people” with qualification as i share some traits with you). you admit it, and everyone else sees it. that’s not good or bad, but just is. let’s define “normal” as within 2 standard deviations of a given trait. on social intelligence most aspies are definitely in the ~2 percent or so (i’m probably a 10 percenter). the amount of sensitivity that you aspies have exhibited to various terms used to classify you on my part attests your humanity. you certainly aren’t robots.

  11. “There is accumulating evidence that autistic traits (AT) are on a continuum in the general population, with clinical autism representing the extreme end of a quantitative distribution.”

    “This evidence of similar etiology across normal variation and the extremes has implications for molecular genetic models of autism spectrum disorders and for conceptualizing autism spectrum disorders as the quantitative extreme of a neurodevelopmental continuum.”

  12. Also relevant:

    “This latter result suggests that fission-fusion allows primate groups to achieve what is effectively a dynamic ideal free distribution, adjusting group sizes at fine temporal scales to variations in resource abundance.”

    “In eusocial species, the algorithm is readily transferred to the avoidance of a job already being filled by another colony member. It is evident that bees, and also wasps, are spring-loaded, that is, strongly predisposed with a trigger, for a rapid shift to eusociality, once natural selection favours the change.”

    “We demonstrate that the evolution of facial recognition in wasps is associated with specialized face-learning abilities. Polistes fuscatus can differentiate among normal wasp face images more rapidly and accurately than nonface images or manipulated faces. A close relative lacking facial recognition, Polistes metricus, however, lacks specialized face learning. Similar specializations for face learning are found in primates and other mammals, although P. fuscatus represents an independent evolution of specialization. Convergence toward face specialization in distant taxa as well as divergence among closely related taxa with different recognition behavior suggests that specialized cognition is surprisingly labile and may be adaptively shaped by species-specific selective pressures such as face recognition.”

    “Participant scores on the “social skills” domain of the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) were negatively correlated with accuracy on the human discrimination task (r34=−0.37, p=.025) but not the chimpanzee task (r34=−0.01, p=.972). This negative relationship suggests that those with higher levels of autistic-like traits relating to social skills were specifically worse at reading the signs of extraversion in human faces.”

  13. Sorry about the wall of text…

  14. Cliff

    I think the autism/Asperger’s label is thrown around too much. It seems like everybody and their mother is “autistic” these days. Just because someone is weird and/or socially awkward does not make them autistic. Way too many labels as is, especially psychological.

  15. Adrian Ratnapala

    @Linda congratulations to your family. I don’t know any of you, but it’s such a nice story that story hijacked me on my way to making an (almost) completely unrelated point.

    Here’s the unrelated point: I don’t believe that the characteristics you mention here always make it hard to “agree to disagree” – even if they usually do. I want to argue from personal anecdote here, so I will admit to being one of the “not an Aspie but…” crowd (that is, I’m a garden variety geek). I’m also an athiest, libertarian and lover of scientific and mathematics facts. But every one of those traits encourages the idea that we can only know something if we are lucky enough to have evidence – we must be humble about our knowledge.

    So I very often defer to poorly justified judgements of others – I might not see why they are right, but I don’t know that they are wrong. So why not get along.

  16. Marcie

    I’ve noticed for some time that people with Asperger’s are more different from each other than neurotypical people are different from each other.

    What’s kind of “funny” is that the author almost seems to want to imply that most of us are libertarians – and then launches into how we push categories to the limit on all fronts. I’m sure there are many autistic libertarians that are passionate about their political opinions (I’ve met at least one of them), but we occupy the view range of views in politics, just as in everything else.

    On the other hand, there is also an autistic culture, predominantly on-line but which also meets in person, that has been developing it’s own rules for behavior for almost 20 years (


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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