Most of us most of the time think we see things the way we do because that’s what’s there. I see an apple, for instance, because it’s an apple sitting there on my table. And most of us most of the time are confirmed in this view because people around us also see an apple just like we do.
But in truth, the way each of us perceives the world varies far more than we think. Although by and large we all tend to have the same five senses, some of us don’t, and in any case, those senses don’t work in the same way for everybody. Some people can’t tell the difference between the colors green and blue, some people can hear sounds, or taste things that others can’t. When we move into the brain and how we interpret our experiences, those differences among us are hugely magnified.
One of those differences that most fascinates me is the Autism Spectrum. The Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has been studying this spectrum in thousands of people, and has concluded that the population is distributed along a normal curve. This spectrum is not an indicator of either mental health or of intelligence, but it has a great deal to do with how we perceive and relate to our world. Some autistic people at one extreme find it almost impossible to communicate or interpret interpersonal communications from others, while others at the other social perceptiveness extreme are exceptional in their abilities to tune into the needs, feelings, and responses of others. Men tend toward the autistic side of the curve, while women tend toward the social perceptiveness side.
People scoring on the autistic side of the normal curve may be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Again, it is important to stress that this is not a diagnosis of psychopathology. In fact, it often helps avoid it, because it helps the individual understand why he is different from so many people around him.
I’ve long suspected a strong degree of Asperger’s Syndrome in my family. Some of us may be bright, but at the same time say and do some of the most insensitive things to and about each other without the slightest intention of causing pain. I’ve felt quite insightful sometimes when I have understood this after some particularly cutting remark from a close relative.
What I’ve worried about is that I too may be firmly on the left of the Autism Spectrum. I share a lot of the characteristics that often show up on that side of the normal curve – I’m fairly good at mathematics, I am highly organized, even sometimes rigidly so, I cannot bear to make small talk with people I barely know. Am I also someone who completely misses interpersonal signals that are obvious to the average person?
Last week I answered the Autism Spectrum Quotient questionnaire used for research studying differences among people at different points on the normal distribution. Typical questions ask if you’d rather do things alone or with others, if you like to do things the same way all the time or prefer changes in routine, like social chitchat, numbers, reading fiction, would rather go to a museum or a theatre, usually understand the point of a joke, enjoy meeting new people.
The average woman scores about 15, the average man about 17, 23-32 is above average, someone with Asperger’s averages about 35.
I scored 22. Still in what would be considered mid-range, but I guess I’m not an earth-mother. If you’re interested, you can get your own Autism Spectrum Quotient. It is NOT sufficient as a diagnostic tool, but it’s an interesting tool — if you’re interested in that kind of thing.