I am writing this in response to a conversation I had on Twitter recently with some other autistics.
The questioned posed by @SensIsStrength, another on the spectrum was this:
“Does anyone know of a good description of what it’s like for neurotypicals to have that mythical NT social instinct? To not use patterns and scripts as autistics supposedly do? Or an example story.”
This is great because I think it is something we all ask ourselves. I think it can be hard for us to understand how to describe the differences in our neurologies. It can sometimes be hard for me to give advice to NT because as someone who has never known being another neurology, I don’t know the differences. For example, I never knew that other people could filter out background noise. Once I did I was able to explain that I cannot. But it is constantly a guessing game of what a neurotypical may be experiencing that I don’t or what I am that they are not. So here is my example story.
Something has opened my eyes recently as to what it is like for people to have a natural social instinct and intuitively pick up on social interaction. That something…or better yet someone is my niece.
My niece just turned one. I got to watch her grow and develop the first year of her life. And that’s when I realized just how different my neurology is.
My first instinct for a child would be to protect her from sensory. I would eliminate ambient noise, not have bright lights, or take her into a public place with new people that could be overwhelming because of all of the activity. But my niece is different. She does not need to be shielded from these things. In fact she gravitates to them.
She does not yet have speech but she is able to pick up on our language both verbal and nonverbal. For example, when we are sitting and having a conversation she will look each person in the eye and start “talking” to them to join in on the conversation. She also starts to laugh when we laugh and even mimics tones. She does all of these things on her own without prompting. I had to learn and be told how to do each and every one of these interactions and am still learning.
She is constantly observing us. I realize now she is able to observe us and pay such close attention to pick up on these cues and learn them because she is not experiencing sensory overload.
How can a child who is experiencing what may be the most insignificant sensory to most people at an uncontrollably magnified level have the energy or the capability to focus in on the nuances of social interaction? They can’t. They are dealing with too many other things to innately learn it.
But a typically developing child needs the sensory stimulation to grow and learn her environment. I see that now. She is not overwhelmed but rather curious and able to learn where she fits. Even at such a young age she is intuitively learning where she fits in each social situation.
I have used this analogy before and I will use it again here.
I think the best way to describe our different developing experiences is to liken it to a car or plane. I am in manual drive. My road is bumpier because when you encounter an unexpected hill it is harder to manually shift the gears to climb it. I am manually learning everything as I go and shifting accordingly, hoping I remember where the turns are. My niece is on automatic drive. Or autopilot. She also encounters hills and bumps in her road but she is able to go through a little more smoothly because the gears are automatically shifting for her.
We of course will both have hard times, but in terms of social intuitiveness the ones on autopilot will not have to manually learn how to interact with others. Because for them, this world is not a sensory onslaught the moment they get here. They have the energy and the ability to focus on these nuances from the beginning.
My niece is just barely one and she has taught me so much about myself and about the way neurotypicals see this world. I can finally understand and see where we diverge instead of guessing and wondering which of my experiences are different. And it gives me such clarity as to why a parent of a child on the spectrum will struggle at first to know their needs. If I were being honest I wouldn’t know a neurotypical child’s sensory needs at first. Because I am seeing for myself just how different our childhoods are and in how we perceive our environment. For other children exposure to sensory and social situations is something they are curious about. For me it was unbearable. But how could anyone know? Neurotypicals don’t need to be shielded, as I needed to be.
Going forward, I know I will be able to write with a better perspective for parents. And to better explain to my fellow autistics where this innate nature may come from. I am so grateful for my niece, and the opportunity she has given me to see what it is like for a child not on the spectrum in the early years. I hope this can be helpful to others on the spectrum in understanding as well.