Are the Neurotypicals Okay?

I got new clothes last night, which means I spent this morning meticulously removing every tag with a seam ripper

I’ve done this for years, but this time I had a new reason to feel ashamed. In It’s Bayes All The Way Up, SlateStarCodex argues that:

The autistic version works differently. The top-down model tries to predict the feeling of the shirt on my skin, but tiny changes in the position of the shirt change the feeling somewhat; bottom-up data does not quite match top-down prediction. In a neurotypical with wide confidence intervals, the brain would shrug off such a tiny difference, declare it good enough for government work, and (correctly) ignore it. In an autistic person, the confidence intervals are very narrow; the top-down systems expect the feeling of shirt-on-skin, but the bottom-up systems report a slightly different feeling of shirt-on-skin. These fail to snap together, the perceptual handshake fails, and the brain flags it as important; the autistic person is startled, upset, and feels like stopping what they’re doing in order to attend to it.

And from the original paper Scott’s referencing:

In other words, in autism there may be a failure to attenuate sensory precision and contextualize sensory information in an optimal fashion. For example, an individual who always expects a high sensory precision would, to some extent, be a slave to their senses, affording sensations disproportionate weight in driving beliefs about their world.

So this morning I felt embarrassed, and a bit sad. No one wants to be “a slave to their senses”. No one wants to be a slave to anything! And yet there I was, engaging in neurotic behavior, contextualizing my sensory information in a suboptimal fashion.

Okay, so I’m not a neuroscientist, and I’m biased in this matter, but I have a lot of doubts about this model.

As far as I’m concerned, tags on clothing really are uncomfortable. It’s a failure of society that we continue to put itchy tags on clothes that have to be painstakingly removed.

You might object that the vast majority of people are fine with the tags, so consensus reality dictates that they’re not itchy. In this view, it’s unreasonable for me to shift the burden onto society.

That’s a fair point, except that neurotypical fashion is consistently horrible. Women’s pants have tiny pockets, if they have pockets at all. Not to even mention skirts, dresses and yoga pants. High heels not only hurt in the moment, but actually cause long term damage. Contact lenses are associated with corneal ulcers (2), not a particularly high rate, but enough that one might ask why we don’t just wear glasses which are both easier and safer.

And all of that’s just the harm actively done, not even considering what we might be missing out on. Why do we have to wear restrictive dress shoes instead of comfortable sneakers? Why can’t we use velcro or slip ons, instead of unnecessarily burdensome laces?

In fact, it seems like neurotypical fashion is deliberately designed to be uncomfortable. Here’s my theoretical model: Fashion is primarily about signaling that you’re willing to undergo great personal discomfort to conform to societal expectations. As a result, convenience and utility are highly anti-correlated with what’s fashionable.

We can confirm this by looking at the extremes. It’s no secret that high fashion is absurd, so what about the other end of the spectrum? If I ask you to think about the single least fashionable piece of clothing, what jumps to mind?

If you’re a journalist at Buzzfeed or Business Insider or Yahoo, the answer is unequivocally cargo shorts. It’s not a coincidence that cargo shorts are also the article of clothing with singularly high utility. They are a miracle of convenience with 6 giant pockets, and no restrictions on mobility. And so of course, society has chosen to demonize them.

But go on Karl Firston, tell me more about autists are the ones failing to “contextualize sensory information in an optimal fashion”. The jokes on you: we have the most optimal fashion.

To be clear, I don’t actually think Karl Fristion or Scott Alexander are at all bigoted. Scott is also a tag cutter, and Karl’s closest thing to an autobiography is titled Am I austistic? [1]

But getting back to fashion, can’t we fault society and still coherently claim that there’s something wrong with autistic people?

Imagine a small minority of women, let’s call them Hautists, who hate wearing high heels. Their feet feel cramped, their calves get sore, they trip and stumble. In this scenario, we could acknowledge that heels are at fault, but still diagnose the Hautists with a particular medical condition.

I think this is a fair point, but we also have to consider long term utility:

  • “Normal” people can tolerate high heels, so they continue wearing them despite the mild pain, and experience discomfort for the rest of their life.
  • Hautists identify high heels as unbearably painful, stop wearing them entirely, and are free from discomfort forever.

I’m particularly sensitive to tags, and it’s an annoying problem to have. But with a small upfront investment, I can cut the tags, and obviate the problem forever. A neurotypical feels the tag, is slightly uncomfortable, contextualizes the sensory information, and goes on to be slightly uncomfortable for the rest of their life, but not so much that they’ll ever actually take steps to resolve it.

If an environment is over-stimulating or loud or distracting in some other way, an autistic person can leave. Neurotypicals might be more likely to “tough it out” and endure the hardship, even when there’s no good reason to.

You might further object that there’s no reasonable model of behavior where this actually happens. In this view, each scenario is a cost/benefit tradeoff, and if a person decides to remain in their environment, it’s the result of a rational choice based on personal preferences. Neurotypicals leave their tags on, autists cut them off. All things considered, it’s still better if you can just ignore a situation that doesn’t deeply affect you.

But again, I have my doubts.

There are countless examples of people failing to alter their environment, even when it would benefit them. The easiest proximate cause to point to is temporal discounting. [2]

The point is, people are lousy at making investments in the future, even when it’s likely to pay off. You procrastinate now even though it makes you busier later. You drink now even though you’ll be hungover later. You avoid the gym now, even though you want to look and feel good in the future.

And similarly, maybe you don’t cut the tags off your clothes because it requires upfront investment, you don’t have a seam ripper handy, and the tag is only mildly uncomfortable.

Temporal discount is just one of many reasons people fail to take actions to improve their situation. Others include lack of self-awareness (you understand that you’re feeling irritated, but fail to identify the root cause) and learned helplessness (you understand all too well that some clothes aren’t designed to be comfortable, but just accept that you’ll have to wear them anyway).

To be clear, I don’t mean to glorify autism. Tags are easy to remove, but other situations might not be as amenable to alteration. I’m blessed with control over my physical space, the ability to afford a nice chair, noise canceling headphones and so on. In other words, I have a privileged existence. (Also, obligatory reminder that “autism severity” is probably not a useful concept.)

But I do think autists are maybe less likely to make the kind of mistake I’m describing. The mistake where you’re miserable, in a job you hate, wearing clothes that make you uncomfortable, scrunching your feet into small shoes, stuck in a distracting environment, and yet somehow, manage to convince yourself that everything is fine.

That’s neurotypical behavior, and maybe it’s an optimal contextualization of sensory information for some purposes, but it also just sucks. It’s a failure of self-awareness and self-efficacy. In this model, neurotypicality is better understood as a generalized inability to understand how your environment is impacting you, and then take actions to improve it.

See Also:
Friston et al., An aberrant precision account of autism
Friston, Am I autistic? An intellectual autobiography
SSC, It’s Bayes All The Way Up
Michelle Dawson on Autism and Atypicality
Unfeeling Malice, Review of Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

[1]  The answer ends up being no, but not before he opens with:

In looking back at my life, I can see some distinctly autistic traits in my childhood—and indeed current ways of engaging with the world. For example, I religiously avoid mobile phones and do not Skype. In fact, I find any disruption to my weekly routine rather nerve wracking. Unhappily, this means travelling to international conferences can be unsettling—where I spend most of the time avoiding other human beings; especially in the morning.

[2] I’m not going to throw the dozens of behavioral econ papers at you, if you’re really curious, you can just read the Wikipedia article on hyperbolic discounting and then skim its citations.