What people think they know.


Ann and Marcos both work in the same office building, but not in the same office. Ann sees her co-worker, Joan, on a daily basis. Joan says hello to Ann in the morning, sits at her desk, does her job, speaks politely to people throughout the day when needed, and seems just like every other worker in the building.

When Marcos goes on his lunch break, he walks through a park, where he sees a woman every day. She is often crouched on the ground and lining up sticks in particular patterns. Sometimes she lies on her back and flicks objects in front of her eyes. He sees the same woman while he is walking home sometimes. Her hands are moving a mile a minute in unusual patterns while she repeats the same words over and over. He has tried to say hello to her, but she doesn’t respond.

Ann does not see Joan’s legs moving around constantly under the desk, or her right hand constantly gripping or twiddling something, also under the desk. She does not see that when Joan goes into the bathroom, she’s not actually using the toilet, but practically collapsing in exhaustion before going through a frantic series of movements and activities that she’s been suppressing all day, all carefully timed so that she doesn’t appear to be spending too much time in there. She does not see that much of the time when Joan doesn’t talk, it’s not because she is just busy working, but because she actually can’t talk any more than the demands of the day already put on her. She actually has a very limited ability to speak and uses it for the very few verbal exchanges required in her job, which she performs flawlessly, but which she could not perform many more of before speech would break down entirely. She does not see where Joan goes on her lunch hours, and she does not see what Joan looks like as she is walking home, because she lives in a different part of town than Joan and drives rather than walks.

Marcos does not see Joan at work. He does not see that she competently performs the duties of a secretary all day when she is not at lunch or walking home. He does not see her recognizing the existence of other people, nor does he see her speaking in an intelligible or communicative way. He does not see her sitting quietly at a desk doing her job.

But if Ann and Marcos are like most people, they think they know pretty much all there is to know about Joan’s life.

Ann thinks that Joan is a standard-issue, non-disabled person, maybe a little nervous or quiet but not overly so, and assumes that she is capable of a number of things throughout the day that Ann never actually sees her doing, but just imagines over the top of Joan.

Marcos thinks that Joan is “crazy”, “retarded”, or “autistic”. He assumes that she probably doesn’t have a job, he might not even think she has a home at all, and if she does, he imagines that she probably lives in a group home.

Ann is stunned to find out that Joan is autistic and does not believe her. She says that Joan is clearly capable of all sorts of things she’s never actually seen Joan do (but is utterly sure that since Joan does a certain limited number of other things throughout the day, then Joan can do them all day long and do a number of other things besides) and that Joan is probably one of those trendy self-diagnosers out there. Marcos is stunned to find out that Joan has a job requiring a fair bit of intellectual work and can carry on a coherent conversation. If Ann and Marcos had a conversation together, and both mentioned Joan, it is unlikely that they would realize they were talking about the same person.

Yet that is what I see happening all the time. People see a very tiny amount of a person’s life and assume they know the rest.

This is why I agree with Cal Montgomery in an article she wrote, A Hard Look At Invisible Disability. Some people take that article as being about “the position of invisibly disabled people in the disability rights movement” (I know because I’ve seen it written about that way). That’s not what it’s about.

It’s about the idea that “invisible” disability is a misnomer. It makes it sound like there’s something intrinsic to the person that makes their particular body type impossible to perceive. In reality, the people not seeing that someone is disabled are not seeing it in part because they expect people to be non-disabled until shown otherwise. The “invisibility” is not intrinsic to any sort of “disability” (either social-model or individual-model), it’s dependent on context and on the assumptions of the person perceiving it. To call it “invisible disability” is to make the invisibility about the disabled person, rather than about the people who are interacting with the disabled person and the assumptions they bring that makes that person look disabled or non-disabled to them. The assumptions create visibility and invisibility, the actual body of the disabled person doesn’t.

To give an example of the opposite assumption, by the way, you only have to look at how I perceived people after I had been in institutions and special ed for awhile. I would walk down the street, and see all kinds of people. I would expect every single one of them to be disabled. I would expect each one to start behaving unusually or shrieking or rocking or something. I was more surprised (and alarmed) when they didn’t than when they did. Around me, nobody could have been considered “invisibly disabled” because I assumed everyone was disabled until proven otherwise.

And now — today — when there is something that I don’t know about someone, I mostly leave it as a blank space. If I see someone at work, I don’t assume that I know what they are like on their breaks or at home or even when they go to the bathroom. I don’t assume that I know their level of fatigue, overload, pain, or emotional distress. I don’t assume that just because they can talk to me in one situation means that they can talk — to me or anyone else — in another situation or for another reason, or that just because I don’t see them talking at some point, that somehow that means they could never talk in any circumstance.

What I don’t get is why it’s so necessary to fill in those blanks. What’s so awful about blank space? What drives people to shock that someone of a certain appearance can do something totally unrelated to that appearance, or to disbelief that someone who “appears normal” to them in a highly limited set of contexts is actually disabled (and possibly unable to “appear normal” in any other context or with any additional demands placed on them)? Why do people smugly insist that they know so much about other people, based on incredibly limited evidence?

Edited to add, years later: For another blogger’s take on the same phenomenon, read That Which Goes Unseen by Dora Raymaker.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

40 responses »

  1. People want to fit other people into little slots. The people who are fitting people into these slots feel more comfortable doing that than acknowledging that there are many aspects of a person’s being. It is easier and less stressful for them to assume they know it all, then to have to think about differences and how people cope with life. By refusing to consider that there are many kinds of cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual parts all mixed in differently in each person, they over-simplify; and and do not have to “deal” with the reality of the world. After reading your post,
    Amanda, I was reminded of when I was teaching kindergarten–the little children could not imagine me having a whole other life outside of their sphere–one where I was not playing with play-doh, being covered with paint and leading music circle. If they did chance to meet me outside the classroom, they never reacted to me the same way. It was as if they thought I was an entirely different person. You cannot assume you know someone because you see them daily in a set environment.
    I felt really exhausted reading how “Joan” had to work so hard to get through her workday. I felt relieved when she could go to the park and be free.

  2. These sound like examples of profiling, which happens to anyone who stands out from the majority. It seems to be a basic (and obsolete) human mechanism that allows us to make rapid decisions on danger or opportunity (e.g. “avoid that guy, he looks suspicious and might attack us” or “let’s ambush that one, he looks weak”). I think of it as a form of superstition that we ought to ignore in this age of supposedly enlightened society, but it persists because of various reinforcements. For example, politicians continue to foist a fear of terrorism on americans, even though the danger of being killed by a terrorist act is several orders of magnitude less than dying from lung cancer or in a car accident. Many people also form mental profiles based on what they see on television or in movies. The movie “Rainman” established the view of autistic people for millions of americans, even though it might be unrealistic or may not represent the breadth of the autistic spectrum or the autistic person’s experience. So whether it is due to fear or lazy thinking, these profiles form and persist for a long time, but they can and should be challenged. I see this blog as being part of a growing challenge to misconceptions and profiling against neuro-atypical people. Every time I return I learn something new, and I have been encouraging my friends to read some of your posts. My question is, will this information reach the right people? Will it impact them to make the changes necessary to improve lives and remove barriers?

  3. People make assumptions about other people in almost all aspects. Having grown up in one country and settling down in another, I experienced this “shock” in the form of “culture shock” in so many different ways; that many generalizations that I held about people in general didn’t apply to a population in a different country.

    I think that making assumptions that other people is an optimization mechanism — it streamlines the process of functioning with them, communicating with them, relating to them.

    I think the problem arises when people are not aware that their assumptions are merely generalizations of their own observation, and not rules to be applied universally. If they have never experienced anything that falls outside of the “general case”, the “exceptional case” is inconceivable to them… When people like that think that they already know all they need to know about the world, it’s incredibly frustrating.

  4. Once again, you have put language to a situation we’re dealing with. Invisibile traits give credence to the belief that it’s okay to ignore difference. When people see my son, they don’t see disability. When I explain his special needs, they are met with disbelief. It’s not even just context that makes his traits invisible. Two different experienced professionals can look at him at the same time and have different impressions of him.
    I think a lot of people focus on what they consider “broken” or “ugly” to determine who is disabled.
    When people have “invisible” traits or disability, their rights can become special rights. Perhaps, an apt analogy could be Queer Rights as Special Rights. When you want to be treated equally, you are told that you are asking for too much, special rights. You want to be treated better than others. I know we have heard as much in meetings at the schools.

  5. What I take from what you write here is about assumptions. People make assumptions about each other. Here, Marc and Ann made assumptions about Joan.
    I know that I make assumptions about people too. Like, when I drive though a nicer neighborhood than where I live – I assume the people are all fantastically more wealthy than I, have all the money they need, wear nice clothes, have clean houses (because they can have a housekeeper) etc, etc, etc. But when I stop and think about the people for real I realize that I don’t really know anything about them. Maybe both people have to work. Maybe they are in debt up to their eyeballs and about to loose their home. Or maybe they have a lot of money, but they don’t know how to talk to each other and their marriage is in shambles. Or maybe one has cancer… I tend to assume that others don’t have the problems I have.

    It’s very hard NOT to make assumptions about people. When I meet a woman and girl in the grocery store who look like mother and dd, then I assume they are until I learn otherwise. I think that’s pretty common.

    I guess it is just a good reminder to me that people aren’t all the same and what I see isn’t always the way it is. I think doing so (letting go of assumptions) lessens the barriers between people – makes us realize that we have more in common than we realize…

  6. Don’t know the answer to this, but want to write in my blog a fictionalization of something that happened w my students, and this might help me know how to tell it. PS good mental images in this example story, i mean it’s well-told.

  7. I am verbal, albeit with some difficulties and the thing with being verbal to some degree is people presume that if you can talk about something, that means you can do it. Of course, the opposite often applies in that if you CAN’T talk about something, people presume you can’t do it either. I posted on another site some ways in which the uneven nature of my skills and difficulties is revealed:
    “I rarely initiate anything, I obsess over things, I get caught up in stimming, I do the same things over and over. I am messy and disorganised. I can drop a cup and rather than jumping my body will shut off so I can’t respond. I frequently zone out. I cannot organise myself, can’t eat properly, can’t cope with multiple directions beyond a two or three step if given verbally. I have taken iq tests online (yeah, I know, not a good thing to do ) where I have scored officially retarded (though I detest that phrase) in the non verbal section. I don’t understand about peer pressure or the need to fit in. There are times when I’ll selfinjure, though never seriously thank goodness. I get overwhelmed in crowded or unfamiliar places to the point where I can’t think rationally. Last Saturday I needed to go into town and came back fuming, ready to kill someone I was so stressed. Lee asked me why I didn’t go down the quiet streets and I had to tell him that, at the time, my mind makes it impossible for me to think of doing something sensible. All I can concentrate on are my feelings and the overload happening.”

    “People look at my life and think I’ve coped, whereas the truth is I’ve had one very understanding relationship for 13 years. People say that it’s just about social interaction and anxiety, I can tell you now it’s a hell of a lot more pervasive than that.
    So I’ll try and explain a few things. First things first, self help skills. I can look after the lads no problems and one of the reasons I can look after the lads is that one of my perseverations is on childcare and raising children. I don’t buy any books, I do look into a lot on the internet and ask health visitors. So because I’d read so much about the subject matter and because it was vitally important for me to understand and know what to do I swiftly became an armchair expert. Ironically (because it’s often more likely to deteriorate if you have children) my own self help skills have improved slightly as a result of having to show things to the lads.
    However, they still need a lot of work. It’s not that I’m lazy, I just cannot plan and organise or even often just realise what I need to do. I haven’t bought sanitary towels or tampons for 12 years as I keep forgetting, don’t realise, periods freak me out slightly so I sort of block them out until they arrive. I will go out knowing there’s food stains on my clothes and not thinking to change, even though afterwards I’ll have realised I should have done. I don’t think I’ve ever had a day since I left home in which I’ve managed to do clean clothes, brushed teeth, brushed hair, washed face. One or two at a time, never all. Until I got pregnant with Tom I rarely had three meals a day. Most times it was me just picking and I could go hours and have to be reminded by my husband to eat. I don’t eat much now but have something with the lads. If I go to the shops without a firm idea of what I want I can get overloaded and sort of switch off and end up having to make several trips over the course of the day as I remember what I need. I’ve taken to writing a list which helps, but if the shops change where things are I switch off again.
    It’s actually safer for me to take the lads out than for me to go out alone as when I’m with the lads I’m talking to them and pointing things out to them and remain focused. When I’m on my own I tend to drift off and either get caught up with looking at number plates or counting numbers in my head or daydreaming. When I daydream I can see or hear nothing in the real world and I’ve been known to walk across roads without any memory of doing so and not being at all aware of my surroundings (conversely I can get so caught up staring at a squiggle on the ground I am only aware of that). I think there must be something up there looking over me as it’s a miracle I’ve not been knocked down yet.”

  8. When people see my son, they don’t see disability. When I explain his special needs, they are met with disbelief. It’s not even just context that makes his traits invisible. Two different experienced professionals can look at him at the same time and have different impressions of him.

    What I’m saying, is that it’s not the traits that are invisible. It’s the people’s assumptions and the context that cause them to assume automatically that those traits are not there, instead of assuming that they can’t know whether those traits are there or not. The traits, themselves, are not invisible, and calling the traits invisible takes the responsibility away from other people’s assumptions. When it’s the assumptions (and the context) that are the problem.

  9. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. But I was agreeing with you. “Invisible” is just the common word we use to explain a trait that the other person can’t see on their own. Or when they see/experience it, they don’t understand it to the point that they deny it’s there. I can tell a person what my son will do in a future circumstance and when it happens, they deny it happened or are surprised it happened.
    I’ve never believed those traits to be invisible, indeed, before my son was referred to a neurologist, I assumed he was the norm. But you bring a valid point to challenge NT language. I haven’t because I’m told to be more diplomatic (I’m considered too blunt).

  10. I don’t know what all of my own biases are, but I know that a lot of them are visual. I would highly recommend [for anyone with bad eyesight] that we spend some time without them, don’t wear the glasses or contacts for a while. The experience can be very refreshing. [not recommended for people in vehicles, only pedestrians!]
    Many thanks for the insight.

  11. I have handflapped and lightly chewed my fingers in front of people and because they’ve not noticed they haven’t thought I was different to them. I’ve been so stressed in a pub I’ve come close to hitting a strange man (who ironically did notice I didn’t look too comfortable there, pubs are fine if quiet and I know them well and I’m with people I know well, this one wasn’t) and people I was with just thought I was a bit quiet.
    I have a good example online of how people can make assumptions based on one scenario. If you go to posautive and do a video search for “Numa Tommy” you’ll see my little lad there. Now, when I posted it to another site a few people said how good he was at imitating. What they didn’t know was the context behind it. That the video was the result of him watching the music video he’s dancing to for weeks, sitting on his dad’s lap whilst his dad guided his hands gently through the dance actions. That he can’t distinguish between what moves are part of the dance and which moves are just the man he’s watching scratching, so he copies everything. And that the closest he can ask to watch the video is to place our hands on the computer and for us to hope that’s what he wants to watch.

  12. Other example of invisible disability determined by assumptions allowed by situation: physically disabled person, say, wheelchair user, who has a job where they talk on the phone to colleagues in other cities. The other colleagues might be shocked to know that they had been speaking to a “p.w.d.” when they met their colleague at a regional meeting. This is becos they imagined an ablebodied colleague behind the capable voice. No reason for that assumption to be true though except statistics, maybe.

  13. Amanda, I am just fascinated with what you say in your blogs. THANK YOU. Thank you for reminding me (and others) about what we may never know if you didn’t say it….

    I have a friend who is brilliant and talented and he [himself] has wondered if he was autistic. I never understood what he meant, since I’ve always known him as articulate; however, he says there are many days were he won’t speak. He also gets very focused into himself and forgets about all others… Some days I even sensed his overwhelm, similar to what you have also mentioned. He also has talked about that ‘blank space’. Now I understand what it means to ‘not fill it’. I don’t want to label him autistic or label him anything. I’d like to do what you do and just let him be…

    Thanks again for your continued service to us, learning about others from your viewpoint. You really are gifted in your insight and your communication.

  14. That really hit home for me. I’ve been in Joan’s shoes, often. I’m a little better at talking, but I still have people tell me that I can’t possibly be autistic because I’m too functional or I don’t look or sound autistic. It can be frustrating, as we are all different and you really can’t be sure just from seeing a small part of who we are or what we do.

    But then I’m sure it was surprise many that I tend to listen to the same CD over and over, or that I’m almost always in motion in someway and most do not notice that I don’t look them in the eye either (it’s nice how many people can’t tell the difference between eye contact and looking at their mouth.) All they see is me doing my job, and don’t realize that I have an answering machine at home so I can avoid answering the phone most of the time because it’s very stressful to talk on the phone (talking on the phone is part of my job.) I sometimes wish people would be more understanding when I have to ask them to repeat what they just said to me, they always assume that I wasn’t listening, when in fact I sometimes can’t process it because there’s too much going on around me. Even when I tell them why I need them to repeat it, I get the “yeah right” response.

  15. This applies to all situations, not just autism. For example, John Wayne Gacy was assumed to be a nice clown and not a killer by many people. Your landlord could be a killer. You don’t know. I think it is an autistic trait that we don’t jump to conclusions beyond what we see, and never think about things we have insufficient evidence about. It is difficult for me to express what I mean in a way as clear and intelligent as what you’ve done above, but I hope you see my point. Like when people were surprised that this girl I knew had an egg laid in her toe by an insect. I had never thought about whether it had happened or not, and either possibility seemed equally likely. Maybe this is what they mean by low affect, our lack of surprise by things based on assumptions. I liked the story about the doctors and the animals a lot. I have to go, I have used up my allotted 3 hours on the internet at the library.

  16. Autistic people can and do make assumptions, but I think a lot of us make less of the standard ones, at the very least.

    And yes — I’m always quite aware that the people around me could well be killers or other bad things. Not that it keeps me up at night, I’m just aware of it. Although part of that is having experienced abuse and worse towards me from people who were very well-respected and “normal” by others’ standards. I think that in itself can give a person a different perspective on that particular issue.

    I also know that anyone I’m looking at could be disabled in some way. Or could not be. Or any of a number of other things.

  17. I was just thinking about how this relates to gender. I am female, though in certain situations (such as walking home alone late at night) I find it more advantageous to be percieved as male for safety reasons. If I present in a way that looks like a “standard” male of that area, I can pass more easily as a man. People will glance at me quickly, form an initial impression, and then fill in the rest of the blanks based on previous initial impressions. I always felt that if I resembled the sort of male that stuck out more (for example, if I had tons of visible piercings and tattoos in an area where this wasn’t common), I wouldn’t pass as male as easily.

  18. Thankyou.

    This makes me think of people who’ve said, “But he doesn’t LOOK autistic” about my son… or people who’ve said that I don’t have social issues. Knowing me in one context, it’s easy to say that I pass as “normal.” But it’s a very limited way of seeing me- and other people.

    If I see someone at work, I don’t assume that I know what they are like on their breaks or at home or even when they go to the bathroom. I don’t assume that I know their level of fatigue, overload, pain, or emotional distress. I don’t assume that just because they can talk to me in one situation means that they can talk — to me or anyone else — in another situation or for another reason, or that just because I don’t see them talking at some point, that somehow that means they could never talk in any circumstance.

    I applaud you on having insight into people that so many DON’T have. Seriously- I wish more people looked at the world the way you do.

  19. Some Assumptions Are OK!

    I agree with you that people should be more careful with their assumptions, as well as what they are willing to insist they know about other people. But I disagree with you on some of your other points.

    I think the blank spaces are actually awful, if you accumulate enough of them. And I think people have good reasons to be shocked when ‘someone of a certain appearance can do something totally unrelated to that appearance’.

    The reason is that the human brain largely works on simple rules generated by probabilities. These rules (or heuristics) allow us to make judgements quickly and easily, and those judgements are close enough to the truth most of the time that they work very well for us.

    Does it really make sense to ask people to stop using simple heuristics that work well for them the majority of the time?

    I have come to accept that being improbable means that I will surprise people, and that they will make incorrect assumptions about me. When this happens, I should be forgiving – because those assumptions are usually the result of positive heuristics that work well for that person in most situations. Then, I can try to let people know more about me, so that they will make better guesses about me in the future.

    I’ve also accepted that to function well socially, I need to use similar heuristics and that sometimes I will make incorrect assumptions about someone else. I hope they will also be forgiving, and let me know about my mistake, so that I can learn to treat them better in the future.

    Am I correct in thinking that being autistic means that many of these socially useful heurisics are difficult or impossible to learn and use? It’s my understanding that this is both a strength and weakness of autism, as an autistic person is less prone to negative heuristic based biases (a strength), but less able to use positive heuristics to save on information processing – so that certain types of judgements take longer to make, and that the autistic person is more prone to becomming ‘overloaded’ (a weakness).

    I am wondering, when you do this “I also know that anyone I’m looking at could be disabled in some way. Or could not be. Or any of a number of other things.” do you attach probabilities to those possibilities?

    I know that I am also aware of the possibility, but I also make guesses about the probability, largely by using my heuristics.

  20. Heuristics in general — not just social ones — are things autistic people seem to do less of, or be able to turn off more readily. And yes, it is both a strength and a weakness, on both sides of having it.

    I do attach probabilities to various possibilities, yes. But I mostly leave it blank because to fill it in with an exact probability would be too much thinking, unless it was immediately necessary to do that.

    Most of the world is blank space to me and I don’t consider it awful, I consider it kind of nice to know I don’t know everything and there’s always more to know.

  21. Right.

    What I’m wanting is for you to acknowledge that for non-autistics, using simple social heuristics (that don’t involve exact probabilities but unconciously calculated guesses) save them a lot of time and thinking so that they are better able to function.

    It means that non-autistics are more prone to certain types of mistakes, like making incorrect assumptions and negative heuristic biases (a weakness), but that in general their heuristics do important and useful work for them (a strength).

    So it’s not actually a bad thing when people are surprised by unusual people. It’s also not a bad thing for people to make incorrect assumptions from time to time.

    What is a bad thing is when people aren’t willing to learn and accommodate other people’s differences even after they’ve become aware of them. Does that make sense? Do you agree?

  22. Just to be clear:

    It’s not necessary to leave everything “blank” in order to understand that one doesn’t know everything and that there’s always more to know. This is something I understand as well, and also appreciate, even though I am not autistic.

    But I am not autistic, and like most people, I can easily form probability estimates that aren’t accurate, but are useful. Because I can insert those probabilities into “the blanks” I am able to function at a much higher level than if I did not.

  23. Re: social heuristics and forgiveness, I tend to have the hardest time, after people have made assumptions about me based on what they have deduced all by themselves, with getting them to take it back. I.e., if they have deduced that I am overanxious, angry, preoccupied, pouty, mean-spirited or otherwise socially “off” (my face is perceived as “deadpan”, my eyes “intense”, and my movements . . . uhh . . . *abrupt*), my efforts to explain that I’m really quite benevolent — and that it was *their* presumption that caused them to believe otherwise — only succeed in reinforcing their presumptions. If I tell somebody, for example, “Listen, I think it was wrong of you to presume that our discussion about X had something to do with you personally, or that I was being *mean* when I told you (whatever thing I said that I considered very matter-of-fact)”, and I’m making the same face I usually do when I explain something — or usually do, period — they think I’m being “mean” when I say *that*.

    Make sense? My brother does this thing, humorously — he says “Why you trippin’?”, repeatedly, when someone’s said something fairly normal, and from then on out everything that person says in the course of that conversation (“But I’m *not* tripping!”) serves to reinforce that they, in fact, *are* tripping. ; )

    More seriously, someone can make presumptions about a person based on some categorization, and then deduce that every aspect of that person’s behavior serves as “proof” or manifestation of that category. Like, “See, she’s doing X. That is sooo typical of Y. Classic Y behavior.” Or, worse, “Hmmm, she’s doing X. That must be a symptom of Y that I never noticed before. Good thing I saw her do it; now I know that all people with Y do X.”

  24. It also occurs to me that my use of emoticons is ironic when I’m writing about my face being “deadpan”. Hmm. I suspect a lot of people in this forum use smiley-faces and the like to accompany stuff they wouldn’t actually smile in accompaniment of if they were saying it in person.

    Hmmm . . . since emoticons are meant to represent the “appropriate” neurotypical facial expression that accompanies the sentiment being expressed, are emoticons, then, tools of The Great Hypocrisy? (non-facial emoticon, representing gentle teasing and mild sarcasm, but not *too* mild)

  25. Rachael,
    Responding to the comments you have made, I must say I completely disagree with you. You have stated that heuristics make it easier for you and other neurotypicals to function, but nowhere here, or anywhere else, have I ever discerned how. I am honestly asking, aside from not using critical thinking skills as often, how this is beneficial? What I see it doing is not just occasionally making mistakes about autistic people, but also causing basically every error in anything. As I stated above, Amanda’s observation applies to EVERYTHING. Using my above example, and applying your logic, you would have assumed John Wayne Gacy is a nice clown and not a killer. I never assume that about any clown. I usually do not consider whether he is or not, and simply deal with the data as they are laid out in front of me. This is extremely beneficial not just to me, but to all people whom I encounter, as it means I never
    1) Discount the abilities of anyone else
    2) Treat others at a level beneath them
    3) Make any other errors in judgment which, collectively, cause most problems on earth today.
    I also disagree that autistics cannot form these heuristics. I think some of us see the ridiculousness of them and choose not to. All I have seen from you is that thinking in heuristics makes your life easier. Of course it does. This does not make it any sort of improvement. I understand that if we did not use them at all, we would be paralyzed by indecision, but I think they are definitely not necessary with people. If I have missed anything, please write back.

  26. I don’t think the issue is so much whether people have “blank spaces” or “assume too much”. I think its basically what motives the person has for categorizing in the first place. Is I see person X doing something that all Y’s do that I hadnt realized before -does that mean that I will from then on eliminate them from my life ? Or does it mean that I will say ” Ohh so THAT’s why X’s do Y’s -now I know better how to talk/relate to them. I have a feeling its the former. That people want to categorize so they have an excuse to say ” that X person is acting like a Y and I have nothing to do with Y’s. So I feel betrayed because X KNOWS I have nothing to do with Y’s and she/he should have told me that so I could have eliminated any chances of having a friendship. Now I have to break off a perfectly good friendship because s/he is too much like THEM.”
    People who rely on “social heuristics ” generally do so when they attempt to create their own perfect world and dont want anyone imperfect messing it up.

  27. I think everyone uses heuristics to some extent, at least in the literal sense. For instance, if I look at a chair and don’t see any visibly obvious signs of disrepair, I will generally make the assumption that if I sit in this chair, it will not break.

    However, I do think that autistic people (and I realize this in itself might be an heuristic!) tend to use and develop heuristics differently than nonautistic people do. In my case, I maintain (and am perfectly fine with) lots of “blank spaces”; I cannot put something into one of those spaces just because I don’t feel satisfied with the overall picture of what I’m seeing; either I have enough information to make a judgement, or I don’t.

    And even when I do make some kind of judgement, I realize full well that all I’m doing is making a best-fit estimate based on the available data. I also don’t tend to adopt heuristics that are transmitted via social information — I can hear about them and take in the words, but they don’t mesh with how I interpret data on a visceral level. I have gotten into arguments with people over refusals on my part to accept certain stereotypes, and the reactions that tend to come from the other parties in those arguments seem oddly angry and fearful, even if all I’ve done is provided a counter-example to the stereotype. That has never made a lot of sense to me.

    I’m not sure if this analogy will make sense to anyone else, but in signal processing, there’s a phenomenon called aliasing. Aliasing occurs when, in attempting to digitize a signal, you take data points at too large an interval from one another. What happens as a result is that you can get a pattern that looks like a legitimate pattern given the data you have, but one that misses the fine structure in the signal. Aliasing can be useful in some cases — in a similar sense to how more superficial heuristics can perhaps increase efficiency in some contexts — but it can also cause underlying patterns to go undetected. And sometimes there’s a whole lot in those underlying patterns, a whole lot that most people never even know exists.

  28. I think heuristics are kind of a mixed bag. There are times when it improves overall efficiency to rely on heuristics.

    There ARE evolutionary reasons why neurotipicals developed heuristics in the first place. In particular, I suspect they probably serve a function in learning: much of learning is generalizing from concepts or skills learned in one context to concepts or skills that we will need in another context (that cannot be as easily rehearsed before hand). Heuristics let us make important connections between old concepts and new ones more quickly, by allowing us to build on a mix of known facts and extrapolations, generalizations, and assumptions. This might (Disclaimer: pure speculation on my part) be an important part of why neurotypical children get a sharp learning curve in their first few years of life but autistic children appear to learn more slowly. (From what autistic adults say on line, I gather they aren’t necessarily learning more slowly per se, it’s just that they aren’t making the leaps and generalizations that neurotypical adults assume they “ought” to be making, or they don’t show it in recognized ways, or they don’t learn the same things adults assume they should be learning. Plus, it doesn’t help that many autistic children are forced to spend more of their energy “passing” for “normal” than on actual learning that they can use.) (Disclaimer: there’s still a lot I’m learning about autism. And what I *think* I’m learning is vulnerable to the all the same heuristic traps discussed in this thread, and so could be wrong.)

    If our extrapolations/generalizations/assumptions are mostly correct (even if slightly flawed in certain respects) then the new knowledge, skills etc that we acquire will also be mostly correct (even if slightly flawed). And if mostly correct, then most of the time it will serve us pretty well. Which is probably why non-autistics tend to rely on heuristics so much.

    The trouble starts when we fail to recognize the difference among five things:

    1. Actual *facts* we have learned;
    2. Conclusions that can be *confidently* drawn from the *actual* facts (via scientific method, for example, or mathematical proofs etc);
    3. Assumptions, extrapolations, generalizations etc. that we leap to from the few observed facts we have on hand;
    4. Further generalizations, extrapolations etc. that we have made on the basis of #3 above;
    5. OR generalizations etc. made on the basis of a BLEND of #3 with either #1, #2, or both.

    I suspect #5 is the hardest one for most of us neurotypicals to recognize. It can be easy to let ourselves be lulled by the presence of actual, verifiable facts into overlooking the assumptions and biases we’ve mixed into them. But #4 can be tricky too because they’re often based on assumptions from #3 that are so old and worn that we tend to just take them as “givens” and may actually THINK belong in #1 or #2. And also, we may have been taught certain “facts” (#1 and #2) by adults who are actually relying on old, trusted assumptions (#3, #4, #5) and teaching them as “facts.” Think back centuries ago when we all “knew” the Earth was flat.

    The responsibility (for us neurotypicals who seem to have more difficulty “turning off” our “assumption-generating” mechanism)is to be more attentive to the difference among these 5 categories.

    And it further means we have to learn to overcome our neurotypical wiring enough to force ourselves to rely more heavily on #1 and #2, especially when drawing certain types of conclusions about individual people (or populations of people). This doesn’t necessarily mean we should throw out all assumptions. It’s probably still pretty safe to assume, for example, that someone who works outside in the hot sun for an hour might welcome a nice glass of water. But it does mean that we need to be far slower than NT wiring tells us to in forming assumptions (#3), and we need to be more secure in our assumptions formed in #3 before we move on to further extrapolations based on those assumptions (#4, #5).

    And we also need to learn to always hold open the possibility that, even after forming assumptions at level #3, #4, or #5, we may still need to backtrack and revise or rebuild or simply destroy the whole construct of assumptions all the way down to the ground. And we also need to be sensitive to the idea that some of the things we THINK belong in categories #1 or #2 above may actually belong in #3, #4, or #5, and therefore need to be constantly challenged and questioned with all our other assumptions.

  29. AnneC, AndreaShettle – great points from both of you. You both really seem to be on the same page as I am with this issue. I’m glad others are stepping in, because I’m a little short on time for writing responses at the moment!

    A few additional comments, mostly written in response to Noah’s message:
    – Heuristics may cause human beings to make ridiculous mistakes from time to time (including the forming of ridiculous heuristics), but heuristics are also a large part of what makes human beings smart! (You might be interested to know that teaching computers to use heuristics is an important part of the work being done in computational intelligence today.)
    – Be careful! I didn’t actually say that autistics can’t use heuristics. (If you aren’t blind, then you are using consciously inaccessible heuristics to understand some of the contents of the room you are in right now!) What I said is that certain heuristics seem to be difficult (if not impossible) for autistics to form. From the literature on autism that I have read, and from conversations with autistic friends, this is one of the hallmark traits of autism.
    – It seems to me that most heuristics fit into a logic like so:
    If I use heuristic A,
    then n times out of n + x (where x

    If heuristic A is being used reiteratively, then it’s user will lose utility points sometimes (aka make mistakes) but will gain more utility points overall. Unless there is a heuristic B that yields even higher than heuristic A, then using heuristic A is a good strategy.
    – Using heuristics is so fundamental to what we as humans do, that asking people to abandon them in the entire social arena, is like asking the moon to turn purple. (Meaning, that you will never get what you are asking for.) What we can do is improve every one’s heuristics by raising awareness about areas (like autism, for example) where our culture’s popular heuristics are failing in an expensive way. Ballasexistenz is doing a wonderful job of that, something which I really admire her for.

  30. If presuming *all* clowns want to kill me is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

    ; P

    Oops . . . I mean, “non-facial ‘I’m kidding’ emoticon”.

  31. Oops! Looks like a segment of my post got truncated in the correction. The following lines follow from the italicized “where x”:

  32. I apologize for speaking overly impulsively earlier. I was pulled away after writing an initial draft and did not get adequate time to edit what I said before sending, and did not want it to disappear. I have been thinking about it ever since and this is my first chance to get to the internet and change it. I tend to make a lot of generalizations in direct proportion to my emotional responses to situations. And I was thinking about all of the terrible things assumptions have done to me and many others, and I exaggerated excessively. I appreciate Amanda not censoring me, although I was wishing I could contact you (Amanda) to tell you not to put this up until I had more time with it.

  33. Curses! I am trying to say this:

    If I use heuristic A,
    then n times out of n + x (where x is less than n) I will receive y utility points.
    x time(s) out of n I will lose z (where z is less than y) utility points.

    Sorry everyone. I forgot that less than and greater than symbols would upset the html. :(

    Noah. Apology accepted! I want you to know that even though I am not autistic, I am not NT either, so I do understand how painful and difficult it is to struggle with the assumptions and expectations of others. (And look at all the interesting comments you drew out!) :D

  34. Rachael said: If you aren’t blind, then you are using consciously inaccessible heuristics to understand some of the contents of the room you are in right now!

    Actually, one thing that’s true of me (not sure if I can explain this well, or if anyone will be able to relate to it, but I’ll make an attempt) is that even when it comes to things like objects in a room, I *don’t* unconsciously apply heuristics about them. When I look at whatever environment I’m in, I don’t automatically sort the objects present into mental categories like “books”, “paper”, “furniture”, etc.

    That process is more conscious for me and sometimes, particularly in very familiar environments, I don’t tend (or need) to bother with it. I just sort of move among the objects and interact with them according to what seem to be their very basic properties.

    This is part of what I meant by the “fine structure” thing: I think that autistics probably tend to see more of the fine structure in reality, whereas nonautistic people are more likely to see an “aliased” version (though autistic people, particularly those who have grown up without access to sufficient amounts of particular kinds of data can also develop some aliased perceptions of reality).

    And for a lot of day-to-day interaction and functioning, the aliased version is probably adequate. However, the fact that it is adequate (and even superior, in the logistical sense) for the things most people seem to consider “normal functioning” doesn’t mean that normal functioning, or normal perception, is all there is. This might sound a bit odd, but one of the reasons I think it’s a good thing that autistic people exist, is because *someone* needs to keep an eye on the fine structure, and the patterns that can emerge from that (which might take longer to pop out, but that can actually lead to more accurate ways of looking at things in the long run).

    I think that if all society consisted of people who all used the same heuristics, there would be tons of stuff going on all the time that nobody would even know about, and eventually this stuff might end up either posing a danger of some sort, or simply end up being beauty squandered by lack of an observer for it.

    This is not to say that nonautistic people can’t learn to start seeing more of the fine structure; it’s more that there’s a very useful set of tools that tends to obscure that structure — probably the same tools you’re talking about that represent the heuristics autistics do not tend to use or apply. And these heuristics, when a person is unaware of them (or afraid to question them) can result in the buildup of tremendous bias. And bias gets in the way of the acquisition and processing of new data.

    So I don’t think that Amanda’s saying that everyone needs to get rid of all their heuristics; but rather, that improperly or overzealous application of heuristics can lead to bias. Bias is the thing that colors the blanks when they are filled in in the absence of data, and though it’s probably fine to say, “I think this color might be here”, it’s not fine to say, “This color IS here, and regardless of what data I find out otherwise, I’m going to keep insisting on calling it that color because if I didn’t, my heuristic would break”. Reducing the incidence of bias can help to make heuristics more flexible and improve their accuracy.

    And in my case, I still don’t tend to fill in the blanks; it still doesn’t even really compute to me HOW anyone could do that. Asking me to fill in blanks that way would be like asking me to just make something up at random. And that feels really pointless. I don’t see how, for instance, it would be in any way useful for me to try to picture what someone looks like based on reading something they wrote (assuming they haven’t described themselves). I’ve had people on more than one occasion tell me that they’ve imagined me to be much taller than I am based on reading my writing (I’m 5’3″, but for some reason the common estimate I get is 5’9″ based on how I write!) That kind of thing seems completely nonsensical to me.

  35. Noah, no problem. In fact, your reaction points to one of the reasons why heuristics are bad *when rigidly applied*, as AnneC describes in #36. When they are used in a context that is inappropriate, and the person applying the heuristic cannot or refuses to recognize its inappropriateness then people can potentially get hurt. And not just in terms of hurt feelings, but “hurt” in more serious meanings of the term.

  36. I think that autistics probably tend to see more of the fine structure in reality, whereas nonautistic people are more likely to see an “aliased” version (though autistic people, particularly those who have grown up without access to sufficient amounts of particular kinds of data can also develop some aliased perceptions of reality).

    I actually haven’t spoken to enough other autistic people about their experience with what’s being referred to as heuristics and aliased perceptions to know, to be perfectly honest. I have no sample size, so to speak.

    I can say with honesty that we had some heavily aliased perceptions at one point that were partly self-created and partly constructed by the concepts others wanted us to hold of ourselves and the world, most of which we’ve managed to deconstruct. There may be something to the fact that people trying poorly to imitate what’s thought of as “normalcy” have to view the world through a particular lens. Most of our reasons for trying to screen our perceptions to selectively block certain things weren’t exactly “usual”, however– they were fairly unusual reasons. (Then again, as I mentioned above, using only our own experience as a guide isn’t useful as far as judging prevalence: these things may be far more common than I thought, it’s just that no one wants to talk about them and many people have very good reasons for not wanting to talk about them.)

    I do have a working theory that the sheer size and scale of modern societies predisposes people to think in terms of groups and categories of people rather than in terms of individuals; when one has that many people to contend with, I suppose it’s easier to think in terms of “types” and one-size-fits-all models. The problem is that autistic people aren’t necessarily immune to “typing” either– I’ve seen some (including published authors who should have known better) invent incredibly broad categories of “types of autistics” which they then subsumed into their own personal favorite Grand Unified Theory of neurodiversity. I have seen a very wide range of cognitive styles in the autistic community, but cognitive styles, to me, aren’t the same as “types” and the static sets of qualities the term implies to me.

  37. I like the point on invisible disability.

    If you were to apply the traditional invisible/visible disability distinction, then I have a highly visible disability when I use my crutches (although a great many people assume I have a sprained ankle for some reason; they’re not even the same kind of crutches). Without the crutches, while walking, I have a somewhat visible disability. It is noticeable, but people take a bit longer to mentally process it and fit me into the category of disabled. While sitting, lying down, typing on the internet, or talking on the phone, then I have an invisible disability. No one notices unless I tell them. Multiple disabilities? No. Hugely variable medical condition that comes and goes? No. Entirely persistent disability that people are more likely to percieve when I’m doing something that involves it? Yes.

  38. Pingback: Hard Parts « Sweet Perdition

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