The social-deficit-paradox in neurodiversity

It is commonly assumed that neurodiverse people, in particular people on the autism spectrum have a lot of social deficits. However, we run into a paradox when we consider people with ASD “broken” in regard to social skills. Typically the following issues are listed

  • Inability to read non-verbal communication cues
  • Difficulties with social norms
  • Difficulties with eye contact
  • Difficulties with fine-tuning (aka politeness)
  • Anger issues

I am going to tackle this problem from a software engineering perspective. If two people with social-deficits, i.e. “buggy software” run into each other, they should have even more difficulty communicating with each other than when an aspie and a normie (bug free software) communicate with each other. Why? Communication always contains a certain amount of redundancy, which normies can use to correct potential “noise” in the communication. This is actually the case with people who are used to working with autistic children and have a good idea how they will react in different situations.

Now let’s look at what happens when two “buggy” software systems try to communicate with each other. There will be an immediate communication breakdown, as there is no way any side will be able to use redundancy to maintain communication.

This is certainly what happens occasionally between two people with ASD. However, very often two neurodiverse people can connect quite easily. Autistic people often lose their anxiety and cautiousness when they are among other autistic people and enjoy each other’s company and communication. What is going on here? Why is the software not broken anymore? People don’t usually find this strange, because people who are similar tend to get on well with each other, nothing unusual about that. However, this also means that the “broken social skills” theory of autism is not entirely correct. In terms of communication theory, they rather communicate on a different channel or on a different wavelength. It’s therefore not a matter of broken software, but of “fine-tuning”. If you don’t tune correctly into a radio station you will hear a lot of noise, sometimes up to a point where you can’t make out the meaning of the speaker at all.

So, this brings me to the conclusion that neurodiverse people tend to have a different kind of software in the first place rather than a faulty one. In my model of the evolution of personality, most neurodiverse people, including ASD, ADHD, and highly gifted people are part of the “hunter-gatherer” neurotribe.

I would even go as far as claiming that neurodiverse communication is a different kind of evolutionary programme, including blunt honesty, avoiding eye contact and lack of “etiquette”, rather than a broken programme. Would people with autism be able to connect to hunter-gatherer people? I think they would feel at ease with the Pirahã hunter-gatherers of the Amazonian jungle. Daniel Everett writes about them:

Expressions like hello, goodbye, how are you?, I’m sorry, you’re welcome, and thank you don’t express or elicit new information about the world so much as they maintain goodwill and mutual respect. The Pirahã culture does not require this kind of communication. Pirahã sentences are either requests for information (questions), assertions of new information (declarations), or commands, by and large. There are no words for thanks, I’m sorry, and so on. I have become used to this over the years and forget most of the time how surprising this can be to outsiders. from: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

I am not claiming there are no “bugs” involved in ASD communication (like very flat and monotonous speech), but the basic “communication system” is intact, the bugs are likely to happen on a neurodevelopmental level than on a genetic level. I estimate that up to 25% of people are neurodiverse, but that most neurodiverse people actually manage to tune into “channel 2”, farmer-herder radio station, less through social learning than their pattern-seeking capabilities.

This would also partially explain the rise in autism diagnosis. Children nowadays are much more socially isolated than only 40 years ago. Hunter-gatherer type children, who used to have contact with lots of other children now often only are in contact with a single primary caregiver who is often neurodiverse herself. This prevents them actively from learning different patterns of interaction and tuning into the “neurotypical channel”.

This post is dedicated to Cody McLain, who gave me the inspiration.

Originally published at on January 20, 2021.