Autistics are the Earth’s resident aliens.
Christopher Badcock Ph.D.
You can’t go far in reading what people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) write about themselves before you come across aliens. You soon find them saying things like, “I felt like an alien, as though I had come to earth from somewhere else.” (p. 37) Other autistics have called their disorder “wrong planet syndrome,” (p. 9), and an autistic author who entitled her book Through the Eyes of Aliens comments that “Many autistic people affectionately, humorously refer to themselves as aliens. They feel displaced on a vast planet, which has a code of life, and understanding they can’t ever quite subscribe to.” She calls them “mysterious Martians who don’t know the culture of the planet they have been misplaced on.” One of the world’s most eminent autistics, Temple Grandin, was described in an essay by Oliver Sacks entitled An Anthropologist on Mars, and Martian in the Playground is the title of an award-winning book whose author recounts the fantasy of extra-terrestrials suddenly appearing to tell her that “It’s all been a dreadful mistake. You were never meant to be here. We are your people and now we’ve come to take you home.” A book for parents of “a child with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism” is entitled, Raising Martians from Crash Landing to Leaving Home (above). Perhaps not surprisingly then, an “online resource and community for Autism and Asperger’s” is entitled, WrongPlanet.net (below).
Science fiction often portrays alien beings as immediately able to understand and to communicate with humans—even to the point of speaking English and having excellent manners! But a moment’s reflection is enough to show that in reality things would probably be very different. Human technology and material culture might be pretty much self-evident to any intelligent being able to travel here or communicate with us, simply because material culture exploits principles of science and technology which are universal. But we have no way of knowing whether the fundamental principles of human behaviour would be as self-evident to an extra-terrestrial species which might be biologically very different from us. It might take some time and careful analysis for aliens to begin to understand what are self-evident realities to us, such as the self, consciousness, or personal feelings. The very idea of the mind might be alien to the aliens, whose initial reaction to human beings might be wholly behavioural and completely lacking in the appreciation of mental factors such as intention, meaning, and emotion. In other words, extra-terrestrials might regard us as we might regard creatures very different from ourselves, such as plants, insects, or bacteria. And at the very least, actual extra-terrestrials, like human anthropologists who visit foreign cultures, would have to learn our languages and understand our cultural conventions: they would be Martian anthropologists on Earth, if you like.
Admittedly, this is just speculation about something that will almost certainly never happen. But there is a striking parallel to be drawn between alien beings and those diagnosed with ASD, as the titles and comments listed above suggest. Like real extra-terrestrials might be expected to be, many autistics are either totally mute or have serious verbal shortcomings. There is usually fluent speech in high functioning forms of ASD such as Asperger’s syndrome, but there are often also difficulties with conversation skills, such as a tendency to be pedantic or to interpret things literally. Even high-functioning autistics often have difficulty in understanding irony and metaphors, or show an inability to see what is funny in a joke—something that would almost certainly be true of actual aliens also, were we ever to encounter them. This is because irony, metaphor, and jokes rely on people’s everyday, common-sense knowledge of the world and other people, and extra-terrestrial visitors to Earth could be expected to be as deficient in this respect—if not more so—as autistics typically are.
In part, this may be because people with ASD often seem to be more interested in things, machines, facts or ideas than they are in people and their affairs, and it is not difficult to imagine that visitors from another planet might also lack the central concern with itself and its doings that is otherwise distinctive of the human race. And again like any actual aliens you could realistically imagine and who would almost certainly be physically very different from us, people with ASD are poor at recognizing and interpreting emotional expressions, gestures, and body language. Just like actual extra-terrestrial visitors to Earth would inevitably be, autistics are outsiders in relation to much of what goes on in normal human communication and are socially isolated and marginalized in their interactions with others. The result is that others perceive them to be weird, childish, or callous, and ask questions like “What planet is he from?” or “Who beamed her down?”
As a result of their unfamiliarity with our world, intelligent aliens would not necessarily show much interest in many things that we find important, but might instead focus their interest on objects that seemed to us peripheral, insignificant, or bizarre. And they might do this with an intensity and single-mindedness that we found hard to understand. Where their own behaviour was concerned, they would probably do many things with a rigour, regularity, and repetitiousness that we might not comprehend in the least—a bit like anthropologists amazing the natives by their insistence on writing everything down, taking photographs, or washing their hands. Autistic people are just like this, with single-minded interest in just one or a small number of things being typical—something which is often allied with a compulsion to stick to routines, avoid change, and engage in repetitious behaviour. This makes them seem not just alien, but incorrigible too: not only living in a world of their own, but to an often rigid time-table, and with fastidious compulsions and weird avoidances which exasperate others and alienate them further from normal human life.
And as if to underline my metaphorical parallel with aliens, Tony Attwood, a leading authority on high-functioning autism, adds that from his clinical experience he considers “that children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome have a different, not defective, way of thinking.” (p. 60)
Autistics, in short, could properly be considered as the Earth’s resident extra-terrestrials. The aliens have landed!