Guest-Post: why being autistic is like having a manual gearbox by Alan Borgars

The majority of people, or more specifically neurotypicals (NTs, those who are not neurodiverse) generally have no problem adapting and reacting to social situations and contexts instinctively. Autistic people, however, do not have this natural advantage; I am one of the UK’s 600,000-strong autistic population.

If you think about it, humans and cars share some similar core features. A human has a brain in the head in the same way a car has an engine under the bonnet, almost always at the front (which is where the human brain would be if humans walked on all fours). That engine has with it a gearbox, an oil filter, a battery, pipes, wires, coolant, brake fluid, and water. The human brain needs equivalent things to function and not shut down. If the engine ceases to function, so does the whole car; the same is true for the human body.

NTs can be said to have an automatic gearbox because their brain works in such a way that they can automatically react to social situations and conversations without having to think about it or use any pre-recorded scripts. A car with an automatic gearbox does not have to change gears except when climbing the steepest hills; it automatically shifts as it speeds up. However, being autistic is like having a manual gearbox; even autistic people who manage to develop reasonable and reliable communication and social skills generally have to consciously think about what to do and how to react to situations. It is as if there was a clutch to depress in the autistic brain before pre-recorded scripts could be changed or new situations could be dealt with. And just like cars with manual gearboxes, autistic people like me can sometimes ‘stall’ in awkward encounters or when particular sensitivities are triggered.

However, cars with manual gearboxes tend to have more power and more potential because they have more specialised ratios, which is lacking among the vast majority of automatic cars. My own brain’s ‘gearbox’ has more ‘speeds’ than a neurotypical person’s ‘gearbox’ meaning that when on form, I can achieve a lot of tasks in my specialist areas to an ability beyond that of the vast majority of humans and in an interesting way as well. The same goes for autistic savants past and present.

You can follow Alan on Twitter @GreenAlanB

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