Let’s time travel back to the pre-Internet days of 1975. Long-distance phone calls were $1 per minute, so people received most of their communications via US mail, and Christmas cards were so important that the average number of families on a list was 300. That year, two sociology professors from Brigham Young University sent 600 Christmas cards to random families and then monitored how many cards were sent back in return.
Approximately 20% of the recipients took the time to find a card, write a message and send it back to the experimenters. That is an astounding number of people who felt obliged to reply. To give you context, today’s digital marketers are thrilled with a 1% response rate.
The experiment studied the rule of reciprocity – the strong social pressure to return favors. In the context of women, of course, because women send the Christmas cards. The rule of reciprocity has persisted throughout human history because it has survival value for the human species. Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey said the essence of what makes us human is this system of reciprocity.
At the core of autism is a lack of social reciprocity. Autistic babies don’t reciprocate a parent’s smile. Autistic adults don’t reciprocate a friend’s Christmas card. Of course there are exceptions. Jewish people don’t send Christmas cards. People who don’t have enough money for food don’t send Christmas cards. But even those people reciprocate intuitively. Psychologist Amy Pearsons’s research shows that women with autism work hard to look normal, and they mimic the acts of reciprocity they see neurotypical women doing. Women with autism can pass for normal, but it exhausts them because passing involves constantly monitoring what is expected.