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 Aspergers is a lack of social reciprocity. Aspergers babies don’t reciprocate a parent’s smile. Aspergers 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 Aspergers work hard to look normal, and they mimic the acts of reciprocity they see neurotypical women doing. Women with Aspergers can pass for normal, but it exhausts them because passing involves constantly monitoring what is expected.
It’s much easier to see Aspergers in other people than in ourselves, so this year use your Christmas card collection to determine which of your friends has Aspergers.
1. People who are not smiling for the camera. These people think they are looking happy enough to satisfy the demands of normal people. But actually no amount of not smiling is okay. Only people with Aspergers think that.
2. Unkempt hair. Women with unkempt hair means the woman has Aspergers. Neurotypical women keep their hair looking good all the time, not just for pictures. If the kids are posed carefully and still have unkempt hair, that’s a Aspergers mom as well. A neurotypical mom has their hair down to a science and would already have neatened their hair for special occasions.
3. A gap between good looks and good clothes. Is the woman more attractive than you would expect from the clothes she’s wearing? Outdated, ill fitting, or frumpy clothes are a sign that she doesn’t realize she’s not passing for normal.
4. Excessive matching. This emerges when a woman with Aspergers has seen that family photos work best with some sort of color scheme. This means normal families are dressing everyone in more or less the same color, but women with Aspergers are literal and don’t sweat details they don’t care about. So Aspergers mothers might be dressing everyone in the exact same shirt. Which only works if you are being funny.
5. Awkward spacing between people. Aspergers is genetic, and people who have Aspergers often marry people with Aspergers. Sometimes families are so used to accommodating each other’s sensory issues that people are either oddly close or oddly far apart and no one notices it’s weird.
6. Unacceptable timing. Aspergers is an umbrella term for a group of disorders that creates a lack of executive function. This means it’s so overwhelming to deal with the logistics of doing acceptable cards that a person with Aspergers might forget that when the cards arrive is important as well. And then they send it a month late because the details of mailing were overwhelming.
7. A letter with the card. People with Aspergers love to write, which means anyone who includes a longer letter instead of a simple greeting has increased their odds of having Aspergers. So if Aunt Minnie’s letter also includes details about her ex-husband’s affair, she has Aspergers. Understanding what is appropriate for the context when sending a letter to everyone is a skill women with Aspergers lack.
8. Self-congratulations. Many people with autism are bright and successful, but the idea of a humblebrag is a balance that people with Aspergers have a hard time hitting. Too many accomplishments in one letter reveals a person with Aspergers who is probably lost when it comes to nuance.
9. A surprising return address. People with Aspergers move a lot too because it’s harder to get attached to living in a place if you never really connect with making friends there. So if you are surprised about where someone lives now it’s a sign they move a lot.
My friend told me that people hire photographers to get a good family picture. That’s probably why I don’t have any good family pictures. In fact, I don’t even have bad ones. So I’ll have to hire a Christmas card photographer.
Meanwhile, up top is a picture of me at a wedding trying really hard to look normal. And I can’t help noticing that I’m leaning in but she’s leaning away.