Social conservatism and supply side economics are examples of social realities that have lost connection with physical reality. No legitmiate science supports the notion that homosexuality is unnatural or that lower taxes pay for themselves with higher revenue. Nor, given that 10-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, is there any reason to believe that God wants all fetuses to reach full term. But shared beliefs requires shared interests, whether in pork, alcohol or headgear, and dead babies rank high in the list of easy ideas to sell. The ideas persist against all evidence because they have social significance. People use them to show where they stand, not to understand reality. This may seem stupid, but social reality is almost pure information. It is simple and manachean, with virtually no intrusion from entropy or uncertainty, and it obviates the need for costly observation. A social map is efficient.
Adpergers stndrome illustrates the terribly awesome benefits of social mapping. The problem for people with aspergers is not that they can’t see the benefits of social integration, but that they can’t see the threads of the social map: the made-up reality that brings people together.
The child who pointed out that the emperor was naked probably had Asperger’s. Most children are happy enough to make-believe like everyone else. Some are different. This difference, the inability to go along to get along, makes it very difficult to manage an Asperger’s person, but every once in a while the ability to see through the veil of social reality makes that person invaluable.
In the triad of impairments for Asperger’s syndrome, it is obvious why the impairment of social communication and social interaction cause problems, but it is hard to explain the importance of social imagination. Make-believe play helps children develop all kinds of practical skills, including math, science, language and music, but children with Aspergers are often precociously gifted in these skills. Not only that, but it isn’t clear why make-believe should make relationships easier for adults: why pretend when you can just tell the truth?
There is value in having a social map, a local idiom, a proper way of going about things. The political importance of imaginative play cannot be underestimated. In adult human interactions, there is a great deal of make-believe, a social agreement that we will all pretend that THIS is important and THIS is unimportant. For someone with Asperger’s, this make-believe world of social significance, like hair-cuts and polished shoes, religion and career, is unimaginable. This gloss of fantasy may be boring and futile, involving appropriate attire, table manners, personal development and social networking, but it’s a make-believe world that makes it possible for people to interact seamlessly with people they’ve never met before or don’t actually like.
But here’s the thing. The adult fantasy world is still make-believe, and it has a way of drifting away from physical reality, sometimes to the point where starting a war for obviously made-up reasons seems totally appropriate. Part of the emergency in civilisation is that the make-believe political world of middle-class improvement is falling apart, but people are so good at playing this game of make-believe that they don’t have a way to look at the reality and change the game.
What most people don’t seem to understand about Asperger’s is that social imagination isn’t fun for them. Playing dress-up or make-believe – trying to imagine what someone else would do in this situation – is just stressful. Curiously, dungeon’s and dragons and similar abstract role-playing is easier because it involves observation rather than impersonation.
“People with Asperger’s can be imaginative in the conventional use of the word. For example, many are accomplished writers, artists and musicians. But people with Asperger syndrome can have difficulty with social imagination. This can include:
- imagining alternative outcomes to situations and finding it hard to predict what will happen next
- understanding or interpreting other peoples thoughts, feelings or actions. The subtle messages that are put across by facial expression and body language are often missed
- having a limited range of imaginative activities, which can be pursued rigidly and repetitively, eg lining up toys or collecting and organising things related to his or her interest.”