So Glad NTs Have a Filter

Here’s a funny one: People with autism and AD/HD have this bad habit of blurting out whatever is on their minds. It’s one of the reasons they are supposed to spend time with their neurotypical (NT) peers. They need to spend time with NTs to learn appropriate filters.

Sam called from knitting club the other day to have me pick her up. Eight hours earlier, her first period English class had been looking at political cartoons as they begin studying satire. Several of the themes disconcerted Sam, which means the cartoonists succeeded. Sam made it through the day unremarkably, but by quitting time her brain was in a freefall, and she’d circled back to the morning’s discussion. Hence, the request for a ride home.

Piece by piece she unpacked the day. After English, she arrived in second period and saw a girl eating an orange. The “orange incident” prompted the teacher to reminisce about the time her own mother had packed her lunch, and when she brought it to school a family of rats devoured it. Somehow the rat story led the teacher even further down memory lane, to the tragic reality that her maternal grandfather used to beat her grandmother. Unfortunately this was the 1920s, and her grandmother could not seek a divorce. Then, having finished her digressions, it was back to the day’s lesson plan.

In Sam’s next class, after a discussion about racial stereotyping, the teacher declared that he hates everybody. “Do I hate African-Americans?” he demanded. “No!” answered Sam. “Wrong! I hate everybody,” he reminded her.

Finally, at the end of the day Sam arrived in the resource room to take a standardized test. The proctor’s necklace jangled as she distributed the test. The proctor’s necklace consists of 15-20 dog tags on a chain. Each tag belonged to one of her deceased dogs. She wears the necklace every day.

Believe it or not, Sam attends a very functional, high-performing school. I am certain, having been a teacher, that other schools are also filled with NTs who make great fodder for stories. I wonder now what inappropriate observations and anecdotes I shared with my own students. Did their parents’ eyes widen the way mine do, wondering where these people parked their common sense?

Probably not, but probably not because my commentary was always above reproach. My guess is that most of my students processed and then forgot whatever made them uncomfortable—just as it’s likely that the other students in Sam’s class immediately forgot the grandmother’s plight. They certainly never imagined themselves in her shoes, as Sam did. And they were probably amused by the teacher’s declaration that he hates everyone. There’s no way there’s a kernel of truth in that, right? Yeah, right.

Sometimes it seems like the biggest “problem” Sam has is that she actually pays attention to what people say and do. She is not good at being dismissive. If someone tells a hurtful or hateful story, she empathizes with the injured party. Words and actions tossed around lightly fall on her heavily, until the accumulation feels too weighty to throw off.

People periodically remark to me that she has no filter. Almost always, this remark precedes by five minutes some jaw-dropping lapse in judgment on the speaker’s part. Almost always, the remark itself reflects a filter deficit. Good thing these people are NTs; they can get away with it.