The Myth of Common Sense

The Myth of Common Sense

“Appears to lack common sense.” Those five words appeared at the bottom of my third-grade report card. It fit. So many of the unwritten rules that others seemed to know intuitively, I only learned with time. Why people don’t volunteer their political opinions at every opportunity? Why should you write a cheer for the school [as opposed to your dog] if you want to try out for the school’s cheerleading team?

I thought differently.

It took me some time to get the hang of what other people expected in any given situation.

I don’t believe that is the same as common sense.

What is common sense?

A lot of what we call ‘common sense’ is not reasoning at all, but the conclusion that we believe the majority of people would come to in any given situation. Of course, what that means varies from person to person given culture, social norms, expectations, personal values, and so on.

It’s a nature and nurture thing.

Let’s start with nurture. This relates to culture. For example, what is expected at a gas station in the inner city is likely very different than what would be in the country. The cultures we are raised in, spend time around, and are in at any given moment will shape what we see as ‘common sense.’ In work and education settings, these expectations are often set and based on middle-class norms and values overvaluing some perspectives while undervaluing others.

The other is related to nature. The way our brains are wired will change what works well for us. For neurotypical people in most American cultures, this usually includes, for example, making eye contact when we are listening, doing one thing at a time if possible, or sitting still during a lecture. For neurodivergent people, however, needs might be different. We might focus best while moving or not making eye contact. We might enjoy talking about things we are passionate about at length and the interests we are drawn to might be more esoteric than common shared interests like sports.

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From a quick, glance, this might look like a lack of common sense.

But is it?

Divergent Thinkers, Divergent Sense

People who think differently often have different social tendencies. Differences in thoughts lead to innovation. Many great leaders, inventors, and creatives who have been able to approach situations in a new light have been neurodivergent. What would have happened if instead of embracing their unique style of thinking they sought common sense instead?

This is not to say that neurodivergent people do not often need support. We do. Sometimes even in the form of education on neurotypical social norms. This can help with navigating a variety of situations.

What We’ve Been Doing

Traditionally, neurotypical social norms have been taught to neurodivergent people in the form of social skills. When taught contextually, with appreciation for the learner’s neurodivergent brain and needs, this can be helpful. Neurotypical norms taught as a sort of introduction to the neurotypical landscape rather than an instruction manual of the right way to do things can be helpful in situations such as what to expect at a job interview or social norms at a wedding. When these norms are rigidly enforced, however, it can be damaging.

Many times, neurodivergent communication and behavior patterns take hold for a reason. For example, research shows that some people with ADHD perform better on tasks of divided attention (such as multitasking) (Elosúa et al., 2017). Some find it easier to concentrate while simultaneously doing something else like doodling. What might appear rude could be an attempt to focus. Autistics, on the other hand, often have a bottom-up processing style (Randeniya et al., 2023). This could lead to a greater dive into details, intense interests, and difficulty filtering through sensory information.

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While every Autistic person is different, many might struggle to concentrate with sensory distractions or might ask what might come across as ‘too many’ questions to connect the dots between details. If we reject these natural tendencies, we do a disservice to a person’s full potential based on how their brain is wired to perform. If we zero in too much on the behaviors, we miss the person.

One of the challenges of teaching ‘social skills’ is recognizing context. As referenced earlier, a social behavior that could be helpful in a situation among one group of people might be problematic in another. There are very few simple-to-apply social ‘rules’ that can be memorized. Yet, traditional social skills instruction often ignores this when teaching middle-class, neurotypical social norms. With children, these often key in on what is expected in a school environment, such as to bow to the authority of adults. Still, what is an equally important ‘skill’ of how to say ‘no’ or stand up for yourself is often watered down.

The roadblocks many neurodivergent people face in terms of social connection, executive functioning, and managing in a world that was not set up for them can be great. Neurodiversity-affirming interventions can help, particularly when this includes some interaction with other neurodivergent people and release from the holds of neurotypical social norms. The best focus would be on social connection within the context of how one’s brain works best and their valued goals.

What We Can Do

I have often enjoyed opportunities to learn about other cultures. Similarly, learning about the ways that neurodivergent people communicate can be fascinating. What would happen if we had a society where all ways of thinking and experiencing the world were accepted? Where people learned to understand and appreciate these thought patterns. Instead of branding neurotypical social norms as ‘social skills,’ we openly discussed social needs and preferences. Those needs and preferences extended to neurodivergent people as well, such as routinely giving opportunities to ask for explicit instructions or a quieter space to work so that one can be at their best.

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Neurodivergent people sometimes spend a lifetime trying to grasp neurotypical social norms. Perhaps, neurotypical people could also take some time to learn about neurodivergent ones. Or at least to master the skill of inquiry. Asking questions like, “Does this make sense to you?” “Is this what you mean?” “Is there anything you need here?”

One common neurodivergent trait is to be direct and explicit. To be open and truthful. As a society, we can learn from this and benefit from all ways of approaching the world, not just those gleaned through ‘common sense.’


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