A Field Guide to Earthlings – Ian Ford


Suppose you exit from a store, and run across a parking lot to your car. You may be running because you need some exercise, or you are happy, or you want to see how far you can jump, or for some other reason. But NTs generally don’t do this (even if there is a good reason to) because someone might believe they are running because they have stolen something or are running to attack someone. The common belief is that “running = guilty.” They don’t want to communicate bad intentions, so they don’t run, whether or not they actually have bad intentions. This and thousands of other behavioral shortcuts are acted out all day long, in order to communicate “I have not stolen anything, I’m not attacking anyone” etc. Through their intentional actions, they “say” things that control what others believe about them. (p.97)


In this really cute little book, Ford identifies 62 patterns of behaviour that NTs exercise and tries to explain them to the best of his ability as someone on the spectrum, to others on the spectrum. I thought that reading this through as the first book of my dive would be a decent way of calibrating where I am on the spectrum, experience-wise, and that worked out pretty well! There were sections where he describes NT (“neurotypical”, meaning basically “your brain is normal”) things I do and I found his explanations to be hilariously wrong, sections that correctly explained NT actions and made me think about the underlying reasons I do things (like in the excerpt), and things that did in fact explain parts of human interaction that I’ve previously found to be baffling and chaotic.

It was very neat to see all these patterns of behaviour spelled out this way, when they’ve been internalized in us so deeply.

I also really, really enjoyed the final section of the book, “Phenomena”, which is where the author has some incredibly interesting takes on how many parts of NT culture, like gender, counterculture, religion, and the economy, are shaped by the patterns of behaviour that he described.

Personally useful concepts introduced:

  • Symbolic Filtering [Pattern 2] – NTs are able to not get overwhelmed by the constant stimuli around them because they do what Ford calls “symbolic filtering”, rendering all actual stimuli into deadened symbols of objects and concepts. For example, a big collection of metal, glass, and rubber parts are made into a single thing, called a “truck”, which then can be thought about as a symbol without having to imagine all the details. Ford claims that this selective filtering, however, makes it hard to process any stimuli that you have not had previous experience with. You might not be able to see it, even if it’s right in front of your eyes.
    • I filter things this way, yes. I don’t think the filtering is as strong as Ford believes it to be. Alternatively, it’s possible that I’m unusually conscious about the fact that I filter, because of previous books that I’ve read that approached this subject.
  • The Belief Web [Pattern 6] – Words and other symbols are loaded with meanings that go beyond the strict dictionary definition. For example, someone NT might say that a wedding without tuxedos or cake is not a wedding, or must distinguish it from a “true” (mainstream) wedding by calling it something like a “hippie wedding”, even though it is actually a “true wedding” because it is an event where two people got married. Some parts of this belief web can be fake, like the idea of April being “the rainy month”.
    • One of those things that is so obvious that it seems pretty crazy that someone could actually point it out and make this observation, but I’m very glad that they did.
  • Patterns of communication [Patterns 20-28] – Communication occurs on many levels, of which information transfer is only a small part. Ideas/words can be stretched out and repeated as necessary in order to provide ample time for the nonverbal message to get across. Some communication is deliberately ambiguous to keep the past open to shifting interpretations. When an NT hears a thing, if it sounds like a power play they might ignore the actual message.
    • Probably the  chapter that imparted the most productive, new knowledge to me. I’m having trouble evaluating how true this section is, because my communication style is very blunt and to the point, generally without multiple levels of communication happening, and I know that the person who wrote this is, well, autistic, and they’ve gotten other things wrong in the book. I don’t personally feel like body language is that important to communication because I don’t use it and I get my messages through fine. But that maybe doesn’t prove the thing that I want it to prove.
    • I don’t want to believe the thing about everything being evaluated as a status play. At this point, I’m going to stick my head in the sand and say that I can get out of it because the book was written by a dude and status interactions are dude-exclusive dick measuring contests. R-right guys?
    • This did give rise to the most metal paragraph of the book, however: “Autistic people can be mistaken as manipulative, uncaring, rude, even dangerous sociopaths. Once this impression is given, you are the enemy, and enemies who don’t fight will lose.” Haha wow I sure am glad that this has no impact on my life whatsoever

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