On The Spectrum

I mentioned to someone recently that my daughter is “on the spectrum,” which is shorthand for saying that she’s autistic to some degree. However, the phrase is horribly imprecise, and can lead to some serious misunderstandings.

Autism has a very wide range of symptoms — from people like my daughter who may be somewhat socially awkward, to people who are severely unable to communicate.

I tell people that you’d “never know” my daughter is “autistic” until maybe you’d gotten to know her a little. You’d notice that she’s quite verbal, but she uses words in interesting ways sometimes. She has a great sense of humor, but she doesn’t “get” jokes the same way other people do. She’s very literal, and so doesn’t always pick up on social queues that are, for most of us, obvious.

As a person “on the spectrum,” she’s in very elite company. Dan Akroyd, Elon Musk, and Anthony Hopkins come to mind, for instance.

Anyway, this post isn’t about Autism. It’s about the “spectrum.”

I believe that there is also a spectrum of “open-mindedness.” This isn’t fixed per person, or group. It moves with different issues, different circumstances, audiences.

Nobody likes to be called “closed-minded.” Or, never mind using a broad label like that — nobody even likes the suggestion: “…so, your mind is closed on this subject, correct?”

“What?! NO! My mind isn’t closed! I just know that I’m right about it.”

“So, is there anything I could say that might change your mind?”

“Probably not, no.”

“That sounds like a closed mind — on this subject.”

I think we each have a spectrum of closed- (or open-) mindedness, perhaps in general, and almost assuredly on individual topics. I think we become more close-minded when threatened. Or among people who we feel threatened by (even if they haven’t threatened us). Or in situations in which we feel like we might be threatened.

…and, by “threatened,” I don’t mean physically. I don’t mean being outright insulted. Although those apply, too.

The most pervasive and insidious situation we might find ourselves in, in which we might feel “threatened” is… (wait for it….) ANY TIME WE MIGHT HAVE TO CHANGE OUR MINDS.

You see the problem? We become more close-minded any time we might have to change our minds. And the more the topic matters, the more close-minded we are apt to get.

Is it any wonder that it’s so hard to have a conversation with someone about anything that matters?


Notice when you feel “threatened,” in the sense that you’re being asked to change your mind.

Notice how this makes you put your guard — how, to some extend, on this topic under these circumstances, your mind is closed. Notice where you are on “the spectrum.” It’s OK — it’s how we’re ALL wired.

Try to get into the habit of changing your mind. Of feeling GOOD about changing your mind. Do that by practicing the art of expressing someone else’s point of view, to THEIR satisfaction.

Changing your mind is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you’re learning.

The more we practice having our minds changed, the more chance we’ll have to return the favor.