Autism, Approval, and Impostor Syndrome

Lucas McGregor
8 min readOct 11, 2020


Hans and Otis

Hans the Mathematical Horse

In turn of the 1900s a German horse named Hans became famous for solving mathmatical problems. People could test his skills verbally or in writing. Hans could add, subtract, multiply, tell you what day of the week so many days in the future would be, all sorts of savant feats. In 1904, a thirteen person commission studied the four-legged prodigy and found no trickery, concluding that the equine was genuine.

Later that year, Oskar Pfungst, a psychologist, ran a series of tests. He found that Hans could correctly answer complex mathematical problems 89% of the time; but, only when he could see the human and the human knew the correct answer. Otherwise, Hans was only correct 6% of the time.

Hans wasn’t a genius at math. He was a genius at reading people. Hans would keep tapping his feet until he could see the tell-tale signs of approval from the questioner. Hans never understood the math. He understood that people would ask him to tap his hoof and let him know if he had done it enough.

Human Language

We all start like Hans. As babies we are barraged with information: people noises, animal noises, speech, faces, expressions, etc. Just like Hans, our brain starts to make connections, deciding what is signal, what is noise, and identifying the patterns.

Well before children learn how to speak, most have made the right brain connections to learn their first native language. They can read faces, body language, tone of voice. They can communicate emotions by complex articulations of the 43 muscles in their faces. They can understand the difference between an adult comforting them versus laughing along with them.

Not everyone’s brains make these connection first. Some people’s brains notice other patterns, find different signals and dismiss others as noise. Human language doesn’t necessarily become everyone’s first language. Maybe it’s numbers, repetitions of tones, or the fractal patterns made by light that filters through trees.

Austim isn’t broken, it is different.

People are a second language.

When these different type of brains pick up human language, it’s like learning a second language. If you didn’t grow up multilingual, the way you normally learn a second language is by learning to map new words to your native ones. It mostly works. Cat in English, gato in Spanish, Kat in German; but not quite. There are subtle disconnects. In English the difference between river and stream is size. In French, the difference between rivière and ruisseau is the destination. One goes to an ocean and the other does not. Most of the time a small stream and a ruisseau will be the same; but when you talk about that large river that runs into a lake, the Frenchman will be confused.

Autism is having another first language than human nuance. We pick that up as a second language. We try to learn how to map faces, gestures, tone of voice to our native models. Remember back to the first time you started to learn a second language, sitting a class as a teacher rattled off sentences. You might pick up a word here and there, but most raced past you. As you became more proficient, you were able to to catch the gist of a conversation, but you still lost a lot of the content and context. Subtleties like puns, slang, and word play were entirely beyond you.

As you tried to speak it, you were frustrated. You could assemble the thoughts and ideas in your native language without even thinking about it; but as you tried to map this to your new language, you struggled to find the right words. You tripped over grammar. You paused to remember gender of nouns and the tense of the verb. Were you speaking formally or informally. Even with all the ideas clearly available to you, you were reduced to sounding like a child when forced to only speak in your second language.

Human language is so complicated. “Wow, look at what you did.” Was that sarcasm? A congratulations? Is the speaker happy? Upset? Who is the “you” in this statement? Were they even talking to me? Am I making eye contact? Which eye should I look in? Did you ever stop to think about the fact that you can only look at one eye at a time? When a person says “Look me in the eyes,” it is literally impossible. Should I make a facial gesture to acknowledge the statement? Am I signaling that I heard you? I agree? Or should I indicate modesty in return for praise? Break eye contact and look down and make a brief smile with a shallow exhale to indicate “It was nothing.”

Anyone who has done language immersion will tell you how tiring it is. Even if you are not speaking, just trying to listen to and comprehend the firehose of quick foreign sounds; differentiate between individual accents and new vocabulary, understanding idioms and cultural references. Once you are exhausted; you just want to hear nothing but your own native speech, or maybe even just silence.

Parallel Conversations

Like Hans, we are all trying to figure out what is the right answer. Also like Hans, we are usually having parallel conversations with our audience. The audience thinks they are asking about math, and we think that we are told to tap our feet until the audience says “whoa!”

It took 14 German experts to figure out that Hans and his audience were “talking” about two completely different things. The people were saying “math” and the horse was playing “keep going until I say ‘stop’.” The people were left with the impression that the horse was speaking their language. People understand mathematics, and assumed that all brains would think like theirs. Horses are breed to be extensions of people’s bodies: fast legs for riders, strong muscles to pull farmer’s ploughs. They are large and powerful animals that have been bred to read people. Horses are famous for being able to pick up subtle queues from their owners. People assumed Hans thought like a human, but Hans thought like a horse. He thought in terms of tasks and being told when to stop. To the people who assumed that all minds work alike, the illusion was that they were having the same conversation.

Trained to Seek Approval

Like Hans, we all look for the positive feedback loop. It is through positive feedback that we learn communication and social queues. When you understand, you are rewarded by connecting. Social queues along the way reenforce that we are doing a good job.

For autistic people, it’s harder. Unlike Hans, we are not wired for picking up people’s tells. We have problems with the language and are usually missing most of the subtle social clues along the way. The feedback loop is broken.

Autism isn’t different, it is different levels. We still have words. We can see and express and facial gestures and body language. It is a question of levels. Human communication comes with a lot of complex, and often contradictory information.

“Good job” says someone, but a flat tone of voice indicates sarcasm. Is the smile sincere, or a smirk? Are their cheeks rising and lower eyes squished, indicating a true, full smile? Are they looking directly at you, or are their eyes rolling? Anyone who has watched a Hollywood rom-com knows that most people seem confused by human communication. Even for native speakers, it seems fraught with misunderstandings. Autism isn’t a lack of communication. Our misunderstandings and pit-falls have the same mechanics as everyone else’s. Autism just increases the volume.

Imposter Syndrome

We just have to try harder. Applied Behavioral therapy (AB) focused on breaking down social interactions into tasks and learning how to read faces, modulate tone, pay attention to signs of boredom, learning how to string one topic to the next like most people tend to do. It feels as natural as learning to conjugate in a foreign language.

Isn’t it amazing how you just know what verb tense works with what pronouns in your native language. You know that it is “as easy as pie” and a “piece of cake.” You understand that “cut it out,” doesn’t literally mean to grab a pair of scissors. You don’t have to think about how “on” can be “on the table” and also “on your way.”

But in high school, as you learn your second language and you muddle though verb tenses, that you understand in English; it becomes mechanical and full of tricks and memorizations. Instead of natural back and forth patter, your conversation is stilted and simplified. You work though irregular verb conjugations in your head, map out where the verb goes in a question; try to remember the difference between first, second, and third person, let alone plural and singular. To a native speaker, you seem like a stiff robot. You are concentrating so hard, that you are dropping a lot of the fluidity, body language, and conversational tone.

Like Applied Behavioral therapy, you have broken down communication into tasks and have been rewarded for doing the correct steps by your teacher. Like AB, you feel like you are faking it.

Sincerely Awkward

Both my grandfathers were engineers. One had the nickname of “Mr. Robot” and the other was frequently called “The Space Cadet.” Both had friends, enjoyed company, and raised families. Both were probably on the autism spectrum.

Just because human nuance wasn’t their native language didn’t mean that it wasn’t important to them. Humans have a need to connect, even when connecting doesn’t come easily. Learning to read faces the way a person from the midwest might learn how to read French doesn’t make it less sincere; just not automatic.

But when you are not sure of what you are doing, you are left looking for feedback that you are doing it right. Sometimes you are trying to mirror what they other person is doing, sometimes you are using scripts and techniques that have worked before? Think about your second language, they drilled some go-to phrases and questions that you don’t have to think about. How much does this cost? Where is the hotel?

Same with a too eager laugh, “I enjoy your company.” An exaggerated head nod, “Yep. I understand!” I spend a lot of days feeling like Hans. I am not sure what people’s faces are saying, so I keep taping along until I hear “whoa.”

Once you pass a couple French classes in college, you are reasonably proficient. You get your study abroad semester in France. You are able to immerse and experience your skills. Some moments, you are in the flow and making connections. Other times, you are lost and feel like you are just nodding along and saying “oui.” Even though you can understand French, you feel like you are faking it. Sometimes, you are just exhausted from the effort of it all and you want to watch some American television. It’s in those moments, when you retreat from the work of a second language; that you doubt yourself the most. What did all of your studying and effort produce? After all that work, you are still not a native speaker. Are you just an American pretending that you can speak French? Are you “Le imposteur?”

We all feel like Hans at times. But the fact is, a horse did become a genius at reading faces, and a man did figure out that this horse had a special gift. If maybe the people had stopped to think that not every creature thinks the same way; they could have had better conversations. But Hans wasn’t an imposture. He did answer math questions, just in a different way.



Lucas McGregor

SVP of Engineer @ StepStone. Code monkey, product person, policy wonk, armchair philosopher, and all around tinkerer.