Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Autism Isn't the Problem

The below post was written by a contributor who wishes to use the pseudonym ExUngueLeam. The author is a junior astronomer whose friends and colleagues may be able to identify her from her writing, but who is unwilling disclose her Asperger’s publicly.

As a woman with Asperger’s, I have the dubious of honor of regularly fielding a particular set of questions about harassment and bullying in academia. These questions usually go something like: "If a colleague or student of mine is on the autism spectrum, and they are bullying or harassing someone, don't I need to accommodate for that? If I hold them accountable for their bad behavior, isn't that... ableist?"

The "Autism is to Blame" excuse is typically deployed in communities which are culturally perceived to be "geeky" or "nerdy", and this includes STEM. The popular television show Big Bang Theory dedicated an entire cringe-inducing episode to it.  It comes up so frequently at gaming and scifi conventions that there is an entire page dedicated to it at the Geek Feminism Wiki. But occasionally you run into it more mainstream fields: Australian television host Don Burke recently tried to invoke Asperger's to dismiss a rash of (rather horrifying, content warning applies) sexual harassment and assault accusations. 

In astronomy, I encounter this logic as an excuse for abusive behavior at least once every six months. I've heard it applied to both men and women.  Sometimes the bad behavior is egregious, serial sexual harassment. Sometimes the bad behavior is run-of-the-mill bullying of a student or junior scientist. 

       “Look, he’s never admitted to it in public, but Jack is clearly on the spectrum, you know? He’s incapable of understanding social niceties, and misses all the obvious verbal and non-verbal cues the rest of us see. We don't approve of his behavior, but he doesn't really understand what he's doing. We have to be willing to accommodate his disability. We're sorry he makes you uncomfortable, but we just can't do anything about it.”

This is often the last defense of the indefensible. When the facts of the matter are just too plain, when everybody involved knows that what is happening is truly inexcusable, this is when the friends and colleagues of the accused trot out the "Autism Is To Blame" defense.

But isn't it the case that people on the spectrum often have delayed development of social and communication skills? Aren't they often clueless about social cues? Doesn't that make them much more likely to miss both the verbal and non-verbal cues that signal disinterest, annoyance, alarm, or anxiety?

Yes, yes, and yes. As far as all this goes, you are 100% correct. These are all the hallmarks of autistic spectrum disorders. 

So isn't it ableist to hold scientists with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) to the same standard of behavior regarding bullying and harassment? Don't we need to allow some accommodation of a real disability regarding social cues?

I think there are a number of misconceptions going on here: about how bullying and harassment actually occur, but also about what autistic individuals are capable of, and regarding what "accommodation" is actually supposed to mean. 

As a woman who is herself on the autistic spectrum, I feel the need to set the record straight.  Yes, Defenders of the Neurodivergent, you are correct! Ableism is indeed playing a role here! 

But it's perhaps not the role that you think.

Consider the fact that most of the objections to the "Autism is to Blame" defense are coming from within the autism advocacy community itself, and very often from adults with ASD.  Why would we object to an accommodation? For several very good reasons:

    A.) ASD children and adults are more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators.

    B.) Blaming autism pre-emptively criminalizes all ASD individuals, opening up even more doorways to discrimination.

    C.) Accountability for one's actions is a critical requirement for self-determination, and securing the right to self-determination is the greatest struggle facing the disabled community.

    D.) Blaming autism lets the root problem go unaddressed.

A.) Let's start with the fact that individuals on the autism spectrum are far more likely to be the victims of harassment or bullying rather than the perpetrator [1][2][3][4]. This trend begins in childhood and often continues into adulthood.  

Sure, some bullies and harassers really are "on the spectrum." But an awful lot of your ASD colleagues are also quietly making their way through life without harassing anyone. Every time this discussion comes up, I find myself drawing some variation on this Venn diagram:

I'm using nested circles on the right because while not all bullies are sexual harassers, all sexual harassers are bullies. 

Numerous studies have looked for a link between autism and bullying, between autism and violent behavior, or between autism and sexual offenses. There isn't one. The chances of an ASD individual doing terrible things are about the same as a neurotypical person doing terrible things [4][5]. Yes, you could genuinely have a colleague who is both "on the spectrum" and a bully. But the problem is not the ASD. 

The problem is the bullying.

The rest of us on the autistic spectrum want to see bullies held accountable because chances are they have been bullying us. Your colleagues with ASD are statistically much more likely to be the targets of bullying and sexual harassment than their neurotypical peers [3][4]. When a group or institution fails to hold a harasser or bully accountable for their behavior, they are much more likely to be harming an ASD victim than helping an ASD perpetrator. 

B.) In fact, when you let a bad actor off the hook because of their autism, you are doing considerable harm to every other ASD person out there. Yes, I mean all of us. When someone uses the "Autism is to Blame" excuse to avoid sanctioning an abuser, they are painting all of the rest of us with the same brush. The autistic community is already dealing with considerable prejudice and numerous misconceptions of what we are and aren't capable of. Using autism as an excuse for abusive behavior pre-emptively criminalizes everyone with ASD as suspected future offenders. The stigma makes it that much harder for disclose our disability or request accommodation when we actually need it. 

This logic extends to every other instance of blaming social ills on mental illness in society. That's why the disability community keep asking people to stop using "crazy" as a slur for horrible people doing genuinely evil things.

Make no mistake, when you blame the behavior of a bully or a serial harasser on a disability - whether that is autism, mental illness, social or cognitive disorder, or any other form of neurodivergence - you are not doing the disability community any favors. You are not raising awareness, and you are not fighting ableism. You are doing the opposite. You are perpetuating a harmful stereotype of autistic individuals.  Stereotypes don't raise awareness; they fuel prejudices. 

C.) Securing the right to self-determination - control over the course of one's own life, and the ability to choose that course for oneself - is perhaps the most central goal of the disability rights movement [6]. It's a particularly fraught issue in the autism community right now: childhood autism diagnoses exploded in the 1990s and 2000s, resulting in a large cohort of children entering the public conversation during those decades. These children necessarily relied on parents, doctors, and caregivers to advocate for them. The early years of autism "awareness" focused on the needs of these caregivers, on the anti-vaccination movement, and on a search for a "cure". This unfortunately left the public with an enduring stereotype of autistic children as a tragic societal burden, and in some ways this campaign increased the stigma of autism as much as it decreased it.

As these children grew into adulthood, and as adults from older generations began seeking diagnoses of their own, the focus of the autism activism has shifted back towards self-advocacy and self-determination [7]. But these adults often find the path to full participation in society blockaded by the lingering prejudices and stereotypes of the late 20th century. These prejudices include the misconception that ASD individuals have no empathy [8], or are unable tell right from wrong in social situations. 

These misconceptions and stereotypes create barriers to within the workplace in particular, because the flip side of self-determination is accountability. And accountability is a pre-requisite for most jobs - certainly any that require supervising other people. 

This is what ableism really looks like: employers shying away from hiring or promoting autistic individuals, because they fear their ASD colleague will misunderstand social cues, lack empathy, and be unable to distinguish right from wrong. How could such a person work within a team, supervise students, or manage employees? "Autism is to Blame" fuels the belief that ASD individuals cannot be fully functional and productive members of society.

But autism doesn't predispose an employee or student to bad behavior [4][5]. If an ASD scientist is already functioning at a high level in academia - whether as a PhD student teaching undergraduates, or as a faculty member running a research group and advising younger scientists - they have are already assumed to understand right and wrong, and have demonstrated this capability repeatedly. They know the difference, and they need to be accountable for their actions when they choose to behave badly.

D.) Finally, blaming autism lets the root problem go unaddressed. And that problem is bullying and harassment. Most of us are complicit in this, because we are all making excuses for someone or another. We choose to believe that a colleague can't be horrible to their students because they've always been supportive and collegial to us. We tell the new administrative assistant she is being oversensitive when she confides in us. We blame the fact that our friend had a few drinks. We blame autism. 

None of these excuses hold water. They are all smokescreens. Autism isn't the problem. The problem is that we don't want to complicate our lives by holding our friends and colleagues accountable. 

Trust me: as a woman with Asperger's, social gaffes make me miserable. If you point the mistake out to me, I may make it again later, but I promise you I will make it differently. I understand right from wrong. My empathy is not always automatic or instinctive, but it still hurts me to realize I've hurt someone else. You may have to explain it to me somewhat explicitly, but I'm capable of understanding when my actions cause harm. Over time I will adjust my behavior. Over time I will anticipate those situations, and no longer require explanations to avoid mistakes.

Bullies and harassers make the same "mistake" over and over and over again. They don't change their behavior; they simply take it underground. Remember that there is almost always a power imbalance in bullying and serial sexual harassment. Abusers choose their victims carefully, saving their worst behavior for the the most vulnerable, naive, and isolated targets. And yes, ASD abusers really can figure out how to do this too. Instead of using charm to camouflage their bad behavior, they use their awkwardness and seeming-incompetence to avoid repercussions. 

Bullying and harassment are not one-time activities. They are not "awkwardness". If they were simply errors in reading social cues, with autism as the root cause, the autistic individual would do it to everybody equally, regardless of social status. But that's not what bullies do.  They select victims who are comparatively powerless, while presenting a much more inoffensive face to people who could do real damage their careers.

A bully clearly knows the difference between right and wrong; they demonstrate it every time they choose to act one way around people who could sanction them, and another around those who can't.

At the end of the day, blaming autism for abusive behavior within the astronomy community hurts ASD scientists far more than it helps. Blaming autism both pre-emptively criminalizes neurodivergence, opens the door to prejudice, and creates barriers to autistic self-determination. It lets known bullies and harassers off the hook. It re-victimizes their targets, while allow the bully to continue harming others. 

"Autism is to Blame" is ableist. It is not an accommodation. 

It is merely an excuse. 

On behalf of all the awkward, "on the spectrum" astronomers who have managed to figure out how to navigate our careers without making life harder for someone else: it's time for our community to deal with its abusers. 

Just leave autism out of it.


[1]Brown, K.R., Vallejo Peña, E., & Rankin, S. 2017. "Unwanted Sexual Contact: Students with Autism and Other Disabilities at Greater Risk." J College Student Development, 58(5), 771

[2]Brown-Lavoie, S.M, Viecili, M. A., & Weiss J. A.  2014. "Sexual Knowledge and Victimization in Adults with Austin Spectrum Disorders." J Autism Dev Disorders, 44(9),  2185

[3]Hwang, S., Kim, Y. S., Koh, Y.-J., & Leventhal, B. L. 2018. "Autism Spectrum Disorder and School Bullying: Who is the Victim? Who is the Perpetrator?" J Autism Dev Disorders, 48(1), 225 

[4]Schroeder, J. H., Cappadocia, M. C., Bebko, J. M., Pepler, D. J. & Weiss, J. A. 2014. "Shedding Light on a Pervasive Problem: A Review of Research on Bullying Experiences Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders." J Autism Dev Disorders, 44(7), 1520

[5] King, C. & Murphy, G. H. 2014. "A Systematic Review of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Criminal Justice System." J Autism Dev Disorders, 44(11), 2717

[6]Ward, M. J. and Meyer, R. N. 1999. " Self-Determination for People with Developmental Disabilities and Autism."  Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, 14(3), 133 ( A thorough and concise history of the disability rights movement, with particular emphasis on autistic self-advocacy)

[7]Austin Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), Position Statements: http://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/position-statements/

[8] Dziobek, I., Rogers, K., Fleck, S., Bahnemann, M., Heekeren, H. R., Wolf, O. T.  &  Convit, A. 2008.  "Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger syndrome using the Multi-facted Empahty Test (MET)."  J Autism Dev Disorders, 38(3), 464