Quick hit: LWN discussion on sexism, social skills, and autism spectrum disorders

As I mentioned in the link roundup, the LWN thread on the Free Software Foundation’s women in Free Software mini-summit will burn your sanity points. But there’s an interesting comment thread involving Matthew Garrett (mjg59) and Bruce Perens about Asperger’s and high functioning autism and what can be expected from people with Asperger’s if they are critised for sexist behaviour or otherwise offending people.

I wanted to highlight this discussion largely because “(s)he can’t help it, (s)he’s autistic” and the more disturbing variant “if geekdom just tossed out all those non-neurotypical folk, all the nasty sexism would go away” pop up fairly commonly in geek feminism discussions. (I don’t observe this much from geek feminists themselves, although being neurotypical I won’t be as alert to it, but certainly in the discussions.) I appreciate the considerably more nuanced discussion on this.

Note for commenters: While the LWN discussion started by talking about Richard Stallman (RMS) and the EMACs virgins incidents, statements about Stallman being neurotypical or not seem to be a matter of speculation only. Comments on this post making blanket assumptions about all neurodiverse people being unable to function in society or perform certain social tasks, or presuming that any individual is or is not neurotypical without that person’s self-identification being known, will be deleted.

3 thoughts on “Quick hit: LWN discussion on sexism, social skills, and autism spectrum disorders

  1. Melissa

    I was also rather sickened by Perens’ mockery of the anguish he recalled noticing in Lefty’s discussion with him at GCDS which he then proceeded to directly follow with a comment to the tune of ‘what about us poor men who are not getting laid!’

  2. Kevin Mark

    ASD people run a gamut of ability and disability. It includes ADD, bad handwriting, eye contact issues, perserverations , language skill issues, sensory issues, body language issues, executive function issues, communication issues and others. Every ASD person has a different set of these. So there are people like in the film ‘Adam’ who have obvious traits and others that more or less blend into NT society. I would guess that lots of ASD people are in the free software world but I’d hazard a further guess that there are more male than female on the spectrum. To say that someone with an ASD might have trouble knowing in advance that a speech might offend a group of people is possible. Having the ability to discern this when talking to someone face-to-face might be an issue for some ASD folks as they might have trouble seeing signals of disgust or horror or shock. There is also ‘theory of mind’ issues which makes some only able to understand things from their perspective and thus assume everyone else sees things their way. But again this is not every ASD person. Now there are things one can do like have your speech vetted by a third-party and then listening to that person. Now some ASD people need very detailed information to fully understand how, why and in what way something is offensive but they should be able to understand given enough data. ASD folks do not know social cues when YOUNG but there is usually nothing that stops them from learning them as they mature in their 20s,30s, etc. In fact, there are many book and even DVDs made for this now. Many learn by experience, by example, by study what they did not know in their youth. So while there is a possibility that someone with an ASD might make a speech once and not understand, but then doing it over and over again, being told it is offensive, not heeding warnings, and not getting someone to vet the material is not easy to defend as purely related to ASD. People with ASD can have other issues that can explain this behavior. I can not say for sure. There is one more note. Aspergers is not something that something who is over 30 would be expected to have had diagnosed as the DSM did not have any listing until the 1990s and that is not a great one. So RMS and many older hackers did not have the advantage to have a diagnosis or treatment but still many ASD folks do not act the way that is described from my experience.

  3. tigtog

    Kevin, thanks for the comprehensive outline above. It certainly is too easy to say everyone with ASD does undesirable behaviour X, or that individual unacceptable behaviour Y is definitely due to someone’s ASD.

    As the parent of two kids diagnosed with ASD, and with many adults on my father’s side of the family realising in recent years that they have many signs of being on the spectrum (including me) even though we are not formally diagnosed, this fits in with my own experience of people with ASD. There’s a high variance in social skills, and certainly much improvement over the years for HFAs as intellectual analysis compensates for lack of intuition (my son’s social engagement has rocketed up to the low end of normal range over the last three years of secondary schooling). For me, the breakthrough away from some adolescent levels of social inappropriateness was drama school and stand up comedy – the level of analysis required of other people’s performance in order to improve one’s own suddenly allowed me to “see” a lot of social cues that used to pass me by.

    The flip side of “passing” as neurotypical most of the time? I’m sometimes blindsided by a gap in my intellectualised social education, and do the inappropriate thing, and people find it more shocking than they would from someone more obviously ASD. I’ve learnt to apologise profusely when that happens, and then go off and find out stuff about the previously unnoticed gap so that I don’t fall into it again.

    Which is probably why I don’t have that much sympathy for adults who generally “pass” as NT suddenly playing the “but I’m an Aspie” card when confronted on inappropriate behaviour. If you “pass” that well most of the time, then your social analysis skills should at least be at the level that you know that what is expected when you fuck up and hurt someone’s feelings is an apology and a sincere effort to avoid repeating that particular fuck-up.

    I have a lot more sympathy for the obviously awkward ASDie who doesn’t pass as NT at all – they obviously have large blind spots, and probably most particularly in the theory of mind area that Kevin mentions – but as Kevin also says, if they are doing it over and over again after being told that it is offensive, then unless it’s a perseverating stimming behaviour (physical flutterings/spins/taps etc) then there’s something more than just ASDie social cluelack going on.

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