Quick hit: don’t blame autism dammit

Marissa Lingen writes on the highly disturbing but very very common theme of explaining harassment and abuse as inevitable results of people with autism spectrum conditions participating in geek or online communities:

Somebody conflated predatory sexual harassment with lack of social skills, and both of them with “Asberger’s,” by which one can only assume they mean Asperger’s syndrome/autism spectrum disorders.

People who have poor social skills, whether because of a neurological condition or because they were raised badly or because they have disdained to learn them or whatever other reason–those people make their social gaffes in full view of large groups. Their colleagues are never surprised to find that they have been saying inappropriate things to a particular group of people for years, because they have poor enough social skills that they don’t get that they’re screwing up. So they don’t hide it. These are the folks who will be sitting with you in the consuite and blurt out a remark, about two notches too loud, about the size of your breasts. And if you are a kind person and feel that they might learn, you can gently say something about that not being a very appropriate thing to say.

But someone who waits until they are with someone they perceive to be in a position of less power to make their remarks? Someone who makes sure that there are no witnesses who will have the authority to censure them? Someone who makes a consistent pattern of aiming their behavior at people who will have a difficult time making the bad behavior known or a reason not to do so? That is not someone who lacks social skills. That’s someone who is using their social skills fairly precisely.

(Via Russell Coker.)

9 thoughts on “Quick hit: don’t blame autism dammit

  1. Alice

    Always a point worth making. It is a challenge already handling the sometimes unsavory opinions out there about Asperger’s individuals without someone exploiting the syndrome to their benefit.

  2. AMM

    As someone whose son is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (IIRC, there’s no apostrophe-plus-s in the name), and who has spent almost two decades trying to understand what it is and explain it to other people, I get really irritated by the way people who don’t know a D thing about it throw around the diagnosis.

    Autistic spectrum disorders involve aspects of the mind that most people aren’t even aware can exist. Unless you’ve had a lot of experience with people with ASDs and people with similar issues who _aren’t_ on the autistic spectrum, it’s easy to confuse autism with other problems. We had an expert in differential diagnosis examine my son, and it involved something like 10 visits, including the psychiatrist seeing my son at home and at his school.

    90% of mental health professionals are not competent to make the diagnosis accurately (that includes almost 100% of school psychologists and social workers, BTW, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has dealt with that tribe.) So when people who _aren’t_ professionals and who haven’t spent hours specifically examining their “patient” for the signs that distinguish ASD from other issues start throwing around the diagnosis just makes them look stupid[*] “Fools rush in …” and all that.

    BTW, one thing I _do_ know: lack of social skills is a very _poor_ indicator of ASD.

    [*] In the “I have a brain, but I don’t see why I should have to use it” sense.

  3. PharaohKatt

    This is so true. My youngest brother has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he doesn’t act like a sexist arse hole. In fact, he wrote a speech for his school speech comp deconstructing masculine gender roles and how misogyny and sexism hurts men. He also hits* my other younger brother (who hasn’t got an ASD) with the Cluevat f Privilege on occasion.

    AMM: I think its Asperger in some places and Asperger’s in others. I more often see it Asperger’s in Austrlia.

    *figuratively, he’s not violent.

  4. AnneC

    *Thank* you for making this point. I am diagnosed with AS myself and it irks me to no end to encounter repeated assertions (mostly by individuals attempting to defend or rationalize sexist, predatory, or just plain jerky behavior) that complaining about harassment is tantamount to being mean to people who are autistic or at least somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

    This kind of thing also often seems to go along with a blanket presumption that autism is inherently a “male” neurology, and while statistically there may indeed be more males diagnosed with ASDs (I haven’t researched to confirm this myself, mind you, I’ve just come across a lot of people saying this is the case) that doesn’t mean no autistic women exist OR that being on the spectrum makes respecting others impossible.

    I KNOW (now, at least, as an adult) that I can come across as extremely awkward, at least based on some of the feedback I get from others. I miss a lot of standard social cues, have trouble with eye contact, have a weird startle response, etc. My conversational timing is “off” because I can’t often say things when it’s my “turn” but then also tend to interrupt people because otherwise I would never say anything (this has to do with speech being “triggered” by others’ words but not by others’ silence and I try to minimize it but it happens anyway sometimes). I’ve also been known to “monologue”. Etc.

    So it’s not as if I don’t have social difficulties. I have a lot of them…but NONE of them in any way mean that I’m bound to be creepy or harass or stalk people, etc. I am perfectly capable of comprehending “don’t bother me” or “go away” or “you’re being annoying”, and perfectly capable of stopping things that people don’t like when they are pointed out. And this can’t be attributed to my being female, as I do actually know plenty of autistic-spectrum guys who ARE NOT jerks in the least.

    The main common thread I see in jerks of all genders is a sense of entitlement to violate others’ boundaries regardless of the wishes of said others, and IMO that’s an issue totally separate from whether someone is on the autism spectrum. I sincerely hope the Fallacy of the Autistic Jerkass dies a swift death *real* soon, because I am exceedingly weary of encountering it time and time again.

  5. Anonymouse

    I’ve commented here before, but I’m anonymousing for this because I’m talking about personal experiences with assault. Trigger warning for discussion of a community reacting poorly to harassment and assault.

    Thanks for this post.

    As someone who’s been assaulted by someone with a neurological predisposition towards not knowing the rules (I don’t know what his particular diagnosis is and I’m not going to speculate), conversations about the intersection between social skills and sexual assault/harassment in geek communities are hard for me. Not because I think that Autism will make it more likely that someone will misbehave, but because I don’t see how anyone would think it would excuse their behavior, or absolve anyone of responsibility to keep the community safe.

    Most of the people I’ve seen being assholes at conventions are people who damn well know the rules, and are manipulating them to their benefit. Like AnneC, I also know more people on the spectrum that respect people’s boundaries than people on the spectrum that don’t. My totally non-scientific sample set puts the proportions roughly equal to everyone else I know.

    But I also have firsthand experience with the dangers that arise when people confuse social skills with social power. My attacker is a beloved member of a community we’re both part of. He is easily twice my size. Over the course of a couple years, he did many completely inappropriate things that should have made it clear to everyone that he was a danger to me–ranging from calling me “babe” after I’d told him not to a million times, to picking me up and carrying me around without my consent and in spite of my protests, to groping me in my sleep in a room full of witnesses. But every time I complained about his behavior to people who could put a stop to it, I got a lecture about how I needed to be more sensitive to how difficult it was for someone like him to find companionship.

    The common thread amongst that sort of person is decidedly not the way their brain is put together. The common thread is that they weaponize the Geek Acceptance Protocol–either because they know they can, or because they really don’t know that they shouldn’t.

    The way to combat that works the same against either kind of attacker: stop confusing compassion with carte blanche. You can sympathize with a guy who comes to geek events for acceptance he doesn’t find elsewhere, and still intervene when he’s being inappropriate. You can even intervene kindly, as in the example of the guy cat-calling in the consuite. But if he’s creating an unsafe space, you damn well sympathize with his victims first, by placing their right to a safe space ahead of other considerations. That way, whether the guy was manipulating social mores or stumbling right through them, you’ve still prevented him from hurting someone–which should be the first priority.

    Sadly, in many geek communities, that’s not the first priority–perhaps because male-dominated communities have an easier time sympathizing with being sexually frustrated than they do with being sexually assaulted. So when someone’s been a jerk, we get subjected to the same old laments about how geek guys just can’t get women, and it’s just not fair–and maybe just for extra measure they point out that some of them have disabilities that make it harder for them to get women–as if any of that has anything to do with sexual harassment and assault.

    Teal Dear: I agree that [citation’s needed] on any attempt to correlate sexual predation with Autism, and seriously doubt that such a correlation exists. But the question of whether an attacker is Autistic or not is not the primary issue from where I’m standing, because there is nothing about them that could make it ok for them to harass or assault others. Communities can deal compassionately with members who don’t understand where the lines are without compromising the safety of others, but only if they make safety their priority.

  6. AnneC

    Anonymouse wrote: “…because male-dominated communities have an easier time sympathizing with being sexually frustrated than they do with being sexually assaulted. ”

    I think this, right here, is a major important point. I’ve ended up backing the heck up and away from many discussion threads/forums/etc. that I might otherwise have been interested in due to seeing this attitude manifest so prominently. Like where there’s an air of general acceptance of the idea that when women “reject” men it’s somehow JustAsBad as when women are *attacked*.

  7. Kathryn Bjornstad

    Thanks for bringing this up. I am a geek, a feminist, and an autistic woman. I’ve heard a lot of people bring up autism spectrum disorders and bad behavior. I’m not going to lie and say that people with autism don’t sometimes make those kind of comments by pure accident, because we do. Especially when I was young, I was known to accidentally offend people and be completely unaware that what I’d said was inappropriate. It’s a lot better now but it takes some people longer to figure it out.

    But I think it’s a gross exaggeration for someone with autism to say that they insulted a woman or commented on her breasts because of issues relating to the autism. If someone does something like that, even if they’re autistic, they should be called out on it. And if an autistic person honestly offends someone through pure accident, instead of attempting to deflect it, they should apologize. Mysteriously enough, most autistic people I talk to dislike seeing autism used as an excuse for bad behavior, because it leads to stereotypes that make autistic people as a group look bad.

    I think this post is extremely accurate, and I hope people will stop blaming people like me for the intentional abuse that is caused by an entirely different group.

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