Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Relationships and Stereotypes

In a blog post yesterday, Zach at AspieWeb critiqued an article in which ComputerWorld editor Don Tennant opined that "the question of whether Asperger's syndrome is a disorder that needs to be treated is answered by the fact that human interaction is a prerequisite for making the world a better place."

In fairness to both ComputerWorld and Mr. Tennant, this editorial was a response to comments expressing aspie supremacist opinions that were posted by a few readers of a previous ComputerWorld article, and it is possible that Mr. Tennant simply made a careless choice of words and did not intend to suggest that all autistics were incapable of engaging in meaningful human interaction. The previous article, which discussed the high number of autistic workers in information technology, expressed a very favorable view: it contained links to pro-neurodiversity websites and suggested that employers should do more to support and accommodate their autistic workers.

Regardless of how it might have been intended, Mr. Tennant's editorial gives an unreasonably literal interpretation to a previous commenter's wish to be left alone. Perhaps he imagines that all autistics, in the absence of "treatment," develop an irresistible compulsion to live as hermits in wilderness cabins with no human interaction whatsoever? It's a rather absurd stereotype.

When viewed in the context of an intolerant society that regards many forms of cognitive diversity as disorders in need of treatment, a request to be left alone simply reflects a wish to have one's right to self-determination respected. Among other things, it means that neither Don Tennant nor anyone else should presume to declare other people's neurological differences to be "a disorder that needs to be treated." As with any other difference or disability, whether any therapies may be desirable is a personal decision and should be left entirely up to the individual, in consultation with professionals and family members as appropriate.

There's also a broader point that needs to be made, which is that a person's ability to form relationships is highly dependent on social and cultural factors affecting his or her interaction with others. For example, when an autistic man does not have a girlfriend, people often assume that it is because he lacks the ability to develop romantic relationships with women in general. Indeed, after many rejections, he may even think so himself. This assumption, however, does not take into account the fact that autistics are a small minority group, widely scattered throughout the world and often misunderstood by others. Compatible mates are therefore hard to find. Historically, it was common for dispersed ethnic minority groups to rely on arranged marriages within their small communities, but most autistics do not have that option. Thus, an autistic man's lack of a romantic relationship is likely to be blamed on his personal failings, even if he has never had the opportunity to meet a compatible and unprejudiced woman.

Autistics also end up getting unfairly stereotyped as lacking social abilities in many other situations, such as employment interviews where managers often make hiring decisions based on such factors as whether an applicant's speech and body language appear to be "normal." Even today, there are many people who do not recognize this attitude as a form of prejudice and who blame the victims for their difficulty in finding work.

Whenever any group of people is widely regarded as lacking essential social characteristics (and autistics are by no means the first minority group so described), it creates a self-reinforcing negative loop. The majority population can easily justify its prejudices because exclusion and segregation are seen as the natural order of things. Befriending or hiring minorities is thought to be a futile effort because they are assumed to be incapable of proper human interaction. The more they are excluded from mainstream society, the more their culture and behavior necessarily diverge from it, and the resulting differences are cited as proof of their inferiority.

If we fail to understand this historical pattern, we surely will repeat it.



  • As a tangent (precursor, perhaps giventhe age group?), it's been our experience with Nik's old school that they would not give him an autism classification b/c he was "so social and affectionate." Never mind the perseverations, the SIB's the nonverbal communication, lack of developmentally "appropriate" play, rigidity around transitions and routines... school refused to give him the necessary supports as a result. (We home school now.)Damned if you do, damned if you don't!

    By Blogger Niksmom, at 9:36 AM  

  • Great post! Which sort of raises the question for me...is it better to disclose one's AS or autism to an employer right off the bat, or to try and "fake it" during interview processes? Unfortunately, I think there is a substantial chance for discrimination either way.

    By Blogger Static Mom, at 10:34 AM  

  • "Perhaps he imagines that all autistics, in the absence of "treatment," develop an irresistible compulsion to live as hermits in wilderness cabins with no human interaction whatsoever?"

    Huh. That was my childhood dream! (And sometimes it's still an attractive one.)

    By OpenID conuly, at 10:49 AM  

  • Not that there is anything wrong with living as hermit in wilderness cabin...

    By Anonymous Tara, at 3:26 PM  

  • And sometimes those who used to think they would like to be 'an island' reneg upon their previous view and decide that some people really can be bearable. :) (Though I still haven't found anyone to live with lol.)


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:27 PM  

  • If employers and employees stopped thinking of their workplaces as an extension of their social lives, we would have much less of a problem with discrimination against autistic people in work situations. Mature and self-disciplined people understand that work is a place where the top priority is getting the job done, and this necessarily involves a diverse mixture of people all bringing their specilised skills and abilities to the task. Perhaps not all of these people are people that you might wish to share a drink with at the pub - that's your tough luck!

    In just about every workplace there has to be at least one technician/engineer/mechanic type person, and most people accept that this person is quite likely to be a male. I've often observed that employers and employees have different expectations for male and female workers. I've seen males working in the same position as females who are allowed to drop the usual work duties that involve working with children that come with that position, which is sexist and presumptuous in many cases, but I think is just a reflection of the fact that in general, many people have lowered expectations of males with regard to "empathizing" and socializing type work and behaviour. I can't see why it should be so much more difficult to allow autistic people the same or slightly more flexibility in the workplace than we already unconsciously offer to males in general. I mean, you wouldn't expect the forklift-driver bloke to step in to "man" the reception desk while the receptionist chick is on her lunch break, would you? But you would expect autistic workers to have spiffy social skills? How stupid and unfair those expectations are!

    By Blogger Lili Marlene, at 12:16 AM  

  • Thanks for this post, ABFH --- and for the clarification of the context of Tennant's remarks. (GRASP emailed the article to me, and without seeing the comments on the original article, his statement seemed random and condescending. It's still condescending even with that background information, but less random).

    As to the actual content of his essay, I think the matter of Helping One's Fellow Man is a lot more complicated than he thinks. Yes, empathy is good in a lot of ways (and note to Tennant: autistics can and do feel for other people, even NTs!), but just as important is the ability not to get caught up in groupthink. Sometimes the best way to do good is to speak up or blow the whistle when you think you coworkers (or classmates, or whatever) are doing something unethical. As autistics tend to be literal and rules-oriented rather than "whatever will help me fit in"-oriented, we'd have an advantage on that aspect of Making a Better World.

    By Blogger Lindsay, at 5:37 PM  

  • There's treatment and there's "treatment"....

    Big difference between trying to make an Aspie child seem normal, and teaching him communication skills. The first is abusive; the second, essential.

    If you can look eccentric and weird, and still get the point across without hurting anybody, then you've come as far as you need to. The rest of it is getting society to accept the eccentricity.

    Should like to have had decent lessons on how to communicate with those weirdo NTs all around me... Had to teach myself instead--as hard as a dyslexic teaching himself to read. Every Aspie child, I think, should have an Aspie mentor to show him the ropes...

    By Blogger Chaoticidealism, at 8:15 AM  

  • "is it better to disclose one's AS or autism to an employer right off the bat, or to try and "fake it" during interview processes? Unfortunately, I think there is a substantial chance for discrimination either way."

    I don't know about other countries, but in the UK deliberately concealing is considered fair gronds fo dimissal (althouh you wouldn't be dismissed if you didn' realise you had an ASD and got diagnosed after you'd already bee hired.)

    By Blogger sanabituranima, at 4:08 PM  

  • Sanabituranima: In the United States, a worker has no obligation whatsoever to disclose a disability. Employers are not even allowed to inquire about disabilities unless the worker starts the conversation by asking for accommodations.

    Of course, the downside of all this secrecy is that many employers are making ignorant and prejudiced decisions, while many workers are too afraid to ask for disability accommodations.

    We're only just now getting meaningful legal protection against disability discrimination with the amendments approved last month to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:43 AM  

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