LWN has an article by Valerie Aurora titled “The dark side of open source conferences”  which is about sexual harassment and sexual assault at Free Software conferences. Apparently some conferences create such a bad environment that some people won’t attend, it’s a well researched article that everyone in the community should read.
The Autism Derailment
The comments have the usual mix of insight, foolishness, and derailment that you expect from such discussions. One derailment thread that annoyed me is the discussion about men on the Autism Spectrum started by Joe Buck . Joe seems to believe that the 1% of males on the Autism Spectrum (and something greater than 1% but a lot less than 50% in the Free Software community) are a serious part of the problem because they supposedly hit on women who aren’t interested in them – in spite of the fact that the article in question is about women who are “being insulted, harassed, and groped at at open source conferences“. The article had no mention of men who try to chat up women – presumably this was a deliberate decision to focus on sexual assault and harassment rather than what Joe wanted to talk about.
In response Mackenzie made the following insightful point:
I don’t think any autistic person who is high-functioning enough to A) contribute to open source B) want to be at an event with so many people and C) carry on any sort of conversation is low-functioning enough not to understand “stop” or “no.” If you can understand “your patch has been rejected,” you can likely understand “don’t do that again.”
Understanding how Other People Feel
Bruce Perens claimed “What they [Aspies] don’t understand is how the other person in the situation feels“. Like many (possibly most) people Bruce doesn’t seem to get the fact that no-one can really understand how other people feel. The best logical analysis of this seems to be the Changing Emotions article on Less Wrong . While Less Wrong deals with Male to Female conversion as the example (which may be relevant to the discussion about the treatment of women) the same logic also applies to smaller changes. Anyone who even thinks that if they would always be able understand how their identical twin felt (if they had one) probably hasn’t considered these issues much. As an aside, having a psychologist diagnose you as being on the Autism Spectrum and therefore by implication thinking differently to 99% of the population really makes you consider the ways in which other people might have different thought processes and experiences.
Every time we have a discussion about issues related to sexism in the Free Software community we get a lot of documented evidence that there are many people who are apparently neuro-typical (IE not Autistic) who don’t understand how other people think – in many cases they go so far as to tell other people what their emotional state should be.
What Really Happens
Nix said “However, in that situation our natural reflex is to *get out of there*, not to jump on women like some sort of slobbering caveman” which is a really good summary.
In more detail, I think that the vast majority of guys who are on the Autism Spectrum and who are able to do things like attend computer conferences (*) realise that chatting up a random girl that they meet is something that just isn’t going to work out. Generally people don’t attempt things that they expect to fail so I don’t think that Autistic guys are going to be hitting on girls at conferences.
(*) Having never met any Autistic people who aren’t capable of attending such conferences I can’t speak for them. I really doubt that the Low Functioning Autistic guys are as much of a problem as some people claim, but lack evidence. In any case the actions of people who don’t attend conferences aren’t relevant to a discussion about things that happen at conferences.
Update: It Keeps Going
Dion claims that the misogyny at conferences is due to socially inept people, he also casually switches between discussing people who misunderstand when someone is flirting and people who hire almost-naked booth-babes (two very different classes of action) . Several people asked for supporting evidence, naturally none was provided.
In response njs posted a link to Marissa Lingen’s blog post “Don’t blame autism, dammit” . Marissa points out that people who offend other people due to lacking social skills will tend to do so in times and places that are likely to get a bad reaction – if you don’t know that you are doing something wrong then there’s no reason to hide it. If someone offends a senior manager at a corporate event then it could be because they are on the Autism Spectrum (I’ve apparently done that). If someone offends junior people at a times and places where there are no witnesses but is always nice to managers and other powerful people then it’s not related to Autism.
One final note, I have little tolerance for anyone who claims to be an Aspie when they do something wrong. You are either on the Autism Spectrum all the time or none of it. Anyone who wants any sympathy for me for an occasion where they stuffed up due to being an Aspie can start by making a clear statement about where they are on the Autism Spectrum.
Update2: Yet More from Bruce Perens
Bruce wrote “IMO, the kind of men who go in to software engineering suffer a lack of healthy interaction with women who are their peers, and it may be that the high incidence of empathy disorders in our field is involved” (which seems to be part of the inspiration for Joe Buck later in that thread) and now claims “Nobody here was trying to connect Asperger’s or autism with the touching incidents or violent crime“.
Matthew Garrett responded to that with “If you weren’t trying to say that the high incidence of empathy disorders in our field was related to a lack of healthy interaction with women who are their peers, and that that has something to do with incidents of sexual harassment or assault at conferences, what were you trying to say? Because that sounds awfully like ‘We wouldn’t have so many problems if it weren’t for all the autists’“.
Bruce’s latest comment is “If you choose to read something that nasty into my writing, that’s your problem. Get therapy“.
Through this discussion I’ve been unsure of whether to interpret the statements by Bruce et al the way Matthew does or whether I should consider them as merely a desperate attempt to derail the discussion. I can’t imagine any possible way of interpreting such comments in connection with the discussion of sexual assault as anything other than either trivialising violent crimes against women (suggesting that they are no worse than asking out someone who’s not interested) or claiming that anyone who lacks social skills should be treated as a violent sexual predator. It’s just not reasonable to believe that every single person who wrote such comments referring to Autism was misunderstood and really meant something nice.
As a general rule I don’t think that it’s the responsibility of other people to try and find a non-offensive interpretation of something that one might say. I don’t think that all the people who strongly disagree with the most obvious and reasonable interpretations of Bruce’s comments should get therapy. I think that Bruce should explain what he means clearly.