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Autism as an Excuse

A Polish geek going by the handle of mmemuar has recently written a blog post claiming that people use Autism as an excuse for bad behavior [1]. He gets enough things wrong in one short post to make it worth debunking it. It seems that Google’s translation of Polish isn’t as good as some other languages, but unless Google mistranslated about a dozen sections such that they had the exact opposite meaning then mmemuar’s post has a lot of wrong ideas.

Does Anyone use Autism as an Excuse?

I’ve read a lot of blog posts written by people on the Autism Spectrum, read many forum discussions, and talked to more than a few people in person. So far I haven’t yet encountered any evidence of people using an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis as an excuse. There are probably about 70,000,000 people who meet the diagnostic criteria (most of whom have not been diagnosed due to not having access to anyone who is qualified to do an assessment). The number of people who have been diagnosed is large enough that I couldn’t claim that none of them have ever used it as an excuse. The number of self-diagnosed people is also large enough that there has to be some people who wouldn’t get diagnosed if professionally assessed. But I don’t see any evidence that using an ASD as an excuse is at all common.

I imagine that some people would take someone merely mentioning the fact that they have an ASD diagnosis in a public place (EG a mailing list or a blog post) as some sort of an excuse. One problem with such an interpretation is that for every way in which people on the Autism Spectrum annoy other people it’s the ones who aren’t diagnosed (or who reject a diagnosis) that will do it the most. Being diagnosed with an ASD is correlated with annoying other people less. Another problem is that keeping quiet about such things when they get raised for discussion so often takes a psychological toll.

When someone is diagnosed as an adult a fairly common reaction is to study Psychology and Sociology (usually through web sites such as Sociological Images – which I highly recommend [2]) and try to get a better understanding of other people. Any time you assume that everyone else thinks like you then you will get things wrong, when someone gets an ASD diagnosis they will probably take more care to avoid making such mistakes.

Is Autism Obvious?

Mmemuar says “if you were full of autistic, which is very easy to overheat the brain from excess signals at the input, it would be very obvious to all“. There are some people who are utterly incapable of acting like an NT. But the majority of people on the Autism Spectrum have some ability to pass as NT, it just takes a lot of effort. So if someone is spending all their effort to walk, talk, and make eye contact in a way that most people expect then they will have little spare effort for other things. This can result in them having little patience for other people. The solution to this is to not require people to look average.

Even apart from Autism there are people who fidget, don’t make eye contact in the way you expect, and do other things a little differently. Being tolerant of such things won’t hurt you and will generally make things easier for everyone.

TheAnMish gave a good Youtube presentation about the way that she has to act “normal” [3]. Note that while her video represents her own personal experiences (which differ slightly from those of other Aspies – particularly male Aspies) they are regarded as representative enough for her video to be shown by Tony Attwood (a world renowned expert on Asperger Syndrome) at a conference about women on the Autism Spectrum. As an aside I disagree with her use of the word “normal” without scare-quotes.

Learning about Psychology through Sci-Fi

In the end of the blog post and in some of the comments there is discussion about learning to understand people through reading sci-fi books. The first problem with this is that fiction books generally have a range of characters that is determined by the author’s understanding of people, if you read multiple books by an author then you will usually notice the same character types. The second problem is that characters in fiction books are simplified to fit into a reasonable sized book, in real life people have lots of really boring reasons for doing what they do, in fiction only stuff that is interesting ends up in print.

But the biggest problem is that fiction books just aren’t a good way of learning about people. Whatever lessons might be in a fiction book will probably be missed by a reader who is concentrating on the plot. You can learn things about people by reading an analysis of literature by a Psychologist or a Sociologist, but apart from that you probably won’t be able to learn things if you don’t already know them.

As an aside, my experience of reading sci-fi books suggests that some of the popular sci-fi authors have such a poor understanding of people that it impairs their ability to write believable fiction about human characters. If I was going to try and learn about people by reading fiction I’d choose something that’s been popular for a long time. If a book has been popular for more than 100 years and sold well in different times, cultures, and languages then it probably has something to say about the human condition.

Catching up on Youth

Mmemuar says “absolutely nothing prevents you to the age of twenty he began to catch up on some ‘of youth’“. Actually one significant thing is that the human brain develops in particular stages, the older you get the more difficult it becomes to learn things. So even if it was just a matter of learning things someone who was behind at age 20 would have some significant difficulty in catching up. But some things just can’t be learned, for example someone who has extreme discomfort in making eye contact can’t just learn to be happy with it.

Also there are some things which people would have learned if it was possible. For example people who have Prosopagnosia (an inability to recognise faces) suffer extreme bullying in school, if they could just learn to recognise people then they surely would do so, so if they complete school without learning then it’s probably going to be impossible for them. Prosopagnosia is one of many conditions which can contribute to social difficulties and therefore contribute to an ASD diagnosis.

Can Aspies get Married?

Some people think that people on the Autism Spectrum can’t get married. In fact this belief is so widely held that some people who seem very obviously Autistic are convinced that they are NT simply because they are married! The fact that there are more than few books offering advice to people who have married someone who is on the Autism Spectrum is clear proof that such claims are bogus.

The Relevance to Geek Communities

People who meet the diagnostic criteria for Asperger Syndrome will almost certainly be Geeks due to the “Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities” section of the diagnostic criteria (the proposed revision for the DSM-V is the best reference I know for this [4]) as the modern use of the term Geek applies to anyone who has an extreme interest in something. The more Geeky a community is the greater the incidence of people who could be diagnosed with an ASD.

Spreading ideas such as those of mmemuar will lead to people not being assessed for an ASD. I would have been assessed earlier if it wasn’t for hearing an influential member of the Linux community say some things which were similar in concept (although not as deliberate). Having people not be assessed is bad for the individuals in question and bad for the community.

5 comments to Autism as an Excuse

  • BBoppie

    Maybe in the circle he travels, there are people that do that but most aren’t trained to recognize psychological disorders
    even if they were staring them in the face. To most people, everybody “looks normal” unless it’s something very obvious with the person. That’s why a trained professional should be used who understands and knows what to look for unlike us layman who have nothing to lose. Using Autism as excuse for bad behavior, you know that somewhere along the line there’s some B.S. to hide something else or simply not own up to ones’ own behavior. Besides, how do they know if it’s not NPD?

  • Mariusz Mazur

    I’ve added a link to your post at the end of the original note.

  • etbe

    BBoppie: My observation is that most people have a very limited definition of the word “normal” which excludes lots of people, in many cases the vast majority of the world’s population is excluded.

    I acknowledge the possibility of an ASD being used as an excuse in the start of this post. But it’s something that I’m just not seeing, so I don’t think it’s at all common. The incidence of undiagnosed Aspies has to be a lot greater than the people who use real or false diagnosis as an excuse.

    For every situation where you have interactions between a privileged group and a minority group there will be claims that excuses are made. Such claims will probably be true in some rare cases, but really people should keep focusing on the most common cases.

    Mariusz: Thanks a lot for that!

  • This is an excellent idea. I hope that the auitsm acceptance promoted on Autism Twitter Day includes acceptance of the entire auitsm spectrum including the lower functioning, cognitively impaired persons with Autistic Disorder.

  • etbe

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autistic_Pride_Day
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Autism_Day
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism_Sunday

    Mamoutou: What is Autism Twitter Day? Autistic Pride Day is June 18. World Autism Day is April 2. Autism Sunday is a religious day on the second Sunday in February. I can’t find a reference to an ongoing Autism Twitter Day, only an event that was apparently held once.