Autism and the Importance of Doing Better
Accommodating the disabled sounds like a no-brainer. But what if it did more harm than good?
This week’s article is a guest post by Johan Pregmo.
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When I was nine years old, I was formally diagnosed with what was then called Asperger’s syndrome, and is now known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I spent the next six years in special education aimed at meeting the needs of neurodivergent children. It was a lifesaving experience, offering crucial help in navigating the quagmire of social interaction — an education not just in math, science, and history, but in how to become a better, more well-adjusted person. I was incredibly lucky to have been born in Sweden, whose strong institutions and robust social programs were doubtless a factor in the success of my education.
It was the 90s. Autism was only just emerging into the public consciousness, and was poorly understood. I never experienced much prejudice as a result of my condition, but many others surely did. We’ve undoubtedly come a long way since then. The public today is better informed, and although many may not experientially understand autism, it’s now reasonable to expect some degree of accommodation if you’re autistic.
Affording disabled people special dispensation seems the least any forward-thinking, progressive society could do. And it is necessary, of course; autism renders most either incapable or severely disadvantaged at the social skills nearly everyone else takes for granted. Extending some degree of consideration makes perfect sense — but to what extent? As much as we should strive to build a fair society for all, too far a pendulum swing risks infantilizing autistic people and disincentivizing them from personal improvement. Over the years, I have noticed a condescending attitude toward autists — primarily from well-meaning non-autistic folks — which often ends up hurting the very people it seeks to empower.
While the effect this has is pernicious, the problem is completely counter-intuitive. In today’s world, every decent person agrees that we ought to ease the problems of the disabled. We install wheelchair ramps for those who cannot walk, so what’s the issue with providing a sort of social wheelchair ramp for the neurodivergent?
What is Autism?
Let’s define autism before we go further. The definition has evolved and expanded since I was diagnosed, and as the disorder exists on a spectrum, its symptoms vary both in severity and in whether they manifest at all. Autism can mean different things to different individuals depending on how it affects them, but it is nevertheless a real phenomenon with real criteria, determined by medical professionals.
ASD is a neurological disorder, typically genetically inherited on the father’s side. Its most well-known feature is a sort of awkward social cluelessness resulting from an inability to read basic social signals. Other symptoms include hyper-literalism and difficulty in grasping metaphors or abstract humor; amazing memory in areas of interest but exceedingly poor retention in other domains; attention deficit; a tendency toward formality; difficulty understanding nuance and a rigid mindset of black/white binaries; mild obsessive behavior and a need for routine; monomaniacal interest in highly niche subfields; and massive egocentrism due to difficulty empathizing with other perspectives. In more extreme examples, autism can lead to severe disability, such as being nonverbal, cognitively impaired, or having serious behavioral problems, though such cases fall outside the scope of the topic at hand and should be treated separately.
The Social Animal
It is important to stress, as someone who has lived with autism for decades, that this is a handicap. No matter how you square it, having ASD is a net negative. There are some advantages, sure — the ability to retain very specific, detailed information, for example — but on the whole, autism works against you far more than it benefits you. It leaves you profoundly socially challenged, in a species defined by social interaction. The degree to which this holds you back will vary based on a number of factors, but if you want to fit in, then you’re left having to painstakingly learn, over much of your life, things that most people effortlessly intuit as children.
And believe me, fitting in matters. As much as your mother told you that you’re perfect just the way you are, reality is a cold hard bitch, and when breaking social norms alienates you from your peers, leaving you lonely, isolated, and frustrated, being “just the way you are” is a roadmap to misery. If you behave like a selfish dickhead, regardless of whether you are in fact a dickhead or because you’re unknowingly acting like one, the outcome is the same: no one will want to befriend, collaborate with, or date you. And no reheated 90s self-esteem platitudes are going to change that.
When you first get formally diagnosed, it offers immediate benefits — you have a real explanation for why you’re so different and why your manner can be off-putting to others, with the authority of modern psychology behind you. Wrapped in this cloak of legitimacy, your behavior is no longer a personal failing, but rather an innate disadvantage. Which, of course, it is. Autistic people really do need social education, but this can also become an easy cover for poor conduct. As a child, I often behaved like a little shit, and then cynically used my autism as a shield. I would say things I knew full well were hurtful or antagonistic to other children, only to pretend I didn’t know any better — after all, I was just the autistic kid. Fortunately, I had a mother who wouldn’t stand for it. She was understanding but firm, reprimanding and disciplining me when I needed it, and stubbornly instilling in me some semblance of consideration for others.
What happens to autistic people who are not treated with this reasonable mixture of sensitive but authoritative correction, whose behavioral flaws are tolerated, excused, or placated? Imagine an autist with no incentive to change, because their surrounding social environment is either lax on disciplining bad conduct, or permissive of it in the name of being tolerant toward the poor, underprivileged neurodiverse person. The result is an entirely self-centered individual, given free rein to indulge in the worst kind of inconsiderateness. It’s a recipe for creating a douchebag.
Autism naturally lends itself toward egocentrism, not because we are innately narcissistic but because there is a legitimate struggle to empathize with others. We all use ourselves as starting points, until we mature enough to understand how other people behave and differ. To indulge this is to cripple an individual’s development as a person, fostering an inflexible mindset that avoids the difficulties of processing nuance. It breeds the most excruciating kind of person to interact with. A permissive attitude hinders an already uphill battle, since, big surprise, being selfish and rude tends to not go over well with people. The effect of permissiveness doesn’t benefit any party involved. It might seem easier or more tolerant in the moment, but a problem unaddressed will recur again and again.
An Obstacle To Be Overcome
There’s a key distinction to be made here which gets to the heart of the matter. Except in the aforementioned severe cases, autism is a difficulty that can, with time and effort, absolutely be overcome. For my own part, although my underlying issues remain, I can pass for “normal” in everyday social contexts, through many years of effort. In every possible way, I am better off for it — a whole new world of opportunities is open to me because of these hard-won social skills. However, there is a perception that autism is this almost fatalistic, agency-robbing destiny that precludes any possibility for personal improvement. It makes no sense to be upset at somebody with Tourette’s syndrome for randomly swearing — it’s a verbal tic they have no control over, after all. Likewise, it’s easy to view autism as an inherent part of the individual, not to be mitigated with effort, but to be accepted, appeased, and even praised.
I’m well aware that I differ from most of the autistic people I know in this respect — and certainly most autists online. I see autism as an impediment to be surmounted, not a source of strength. Everything you accomplish is in spite of your autism, not because of it. It’s so easy, even natural, to identify with a lifelong disorder with no known cure. How could it not become part of your sense of self, when it’s literally shaping your core personality traits and social interactions, ever-present in marking you out as different? It’s not so strange to imagine that people would want to spin it as a positive thing, as a strength rather than a weakness.
But it is a weakness. Your autism is not an identity to celebrate, it’s an obstacle to be overcome. Identifying with it is a pitfall, as it stops you from seeing the diagnosis as the hindrance it is. I was lucky — I had an understanding but stern mother, robust special education, a fairly high-functioning version of the disorder, and I was brought up in a tolerant society — and it still caused me nothing but grief. No, your attention deficit, your tendency to unwittingly hurt people’s feelings, your struggles to interact with others, or your inability to understand them are not something to be proud of. Neither are they cause for shame. You never asked for your autism. But it’s nevertheless an obstacle, and it’s up to you to realize that, take responsibility, and work on it.
And yet, there are many who would rather celebrate the problem than do anything about it. This misguided sentiment is especially rampant online. The progressive attitudes on the web lend themselves perfectly to identity politics. A non-debilitating disability like many forms of ASD can easily become a sexy little accessory to add to your Twitter bio, another notch in the chase for that coveted minority status. Being autistic in real life can be deeply frustrating and alienating, but online it can lead to validation if you’re in the right circles. It makes you a “marginalized” minority, and if you can stack up enough of these tags; like being non-binary, non-white, or LGBT, then you’re intersectionally oppressed, a one-way ticket straight to the top of the left’s social caste system.
For autistic people, this is a perverse incentive. Your condition, with all its disadvantages, is rewarded. Why would you strive to better yourself, learn to pass for neurotypical, and adjust to society when your eccentricities and shortcomings are considered not only acceptable, but laudable? When you are surrounded by people who praise the oppressed minority status to a religious degree? The allure is undeniable. At first glance, the choice between a harsh reality that demands hard work and a digital world that venerates you just for existing seems obvious.
Nobody Hits as Hard as Life
This disconnect came crashing down in the curious case of Joshua Collins, an autistic trucker and socialist who ran for US congress in 2020 in Washington state. The then-26 year old Collins had tens of thousands of followers across social media. But the election ended in humiliation, with Collins finishing in fifteenth place, his online influence counting for nothing at the ballot box. What bears mentioning was not his politics or failed strategies, but rather his inability to engage with the public outside of social media. His team of aides routinely sheltered him from the influx of messages, criticism, and scrutiny, citing his autism, and that he was too sensitive for it.
Some people undoubtedly are too sensitive for the pressures of national politics. The fact is, people who cannot handle that level of stress should not be elected officials, and regardless of your views on socialism, Collins deserved to fail. He counted on sympathy for his disability to excuse him from real responsibilities — and it was a losing strategy.
With my rejection of leniency, coddling, and the online social justice hugboxes, it’s fair to ask what the alternative should be. Should we just not be considerate of people’s autism? Should we simply treat them like anyone else? Well, yes and no. Autistic folks have a real disability that cannot be wished away with a bit of willpower and good old-fashioned bootstrapmanship. But it can be improved upon. Social inabilities can be compensated for both from outside help and individual effort. And it starts with a culture that respects people enough to hold them accountable.
Autists need encouragement and understanding, but we also need discipline and accountability. We need spaces where we can socially engage on our own terms, and the internet has wonderfully provided that, but we also need the incentives to grow beyond them. Only then, only when given the ability to conquer your challenges, can you truly thrive. Autistic people must be given consideration — and in turn, we must work on ourselves to overcome the unfortunate hand we’ve been dealt. You don’t have to become normal, but learning how to pass as such is to everyone’s benefit — yours and everyone else’s.
This will never be achieved if one’s attitude is to tolerate or celebrate serious personal flaws under the guise of tolerance. I want autistic people to prosper, and the desire to coddle them is ultimately not only counter-productive, but harmful. There’s a fine line between ending stigma and normalizing problems, between treating people with courtesy despite their struggles and conveying the attitude that personal development is unnecessary. To walk that tightrope is no easy task. But then, nothing worthwhile in life ever is.
See also: “The Paradox of Trashing the Enlightenment”
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"There’s a fine line between ending stigma and normalizing problems"
This bit hits hard. I have long agreed that the neurodiversity crowd have ridden this line a little too closely, often to the determinant of those who live it. My wife's cousin is...probably 6.5/10 in the sense of severity, and furreal guys, he's 14. He doesn't feel any comfort that he speaks at an inappropriate volume that his peers notice. Just take a minute and remember when you were that age and remember when the wrong brand of jeans made you a social outcast.
At some point it starts coming off like the fat acceptance movement. Like yeah, people shouldn't be a dick about it, but there is some dividing line between acceptance and celebration.
Thank you for this wonderfully written piece. As the parent of a child with these kinds of issues, it gives me insight as well as hope.