The more I think about it, the more the academic literature about autism pisses me off. For one thing, dehumanizing crap written by normal people delayed my diagnosis by years. My mom had considered autism, but I “made eye contact” enough that I couldn’t be autistic. So much for that idea:
Surprisingly, longitudinal findings taken from a range of measures of social orienting and social reward indicate very few differences between at-risk infants who are later diagnosed with autism, and typically developing infants in the first year of life. A recent review reported that basic aspects of orienting and reward (e.g. scanning of faces, preference to look at the eyes, response to still face) are intact in at-risk infants when they are six to nine months old  and even as young as two months , contradicting claims of an innate social orienting or theory of mind impairment from birth. Evidence from event-related potentials (ERP), at six to nine months old, do indicate failure to distinguish gaze direction , a result that is not replicated in terms of impaired behavioural gaze-following however until after 12 months when infants followed gaze but looked less to the gazed-at object. As the control tasks in these ERP studies did not include non-social directional cues it is not clear if the earlier difficulty reflected a general or specific response to a directional cue.
The limited range of evidence supporting both social and non-social impairments makes it difficult to draw strong conclusions. The findings above do not show that there is early social attention impairment in the first year of life in children who are later diagnosed with autism. This indicates that the domain-specific social attention account of innate social orienting or early learning in the first year is unlikely to be supported .
I actually am weird about eye contact, and my mom has a bunch of ASD traits herself, so maybe she wasn’t the best judge.
Well, I also heard that autistic people have “theory of mind impairments”. Clearly I can’t be autistic because I spent my 20s mentalizing as a psychologist. I understand just fine that you can move something and someone will come back and look for the item where they left it. So do other autistic adults:
Although adults with high-functioning autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) continue to experience clinical and practical difficulties with understanding other people’s beliefs and intentions, these adults typically succeed on standard tests for ToM (2, 3). These tests include first-order false belief tasks, which require the participant to understand that another person has a belief about the world that is both different from the participant’s own belief and factually incorrect. The apparent paradox between everyday difficulty in understanding what other people are thinking and success in laboratory tests of ToM suggests that through development, these individuals acquire further compensatory reasoning skills that enable them to succeed on explicit measures of ToM (2, 4).
The conclusion doesn’t follow. Maybe lab tests of theory of mind aren’t valid, or “theory of mind” isn’t the problem.
I also heard that autistic people have an impaired sense of empathy. Well, I spend significant amounts of time frustrated because normal Americans don’t have empathy for anyone else. That must mean I have more empathy than average, so I can’t be autistic. I don’t have the “core deficit” even if I lined up my toys and had to be distracted with water in the sink to be fed and had to be pushed in a stroller or I’d cry and I get obsessed with things and ramble about them and pick at myself and have picky eating habits and the people at Subway make fun of me for always getting a Veggie Delight with no cheese on sourdough with avocado and no condiments.
We don’t have a good concept that unifies all the issues autistic people have:
Instead I suggest that we loosen the goal of horizontal integration beyond the grip of primary impairments, and consider other forms of integration that link across different types of social impairment and across social and non-social symptoms. Atypical behaviours in the social domain include difficulty in quite different sub-type areas of social functioning. These include non-verbal communication, conformity to social conventions, sharing and empathic relationships, and atypical social approach, e.g. aloof, passive or one-sided styles of interaction. How should these social sub-types be understood in relation to each other outside of a domain-specific explanatory framework? Furthermore, atypical behaviours in the social domain must, by necessity, co-occur with restricted and sensory features in order that any autism diagnosis can be given. How do different subtypes of social functioning interact with different subtypes of restricted and sensory functioning not only at behavioural but also cognitive and neural levels of description? Research has not yet scratched the surface of this question although some researchers are beginning to move in this direction by dissecting features within the social domain that cross several neurodevelopmental or psychiatric disorders . Further work is needed across social and non-social domains if we are going to explain the social-cognitive impairment in autism in a domain-general context.
We do have researchers using their pet laboratory tasks to spread harmful stereotypes about autistic people. My supposed empathy problems make me a moral monster. Joseph Moran et al. seem to think so, in the paper the second block quote of this post comes from: Impaired theory of mind for moral judgment in high-functioning autism. I fail, unlike a neurotypical infant:
Experiments that test spontaneous expectations about human actions more clearly reveal different thought patterns in ASD (7, 8). ASD adults made accurate ToM judgments about the actions of another person on a simple false belief task, but unlike even typically developing infants, they failed to spontaneously anticipate another’s person’s actions based on false beliefs (as measured by spontaneous anticipatory eye movements) (8).
It sounds so definitive, in language like that. Here’s a picture of what happened, from the paper:
“DLS” means “differential looking score”, i.e., preference for looking at the box the person in the visor “thinks” contains the hidden item. When the hidden item is stolen, which is weird, the Aspies look around instead of focusing on where Visor Lady is going to look. This is a “deficit”, even though no instructions were given about where to look. There was no right or wrong place to look. It’s the same task used with infants, who won’t understand if you try to give them complicated directions about their eye movements.
Clearly it’s impossible for Aspies to do anything complicated with the false beliefs of others, like passing for normal before going home and having a nervous breakdown (the meaning of “high functioning”).
We look in the wrong place in a contrived situation without any instructions, so we’re socially retarded compared to infants. OK…
This is the basis on which my moral reasoning is supposed to be impaired:
Here we show compromised ToM for moral judgment in adults with ASD, who successfully answered questions about mental states in a standard false belief task. The ASD and NT participants demonstrated nearly identical ability to understand simple false beliefs in other people: they did not differ in accuracy or latency to make judgments about false beliefs. In experiment 2, however, NT participants exculpated protagonists for accidental harms caused on the basis of innocent intentions, whereas ASD individuals were less willing to make such exculpatory moral judgments. In judging accidental harms, ASD participants, relative to NT participants, appeared to show an underreliance on the information about innocent intentions and, as a result, an overreliance on negative outcomes. Making moral judgments about an action based on the analysis of a person’s intentions requires ToM. Thus, these findings reveal a ToM deficit in ASD adults that influenced explicit moral judgments.
In other words, autistic adults are less forgiving when someone “accidentally” hurts someone else. The actual scenarios they were using are buried in the supplemental materials, and they only provide two of them:
Experiment 2: Example Moral Judgment Stories.
Grace and her friend are taking a tour of a chemical plant. When Grace goes over to the coffee machine to pour some coffee, Grace’s friend asks for some sugar in hers. There is white powder in a container by the coffee. The white powder is a very toxic substance left behind by a scientist, and therefore deadly when ingested in any form. The container is labeled “sugar,” so Grace believes that the white powder by the coffee is sugar left out by the kitchen staff.
Grace puts the substance in her friend’s coffee. Her friend drinks the coffee and dies.
Putting the substance in was:
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Dan is giving a visitor a tour of a laboratory. Before visitors enter the testing room, all test tubes containing disease antigens must be contained in a chamber by flipping a switch. A repairman has just come to fix the switch, which had been broken.
The switch has been successfully repaired, so the test tubes are quite safely contained. Thus, anybody who enters the room will be safe and unexposed. Dan believes that the switch is still broken after a conversation with the repairman, so he believes it is not safe for the visitor to enter.
Dan tells the visitor to enter the testing room. The visitor does not contract any disease and is fine.
Telling the visitor to enter was:
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There’s actually not enough information to decide if the accident with the sugar was foreseeable or not. Supposedly, a chemist was working on something, and had a toxic substance in a container labeled “sugar”. Yes, there are many sugars. It’s not far-fetched that there could be a toxic chemical that’s technically a sugar. However, do any of the containers in use in a chemistry lab resemble the containers used for coffee sweeteners? Did the lid look like the container was for dispensing a food item? This is the break room at a chemistry facility. Not all white powders look the same, either. Was there a smell when the container was opened?
When accidents happen, inattention and carelessness can still be morally blameworthy.
Could it be that autistic people are less impressed with “it was an accident” because of life experience? I certainly know that white people usually don’t “mean it” when they say racist shit to me. Does that mean it’s cool? They want to believe that.
I can look at the same data and conclude that normal people have a shared interest in shirking moral responsibility for harm. They keep the norms such that claiming innocent intentions gets them out of things. Of course, normal people have “theory of mind” but they don’t have psychic powers. All attributions of mental states are inferences. Those inferences can happen more or less consciously. They’re still inferences. I can’t prove that someone saying casually racist stuff hates black people, but I can observe what they’re saying.
It’s the same with reading the autism literature. It’s not that these people hate autistic people, they just compare us unfavorably to children and question our membership in the moral community. They don’t mean it like that. Can’t I see how hard they work every day to help cure autism?
Here’s an autistic messenger getting shot for pointing out that “well-meaning” parents emotionally abuse the crap out of their autistic children. Look at what she’s saying:
The way you treat Autistic adults, you are condoning people to treat your Autistic kids just like that later.
So, apparently things you want people to do to your children in 10 years or so are as follows:
You want them to hear again and again that only parent perspectives matter.
-That what they have to say doesn’t matter because they’re too high functioning.
-Or too low functioning.
-Or too “emotional” about issues that effect their every day lives.
You want them to hear that they are a burden
-And you want them to sit there & take it, if not flat out agree.
You want them to hear that they are the worst thing that can happen to a parent
-Worse than cancer, AIDS, car accidents, lightning strikes
-cause of combat stress
You want them to hear that they have no empathy so they don’t matter
-Other not-exactly-accurate stereotypes too
-Because reading your mind is the only meaningful empathy
-Because what is going on in our minds does not matter
-But not agreeing with you is more evidence that we are monsters
-And we must agree that we are monsters
-Otherwise it’s more evidence that we have no empathy.
Call me socially retarded, but I’m pretty sure it’s a rule that criticizing someone’s parenting means that they’ll irrationally freak out on you. The responses to that post include a good amount of “not all autism parents.” Yes, not all white people. Not all men. Whatever. If it really wasn’t about you, there’d be no need for the defensiveness.
For the purposes of getting along with normal people, all parents love their children and it’s really too bad about all the discrimination white people are facing. Nothing is more innocent and pure than the noble intentions of the people that are actually doing the most harm, collectively.
Everyday “moral” behavior under capitalism has already destroyed things to the point that we’re living on borrowed time. Something is wrong with moral intuitions that produce such an outcome.
The thing that’s missing the most is a widespread understanding of the banality of evil.
Nobody wants to believe they’re “bad”, and yet structural racism exists. The idea that “good intentions” (in bad faith) excuse everything is not acceptable. From Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, one of my favorite quotes:
To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.
No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.
There now exists a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain this kind of moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us.
The innocence of normal people is grotesque. Perhaps autistic people are more likely to remember how much their bullying was enabled by normal people standing there and laughing. “Complex PTSD” is said to alter people’s values. Could it be that?
Could it be that alexithymia is the problem, and autism itself makes it more distressing to hurt people?
This study investigated hypothetical moral choices in adults with high-functioning autism and the role of empathy and alexithymia in such choices. We used a highly emotionally salient moral dilemma task to investigate autistics’ hypothetical moral evaluations about personally carrying out harmful utilitarian behaviours aimed at maximizing welfare. Results showed that they exhibited a normal pattern of moral judgments despite the deficits in social cognition and emotional processing. Further analyses revealed that this was due to mutually conflicting biases associated with autistic and alexithymic traits after accounting for shared variance: (a) autistic traits were associated with reduced utilitarian bias due to elevated personal distress of demanding social situations, while (b) alexithymic traits were associated with increased utilitarian bias on account of reduced empathic concern for the victim. Additionally, autistics relied on their non-verbal reasoning skills to rigidly abide by harm-norms. Thus, utilitarian moral judgments in autism were spared due to opposite influences of autistic and alexithymic traits and compensatory intellectual strategies. These findings demonstrate the importance of empathy and alexithymia in autistic moral cognition and have methodological implications for studying moral judgments in several other clinical populations.
Or was it just the antidepressants the autistic people were taking?
Real-life situations involving harming others for utilitarian reasons are rarely as clear-cut as the trolley problem. In practice, they can be things like “kill the autistics for the health of the German people’s blood”. “Go to war with Iraq to save us from weapons of mass destruction”. Hurt rats for the good of humans.
I stopped believing in the experiments I was doing. If I’m hurting animals for no good reason, I should stop. It turns out that my altruistic motivations were a bit far-fetched and self-delusional, and I was actually just hurting a lot of animals with no real benefit to humanity. The utilitarianism had been a trap. It would’ve been better to stick with a rule like “don’t involve yourself in tasks involving guillotines”.
I can’t be a thoughtful person who cares deeply about doing the right thing. I have a utilitarianism deficit, because normal people like to make excuses for doing evil shit. Applying my intellect to moral situations is an abnormal compensatory strategy. Autistic people cannot grow from their suffering.
It’s like the time at the Society for Neuroscience meeting where someone explained to me how aversive salvia divinorum is, because rodent models. That’s not how I’d describe this one time I was listening to music and…oh, wait, I can’t talk about that because it’s not allowed. Of course. The rats show conditioned place aversion and won’t respond for salvinorin A on an FR10 schedule or something. The Indians in Mexico must…actually, who?
I hope this illustrates that a lot of research involves making far-reaching conclusions from contrived, ambiguous situations. With the implication that I’m less human than somebody else with a psychology PhD.
Compare state-of-the-art sociology on mulattoes from 100 years ago.
Everybody also knows how violent autistic people are.