kwame appiah doesn’t see a neurodiversity problem in need of correction

Kwame Appiah is a “cosmopolitan” philosopher who also writes an advice column in the New York Times magazine. Apparently he has opinions about autism.

Someone wrote in:

I am an academic barely making a living by working as an adjunct for five or six classes a semester. I realize that while the “arc of history bends toward justice,” as Barack Obama said, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr., this doesn’t hold true in individual cases. The movement for greater faculty diversity can mean that I, a white male in the humanities, am less likely to get a full-time job no matter how well I teach or how much I publish. A colleague suggested I use the idea of “neurodiversity” to qualify as a “diversity hire.” I have several problems with this: First, while I am obsessive about my chosen subject and was probably “on the spectrum” as a child and young adult, I don’t believe this diagnosis fits me. Second, this would be a sort of blackface: I would be claiming to be part of a protected class for my own benefit. Finally, I don’t think that a hiring committee would look favorably on someone who came out as on the autism spectrum.

Would using an ex post facto diagnosis on the job market give me an unfair advantage? And should “neurodiversity” be included in affirmative-action hiring?

I have my own response to this before introducing Appiah’s. We’re different kinds of half-black, which makes this more interesting. English/Ghanaian vs. German/American, for the record.

The white male in the humanities believes in progress, on the basis of MLK and Barack Obama. Presumably not a fan of Cornel West:

Spot the racist trope: reverse discrimination.

This person has incoherent beliefs about whether they’re autistic or not, or they believe you can grow out of it.

The letter writer explains how it is: affirmative action will help niggers, but everyone says “Fuck no!” to autistic people. Doesn’t that answer his own question? Autistic people are discriminated against, so we should take affirmative action to employ them.

He already understands that what he’s considering is wrong. It seems more like he’s seeking a second opinion on whether it would work. Losing his unfair advantage as a white guy is the point, and he’d like to restore it.

Kwame Appiah had a different response:

You don’t think you’re autistic, and your colleague’s suggestion may have been offered in a cynical or jesting spirit, but let’s explore the proposal. Three major rationales are usually offered for affirmative action on the grounds of race or gender in the academy. The first is to undo histories of unjust exclusion. Does this apply to autism-spectrum disorder? Drawing boundaries around autism is not easy, because it’s a complex category with disputed criteria, but the C.D.C. estimates that one in 68 schoolchildren qualifies. (This includes people with “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.”) The incidence in older cohorts was much lower, in part because of shifts in definition and reporting practices. What’s the incidence among full-time academics? Nobody knows. Some people think that especially in math, science and engineering faculties, people with “on the spectrum” traits aren’t rare, and research by the Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen lends support to this. Certainly some qualities of mind popularly associated with so-called high-functioning autism — focus, computational ability, a retentive memory, a preference for rational argument over feeling — are useful in most academic fields. What we don’t have is evidence that people with autism-spectrum traits have been excluded from them.

Certainly academia is a haven for autistic people…sometimes. His starting point is a numerical analysis of representation instead of asking whether there’s any apparent discrimination against autistic people. It certainly fits the stereotype that there’d be a lot of autistic people in academia, but you obviously need to finish undergrad first.

The transition between high school and college can prove to be difficult for individuals with autism, and their college retention rates remain low despite resources to help them complete coursework.

About 50,000 Americans with autism enter adulthood each year and about one-third of these young adults attend college after high school, according to Autism Speaks.

Jennifer Breunig, a sophomore with autism studying informatics, said in an email interview that students with autism are as smart as any other college student and have plenty of potential.

“But autistics are often given very little support, especially once we become adults, because the focus is on the parents’ feelings instead of the autistic person’s well-being,” she said…

The study found that fewer than 20 percent of college students with autism had graduated or were even on track to graduate five years after high school. Rast said some of her colleagues believe that the number goes up to 39 percent after the students are seven years out of high school.

Rast said that while the numbers increased, these students had an extra two years to complete their degree.

“We focus on adults because we’re trying to see how life turns out for adults and what kind of service could be offered to increase quality of life,” Rast said.

According to Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, 2 percent of research funding for autism in 2015 was spent on long-term issues such as the lives of individuals with autism after they graduate high school.

Autism research focuses on early childhood treatment and support services because early intervention of the disorder can improve a child’s outcomes, but less time and research is spent on adults with autism despite the fact that many adults with autism aren’t independent, according to Autism Speaks…

Many students with autism do not reach out to ASU’s Disability Resource Center because of the stigma surrounding the disorder.

“There are many things about the stigma, the way that autism is depicted, I believe, is on par with retardation,” Borneman said. “Because society has such a view of autism, they tend to reject the people who are characteristic of the disorder.”

Borneman said the stigma divides people between “normal people” and “autistic people.”

Maria Dixon, a speech and language pathologist and clinical associate professor at ASU, is the faculty advisor for the ASU organization Autistics on Campus.

Dixon said ASU provides resources for students with autism, but it depends on whether or not a student wants to identify with Autism spectrum disorder at the Disability Resource Center when they start their classes at ASU.

“We do know that people do come to college, and they may not access those services because there’s a stigma to autism,” she said.

According to a 2011 Education Department study about post-high school outcomes of young adults with disabilities, 37 percent of students with autism don’t disclose they have autism to their new school…

Jennifer Breunig said she had to make adjustments to her life when she transitioned from high school to college.

“I have noticed the need for work-arounds, mainly because my brain is differently programmed,” she said. “I also have to manage my workload more carefully because living in a non-autistic world is inherently stressful, so I need to avoid adding too much stress on top of that, or I will start getting sick.”

Breunig said she has noticed a lot of ignorance on campus, but most of her friends are open to learning about autism.

However, some of her professors have come off as “extremely hostile” if she challenges their preconceptions of autism, she said.

“People who think they know very little are often very open,” she said. “People who think they know everything can be very cruel.”

Appiah didn’t care enough to type “autism college rates” into Google, and yet…

A second rationale for affirmative action is to undo the effects of current prejudice. Here again, while a diagnostic label can lead people to treat you badly, some of the atypical behavior of high-functioning people with autism is much more likely to be accepted in the academy than in many other places. This acceptance is eased by the well-entrenched stereotype of the absent-minded professor with weak interpersonal skills — that is, someone who fails to conform to the norms of appropriateness recognized by neurotypical people.

A third reason offered for affirmative action is to make sure that all the major social groups and points of view are represented in the academic community. The idea here is both that we can learn from one another and that we want educated people in all the social groups. This could be a reason for wanting more people with autism. They could be rare enough that we need to oversample them (assuming we aren’t already doing so).

Everybody forgets that the “diversity” talking point came about in response to US Supreme Court decisions. A diverse student body also benefits the white students, which allowed certain affirmative action programs to survive legal challenges.

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