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Autism, Neurodiversity, and the Inclusion Paradox

For some neurodivergent individuals, inclusion can be double-edged.

Key points

  • Good-faith inclusion is constituted by the expectations of those included, but not every neurodivergent individual can meet those expectations.
  • Bad-faith autism excuses are a thing, but this shouldn’t make us think that autism could never mitigate or excuse inappropriate behavior.
  • Excuses suspend expectations; they don’t help meet expectations.
  • Prejudicial barriers still exist--but even after these barriers are removed, the inclusion paradox will remain.

My son is autistic and receives therapy at an autism center Monday through Friday. But some neurodiversity advocates (including some self-advocates) claim that autism doesn’t need treatment because autism is an identity and identities deserve inclusion, not intervention (I am overstating for clarity).

At present, there’s an inherent tension in our society between excusing individuals because of their autism while also viewing autism as an identity. Because neurological capacities matter for accountability, some neurodivergent individuals may be excluded from legal culpability.

This then raises a kind of paradox for inclusion: good-faith inclusion is constituted by the expectations of those included (in both social and personal relationships), but not every neurodivergent individual can meet those expectations. To resolve this paradox, we should take a more individualistic approach to neurodivergence, therapeutic interventions, and the desirability of inclusion itself.

On the hit show "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Larry David’s character once claimed to be “on the spectrum” just to avoid the fallout from being a jerk. In the scene, David tells a car mechanic, “I have no filter. I say whatever comes into my head.” The car mechanic nods sympathetically and David gets his car fixed for free.

Yes, bad-faith autism excuses are a thing, but this shouldn’t make us think that autism could never mitigate or excuse inappropriate behavior. Consider this case, from the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, involving an individual called KA who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (which is now part of autism):

KA is preoccupied with a single radio station which he listens to everyday, even developing a better way to receive the station’s signal more clearly once after a family move. But when a religious radio station in the area begins broadcasting on a frequency close to his station’s, it causes interference with its signal between 7pm and 10pm. KA writes multiple letters to this religious station requesting that they stop interfering with his favorite station’s signal, only to receive “blessings and Christian tracks in response.” So KA walks to the station with gasoline and ultimately burns their radio transmitter to the ground.

Although KA was charged with and convicted of arson, he was not sentenced to imprisonment. His diagnosis excused him, particularly due to its role in explaining his apparent inability to view his behavior as inappropriate. KA was said to have “proudly informed his mother the next morning that he was responsible for the destroyed radio transmitter,” to have had no regrets about his behavior, and to be genuinely “puzzled what all the fuss was about.” The researchers Nachum Katz and Zvi Zemishlany find that this kind of quick confession is not uncommon among those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, because these individuals are often convinced that their actions were suitable to the situation.

Perhaps you think KA should have been sent to prison. This would remove the paradox, but it misses the ways in which autism can be an invisible disability. KA’s functioning in many contexts may be masking more serious impairments.

Why not see such excuses as accommodations, like ramps accommodating the wheelchair-bound? Because accommodations make previously excluded spaces available; excuses are inherently exclusionary. Excuses suspend expectations; they don’t help meet expectations.

Yes, the reason for the excuse matters. But if KA’s excuse is grounded in anything, it’s in his autism. If good-faith inclusion is both possible and desirable for KA, therapeutic interventions may be appropriate (that is, cognitive-behavioral therapies, anxiety medications, or anything else that can help KA meet the relevant expectations).

This inclusion paradox has a much wider scope than autism or even human neurodivergence. Some commentators on the recent advancements in machine learning software (for example, ChatGPT) have begun using the term “aliens” in reference to potential artificial beings we may inadvertently create in our quest to push the limits of innovation. It’s a reminder that such beings, while perhaps radically different from us, may still embody neurological abilities that—as far as we presently know—constitute intentional agency. The same goes for any biological aliens out there too, which is fitting, since one of the first online communities for autistic individuals was dubbed Wrong Planet.

Taking neurodivergence seriously means accepting that there’s a vast spectrum of neurological wirings—and thus a vast spectrum of intentional agency—between the thermostat on your wall and God (as a conceptual limit). But this isn’t a new insight. At least since Darwin, we have known that there’s no biologically or naturally privileged neurological wiring. As evolutionary biologists will attest, talk of “higher” or “lower” species is confused gibberish—all species are transitional species. Nature doesn’t care. But even if nature itself isn’t trying to design an ideal intentional agent, the inclusion paradox remains. Social inclusion never really turned on what is normal, or natural, or even statistically average. Such prejudicial barriers still exist, of course—but removing them won’t solve the paradox.

These tensions will continue to play out in the courtroom, the classroom, and the workplace. Here’s a start: grouping some neurodivergent individuals into kinds could be a mistake. In its place, we should try to determine what the individual wants, what’s in their best interest, and to what degree we can be confident about either of these determinations. For some individuals, good-faith social inclusion will be both possible and desirable. For others, our best evidence may lead us to be more cautious. And where good-faith inclusion is desirable but not yet possible, therapeutic interventions may be warranted.

I share the goal of removing stigma and prejudice surrounding my son’s autism. But I also want the world to appreciate the influence autism can have on his behavior (and I want him to appreciate this too, if he achieves this degree of self-awareness). But to treat the entire autism spectrum as though it were just a difference—as though it had no more pathological relevance to one’s behavior or experience than one’s race, sex or even physical abilities—is bound to be its own kind of bad faith.

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