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The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity

Autistic People Care Too Much, Research Says

Breaking new - Autistic people are too generous. Neuroclastic. Pink stuffed animal bunny sitting in front of a donations jar.

A journal article in The Journal of Neuroscience was released last week regarding morality and individual gain, comparing groups of autistic people and non-autistic people (Hu et al., 2020). Participants were from Brazil and age range was 14-25 years old (note that socio-economic status wasn’t considered here). Participants had to either accept or refuse these two different conditions:

  1. They could accept or refuse to fund a good cause at the expense of their own funds
    (a charity supporting education for children and teens)
  2. They could accept or refuse to support a bad cause in exchange for individual monetary benefit
    (an organization that wants to “clean the street by exterminating street animals”)

The researchers had participants choose this in 2 different settings – a private setting, or a public one. Autistic individuals were much more likely than the non-autistic group to refuse the second choice, which is to refuse to support the bad cause to gain money for themselves.

However, neurotypical people often accepted the second bad condition in the private setting, but not the public one. Autistic people did not differ in their actions between private and public settings. This was the main difference between groups in the tasks. Under the private setting, autistic participants refused to support the bad cause significantly more often than the neurotypical participants.

Neurotypicals – More Selfish When There’s More to Gain

Figure 2 of the paper shows the percentage of moral choice between groups and settings. During the experiment, the participants would see different amounts of individual gain/loss and different amounts of gain for the cause they are supporting during each trial.

When I look at the private bad cause condition, I can see that NT participants are less likely to refuse to support the bad cause when they have more to gain monetarily, whereas I do not see this pattern in the autistic group. In fact, the autistic group refuses more often overall in the bad condition compared to the neurotypical group, regardless of setting.

Using computational modeling, the authors suggest that the autistic participants “over-evaluate the negative consequences of their actions” which is why they refuse to support the bad cause in both settings.

In my personal opinion as an autistic person, I would argue that the non-autistic participants underestimated the negative consequences of their actions, and simply chose individual benefit over their principles.

fMRI Analysis

In the authors’ representational similarity analysis (RSA) based on the participants’ fMRI data, they found reduced right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) representation in the autistic participants compared to non-autistic participants, and argue that this reduction may somehow mediate this over-evaluation of negative consequences in autistic participants.

The rTPJ has been commonly investigated in autistic participants, mostly children, and is thought by some researchers to be used in Theory of Mind tasks. However, more recent literature has shown that autistic people do not have “worse” Theory of Mind than neurotypical people, but simply interact differently than neurotypicals do (Crompton et al. 2020; Heasman & Gillespie 2017).

Pathologizing Positive Human Traits “Because Autism”

The authors pathologize autistic participants for refusing to support a bad cause, essentially for not being as selfish as the non-autistic group:

Here, we show that ASD individuals are more inflexible when following a moral rule even though an immoral action can benefit themselves, and suffer an undue concern about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost.

– Hu et al. 2020

Let’s break this down. Autistic participants were less likely to take “an immoral action” even though it “can benefit themselves.” That sounds like a good thing. That sounds like those participants have integrity. Then they specify that they “suffer an undue concern” – as if our concerns about immorality are unnecessary or unimportant, “about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost” – about money that was obtained through means that didn’t align with their actual principles, and the weight of that decision.

So what they concluded was – autistic people cared too much about their morals, and too little about themselves.

– Autistic science person

Reframing

Let’s reframe this. On average, autistic people were more likely to be selfless, and to show integrity in their moral values, than neurotypical people. Autistic people were less likely to change their moral values based on their own individual gain, even when that individual gain was large. And just to extrapolate that further, autistic people cared more about their values than themselves, whereas this was not clearly shown in neurotypical people.

So what they said originally, what they concluded was essentially this: autistic people cared too much about their morals, and too little about themselves.

Pathologizing Language Harms Us

Here are some phrases that are used within this research article:

  • “healthy group” is used when referring to the neurotypical group
  • “ASD patients” is used when referring to the autistic group
  • uses the term “atypical moral behaviors” when referring to autistic people
  • “a core deficit in theory-of-mind (ToM) ability” as part of being autistic
  • the difference between groups is a “dysfunction” in the rTPJ for autistic people

Real World Implications – Autistic Employment and Poverty

Unfortunately, sticking to your morals in a capitalist society doesn’t often gain you monetary benefits. This means less opportunities for autistic people, and high rates of poverty and homelessness. This can be seen in autistic people’s stance against ABA for example, which decreases speaking opportunities for autistic advocates.

It is harder for us to find and keep jobs because we often speak up if rules are broken, or if people in a company are trying to cut corners. Many of us think about the ethical consequences of our actions even if gasp it doesn’t affect us!

Here’s one autistic person’s experience with keeping their job and the difficulty with having uncompromising morals:

Further, another autistic person can’t take a variety jobs because of the harm these jobs cause:

Meanwhile, so many companies are commodifying our neurotype because of how “efficient” autistic employees are. This means that often autistic people must compete amongst themselves for even fewer employee positions in these autism at work programs, leaving many qualified candidates to fend for themselves. Most positions involve data analysis, IT jobs, or other tech jobs, again leaving out a huge proportion of autistic people who don’t have that specific background.

Conclusion

Just to be clear, this is one research paper. Not every autistic person is selfless, and not every neurotypical person is selfish. However, when researchers twist common positive human traits into autistic deficits (“inflexible” and “overly sensitive to morals”) it hurts everyone. Autistic people don’t care too much, they care correctly. Many autistic people have immense integrity. It’s okay to acknowledge that. In fact, it’s imperative that we acknowledge that.

The actual research done in this study is somewhat interesting, and could have implications for autistic adults especially regarding employment, socio-economic status, and homelessness. The researchers were just too busy pathologizing autism to notice.

In closing, here’s a succinct summary of this research by another autistic person:

References

Crompton, C. J., Sharp, M., Axbey, H., Fletcher-watson, S., Flynn, E. G., Ropar, D., & Bottema-beutel, K. M. (2020). Neurotype-Matching , but Not Being Autistic, Influences Self and Observer Ratings of Interpersonal Rapport. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1–12.

Heasman, B., & Gillespie, A. (2017). Perspective-taking is two-sided : Misunderstandings between people with Asperger ’ s syndrome and their family members. Autism, 1–11.

Hu, Y., Pereira, A. M., Gao, X., Campos, B. M., Derrington, E., Corgnet, B., … Dreher, J. (2020). Right temporoparietal junction underlies avoidance of moral transgression in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Neuroscience, JN-RM-1237-20.

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15 Responses

  1. Also related to this is the employment problems of the autistic employee who is able to find new ways to function more efficiently, or to achieve a given goal, and is told “no it must be done the way we’ve always done it – just do it better the old way.”

  2. The fresh Hell was that? That’s five minutes of my life I want back. Giving a f*ck isn’t a “disorder.”

  3. Many thanks for this prompt response to this culturally biased piece of “autism research”. If anything, this piece of “research” illustrates the bizarre notion of “success” within industrialised “consumer” societies https://neuroclastic.com/2019/11/11/celebration-of-interdependence/.

    Last year I was discussing a potential research collaboration with an autism researcher, and when I insisted on the use of non-pathologising language in relation to autism, I was told that that would be impossible, because it might impact on the ability to publish in the most “influential” journals. Needless to say that I refused to co-sponsor the research.

  4. As an autistic person: Could you please explain to me the concept of “to altruistic”? This is something I simply can’t understand at all. How can upholding a moral code and knowing the difference between good an bad and actually acting it out be considered faulty behavior?

    If a society puts more emphasis on who watches than on what is actually done, that is a society in severe need of remodeling.

    1. It shouldn’t be considered faulty behavior, and you’re absolutely right, that does indicate society is in severe need of remodeling. The way that someone can be considered too altruistic, though, I think, is that Western capitalist society is completely based around everyone, to one extent or another, being out mostly only for themselves and those who are close to them. This, focusing “too much” on others or not being willing to cut corners both means that it’s going to be much harder to get ahead in society.

      Depending on other people’s views, they might even view being “too moral” as an unwillingness to participate in the same social game as everyone else. For instance, look at gossiping, when a group of people use it to build social bonds by rejecting someone else who probably isn’t there, or how many people on the internet are willing to judge the worth of someone they’ve never met based on a few snippets of information which definitely don’t give a complete picture. Trying to point out the unfairness of these practices can get you labeled a killjoy or socially rejected yourself, which, yeah, is pretty messed up!

  5. It’s time for change, I am a person who also cares to much.
    Its time for people like us to run businesses putting care before greed, autistic people are in my opinion the best of the best, they mostly have 1 specific interest that they have studied every aspect of and from every angle possible even what could change in the future and the consequences of the negative impacts it could have.
    The world needs change like!!!

  6. It is, I think, a classic example of the fallacy of the “rigidity of thought” label. People apply it to us so we are stuck with it … but do they ever question whether it is right. How can the question of whether, and where, an autistic or a non-autistic person draws an ethical line in the sand have ANYTHING to do with rigidity of thought? I does not, and it cannot … yet the authors of this research appear to feel confident that it does without producing any justification or supporting evidence because, of course, “everyone knows that autistic people suffer from ridigity of thought”.

    I’ve never yet been able to get a clear understanding of just WHAT this “rigidity of thought” we suffer from is actually meant to be. Here is a typical case:

    Me: I don’t think this is about right and wrong … it’s about seeing things in a different way. I don’t think I am seeing this the same way that you are seeing it.

    My boss: The way I see it is the way that everyone else sees it … except you.

    Me: OK … I can accept that I’m in the minority here. But I’m not trying to say that I think you’re wrong and I’m right … I’m just saying that you’re seeing it one way and I am seeing it another way. I’m not asking you to change the way you see things … I’m just asking you to accept that I do not see it in the same way that you do. I, for my part, am happy to accept that you do not see it in the same way that I do. And then we can work from there … from our mutual acceptance that there are different ways of seeing it.

    My boss: But everyone else agrees with my on this … why do you have to be different? Why can you not accept my way of looking at it?

    Me: I am happy to accept that your way of looking at it is not the same as my way of looking at it. I have no problem with that. But I cannot pretend that I see it the same way as you … because I don’t. I see it differently. All I ask is that you accept that this is the case, so that we can work together on the basis of a mutual recognition of the fact that we see things differently.

    My boss: You need to stop being so rigid in your thinking and learn to accept other people’s viewpoints.

    I mean … HUH???? There was certainly somebody showing rigidity of thinking here, and an inability to accept other people’s viewpoints. BUT. IT. WAS. NOT. ME!!!

  7. Bigoted researchers: Let’s test morality in autistic and non-autistic people!

    *does the test*

    Bigoted researchers: Okay, what were the results? Need to know what neurotypical people did differently than autistic people so we can say that the autistic way is wrong… Hmm, so a lot of neurotypicals would take money to support killing stray dogs and cats in private but would refuse to do so in public? But autistic people *didn’t* do that? Lol, suckers.

  8. This is what happens when you have amorality like Ayn Rand being taught in school… Selfishness is not and never will be a virtue!!!

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