Autism and Responding to Authority

statue of justice

This will be a two part article: firstly, autistic attitudes towards those in authority, and secondly, how autistic people handle being in a position of authority.

I’ve written before about how autistic people often struggle to know how to act around authority figures. Actually, that’s not true– we don’t seem to care how we act around authority.

I think this is a vital distinction.

It’s not that we’re deficient, after all. It’s more that this authority business is a neurotypical notion that we don’t seem to share, and thus we tend to ignore it.

Let me give you an example.

Autistic children in school are somewhat notorious for finding it hard to adapt to the authority of teachers– some teachers more than others. This is not because they’re evil little ragamuffins, as some teachers would have it, but because their natural state is to assume equanimity. Autistic students (and I speak from long experience) will not bow to authority for authority’s sake.

They will respect it, if respect can be had, and they’ll do what they’re told— if it makes sense; but they won’t blindly accept authority. By this point, my teacher readers are wincing in pain as our main tool is automatically-accepted authority.

But what can I say? Autistic people are different! This is not a deficiency, in and of itself. I believe it’s an offshoot of our particular brand of empathy that we excel at. It is used to find the common ground between people, rather than the differences. I’m aware I may be romanticising autism a bit here, which is not my intention. 

So when presented with an authority figure, autistic people seek out what makes us the same, and in doing so obliterates the arbitrary (to us at least) difference of their ‘authority.’

We automatically seek to be on a level with *everyone* we meet. This is subconscious and not controllable, unless we really need to. It occurs throughout our lives from childhood to old age. It makes us *really weird* to neurotypical people, who seem to accept authority happily.

So another example: an autistic person meets their company’s CEO. They know who they are, but they greet them as an equal. They say hi. They crack a Chandler-esque joke. They are relaxed and unfazed by the massive authority that is shrinking their peers down.

This may be great! The CEO might think, Wow! Here’s a go-getting individual, if they’re nice and positive. But they may also think, Who is this worm with no respect for my status?

Then, we’re screwed. Similarly, this trait can absolutely ruin us when the police are involved. Its bad enough in the UK, but being #AutisticWhileBlack in the USA can get you killed in altercations with the cops when this issue is occurring, and this is happening a lot.

So, to recap, autistic people– at least in my assessment– don’t recognise authority as a thing in and of itself. They will bow to greater expertise, experience, morality, and creativity, very happily, but not just to authority alone.

This is a very good and a very bad thing, because sadly, unearned authority is a big part of human existence. From police and the armed forces, whose authority is granted by an abstract “State,” to random adults in the street telling kids off– it’s everywhere. 

It’s imperative that these institutions need realise that there is a significant proportion of the population who will not accept blind authority, not because they’re baddies, or naughty, but because their brains are wired differently. This needs to be accepted now.

I’m not excusing autistic people of bad behaviour, by the way. There are always people willing to interpret my writing in the most negative possible light. I’m simply stating its a factor that needs to be understood.

Autistics in Authority

But what of part two? Of autistic people in authority? How does this work?

Well, here goes…

Firstly, unless you’re literally the Queen, there will always be further authority above you somewhere, so all the earlier stuff applies, but when it comes to dealing with our “subordinates” (I don’t even like using the word), we perhaps tend to be very accepting, reasonable, and fair. Is this a thing?

I know from my experience of being a manager/leader that I just wanted to let people do their job, and assumed they’d do it well. I wasn’t happy issuing diktats to them or punitive messages from higher up and tended to try to shield them from all that crap.

But this is not how managers are meant to behave. I couldn’t handle the “telling off” side of the job (like confronting people for being ill and absent- wtf!?), so I handed in my notice and went back to classroom teaching.

I feel that autistic people might struggle with the expectations of holding authority, but ironically that we would wield authority fairly and well.

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27 Responses

  1. Another problem is when the whole “doesn’t blindly submit to authority” thing is pathologized in a child, along with with asking questions (AKA “talking back”) and trying to make sense of rules. Then the parents or teachers decide they need to “break” this “problem child” through abuse. It doesn’t end well. Are they just trying to teach learned helplessness?

  2. I’m the exception to the rule here. I used to blindly bow down to authority, teachers, bosses, the police etc. That’s why I had no problem excepting authority when I went into the military. I think that this acceptance of authority was drummed into me at a very young age and my autism made me think it was the norm.

  3. I’m on the spectrum and I agree with the article for the most part. However, I don’t simply feel authority is equal with everyone. I’d certainly like it to be and in an idealistic world that would be the case. Personally, I think it’s something to be feared because too many people take advantage of it. As you may have said, people didn’t earn the positions that they’re in. Of course from my experience I’ve had bad experiences with all kinds of individuals in authority that abuse their power, and many of them have earned their positions simply because family members own a company, or simple favoritism. But I agree we shouldn’t blindly accept or follow it. I hate doing so and it causes a huge amount of stress for me especially when I have no choice (such as in a work place where it’s either do what they say agree or not, or leave your job). If I had a dime for every time I had a meltdown due to the stress authority causes, I’d be rich enough to buy the internet.

  4. That answers so many issues that I have had with authority! I am neurotypical but dont really seem to fit in anywhere. But I have had similar experiences. I can respect authority but I never seemed to have the fear that others had. Possibly because my father taught me early that it was Ok to question him on anything as long as I did not question his right to make the final decision.Of course by the time I was 16 he made it clear that he expected me to use common sense and respect for others so there were few “final decisions” that he had to make for me. So I think I learned to early to separate the authority as a person delegated to make the final decision and the person who as an individual who was placed in that position. Never realized that I was doing it. but also explains why I had issues with certain people who expected me to hold them in awe because they deemed themselves in authority of me.

  5. Of course, irrespective of being in charge or subordinate, we often have the compulsion to point out mistakes that person has made. Not to be nasty, but because we’re helpful: ‘surely they will want to know what they did wrong so they will not make the same mistake again’.

  6. I work in the pharmaceutical industry & my boss said “your job is to follow procedures, not criticise management”. Funny, I thought it was to ensure our product is proven quality from go to whoa, at the least expense to our company. I have been trying to correct an unnecessarily complex quadruple check (of worksheets, NOT the product itself!) for over 18 months!

  7. I have the opposite tendency to want to follow my teacher’s rules and worship their authority, which was too far in the other direction for nearly all my teachers in my years of school. It caused me to majorly butt heads with one of my English professors in college. He’d always ask us “why do we read this story? Why does it appear on the syllabus?” And I’d be like “uh, duh you put it there so if we don’t read it we’ll get in trouble.” He hated that.

  8. Your experience in leadership is how I functioned as a charge nurse. I surprised my peers who weren’t too thrilled with the idea of me being in charge because I can be so particular about how things are done.

    But as charge, I assumed my colleagues knew their jobs and how to do them. I saw my role as making sure they had what they needed to get it done, not to micromanage their work.

    That didn’t fit with management by intimidation. It lasted less than a year before I went back to floor nursing. I’m glad. I’m not management material. I don’t like screwing people over and I hate office politics. Why can’t we just do to work and do our jobs?

  9. The horrible version of management mentioned is actually considered bad, by management professionals. It’s common, but it is destructive. Good managers protect their teams, trust them to do their jobs, and provide guidance and help to do better. Good managers in abusive management systems need techniques to handle the difference, because they’ll get hit with the load of bull, and it can be heavy lifting.

    High performance teams that are not completely burned out already tend to thrive with the management you describe.

    Also, look up info on Power Distance as a cultural dimension. Both type of authority (power, knowledge, relational, etc.) and power distance apply. People will differ, and culture of origin may matter (including family culture), but yeah, power distances tend to be small with many autistic people – even where the authority is recognized.

  10. I think that you mean ‘equality’. “Equanimity”, in my dictionary and as I understands it, means “evenness of mind or temper”.

  11. If we are so wonderful, how come have there been many tyrannically run autistic forum sites ?

  12. Good article. I am looking forward to the next part.

    Self Dx’d autist here who has been in leadership and senior management roles. I now do lectures to MBA students on Neurodiversity. I was always considered a bit of a political liability ( I even told a top dog they should attend a training course when they were freeballing about a topic they were ignorant of). My manager almost visibly sh*t himself as I said it.

    In my opinion, Respect by Autistic people is earnt, not assumed. This can be troublesome in social hierarchies permeated by people whose mantra is to fake it until you make it. In fact those environments tend to be toxic to the health of Autistic people who work within them.

    Whilst Autists are an excellent innoculation to groupthink and other disastrous effects of the dominant social hierarchy, the drawbacks for Autistic people who gravitate into decision making roles is significant.

    1. Also, Autistic traits can actually result in more innovative teams. By acting as a “sh*t umbrella” and focussing on enabling your team, you can create a degree of psychological safety.

      The issue is often the higher level hierarchies which end up sandwiching the autistic leader.

      I have taken to trying to not refer to managers or leaders now and to instead refer to the functions – managers as enablers and leaders as catalyzers. I have seen excellent enablers and catalyzers who haven’t been christened with a role of leader/manager and even more often I have seen peo p le in roles of leaders/managers who have no capability to catalyze or enable people.

  13. I started a job working as a classroom teacher with 30+ students 6 or 7 months ago, after successfully teaching adults and adolescents, as well as a few children 9, 10, 11 years old for the last ten years online and on an individual basis.

  14. This is by far one of my top favourite pieces. So relatable, and I’ve said these words before!

  15. “I believe it’s an offshoot of our particular brand of empathy that we excel at” – This phrase has stuck in my head and I have spent the last two days thinking about it. It’s such a kind way of interpreting so much of my way of being. I’ve decided for me it means I’m not necessarily in conflict with authority, or any of the other bafflingly weird ways that neurotypicals behave. I just a see them with more clarity.
    Maybe nonsense but I’m going to go with it, I think it will help, thanks.

  16. I have a 7 yr old autistic grandchild and I’m relieved to see that this is a symptom of autism, not a deficiency, but what do we do about it??

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