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:
- 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)
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
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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