License To Weird: Autism As Credential

Colombo showing ID badge.

Image found here.

I suppose I should admit that I see my recent autism diagnosis as some sort of credential, like having a master’s degree. In my daydreams it’s like I’m a detective with a special ID badge that I can whip out whenever I get weird (hey, it can happen):

“Ok, ok, NOBODY PANIC! Everything is under control. I am a trained professional….”

At the very least I hope that letting people know that I’m autistic will reassure them in these situations, maybe help them cope better with some of my odd behavior, where by “odd” I might mean — depending on the situation — anything from endearingly quirky to f***ing rude. Especially in certain kinds of high-stress situations involving interpersonal conflict I know I can get quite cranky and irritable, which is a nice way of saying that sometimes I can act like a real A-hole, and I’m hoping that if people know I’m autistic, it will help them to not take that sort of behavior too personally.

The Limits Of Freedom

Now, whenever I discuss this with anybody, almost always the person will respond with some version of “well, you know you can’t use your diagnosis as an excuse. It’s not because you’re autistic that you’re now allowed to go around deliberately acting weird and being rude to people.” A few years ago the show Glee did a nice job of making this very point by introducing a character (“Sugar Motta”) with “self-diagnosed asperger’s” who did exactly that — went around acting weird and being rude to people, and then afterwards excusing herself by explaining “I have asperger’s”:

And I whole wholeheartedly agree with the general point. After all, the freedoms granted by any licence always come with limits. For example, the US Bill of Rights licenses US citizens with freedom of expression — the legal right to be publicly honest about one’s own opinions — but it doesn’t licence anybody to commit slander and libel. Similarly, the Bill of Rights also licences us with the freedom to practice the religion of our choosing, but if your chosen religion requires you to sacrifice human babies to your god, then that’s just too bad, because you do not have the right to sacrifice human babies to your god under US Law. In a medical context, a surgeon is licensed to cut people open under certain clearly specified conditions, but is certainly not licensed to walk down the street with a scalpel cutting people open at random.

So, yes, of course, I certainly agree that my autism diagnosis — my “licence to weird” — also comes with restrictions. And I’ll state here for the record that I definitely do not see it as anything like a license to act like an A-hole, or to treat people badly, to be rude, drive recklessly, break the law, etc.

Acting Normal Is No Cure For Autism

On the other hand, if someone’s “understanding” of autism leads that person to believe that the whole solution to the problem of autism is as easy as “by golly, just act like a normal person”; well, then that can’t be quite right either. Autism is a neurological problem, comparable to being color-blind, and “acting normal” is no more a solution to the autism problem than it is a solution to colorblindness. If we lend any credence at all to autism as a psychiatric diagnosis, we should reasonably expect autism solutions to be more complicated than mere common sense advice. The easy problems — the ones we can solve with Hallmark® Card aphorisms — don’t make it into the DSM 5.

The upshot here is that however much being autistic is no excuse to act like an A-hole, I think it’s still reasonable to see it as a non-trivial “licence to weird”, at least in some sense. It might not excuse inappropriate behavior, but it goes a long way toward explaining it.

Is Homosexuality “Appropriate”?

Now, I hope it won’t seem too controversial for me to point out that it is in fact highly controversial this idea of just what exactly it means to behave “appropriately”. Examples are everywhere, but one of my favorite concerns homosexuality, which is considered by many people — not all of whom are homosexual themselves — to be totally normal, healthy and more or less unremarkable, except maybe for the fact that a relative minority of human beings actually want to engage in homosexual behaviors. People who see homosexuality as normal (people like me, for example) think everybody should see it this way, and that anyone who doesn’t is being somehow unreasonable, perhaps even delusional; and unfortunately a great many people do not see homosexuality in such a gay-friendly way. On the contrary, a great many human beings see it as not just wholly inappropriate, but extremely rude, anti-social, dangerous, shameful, despicable, and in many cases downright evil.

In dozens of countries homosexuality is actually a crime, and in several countries a crime punishable by death. Although increasingly accepted in the USA, and although the American Psychiatric Association removed it from their diagnostic manual in 1973, homosexuality is still heavily stigmatized and considered by many who live in the USA to be highly deviant. Even in recent years the LGBT minority group has risen to the status of most likely target of a hate crime, surpassing Jews, Muslims and Blacks.

And of course many intermediate perspectives surely exist. No doubt many people are somewhere in between seeing homosexuality as totally normal and seeing it as somehow evil.

I think that this diverse and wide range of views concerning homosexuality makes a good benchmark against which I can compare interpretations of my own behavior — especially those behaviors that I may exhibit occasionally and which some or maybe even many people might characterize as anti-social in some way; in the extreme, those times when I might act like a first-class A-hole.

Hey, I’m not proud of these, but they happen.

That Time I Got Fired For Trying To Impress My Boss

As an example, years ago I once looked my boss calmly and squarely in the eye and said to him, “Hank [not his real name], go f*** yourself.” Then I stood up, walked out of the room and went back to my desk. Five minutes later he fired me.

Now, I’m pretty sure that if Hank ever thinks of me at all he must remember me as some sort of an A-hole. That sort of behavior is pretty much the definition of rude. Furthermore, and only after thinking it all through over and over in my mind, I eventually came to see that although telling him so bluntly to f*** himself was certainly the most rudely I had ever treated him, it really wasn’t the first time I had been rude to him. In the months and years that followed, I came to see that Hank most likely saw that moment as the last straw — one final and especially rude gesture at the end of a whole sequence of rude gestures made toward him, and over a period of months. And because I had been so consistently rude to him, and at the end so extremely rude to him, I’m pretty sure he must remember me as some sort of A-hole.

But I have told that story numerous times, and it really seems that most of the people who hear it find it at least a little amusing. And I admit I enjoy telling the story for that very reason. Maybe you’ll disagree, and I’m sure Hank would too, but I do think there was something subtly heroic about the act — “the little guy sticking it to the Man”, and so forth. Really, who hasn’t felt like saying something similar to a boss? Of course, however they might imagine doing it, most people simply don’t do that sort of thing, and probably not just because they don’t want to get fired, but also because they know it’s so bluntly rude and they value their social skills. I think most people feel quite uncomfortable about behaving rudely, even toward someone who may seem to deserve it.

And all of that is true for me too. As much as I may enjoy telling the story, the fact is that when I consider it all in context I really regret having done the deed. I certainly never did it again, nor would I, although I have discovered plenty of other ways to alienate a boss and get myself fired. It wasn’t just rude and counter-productive; it was mostly just self-destructive. Of course he sacked me. What was I thinking?

This is not the place to tell the whole back-story, but it spans several months, and believe it or not begins quite ironically with my (what I know now to be autistically) misguided and overzealous attempts to impress Hank– to show him what a useful and dedicated employee I could be, a valuable addition to his team. Overall the job was a good one for me, I think, or would have been had I been able to manage the interpersonal dynamics, the sort of thing we autists suck at. But I just wasn’t able to do that. I wound up making a series of bad choices in my efforts to impress Hank that resulted in backfiring entirely. Not only did he eventually become thoroughly unimpressed with me, but I’m pretty sure he had already started building a case to fire me, many weeks before my final, full-frontal hissy-fit. It was only when I realized this — that the situation was essentially hopeless and doomed — that I began to indulge in an emotionally anesthetic indignation towards him, and then eventually gave Hank those three regrettable words he needed to clear my immediate termination with the Human Resources department: go, f***, yourself.

Yes, How CAN We Determine What’s “Appropriate”?

Although I do not see my diagnosis as a licence to behave inappropriately on purpose, and certainly not to go around telling bosses to f*** off, and however much I regret that final rude gesture toward Hank, with respect to all of the other times I was rude to him in the months leading up to it, I can really see no good reason to feel especially ashamed about any of them, really, because all of those times were honest and mostly harmless misunderstandings on my part — exactly the sorts of misunderstandings that autism is known to cause.

Furthermore, I think that if Hank had known that I was autistic, and especially had he had some sort of understanding of what that means, he might very possibly have seen my misguided and over zealous attempts to impress him for what they were, instead of seeing them as evidence that he needed to start building a case to fire me. Perhaps he would have talked to me about it, tried to set me straight, asked me to tone things down a bit. And had I known back then that I was prone to such misunderstandings, maybe I could have been more proactive about clearing them up with him before they snowballed and became overwhelming, instead of forging blindly ahead with my misguided and unappreciated zeal. I know that in the last several months since being diagnosed I have been able to do this sort of thing, and going forward I’m hoping to get even better at it. Simply knowing that I’m autistic has motivated me to tread more carefully in my interactions with others, and I think that if others know it too, perhaps in those moments where the “real” me sneaks out by accident they will be willing to cut me a little slack.

But perhaps most importantly, I think the range and diversity of opinion regarding the moral status of homosexuality nicely illustrates the fundamentally subjective nature of what it means to behave “appropriately”. This is not to say that all of these opinions are equal, that some of these opinions aren’t somehow objectively better than others. I think especially to the extent that all of them are trying to solve the same basic problems (e.g. keep everybody fed, healthy and law-abiding, etc.), then it seems obvious to me that the opinions that do a better job of solving those problems — the ones that do so more effectively, more efficiently, more quickly — are quite objectively better than the others.

Which raises the question of how exactly to determine all of that. And although answering that question is beyond the scope of this blog post, really the point I hope to make here is that it is both legitimate and necessary to ask the question itself: “yes, how can we determine which of these wide-ranging and diverse opinions about homosexuality are really best?” Or more generally, “yes, how can we determine whether the behavior of a given individual — a person who may be homosexual, autistic, Jewish, African American, Muslim, atheist, etc. — is truly ‘appropriate'”?

With respect to homosexuality, it has traditionally been the heterosexual majority that has decided that homosexuality is somehow deviant, but in recent decades the community of homosexuals, joined by their supportive heterosexual friends and family members, has asserted the moral right of homosexual people to exist, to be alive, to be who they really are, and to participate openly and honestly in the project of Civilization. Other long stigmatized minority groups — African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, atheists — are doing the same thing, and autistic people are also coming together and asserting their right just to live and to be themselves.

At the heart of the matter is the basic idea that members of the particular minority group should have some voice in figuring out whether and which of their own behaviors are appropriate or not. However tempting it may be to take a “majority rule” stance on the matter, “majority rule” can too easily become “mob rule”, and ultimately runs counter to the philosophy of individualism that is a key component of modern civilization.

Licence To Weird As Invitation To Conversation

So, the way I see it, if I tell someone, you for example, about my autism diagnosis — whip out my licence to weird (“OK, everybody, please don’t panic!….) — then this is essentially an open invitation for you, perhaps in those moments where my behavior may strike you as odd, or maybe even rude, to have a conversation with me about it. Yes, of course, quite possibly so that I can change my behavior so that it better fits your current definition of “appropriate”; but also quite possibly so that you can figure out how you may wish to upgrade your own definition of “appropriate”, so that it better fits my behavior; or maybe we can agree to meet somewhere in the middle.


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