Responsibility vs. Accountability

Although the words responsibility and accountability are usually treated as synonyms of some sort, I like to view them as representing distinct concepts. On the one hand, I see responsibility as something one accepts; and on the other hand, accountability is something one enforces against another. Although this might seem like an unconventional distinction to make, I like to use it as the basis of a simple 2-dimensional model that helps me think about those kinds of interpersonal conflict in which responsibility is a core issue.

For example, here we will consider the particular case of an us-versus-them scenario. In order to make it concrete, we will suppose that we have been invited to a dinner party at which chocolate cake will be offered for dessert. In this scenario we will analyze the cases where “we” may accept (or not) responsibility for bringing the cake, and “they” may enforce (or not) accountability against us for doing so. The following diagram illustrates all four of the possible combinations of responsibility and accountability: Responsibility versus Accountability

Starting in the upper left (green) corner of this diagram, we have the case where we accept responsibility for bringing the cake, and they enforce accountability against us for doing so. Then in the upper right (red) corner is the case where we do not accept responsibility for bringing the cake, while they still enforce against us accountability for doing so. In the lower left (green) corner is the the case where we accept responsibility, but they don’t enforce accountability; and then in the lower right (green) corner, is the case where neither we accept responsibility, nor do they enforce accountability for bringing the cake.

Now, a lot more could be said about this diagram, but for now I’ll just point out that the case in the upper right corner that is highlighted in red is really quite unique in that it is the case that will most likely cause interpersonal conflict. A situation in which our hosts will hold us accountable for bringing a cake that we ourselves have not actually accepted responsibility for bringing is, well, doomed to be difficult, to say the least.


Image Credit (Icelandic gorge): Pixabay.

But You Don’t Seem Autistic


Image found here.

It’s going to take some time for popular culture to digest and assimilate all of the progress that’s been made recently in the scientific and medical understanding of autism. In the meantime, those of us with so-called “mild autism”¹ will have to figure out good ways to cope with the well-meaning, but frustrating and inadvertently invalidating responses of all of the otherwise good people we know and encounter who have not yet had the opportunity to update their understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

And these people are not all neurotypical either. A few months ago I met a fellow aspie who quite sincerely thinks his autism was caused by a vaccine; and I know at least two individuals showing strong autistic traits who both think I’m being ridiculous even for suggesting they may actually be autistic. And I have to include myself in that group as well. Eleven months ago, just prior to my own ASD diagnosis, I had self-diagnosed and sought psychiatric help for what I was sure was some sort of Bipolar Disorder (BD). But following a full day of psychometric testing and clinical interviews, and after my diagnostician told me that that she didn’t really see BD, but what she did see was some version of autism — “what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome”, she said — I was quite skeptical. “But I feel empathy!” I objected; and “I have a great sense of humor!”

“Those are just stereotypes, ” she explained. “What they’ve found is that there is a lot of variation in the way autistic traits manifest in people.” Since then I’ve come to a much richer understanding of what that actually means. Having autism is something like being a bird, and when most people talk about birds, they probably have in mind one or two particular kinds of birds, like maybe sparrows and robins; and they really need to be reminded that ostriches and penguins are also birds, as are flamingos and vultures, even though they all seem strikingly different from each other, and especially so from sparrows and robins. Something similar is true of autistic people. If all someone knows about autism is what he or she learned by watching Rainman or Big Bang Theory, then his or her understanding is analogous to that of someone who learned about birds by studying just sparrows and robins. The first time such a person encounters a hummingbird or an ostrich, a response of “but you don’t seem like a bird” is nothing to scowl at.

Since being diagnosed with ASD, I have been confronted with this issue in various ways. I actually got fired following an attempt to obtain reasonable accommodation on my job; I have been accused of trying to shirk responsibility for my unruly behavior — of “blaming my diagnosis”; I’ve been accused of malingering; and I have been told that I don’t “seem” autistic.

I won’t pretend to have the last word on the topic or to have figured out anything like the “best way” to handle these kinds of frustrations, but I do feel confident that anything angry is a waste of time that will likely backfire in some way, making everything a lot worse. As I explained in a separate post yesterday, I believe rage has failed us in general, and I have utterly given up on any rage-based problem solving strategies. Needless to say, the next time someone tells me “but you don’t seem autistic”, I will not say anything like this:

Gosh, I'm so sorry I didn't fit your stereotype

Image found here. Meme generated here.



¹I put quotes around the phrase mild autism to signal that my own “mild autism” has had quite a non-mild effect on my life and relationships; a fact I believe would be readily confirmed by the many people I have shocked, worried, annoyed, frustrated, irritated, confused, infuriated and otherwise alienated over the course of my life.