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Autism is to blame

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The fallacy that "autism is to blame for sexism/harassment" is a common one in discussions about harassment and other sexist behaviour in geek communities. The fallacy is that neurodiverse people are not capable of learning social norms to the extent of knowing when sexual advances are unwanted, or that they should end interactions when the other party asks them to, or that they should not believe all stereotypes of women promoted by the surrounding culture.

Feminist criticisms of "autism is to blame"Edit

This is criticised by geek feminists for several reasons:

  1. Not all harassment is accidentally perpetrated, a substantial portion of it is calculated and executed by socially skilled people who have chosen victims who they think are less likely to complain or be believed if they complain.
  2. People who are neurodiverse assert that they understand the norms, and some assert that they find explicit discussions or policy such as the Conference anti-harassment policy useful in furthering their understanding, rather than having anti-sexist norms be implicit.
  3. The "neurodiverse people are sexist" argument is ableism, falsely equating autism spectrum social skills with sexist ones.
  4. Sexism and harassment are prevalent outside geekdom too, including in subcultures where the proportion of neurodiverse people is smaller.

This is not to say that neurodiverse people cannot harass people — they can, just like neurotypical people can. It is simply that they are not solely or disproportionately perpetrators of harassment in geek culture.

This fallacy may be used for several problematic aims:

  1. To excuse harassment in geek culture,
  2. to argue that the problem would be solved if neurodiverse people were excluded from geekdom; or
  3. to argue that feminists want to oppress neurodiverse people by insisting on mainstream anti-sexist norms that neurodiverse people cannot understand or follow (related to Geeks are oppressed), that is, attributing #2 to feminists.

Further readingEdit

Editor's note: this section is split into two to give prominence to neurodiverse people speaking for themselves. This split isn't ideal, because it favours people outing themselves, which not everyone is empowered to do. However, we'd like not to contribute to the issue of people with disabilities being spoken for by parents, carers and random members of the public. If you are concerned with this split, please discuss it on Talk:Autism is to blame.

By people who identify as neurodiverseEdit

Speaking as someone who actually is autistic… First, I think you’re [you = Captain Awkward, blog host] underestimating how big of a deal that can be in situations where it’s relevant. There’s a reason it’s considered a disability.
Second, I think you’re *over*estimating how relevant it is to the issue of not being creepy. It’s really not at all. The issue of being creepy, before body language even comes into the equation, is about whether you’re assuming no or assuming yes. If you’re assuming yes, you’re doing it wrong! Assuming yes and making people tell you no is still creepy even if you respect the no – it’s just not *as* creepy as assuming yes and then not respecting the no, or only respecting certain kinds of no.
If you assume no, and then look for yes, not only will you not be creepy to people, you’re guaranteed to wind up with someone who has a compatible method of communication, which means that the relationship isn’t basically doomed like it would be in the case of someone whose communication methods you can’t actually parse.
  • Alice: "I have Asperger’s and I don’t feel marginalized by the term 'creepy' because I don’t act like a creep. And I also expect other people, including autistics, to not act creepy… Also, I really don’t think having a hard time reading social cues is the problem for most creeps."
  • Kaz: "The extra fun thing is that being a woman with AS can make you particularly vulnerable to sexual harrassment, too! Both because there is no allowance made for women struggling with interpreting social cues correctly… also because those nice other aspects of AS that hardly ever get talked about can play into things. Things like sensory sensitivities and difficulty dealing with unexpected happenings and certain verbal issues that can crop up…"

By other peopleEdit

Note, these people may not be neurotypical, they often simply haven't self-described in their writings that we've seen.

  • As the mother of an Asperger child: "It is true that Asperger/ASD children often parse social signals incorrectly. The biggest indicator of this is their ability to monologue with great enthusiasm about their current obsessions. They glow with that enthusiasm and frequently fail to notice the way the eyes of their audience slowly (or not so slowly) glaze. This is not always fun for people who don't share their interests. It is not, however, threatening. I believe that most women can easily tell the difference between harassment and boredom."
  • Enough with the Aspie bit already "When my little boy integrated into mainstream kindergarten last year, this was his first time among neurotypical children. In his excitement he was running around and pulling other kids' hair. We worked patiently for months to teach him not to do this. He got it. We are still teaching him to respect other people's spaces (he's better, but not perfect) and listen to other people's no (he's pretty good at that)… If you would expect no less from a minimally-verbal, moderately-to-severely impacted 5 year old who has had an official diagnosis for most of his life, why are you willing to be lenient towards a charming, friendly adult man…"
  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little : "And I think people with mental illness, learning disorders, forms of autism or Aspergers, and other non-neurotypical modes of being may well be getting sick of being unfairly stereotyped as Natural Clueless Harassers."
  • Don't blame autism, dammit.: People who have poor social skills, whether because of a neurological condition or because they were raised badly or because they have disdained to learn them or whatever other reason--those people make their social gaffes in full view of large groups. Their colleagues are never surprised to find that they have been saying inappropriate things to a particular group of people for years, because they have poor enough social skills that they don't get that they're screwing up.
  • Arabella Flynn: WARNING! Sweeping generalizations inside!: aka The Example of the Gronkulated Fleebwangers. An extended illustration of how being an aspie, being socially awkward, and being a creeper are not the same thing.

See alsoEdit

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