Some thoughts about the Steve Silberman interview
A couple of weeks ago my friend Steve Silberman posted an excellent interview of me which attracted some deserved criticism with respect to my responses. I would like to address some of the points of that interview here.
Silberman: Are there any ways that society could be reformed to make it a more comfortable and supportive place for autistic adults?
Robison: I don't think that's a realistic question, Steve. We represent one percent of the population. Asking what 99 percent of the world should do to make it a better place for that one-percent member --- that's verging on science fiction and fantasy. People who get into that way of thinking become militant about demanding their rights and thinking about what the world owes them. Frankly, I don't think the world perceives that they owe us one single thing.
If you're a guy with severe autistic disability and you can't talk, you cry out for compassion by your very existence. It's obvious when people look at you and listen to you. If you're a person in a wheelchair, nobody can reasonably argue that you should just get your ass across the street. But when you're a person like me and your disability is principally with social functioning, and at the same time you have good language skills, people are going to dismiss you as a jerk if you don't learn to fit in. That's the hard truth. To suggest that someone like me should ask for accommodations is, in my opinion, setting that person up for failure. Because when your language skills are good, there's no external sign of disability, and you act weird --- and then you make demands on people for how they ought to change to accept you? That's a non-starter.
People were troubled by my response in that passage, but I believe it remains essentially true, however unpleasant it may seem to people. Remember, I am not saying I think this is how things should be. I am saying this how I believe our society works, like it or not.
If you look and sound “normal,” indeed if you present yourself as intelligent and articulate (like many Asperger people) you are going to have a hard time asking people who don’t know you for special accommodation.
They are going to look at you and say, Why? You look normal to me.
If, on the other had, you have some visible disability, people are cued that they need to be open to different expectations for how you might act or what you might need.
I’m not suggesting people will take pity on us, or respond on that basis. I am simply suggesting that visible evidence of disability sets the stage for a wide variety of accommodations, freely given. Taking pity on us has nothing to do with that, though other people may or may not feel that way.
When I suggested that some people perceive us as jerks when we say inappropriate things, I am not passing judgment on those people. I am simply repeating what has been said to me by countless folks on the spectrum, and others who have interacted with them, successfully or not. You may not feel comment that applies to you, and if so, that’s great. Just remember that a defining characteristic of Asperger’s is a difficulty in reading the unspoken messages of other people, and that deficit naturally leads to misunderstandings, some of which will inevitably be interpreted wrong by the other parties.
Then we had this exchange . . .
Silberman: But other minority groups have demanded reasonable accommodation from society, such as laws against discrimination in the workplace. Black folks did it by launching the civil rights movement, many other disabled groups have done so, and gay people --- like your brother Augusten --- have done it, too.
Robison: The race thing is completely different. You can look at someone and right away know if they're black or white. There's been a huge gay rights movement, but look at what there is already for gay accommodation. I don't think there was ever an issue of people refusing to hire gay people in most workplaces.
Silberman: Well, that isn't true. I'm not trying to argue with you ---
OK, I don’t know what I was thinking when I there was never an issue about hiring gay people. I was totally wrong. Certainly there are people who say, I won’t hire gay workers just as there were people who said I wouldn’t hire black people, or no Jews allowed here.
And indeed that sort of thinking surely still exists but it’s against the law.
One reason it’s against the law (among other reasons) is that black or gay or Jewish people are not inherently unable to do jobs simply because they are black or gay or Jewish. That’s why it's called discrimination.
Asperger people are indeed often unable to do certain kinds of jobs because we are Aspergian and act differently in certain circumstances. Therefore, when we are not hired for those jobs, it’s not clear to me that we are being discriminated against. I think it’s much more likely that our differences cause us to fail the screening exam, and it would be our behavior that kept us from the job, not our statement that we have Asperger’s (if indeed we revealed that at all.)
To take another example, it is not discrimination to say we won’t hire you because you are too short if you have to be six feet tall to operate a certain kind of machine. That’s not discrimination either; it’s a legitimate requirement of a particular job.
In my experience, Asperger people who have employment issues tend to get into trouble for saying the wrong thing, to the wrong person, at the wrong time. That includes telling bosses or customers they are stupid, or pointing any number of deficiencies in the employer, other workers, clients, or whatever.
We may also get fired for not following directions (because we think we have a better way) or for any number of reasons that ultimately tie back to our differences.
When we get fired, it is not because we have Asperger’s. It’s because we acted inappropriately in a specific instance. That is not discrimination.
That is what I was trying to say. Racial, religious, or sex discrimination happens because one group of people does not like another. I have not seen a lot of evidence of a big body of people who “don’t like autistic folks.” What I have seen, is people on the spectrum who have lost jobs over behavior issues, and then called that dismissal discrimination. Does that mean discrimination doesn’t happen? Certainly not. I’m sure it does, but I think the behavior issue is the bigger problem for most spectrumites in jobs.
I’m sorry I confused the issue by poor choice of words.
I’d also like to address the question of the Neurodiversity movement, and its goals of change and accommodation.
I am not opposed to ND or it’s desire for change. My comments in the Silberman interview and elsewhere simply reflect my belief that the changes I see requested/demanded by the ND community will not happen, or will not work. I know some disagree with this, and that’s ok by me. The world will be a better place if some of the changes happen, but I am not holding my breath.
In giving the advice I have, I use my best judgments about how we can be successful the way American society is right not, not how we hope it might be in the future.
I’m 53 years old. My perspective is surely different from those of you who are much younger. I’ve had jobs, been fired from jobs, and started my own businesses. I’ve seen them fail, and seen them succeed. My advice is based on that experience and my observations of and interactions with people I see in the course of writing and speaking on Asperger’s and autism.
Overall, I think Steve did a great interview and I’m sorry my answers were deficient in some areas.