There’s a myth about autism out there. It’s not any of the ones you’ve probably heard of, because it’s a myth promulgated by actually autistic people themselves. It’s the myth of autistic morality, or, more broadly, the myth of Autistic Exceptionalism.
“Autistic people,” says Pete Wharmby, “often have intensely strong feelings of justice and fairness, to the point where it is seen as a characteristic trait.”
It’s hardly that simple.
When he called the police on black women using glassware beside the pool at his (now-former) apartment complex, Nick Starr-Street told the press that he’s not racist, he’s autistic and has a strong sense of right and wrong. The wrong, for him, was violating a rule against glassware at poolside. Unseen or unacknowledged was the potential greater wrong that could result from calling the police on a group of black women, especially for such a minor infraction.
What’s at work here is not morality, but rigidity. Starr-Street was so locked into the violation of an apartment complex rule that it overtook any other consideration. This was not morality. This was not “justice and fairness” but a reckless, need I say rigid, disregard for justice and fairness.
Later in his thread, Wharmby does discuss this rigidity, but to his mind the autistic’s frequent rigid personal and inward need for and adherence to rules and their consistency somehow automagically transforms into an outward need for the consistent outward application of rules in the polity. I think that’s a leap.
What autistic people tend to have is a behavioral and cognitive rigidity, which when applied in an autistic person who also happens to have a well-developed sense of justice and fairness can be very noticeable and pronounced. I think that’s far more reflective of what’s happening than any inherent sort of mutant-like moral superiority of a Homo Autisticus.
(Wharmby also suggests that autistic people “(generally!) don’t get distracted by emotional issues or [so] bogged down in detail that the main idea is lost” and that this let’s us “focus on the issue completely”. His go-to example is Greta Thunberg, which is weird because that sort of activism isn’t somehow just a big-picture intellectual exercise, it’s profoundly emotional.)
Over the course of his thread, I think Wharmby gets really close to spotting that the key here is rigidity which happens in some autistic people to coincide with a sense of justice and fairness, but every time can’t seem to help but warp it into the exceptionalism narrative instead. He posits a lack of deference to authority as an autistic trait, but, again, you can’t just make the leap to an inherent moral sense of flat hierachies and equality without first examining if it’s simply a rigid manner of dealing with people, because it’s consistent, which is better personally for the brain of the autistic.
The idea that we might talk to our boss like we’d talk to anyone else doesn’t mean we have a belief in “a good, egalitarian thing”. It might just mean we have a psychological need for consistency and a neurological penchant for impulsivity.
As I’ve written before, autistic people are fond of exploding the myths told about them by neurotypical society. I wish we could avoid pushing myths of our own in the process.