The Pathology Of Autism Research

Over in a subreddit for autistic adults, someone linked this Newtsoda webcomic about this study about moral decisions in autistic people. Or, really, the webcomic uses that study to talk about how researchers pathologize pretty much any behavior if it happens to come from an autistic person. There’s a good NeuroClastic writeup of the study if you don’t want to wade through the paper itself, although you always could just skip to the discussion section at the end.

I’m not going to bother to pull out a bunch of quotes; I just want to flag a couple of thoughts I had along the way.

While the study reports that both autistics and non-autistics agreed that the “good” scenario was good and the “bad” scenario bad, it doesn’t seem to account for whether or not non-autistics were just saying what they assumed a public and judgmental audience would want to hear. Given that the study itself specifically examined actions in public to actions in private, you’d think they’d have to account for this possibility.

As with any discussion of autism and morality, I can’t help but think of the autistic guy who called the police on black women violating a rule about poolside drinks at this apartment complex. For sure, he apparently thought he was enforcing a morality, but at the risk of putting into motion a greater immorality about which he apparently was oblivious, and despite not only doing all of this in public but energetically posting about it online.

Also, I’d be interested for someone to repeat this study but add in a third scenario: one in which you do the moral thing but get punished for it. This springs to mind because I just went through that scenario when fundraising for veterinary costs. The fundraiser potentially put at risk my own health and food benefits, because those funds had to be reported to my state of income and/or assets. For a few days I was under a particularly intense sort of pressure from family members not to report the money.

The argument, considered objectively, wasn’t ridiculous: because the money was for a moral cause, and was only going to be spent on that cause and not on myself, why should I put my own health and wellbeing at risk by reporting the funds? Realistically, however, things could be far worse for me if I never reported it at all. It was legally required of me, and the risk of being a scofflaw wasn’t small.

Morally, my family was right: I shouldn’t be punished simply for doing the right thing for and by my animals. In the real world, it isn’t that simple. It rarely is.

(For the record, I not only reported the funds, I documented both the fundraiser and the expenses exhaustively in my reporting to the state. Neither my health nor my food benefits were curtailed or reduced.)

At any rate, I think there are a lot of gaps in how thie particular study was put together, but more than anything else both Newtsoda and NeuroClastic are right about how too many autism researchers can’t seem to help making every single thing they apparently uncover about autistic people into a pathology. You could almost say they are pathological about it.


  1. There is a poster who is taking issue with the webcomic, essentially arguing that its a misunderstanding of the language of scientific literature, as if scientific language is immune from bias Because Science. There is inherent bias and harm in using the term “healthy” to describe the non-autistic subjects. There is inherent bias and harm is saying that autistic subjects “overestimated” consequences rather than consider that maybe the “healthy” subjects underestimated them. The argument is that language itself—yes, scientific language too—has a moral component, intended or otherwise, that should be exposed and exploded.

  2. Call it the moral quandary of colloquial runoff. The poster in question doesn’t see it. I presume that once upon a time researchers studied homosexuality and referred to something akin to a ”healthy control subject”, and I assume we’d take issue were the term used in that context today.