It’s all too easy to blame the world’s problems on those who are considered to have inferior social skills. Nerds and geeks are often stereotyped as being dorks, and, more often than not, for good reason. Many of us who were intellectuals, scientifically-inclined, bookish, obsessive about our hobbies, and/or just different from others were stigmatized and isolated from our peers in childhood and adolescence. It stands to reason that many of us would be late bloomers and perhaps not as well-versed in social norms as others.
Stereotypes of people who fall on the autism spectrum include many of the “dorky” tendencies that are ascribed to neurotypical nerds and geeks: an inability to pick up on social cues and an assumed lack of empathy. Whether conflating a lack of social skills with being on the autism spectrum or not, the argument generally leads to a shrug and a “too bad they can’t get it, ignore the poor things.”
It is untrue that social stigmatization is some magic spell that turns the outcast into a complete jerk. A lack of social acceptance can just as easily — and far more commonly — leads to self-feeding shyness, fear, and self-hatred. For every school shooting or otherwise violent action undertaken by a so-called “loser” (and please, for the love of Sagan, don’t include Columbine in that count), there are thousands of other social rejects who turn the violence in on themselves. Suicide, depression, and general unhappiness pervades the life of the vast majority ostracized people, not arrogance and aggression.
It then follows that most people who lack acceptance seek it out. In my limited, anecdotal experience, this leans more in the direction of putting up with terrible behavior in the hopes of being accepted, not acting like a jerk. Human beings, generally speaking, need social interaction to feel mentally healthy, and the desperation that can stem from lacking social interaction often leads to putting up with bad behavior from friends, not behaving badly towards friends. Why would anyone who craves acceptance alienate those who might potentially give them what they want? It simply doesn’t add up.
Specifically regarding autism, simply put, autism does not preclude empathy. Indeed, some studies have suggested the opposite, i.e. that those with autism shut down their empathy response because of over-, not under-, stimulation. Even if you don’t buy that idea, much of what is perceived as a lack of empathy in those on the spectrum is often just a misunderstanding based on social cues.
Of course, with both the socially inexperienced and those on the spectrum, a lack of comprehension or misinterpretation of social cues can easily lead to misunderstandings. However, that potential for the “awkward” or autistic person to commit a faux pas and/or miss a cue cannot account for anything beyond some minor interpersonal or group issues. One cannot reasonably blame a dedicated campaign of vitriol and hatred on social awkwardness or autism.
Why does all of this matter? All too often, the real problems of sexism, racism, ableism, cissexism, transphobia, and the like among skeptics and atheists are ascribed to “neck-beards,” “social awkwardness,” or “Asperger’s.” This is not only false because it confuses the neuroatypical with a lack of social skills and vice versa, but because assholery is far from exclusive to those who process information differently from others or those who lack friends. The people who actively oppose social justice in the movement are often brazen community leaders with nothing to blame but a sense of entitlement and a hatred of anyone who questions their privilege and preferences.
It’s both convenient and comforting, in a sinister way, to blame something like autism or social awkwardness for deep-rooted and pervasive problems. As with blaming sexism on sexual attraction or sense of humor, however, this is a dangerous glossing-over of real issues.
Most of the people on the Spectrum whom I’ve met in the skeptical community are committed to social justice. It is possible that there are some neuroatypical types on the other side, but to blame autism for chauvinism is just plain ignorant.
Note: For an alternative to Autism Speaks, i.e. the most disingenuously-named group ever, check out Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.