Institutional Discrimination and Autism

Institutions matter.

The structures of our institutions  matter a great deal. The structure of our property rights, for example, can be the difference between widespread wealth and the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few who are politically powerful. Those structures affect whether or not we are playing a positive sum game, a zero sum game, or a negative sum game. Inevitably, the structures of our institutions influence who is successful and why.

Thus, the Left’s complaints about “institutional racism” or “institutional sexism” are not wrong. It is likely there are structural elements to various institutions in any society that make it easier or more difficult for a particular race or sex to succeed.

But I have discovered another kind of institutional discrimination.

I have come to realize there is widespread institutional discrimination against those with autism. I know this because I have experienced it. In fact, I have been experiencing it for a long time now, only I did not know or understand this to be the case because I was unaware I was autistic.

For example, there is perhaps nothing more anti-autism than bureaucracy. Bureaucracies reward those who socially conform the most, who are socially most clever, who know how to brown nose the best and play office politics the best. They do not reward hard work, innovation, or insight. In other words, bureaucracies are an autistic’s worst nightmare.

To some degree it would seem that the 50s and 60s, during which there was little bureaucracy, were more tolerant of autistic traits. Many of the things we hear people complain about the working conditions of the time — repetitive work, cubicles, etc. — were the conditions under which people on the spectrum would have done well.

The real irony is that the rise of the personal computer was both a benefit to those on the spectrum and a benefit to the creation of bureaucracy. People on the spectrum continue to do well in low-bureaucracy, high-tech (and high work-demand) conditions, such as we find in Silicon Valley. Other places where our strong analytical abilities should be of great benefit — in research, including universities — can sometimes drive us off precisely because of the increasingly dominant and dominating bureaucracies. Yet, it is not uncommon for high functioning autistics to have advanced degrees. If that advanced degree is a Ph.D., that means working in a university more often than not.

Yet there are few places more bureaucratized than universities.

While being a university student actually plays into many of the strengths of those with autism — which is why so many get advanced degrees — the work environment is anti-autistic. And this, as Geoffrey Miller observes, includes the work environment of colleges and universities.

More, among neurotypicals, HOW something is done is just as important — sometimes more important (especially in places with large bureaucracies) — as the outcome. To take something with which I am familiar, it should matter more whether or not the students actually learned the material than whether you are teaching those students the same way as everyone else. But it turns out that student learning per se is not what is important to anyone in any school’s bureaucracy; rather, what is important is that you are conforming everything you do to how everyone else is doing things. And if you are doing even one small thing differently, you have to defend what you are doing to more and more and more people — until you just give up on it just to get people to leave you alone. Nobody cares if what you are doing works; they only care that they aren’t doing it, or that they hadn’t heard of it before. For the autistic person, none of that stuff matters. The only thing that matters is what works. Show me it doesn’t work, and I won’t do it. But if I show you it does work, you should leave me alone to do what works. Perhaps you ought to try doing it yourself. But ego gets in the way of neurotypicals adopting things others have developed.

Neuroptyicals typically won’t adopt something new until and unless they are made to do so — either by a boss or by circumstances. This also works in reverse. You are expected not to adopt something new until and unless the boss makes you. You are not supposed to just do things on your own. Yet, this is exactly what you can expect people with autism to do. We care only about what works, and ego or hierarchy or anything like that does not come into play at all (although we are typically interpreted by the much more egocentric neurotypicals as being egocentric for insisting on doing things “our” way).

Bureaucratic hierarchies play into the strengths of neurotypicals, but outright punish autistics. One could almost define neurotypicals as political animals and autistic as poetic animals. The poetic person wants to simply make or do (this is the origin of the word in ancient Greek), while the political person wants to be social and to interact with other human beings. Most of our modern institutions are political in structure, rewarding those who engage in politics. It is not hard work that gets rewarded, but whoever is the most politically savvy. More, the more autistic you are, the more difficult it will be to succeed in a job, as most jobs reward social intelligence over other kinds of intelligence. And social intelligence is precisely where autistics fall short.

Thus we can see that our current institutions are discriminatory against those with autism.

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