Autism and Behavior, Choice and What Cannot Be Helped

There are a great many thing about human beings that we think can be helped and/or chosen. The most obvious that comes to mind is homosexuality. Many consider homosexuality a “choice,” meaning homosexuals choose to be gay. Anyone who actually knows anyone who is gay knows this to be nonsense—most have known they were gay since at least puberty hit. They felt a natural attraction to members of the same sex that is as natural as the majority’s attraction to members of the opposite sex. I no more chose to be straight than a homosexual chose to be gay. Our sexual orientations and subsequent behaviors are natural, no matter what those orientations and behaviors are.

But we forget—or don’t realize—the degree to which many of our personality traits are genetically wired into our brains. Degrees of aggression or passivity, argumentativeness or agreeableness, curiosity or lack of interest in new things—one could go on and on—are primarily genetic in nature, and are often reinforced by the environments they create by the expression of those personality traits.

The same is true of people on the autism spectrum. We all have personality traits that are inherent to our brain structures and neurochemistry—which is also true of neurotypical people and their brain structures and neurochemistry—that strongly affects what behaviors are natural. And we cannot help those behaviors any more than a neurotypical person can help theirs. I mean, let us face it, the autistic ability to concentrate for long periods of time on one thing of high detail is something neurotypical people ought to be able to do, right? There are plenty of jobs out there that require those skills. All you have to do is change your behaviors and you should be able to do it, right?

Of course, the majority of neurotypical people (perhaps all of them) are horrified at the very thought. They would complain that it’s boring, inhumane to make someone sit for hours and pore over highly detailed text or computer programs or whatever else fits the above description without much of a break, but the fact is that someone like me loves to do just that. The best job in the world for me has been the occasional proofreader jobs I have gotten, where I just looked for errors in texts. Eight hours of that is great. Love it. I am accurate and I am fast. It’s a great job.

But I’m equally sure that almost nobody else would want that job. Is there something wrong with you if you would hate doing that? I can do it because of how my brain is structured. And most cannot do it because of how their brains are structured. It is neither better nor worse, just different. And you should be thankful people like me exist, to do the jobs that you don’t want to do (and perhaps cannot do), but which need to be done. Probably everyone who writes code is somewhere on the spectrum. Certainly editors of code are.

So keep these things in mind when you see how someone is behaving. They almost certainly cannot help it. Which doesn’t mean that behaviors cannot and will not change. If there is enough negative feedback (in both senses of the term), a person can be nudged one way or another. But even so, we shouldn’t be surprised if there is some residue of the original behavior, or that we find it cropping up here and there. I have had to adjust to the realities of a neurotypical world that is outright hostile to many of the ways I behave—even those that we commonly give lip service to being positive traits, like creativity and “thinking outside the box” (two things most people actually deeply despise).

The current shift toward acceptance of homosexuality as a structural difference that results in behavioral differences does give me hope, though. We just need to help people to understand that being on the spectrum means we have structural differences that result in behavioral differences. It will probably help as we learn that autism doesn’t mean just the most severe versions, but means people like me, people who have college degrees and are married and have always been considered a little “odd” or “quirky,” but who find that the demands of society make living in society difficult at best.

All of this reminds me of the movie about Alan Turing, who was ostracized because of his homosexuality. People thought him a bit odd because of his autism, which was harder to hide than his homosexuality, but it was the latter for which he was punished. The feeling one gets from the movie is a feeling of outrage that a society that benefited so much from this man would then turn on him because of a trait he couldn’t help.

It seems to me that we need to see some movies where the situation is as I have found it—that a society that benefits (or could benefit) from someone turns on him because of his autism. Because that is the reality right now for the vast majority of us on the spectrum. We are either directly punished if we admit to being on the spectrum (as has happened to me) or we are indirectly punished for our autistic behaviors, despite whatever benefit we may be bringing. We are deserving of a movie that will elicit such outrage.

At the same time, If the Alan Turing movie had been made in the 20th century, it wouldn’t have elicited the same degree of outrage. Many if not most would have considered the sin of his homosexuality to outweigh his contribution. The movie could make its point precisely because we don’t need the point made.

The same is likely true of autism. We will have to have a revolution in the way we think of autism. We will have to depathologize it (for the vast majority of people on the spectrum), and recognize that our “sins” are behaviors we cannot help, and which others need to learn to accept. We will have to have the autism version of Ellen and Will & Grace and change the cultural attitudes. We are different and our behaviors are odd—but no more or less odd than homosexuals’ behaviors were considered within the lifetimes of most people (and still are by too many)—but we are humans of a different kind, and we deserve to be treated as such.

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