In the Interest of Justice

About a year and  half ago I had to go to court because I had forgotten to put in a bulk pickup request in a timely manner.

If you are on the spectrum or if you know someone who is, you are likely familiar with the issues with short term memory. I can intend to do something, and forget completely that I need to do it. I can see the limbs or bulky trash set out on the curb as I turn into my driveway, think to myself, “I need to make the bulk pickup request,” and forget between getting out of the minivan and opening the front door (everything is behind me, so out of sight . . .). And naturally, I will remember to do it when I’m at Starbucks, a week later, randomly.

I had received letters telling me that I need to make the bulk pickup request. I was not sure how many, though I learned it needed to only be one before they would issue a citation.

I have written about institutional discrimination against people with autism before. This is the very kind of thing I was talking about in that post. Legislation that requires good short term memory from its citizenry is necessarily discriminatory against people on the spectrum. Worse, it ends up resulting in the harassment of people who already feel imposed upon by everyone. Unless the person goes to court and points out that they are on the spectrum and that they have short term memory problems as a result, a fine is likely to be imposed. To impose a fine on someone with autism because they forgot to do something is the same as fining them for having autism.

Either way, I had to go to court. When the judge asked me if I was going to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest, I said, “Well, let me explain my situation first . . .” I then proceeded to tell her that I had Asperger’s and that meant that I had short term memory problems that affected my ability to remember to do things like put in requests. I then asked her, “What is the purpose of my being here? The purpose of imposing a fine is to ensure that I will remember next time, right? But imposing such a fine on me won’t have the desired outcome, because I simply cannot remember.”

The prosecutor suggested that my cased be dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

The judge agreed, but said next time I would be fined.

I was hardly going to argue with her, though the problem nevertheless remains. However, since I did in fact go read the ordinance (which oddly left out the number of warnings and any mention of a fine), there is a certain probability that my exceptional long term memory will aid my short term memory and I’ll actually remember.

To avoid an absurdly high $280 fine, let’s certainly hope so.

So the good news is that justice in this case prevailed. If I forget again (so far, so good), it won’t. And worse, how many people are out there on the spectrum who consistently forget such things and find themselves fined? My guess is very few if any have enough self-understanding and presence of mind to make the argument I did in court today. As a result, there are likely hundreds of thousands if not millions like me who are being fined for having autism. And that is hardly in the interest of justice.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not arguing that one should get a “get out of jail free card” for every and all expectations. If there is a job, for example, that requires one to have a strong short term memory, I would hardly argue that I should be given that job. However, when it comes to government, the law should always apply to equal people equally. But what about when you have a truly unequal situation?

There are situations where equal isn’t fair. If any law assumes that everyone is identical in every way, then that law cannot be fair. Exceptions certainly are made all the time to accommodate people’s disabilities.

In a case like this, one should ask whether or not my disability creates a danger for anyone. In this particular case, it clearly does not. No one is harmed if I forget to request trash pickup for a few days. Sometimes the trucks come by for other pickups, and there’s literally no reason they shouldn’t stop when they see something. I shouldn’t have to pay out an obscene amount of money because I have a bad memory. I don’t find that accommodation ridiculous in the least. I find the legislation itself ridiculous.

It’s not about excuses. It’s about the fact that my brain works in a different way from neurotypical people’s brains, and there really should be reasonable accommodations for that. I would even argue that it would be entirely reasonable for them to leave me alone and not harass me over this issue. Would they make an exception for a forgetful elderly person? I think they should, and I suspect they would. Because that, too, would be in the interest of justice.


The last several days there has been a cicada singing right outside our front door. The first two days, Daniel was complaining about it because it was so loud, but today he was okay with the cicada. However, after only a few minutes of singing, the cicada stopped singing.

Daniel: Hey! The cicada stopped singing. It must have gotten a girlfriend.

After a few minutes, the cicada started singing again.

Daniel: Aww! The female must have changed her mind!

When it comes to information about plants and animals and nature in general, that boy remembers everything.

A View From the Outside

I am wondering how many people would listen to a podcast were I to do one. I am thinking of titling it “A View From the Outside” because of my view that the autistic mind is sufficiently different from neurotypical minds as to be the closest to an “outside” view a neurotypical could get to a variety of topics.

While I would of course cover issues of autism–and in this sense and case the title would be ironic, since it’s actually a view of autism from the inside–I would also cover a variety of other topics as well. Many of my political views are themselves outsider views, so the title would work in that sense, but at the same time I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake my world view for being the world view of all autistics (that itself can be a topic).

While I suppose a few people here may have guessed my politics, I have generally tried to avoid any explicitly political positions because that’s simply not what this blog is about, and I believe that politics is and ought to be one of the tiniest portions of our lives. At the same time, on a podcast such as I’m suggesting, I likely wouldn’t avoid politics, economics, social issues, and so on.

Is it possible, do you think, for me to be political on a podcast and not hurt my brand here? What do you think? Were I to do a podcast, would you listen? And if I said things with which you disagreed politically, economically, socially, etc., do you think people could separate that from this?

A Proposal for Education Reform

All teaching should be structured so that autistic children can learn the material. Because if an autistic child can learn it, a neurotypical child will be able to learn is using that method as well.

That means anchoring language to images and repetition.

But it does not work the other way around. What works for neurotypical children won’t necessarily work for autistic children.

Coincidentally, both do best in a Montessori school.

KLE1738, GABA, and a Possible Autism Connection

I have written on the role of GABA in autism here and here and here. GABA is involved in calming neural activity, and having less of it is associated with autism. Now we have discovered a gut bacterium that seems to survive only on GABA.

Many of us on the spectrum also have gut problems. It may be that we need these bacteria, named KLE1738, but it also may be that one can have too many. Or, seemingly oddly, not enough.

It may very well be that one needs these bacteria to clear out GABA. Without enough KLE1738 to eat excess GABA, it’s likely that GABA would get converted back to glutamate (enzymes work both ways, after all). This would keep glutamate levels high, and glutamate both contributes to positive feedback in the brain and to leaky gut.

This may in fact  be the more likely scenario simply because too many KLE1738 would result in starvation and result in the numbers dwindling back to normal. At the same time, one could imagine a scenario where there is a boom-bust cycle of KLE1738, with an alternation between too many and too few. Both too many and two few would result in GABA imbalances. And these swings could also result in the seeming bipolar behaviors we see in many on the spectrum.

North Carolina Higher Ed Center Weighs in on Nancy MacLean Controversy

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, out of North Carolina, has recently published a piece on the Nancy MacLean autism controversy in which this blog is cited and linked. As far as readers of this blog are concerned, there is perhaps not a great deal of new information in the piece by George Leef, but he does point out that Duke University has failed to address any aspect of her comments or conduct.

It is difficult to avoid politics in a situation like this, especially since Nancy MacLean’s work is highly politicized to begin with, and much of the controversy is itself politicized. This is why my objections were picked  up by libertarians and conservatives and pretty much ignored by the other political side. That being said, I do not consider her comments to be political in the least. I don’t like her anti-autism comments, and I went after her because she’s a well-known academic who made these comments. I will do the same any time anyone who is relatively well-known says anything ableist or spreads misinformation about autism or, as she did, accuse us of being the origin of an evil ideology. What’s worse, is that in her C-SPAN interview, she still tries to make that tie between autism and ideology.

At this point, I think it’s clear that MacLean simply doesn’t get it. She doesn’t actually understand the reason I object to her comments. She is so bound to her conspiracy theories that she doesn’t actually understand what she did wrong, or that it’s wrong. While I do appreciate the apology she did submit, I still don’t think she understands the actual offense she committed. While I think it’s silly to necessarily tie autism to a particular ideology, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in arguing some historical figure is or is not autistic. But it is offensive if you say that the reason they believe evil things is because they are autistic. In her C-SPAN interview she still makes that suggestion. What good is an apology when you then double down on your initial claim?

(Disclosure: I have published articles in The James G. Martin Center site, though none directly on autism and none on MacLean.)

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.