Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. It’s nice to have you here once more. I have something to talk about this week that has annoyed me beyond belief. This goes right to the heart of acceptance for autistic people, and understanding of autism in general. Frustratingly, I’m almost certain that this message will not go directly to the people who need to hear it the most, and even if it did, it might have an effect very different from what is intended. A line from Shakespeare sums up the problem with typical eloquence: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” This line is spoken by Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. You don’t have to be a fan of Shakespeare to have heard this line, as it has entered the public consciousness, although not necessarily in an accurate way…
These days, when someone alludes to the line by saying a person protests too much, they usually mean that someone who is denying behaving in a bad way and overdoing it must really be guilty. It suggests that people who have done bad things will tend to over-act when denying it. This is not what was meant in the original work by Shakespeare, when Queen Gertrude is commenting on a play within the play, in which the player queen theatrically states her devotion to her husband, then later goes on to marry his murderer. But it doesn’t really matter anymore what the line in the play was really functioning as, because the meaning has altered in common usage, and continues to evolve. Currently, if you protest against anything in which you have a personal interest, some wiseass will claim you protest too much, attempting to cast doubt on your honesty and integrity. And because many people don’t think things through, they will indeed begin to doubt your honesty and integrity.
When I say many people don’t think things through, I’m referring to the lack of critical thinking in a general population that tends to believe the first thing they see on a given subject, or the most widely promoted view on a subject, regardless of its veracity. We call this the availability bias, a kind of heuristic (mental shortcut) that we use instead of thinking things through. Combined with this is authority bias; the human tendency to trust and believe information based on the perceived authority of its source, rather than the actual veracity of the information. The authority bias is dangerous partly because authority figures sometimes get it wrong. This is particularly true when perceived authority figures exploit a halo effect, transforming actual expertise in one subject into perceived expertise in a different area. The real-life implications of this can be horrific, as seen in the case of Sally Clark.
Sally Clark was an English solicitor, who suffered the awful tragedy of her two children dying at a very young age. However, Sally was tried for the murders of the children, and found guilty. Her guilt was decided upon based on the evidence of paediatrician, Professor Sir Roy Meadow. Meadow, acting as an expert witness (authority figure) presented the court with outrageously flawed statistics that indicated Sally Clark’s guilt. Later, the conviction was overturned, but the damage was already done. Sally had been imprisoned, and treated as a hate figure by the general public. Four years after her conviction was overturned, she died in tragic circumstances, alcohol poisoning believed to have played a major part. Meadow, with all the authority of being a professor and having the title Sir, had been assumed to be an infallible expert. But he was a paediatrician, not a statistician. His horrendous misrepresentation of statistics was decried by the Royal Statistical Society. He was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council for serious professional misconduct as a result of this, but far too late to be of any help for Sally Clark and her family. Sally Clark had maintained her innocence, but public opinion was always against her, until the conviction was overturned. I wonder how many people claimed the lady doth protest too much. This is just one particularly tragic example of how people will trust an authority figure simply because they are an authority figure. There is no substitute for applying a healthy dose of skepticism to any claim, and for thinking critically.
The reliance on authority figures by the general public has real-life implications for autistic people. I’ve spoken many times about the renowned autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen. Like Professor Meadow, Baron-Cohen also sports the title Sir, and is considered an expert in his field. However, Baron-Cohen’s expertise in his very own field is in doubt, to the extent that I – and many other autistic people – consider him an enemy of the autistic community. I don’t want to give the man too much space here, particularly as I have dealt with him in previous blog posts. Suffice it to say that, despite continuing to be seen as a leading world expert on autism, Baron-Cohen has repeatedly had his work refuted by other experts in the field, and by the lived experience of actually autistic people. So impressive is Baron-Cohen’s professional profile that anyone coming to the subject of autism for the first time would assume he is to be believed and trusted. Set against this, how can we autistic people possibly expect to be taken seriously when we say he is wrong? The world, quite simply, assumes we protest too much. When Baron-Cohen claims we autistic people are deficient, how can we expect the world to trust us when we say we aren’t deficient? We’re probably too deficient to realise we’re deficient, right? The protest too much trope cuts deep. Simon Baron-Cohen is not the only seemingly infallible authority figure on autism, though. Most people would expect that if they pursue an educational course in a given subject, they would get an honest, balanced, authoritative learning experience. Sadly, where autism is concerned, that is often not the case. This brings me to the trigger for today’s blog post…
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my often-mentioned son, David. Like me, David is autistic, and like me he is a blogger (he writes the very popular Mortgage Advisor on FIRE blog). Recently, David decided to take a course; a Level 2 Certificate in Understanding Autism, from The Skills Network. He didn’t get very far into it before realising how badly out of step with the autistic community and modern thinking on autism the course was. Some of the fundamental errors in the text and its insulting, highly offensive approach to autistic people were shocking. David and I were dismayed by the content of the materials, and he has since withdrawn. To be fair to the content provider, they have apologised for any offence, and have not charged David for withdrawing from the course. But they have not indicated it will be removed. In any case, the damage has already been done in terms of the unsuspecting people who will have completed the certificate, and take it as a standard approach to autism. In truth, the course is badly informed, and way out of touch, even with other areas of the autism establishment.
Below are examples of how the course from The Skills Network is getting things wrong:
The term spectrum as applied to autism was first coined by psychiatrist Lorna Wing, and referred to the wide array of ways in which aspects of autism present in an individual. It was never intended to refer to a linear model of mild-to-severe. In fact, the whole notion of mild or severe autism is generally rejected by autistic people, as it does not accurately represent the lived experience of being autistic. This is not a one-off mistake by the course provider, as they double down on the misguided representation of a linear spectrum, as seen in the image below…
The idea of severe autism springs from an error in which disabilities such as learning difficulties are conflated with autism. Learning difficulties can occur in both the autistic and non-autistic populations, but all too often, when an autistic person has a learning disability, this is conflated with autism, and referred to as severe . It completely misrepresents autism. The false concept of severe autism is related to so-called high-functioning and low-functioning labels. Generally, the autistic community reject such terms, as they grossly misrepresent the actual lived experience of autistic people. These functioning labels can hinder acceptance of autistic people in society, particularly as being labelled high-functioning can lead to our needs being ignored or trivialised (You don’t need support, you’re high-functioning), whereas being labelled low-functioning can lead to your agency being ignored (You can’t make decisions for yourself; you’re low-functioning). The truth is that the ability of an autistic person to function in a world designed by and for non-autistic people varies by the hour, the day, and the week, depending on how much that world is inflicting upon us. Nevertheless, the course offered by The Skills Network embraces functioning labels wholeheartedly…
As can be seen from the image above, the course also engages in the use of person-first language (“person with autism” rather than “autistic person”). To read more on why this distinction matters, check out the Words Have Power section of this website. However, perhaps the most disturbing image from the course is the icon of a human head made up of jigsaw pieces…
The jigsaw puzzle piece iconography which is used in connection with autism is ubiquitous in the autism establishment and popular media. And it is universally loathed by autistic people who understand its origins and meaning. Deployed as its main icon by the organisation Autism Speaks, it has come to be seen as a symbol of hate by the autistic community. Again, I have spoken before in this blog about Autism Speaks, and the harm they have caused autistic people, and I’m not going to repeat it all here (after all, I don’t want to protest too much…) but you can read more by clicking here. The puzzle piece is now used by the autism merchandise industry, despite the continued outcry from the autistic community who see it as highly insulting. Autistic people are not puzzles to be solved by the non-autistic world. Neither are we people who have pieces missing, waiting to be put back together, or just dismissed as incomplete human beings. We are whole, valid human beings who are simply neurologically different from the majority. For The Skills Network to use this puzzle piece iconography to make up an image of a head (and by implication brain) is unbelievably insulting and hurtful. And yet not at all surprising. We autistic people are having to deal with this stuff all the time.
Many autistic people will be familiar with the constant misrepresentation of autism and autistic people in the establishment and media, and the harm it causes. But it’s not enough for just us to be upset, dismayed, and annoyed by it. What we need is the autistic viewpoint to get out there into the non-autistic world. We need non-autistic people to listen to us, understand us, and think critically about all the autism misinformation out there. The only hope we autistic people have of achieving any kind of social acceptance and equality is to educate the non-autistic population. But we are up against a colossal barrier of misguided, perceived authority figures, whether they be individuals such as Simon Baron-Cohen, or educational outlets such as The Skills Network. If we autistic people disagree with such perceived experts, we fall foul of the protests too much heuristic, and risk not being believed or trusted. We can perhaps hope that acceptance and equality will eventually come our way via natural social processes, much in the way that other social minorities have made progress. The massive strides being made by the LGBTQI+ community fill me with optimism, as does the Black Lives Matter movement. I dream of the day when autistic people are accepted by the world as fully valid human beings.
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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
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Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.