Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Stop Claiming Autistic People Who Commit Sex Crimes "Don't Know Any Better"

Cropped photo of a shadow of two people, on grass. A foo t in a woman's black flat shoe is visible on the lower right.
Photo © Jan Olof Nygren | Creative Commons
[image: Cropped photo of a shadow of two people, on grass.
A foo t in a woman's black flat shoe is visible on the lower right.]

Zack Budryk

twitter/@BudrykZack

A show that ran as long as Law And Order is, naturally, going to have some off days. I’ll admit to occasionally tuning into the show’s seemingly never-ending basic cable blocks as a guilty pleasure. One of the telltale signs you’re about to watch one of the shitty ones is when the culprit is apprehended about 20 minutes in. When it’s taken care of that early, you know the trial portion of the episode is going to revolve around the perpetrator’s lawyer arguing that their client killing people is a medical condition or something similarly absurd. So you can imagine how irritated I was, to say the least, when someone decided to pull the same trick  in real life.

The Internet is vast and contains multitudes If, for some reason, you want to identify the absolute worst people on here, there are several ways you could go. There are the neo-Nazis of course, but there are also the mass-shooting truthers, the guys who call everything “free speech” and of course, whoever wrote this.

But a top contender is the “pickup artist” community, a blanket term for various oily sleazes who purport to teach men to score through tactics aimed not at genuinely being more appealing to women, but at manipulating them or wearing down their resistance. As you might imagine, obtaining consent is often neither here nor there for these people, and some of the subculture’s most famous faces, such as sex tourist Roosh Valizadeh, are admitted rapists.

Which brings us to Jason Berlin. Berlin was sentenced to prison for participating in the rape of an inebriated woman in 2013. At the time of his crime, he was paying for seminars that claimed to train men in pickup artistry, or “game,” in their parlance. Last week, Berlin’s lawyer argued in a sentence-reduction hearing that Berlin had recently been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and as such was not aware raping women was wrong. It’s difficult to know where to begin with something this obscene and absurd. It brings to mind theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s reaction to a poorly written paper: “That is not only not right, it is not even wrong.” Berlin’s defense claimed he was manipulated by his co-defendants, Alex Smith and Jonas Dick, and that he had the “social and emotional capacity of a 5-year-old,” according to the Daily Beast.

As an autistic man who’s been married for five years and in a relationship for nearly a decade, I have a front-row seat to the ways this argument is bullshit. First of all, while autistic people are in fact susceptible to manipulation from neurotypical people, we also have strong senses of right and wrong. This is especially true when we’re younger. For example, when I was in fourth grade I printed up a broadsheet about how my classmates were sliding into juvenile delinquency by saying things “sucked” because my parents had forbidden me to say it.

Berlin, autistic or not, actively boasted about the incident and blogged about his goal of having sex with 15 women over a three-month period. The defense’s implication that simply having autism made Berlin an incompetent child is difficult to square with the $2,000/month apartment Berlin rented for himself and his partners. Paying rent and maintaining an apartment are relatively complex life skills. Local coverage of the trial noted that while Berlin was unemotional in his apology, he “cried openly when his mother turned and faced the victim and apologized to her.” I realize our understanding of autism is constantly evolving, but what’s described here sounds less like autism and more like “not actually being sorry.”

This argument is offensive because it plays into the stereotype that autistic people as exclusively white men who have problems relating to women. This ignores the fact that not only do autistic women, exist, but they too are susceptible to manipulation and are at high risk of sexual abuse as a result. By treating autism as some kind of brain parasite that removes men’s capacity to know rape is wrong, Berlin and his defense have reinforced those stereotypes and actively made these women’s lives harder.

Like a lot of people on the autism spectrum, I struggled with modern dating rituals until I found a partner who clicked. It’s true that dating is an environment that can be particularly fraught for autistic people. But—and I didn’t expect to have to clarify this, yet here we are—there’s a difference between “getting a date is confusing” and “I don’t know not to have sex with someone without their permission.” In trying to blur these lines, Berlin is infantilizing himself and all autistic people and playing into misconceptions that allow non-autistic people, often with ill intent, to step in and presume to speak for us. It also plays into the insidious, well-established tradition of connecting violent crime with autism as in the cases of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, misogynistic spree killer Elliot Rodger, and, not a week after he murdered 58 people in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock.

A spotlight is currently shining on just how easy it is to prey on women in our society in general. To blame what Berlin did on autism is not only ableist and scientifically unsound, it ignores our disturbing tolerance for this kind of behavior. Something makes men like Berlin decide not that what they do is wrong, necessarily, but that the wrongness of what they do is irrelevant. If we focus on autism, rather than whatever that thought process, is, we won’t do anything to prevent future Jason Berlins. All we’ll do is continue to stigmatize autistic people.

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This article was previously published at NOS Magazine.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Being Hyper-Verbal Is A Real—And Disabling—Autistic Experience

Two Vietnamese men, seen from behind, wearing billed caps and squatting as they have a conversation. The man on the right is gesticulating with his left hand
Photo © ePi.Longo | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Two Vietnamese men, seen from behind, wearing billed caps and squatting as
they have a conversation. The man on the right is gesticulating with his left hand.]

M. Kelter
www.TheInvisibleStrings.com

Content note: This article discusses suicide risk factors specific to the autistic experience.

I worry that too many people think of hyper-verbal autistic speech as being synonymous with "articulate" or "fast" or as something purely beneficial. This is actually not correct. Hyper-verbal autism is autism, and it is a disability. I want to provide a few details about how it generally works, so that I can draw a line connecting it to what people generally think of, when they think of autism.

I am on the spectrum, and I was fortunate enough to spend a few years working with a specialist who taught me the parameters of my particular way of engaging with language. We found that my verbal processing tends to create difficulties for me when it connects up with three factors: Emotional volume, thought speed, and social pragmatics.

What I am going to describe here is the way hyper-verbal speech works for myself—one, non -representative individual—and the way that these factors are exactly what you would expect to find in the realm of autism.

Some who have children with significant degrees of intellectual disability feel like conversations like this can obscure what they call "real" autism. But this, too, is incorrect. The distinction they are making only manages to cut the common thread that connects varied autistic experiences into a coherent neurological profile.

To explain what I mean by that: there simply is no reason to see different experiences with autism as mutually exclusive, as if they are in competition for territory. Autism is a disability that impacts communication. And because there is predominantly a genetic basis—there are currently 102 genes associated with ASD—you would actually expect for people on the spectrum to be very different from one another. The genetic complexity means that people are taking many different neurological pathways into an autistic profile.

The unifying component of autism is communication, not the many individualized forms communication can take. If you focus only on differences at the expression side of autism—whether someone is verbal or non-verbal—you are going to skip over that essential shared ground. Variations are not invalidating of a diagnosis, they are what you would expect to find in a condition this genetically heterogeneous.

So, that's how the different types of autistic communication link up, but I do want to go into some detail about accelerated language since it is one of the ways that autistic communication happens.

Take that word "accelerated" and think of hyper-verbal speech as an accelerant or a fuel, something combustible that can turn volatile when mixed with the wrong variables (like fire, for example). Then take that accelerant and throw it on a mood.

When words are naturally assembled in such a way that they bring a detailed, granular focus to an experience, it can become quite destabilizing if that experience is an emotion. The words take the volume of a mood and turn them to a much higher level.

Hyper-verbal autism is no joke. It is not an affectation. When anger or depression or self-hatred gets a boost from this kind of added intensity, it can be very difficult to steer in a better direction. The interplay between mood volume and hyper-verbal speech is under-discussed and under-appreciated as a risk factor for suicide in autistic people. Please believe me when I tell you this.

These concerns include risks for children, as well as teens and adults. If you are a parent and you do not believe me when I say this kind of speech can be extraordinarily difficult to manage, ask another parent of a hyper-verbal autistic child. I am quite confident that they will tell you, at least in many cases, that the internal fights these children go through as they battle with their own words; it can be a terribly difficult situation.

If we are thinking of words as a kind of fuel, thoughts are what drive the vehicle. The speed with which words can form and race to new and varied patterns can make concentration a daily, hourly nightmare. I am rarely able to concentrate. Simple tasks are not simple. Every possible thought is instantly ten alternate thoughts that quickly grow to a hundred and then more and when you take that head space into a grocery store or a school test or a job interview, most of every day can feel like an incredibly frustrating obstacle course.

That's internally. Externally, people interpret your concentration issues a lot of way. It can scan as not paying attention, as rude, as flighty, as indifferent, as lacking empathy (because you're too overwhelmed to notice subtle emotions and people, not understanding autism, feel neglected and inadvertently spread myths about empathy) and so on. The concentration issue alone can lead to significant degrees of impact and disability when it comes to daily functioning.

Take the mood thing, the thought thing and imagine how they play out in the middle of a real-time social interaction. It can be extremely disruptive. The impact of this kind of autistic speech can be significant and—due to the hostile reactions it receives from the rest of the word—it can easily lead to depression and social isolation.

Via front-line observation, I can report to you that in social contexts, hyper-verbal autistic speech functions like a chain event. As a child, I had social needs, I liked approaching other kids and sharing my thoughts, but that's now how interactions work. You have to know the social codes and hidden social rituals, and my words blew past all of that like a boulder going downhill. I would approach kids and start talking out of my head in a deluge of monologue, and that only ever drove kids away, or elicited bullying (aka violence). Mood disorders and social isolation ensued. It was a chain event.

To be clear, the answer back then would not have simply been to have me talk less. People tried that, but it didn't take because that's not how autism works. The answer would have had a lot more to do with changing the way people react to autistic differences, but we can take that up in another post.

If you are someone who generally believes that hyper-verbal autistics are arrogant, or have it easy, or that they do not have "real" autism: please know that you do not understand what autism is, and you are not helping autism conversations. What you are doing is are disparaging a group that doesn't need more disparagement. My only hope is that you can sense that I am trying to share good information with you here, and that you do not need to shout at autistics on twitter because they said a thing.

I honestly believe people will have an easier time understanding the autism spectrum the instant they stop creating nonsensical barriers between autistic people and their lived experience, and the ways that they engage with communication. New school, 2019 autism is simply a better conversation to have. I did not like the old one.