Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Inappropriate Behaviors in Adult Autistics: We Mean No Harm

During my long involvement with the adult Asperger Syndrome / autism spectrum community, I often make the disclaimer, when criticizing inappropriate behaviors of other autistics, that I have probably been guilty of similar behaviors, at least to some degree, at some earlier time in my life. Also, whenever I address autistic issues in a formal setting, I make the disclaimer that I am not an autism professional and that all my observations are personal views based on experiences from support meetings and other autism community events. It is in this spirit that I will discuss inappropriate behaviors in adult autistics. To protect the privacy of those concerned, however, I will only consider abstract generalities and will not examine individual cases.

Karl Wittig, PE

Karl Wittig, PE

Why Do Adult Autistics Behave Inappropriately?

In short, many autistics, especially as children and younger adults, sometimes do (or say) things that are considered inappropriate, if not downright offensive, simply because they are unaware of how objectionable such things are to most people. This is a case of “hidden curriculum” violation, about which much has been said and written as to how it affects the autistic community, most notably by Brenda Smith Myles. Essentially, an autistic person often is not able to “pick up” unwritten rules that are not explicitly stated but which everyone is nevertheless expected to follow. As such, they are not aware that their behavior is considered unacceptable because they were never taught that this was the case.

With age and experience, they might eventually learn that their behavior is not considered appropriate by others but still be unable to understand why this is so. In some instances, they do not notice anything objectionable, and cannot see why anyone else would care about, let alone be disturbed or offended by such. Consequently, they may refuse to address the issue, often at their own peril. A classic example of this involves personal hygiene – an autistic may not notice their own bodily odors, and accordingly not realize that others just might (not to mention find them highly objectionable); this can be considered a theory-of-mind issue in which they cannot understand that something is perceived by another person in a different manner than they themselves would. In other cases, they may not be disturbed by, or even aware of, something that is done to them which many people might take great exception to; as such, they might think nothing of doing the same to others, having no appreciation of how offensive it is (incidentally, the reverse can also be true – they may be very sensitive to things that others might barely even notice). Once again, the autistic is unable to discern how someone else might be affected by or respond to something differently than they themselves would be.

Going even further, an autistic may eventually recognize that others respond (sometimes strongly) to behaviors that they by now have learned are inappropriate. Nevertheless, they continue with these because of the reactions that they elicit. In children, such behavior is often seen as “attention seeking.” In adult autistics, however, it may be a cry for help – autistics are often unable to identify, let alone articulate, the nature of their challenges and difficulties, or sometimes even their feelings (this is known as alexithymia). This in turn results in great frustration and anger, which they then express through these behaviors. What is ironic, and even tragic, is that any notion of causing hurt or injury to anyone is the furthest thing from their mind. They merely want to get a reaction (and perhaps get others to acknowledge their own pain), and do not appreciate the effect that their behavior has on others, or the degree to which others can be disturbed or offended by such. Furthermore, they often do not realize the repercussions that can result and are perplexed when they experience adverse (and sometimes severe) consequences.

In all the above cases, there is a presumption, at least among much of the typical population, that the above individuals should simply know better – they cannot understand how anybody past a certain age and having any intelligence could possibly not know that their behavior is inappropriate or not appreciate how it is regarded by others. The situation is even worse for twice-exceptional autistics of high cognitive intelligence – “how could anybody so smart not realize that they should not do this?”

Challenging Behaviors in Support and Social Groups

Ever since my initial diagnosis in August 2000, I have regularly attended, facilitated, and helped to organize peer-run support groups for adults on the autism spectrum. Through this involvement, I have occasionally encountered a variety of challenging behaviors. These have ranged from simply doing or saying something that is in poor taste (hardly serious) to verbally attacking or stalking another member of the group (very serious).

In the latter cases, which affected the welfare of others in the community, action needed to be taken; this usually consisted of either temporary suspension until the offender apologized and promised to behave appropriately, to permanent removal from the group when the safety of other members could not be assured. Fortunately, such cases have been very rare, and serious psychiatric or other non-autistic issues were also involved.

Less serious instances, however, need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. These usually involve things that other group members might object to but do not threaten or harm anyone. In such cases, it may simply be necessary to inform the individual, in very explicit and unambiguous terms, about the nature of the inappropriate behavior, why it can be objectionable to others, and that it is not permissible to behave in such a manner, at least in the presence of those who are disturbed by it.

The least serious matters involve behaviors that are considered unacceptable by typical society but are not particularly (if at all) disturbing to other group members. These can simply be treated as “teachable moments” in which the inappropriateness of the behavior is pointed out (when unintentional) or reminded about (when deliberate). Such situations, in a group setting, mainly arise in meetings or events that take place among the typical community, to whom such behaviors might be more objectionable than they are within the safety of a private support group.

In all but the most serious cases, however, it is necessary to keep in mind that these groups were created for individuals who face autistic challenges, and deal with difficult situations accordingly. First and foremost, whenever an inappropriate behavior is addressed, it must be done in a completely literal, explicit, and unambiguous manner. Autistics are known for being literal-minded and, as such, will often not respond to hints, innuendoes, tone of voice, or body language, which may not even be noticed, let alone understood. Whoever is addressing the behavior in question must make sure that the autistic individual understands the nature and ramifications of their inappropriate conduct as well as is possible for them.

Furthermore, these groups should be, and are, places where autistics are allowed to “be themselves” without having to “mask” their autistic traits. It can be very difficult to strike a proper balance between this consideration and the need for autistics to learn how to behave appropriately (or at least not behave inappropriately) in the context of typical populations. I must confess that, for me personally, a few of the behaviors I have seen in Aspie groups were rather amusing, even as they might not have been acceptable (e.g., seen as being in poor taste) to the wider community; I have thus found myself in the position of having to point out that these should not be engaged in, even as I was thoroughly enjoying them myself (usually because it brought back memories of having done something similar). In any event, these are the kind of challenges that arise when trying to create autistic communities.

More Serious Inappropriate Behaviors

Coming from a technical background, I have always enjoyed reading about the exploits of early (circa 1980’s and 1990’s) computer hackers. Apart from being amazed by what they accomplished (“how were they able to gain such extensive access to protected computer systems?”), I was equally impressed by the fact that, in most cases, they were in a position to do untold damage (e.g., gain access to bank and credit card databases, infiltrate major corporations and government agencies), yet they did nothing with this information and had no interest in anything beyond successfully penetrating these computer systems. At most, they might let the computer’s users know that they had been infiltrated. As much as some of their actions were technically violations of the law, these hackers never intended to personally profit from them, let alone cause any damage or harm. Nevertheless, they faced criminal penalties (sometimes serious) for their actions. For many of these hackers, the story at least has a happy ending, because their talents resulted in being enlisted as computer security consultants.

Many of these hackers are now suspected, and in some cases known, to be on the autism spectrum. Many more have exhibited a few autistic traits (even if not actually on the spectrum), to the point of creating a stereotype. I am stricken by the similarities between these individuals and the many autistics who get into trouble for behaving inappropriately even as they have no intention of disturbing, let alone harming anybody.

Even more serious inappropriate behaviors have been facilitated by the advent of the internet. Autistics sometimes, purely out of curiosity, visit websites that contain child pornography, information about weapons and explosives, or other materials that are illegal to possess. Given the intensity with which autistics are known to pursue their interests, they can remain on these sites for prolonged periods of time, during which law-enforcement officials, who are monitoring the sites, can track down their computers and arrest them. These situations are especially tragic because autistics are rarely if ever interested in the pedophilia, terrorism, or violent crime that typical users of such websites are involved with (and which are the reason for their illegality). Nevertheless, they are prosecuted in the same manner and under the same statutes as the truly dangerous individuals. Once again, these autistics suffer very severe, even draconian, consequences for inappropriate acts which were done with no malicious intent. Unlike the computer hackers, there are never any happy endings in these cases.

Finally, we need to consider the admonitions of Temple Grandin, who has often addressed what she calls “sins of the system.” By this, she is referring to actions that, when examined objectively, usually do little or no harm to anybody else, or even to the perpetrator, but nevertheless are so frowned upon by society that they carry extremely severe sanctions and penalties. It is very easy for an autistic to unwittingly violate one of these and find themselves in horrific circumstances.

In conclusion, the typical world needs to recognize that, even though autistics sometimes behave in ways that are considered inappropriate and may occasionally say or do things that others may find objectionable, they often do not appreciate the full implications of their words and actions, and very rarely do so with any intention of causing any harm.

Karl Wittig, PE, is Advisory Board Chair for Aspies For Social Success (AFSS). Karl may be contacted at

13 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    I have a very sweet adult friend. He’ll do anything you ask. He will not do anything if not asked. I did a little test. One day I carried 7 bags of groceries from the car in the driveway into the kitchen as he watched me do this task. The next week,same circumstances, I brought the first bag in and asked him to help bring in the groceries. He got up and helped bring in the groceries. He will do most tasks;but will never voluntarily help with anything. Is this a type of aspergers or autism?

  2. Lisa Rockoff says:

    Read The Asperger Husband by Lisa Merle- so important to get those afflicted diagnosed and then help for a better outcome in life

  3. maria says:

    Have someone in complex. Obvious autisim/aspergers . Its completely obvlivious to “Societal Norms” self prepetuating behaviors that they dont understand. Unable to communicate to them that it is not socially acceptable to not shower regularly, self care, or enter a closed group and stare or hover. Family is NOT interested in helping individual. This person could have such a better outcome with the right resources. HELP! what can we do?

  4. Serena says:

    This is fascinating. I’m on the spectrum and learned to mask from a very early age through negative reinforcement – humiliation, bullying, cruel ridicule, etc. That worked for me, and I’ve been fairly successfully able to hide most of it from others who I need to work with/generally will never know me very well. Unlike others who seem to hope to unmask someday, I am relieved that I CAN mask, because my worst autistic traits are largely around being highly critical of others – which is obviously NOT something you want to do to anyone’s face, and especially a stranger’s! I am very careful to keep my thoughts to myself unless they’re helpful and positive….However….

    Just last week I was asked by a business associate to tour a visitor around a few cities in my region. Generally I love the process of organizing a perfect tour and getting to teach newcomers little interesting facts about each area and help them find shopping, restaurants, etc. This sort of thing is where socially I can shine, and it has always gone well and gotten me good reviews afterward. This time, though, was different. The man I was showing around was nice enough, but frequently butted into other people’s private conversations, claiming (and I guess actually believing) authority over whatever he’d heard the other person talking about, which was highly embarrassing, especially in a quiet, nice restaurant. He didn’t seem to notice that he was making us all uncomfortable. He also frequently argued with me about directions. He kept making mistakes that would mess up our plans, and when I’d just go with it and find the best way to recover and continue on (usually after having lost a lot of time), he’d fight me on it, asserting that he knew best because either his app was telling him so, or just pointing at a map, seeing a straight line to a place, and insisting that was the only way to do it. He wasn’t considering the different variables that would make his “more logical” way a lot more difficult, time consuming and expensive, and wouldn’t trust me, even though I lived in these places for many years and honestly do know best.

    There are countless other little things I could bring up, but the point is, I was astounded by the fact that this man was in his 30s and nobody had ever told him that his behavior…could at least stand to be toned down a bit. Women don’t like to be approached, or followed closely from behind by a large, lumbering man, for instance, was another troubling thing that he kept doing, and then was puzzled that he’d get surprised or dirty looks. He also kept policing other tourists for things he thought were wrong or disrespectful to the culture he’d only been in for a few days by that point. It was so difficult to be around him as someone who myself used to struggle with social faux pas, and fight hard to never ever repeat them. I could not figure out how his friends or family up to that point could have done him the disservice of never gently bringing any of it to his attention. They apparently passed it off as, “Oh, that’s just how he is.” and sent him off to the military.

    One of the dangers of going through life this way, just for instance, is that he decided that all of the women from his home country were trash. The clear problem from my perspective was his inability to function appropriately socially – but he blamed them – and admitted to me proudly that he had come to my country to find what he apparently thought would be a docile woman to sling over his shoulder and bring back home. It was shocking to hear him go on about it, but given my role as a guide to him at that time, it was hardly my place to make personal criticisms, and I certainly refrained from doing so, while doing my best to endure his inappropriate behavior with a smile.

    I wish more neurotypical adults, or even other autistics who can immediately see the signs would SAY SOMETHING. I learned the cruel way by being ostracized and called names before I took control of what I revealed publicly – but it does not have to be this way. It is very possible to gently and tactfully tell the person when they are doing things that are socially unacceptable, especially when you realize they’re not just being a jerk – they actually don’t even know what they’re doing is offensive or embarrassing. Even if you can’t find it within yourself to bring up the possibility of the person being on the spectrum to them, just helping them recognize their behavior is a step in the right direction, and can make a difference!

    • Jay says:

      To be fair, you shouldn’t have been bullied in the first place, even to force you to be a certain way (humiliation tactics are just wrong)

      Are you surprised? Isn’t it usually neurotypical to not say anything? Especially not directly?

      Kinda feels like “well I got bullied hard enough to make me be passable, so why didn’t anyone do it to this guy?”

      • Hazel says:

        I think Serena’s experience highlights why a lot of female autistics are so good at masking. The way girls are raised teaches them that they MUST be pleasant, positive, and polite, while boys get away with being selfish, destructive, and uncaring. “Boys will be boys.”

        Frankly, I think ALL children should be raised to be pleasant, positive, and polite. We MUST raise the bar on boys, autistic or not.

        • Richard says:

          As someone who was a shy, quiet child I disagree and think this view of how boys and girls are raised differently to the apparent benefit of boys actually does boys a disservice and is hugely reductionist. We have our own gendered expectations to live up to and contend with and are also punished for failing at that, short and long term.

          “Boys will be boys” is not licence for boys to do what they want, but rather a tacit admission that those parents emotionally neglect their boys. They do not give boys feelings the same value as girls, or perceive them as having many feelings at all.

          I do not identify, as a straight man, with autistic boys at all but with autistic girls and how autism presents in them. We impose unnecessary gender roles on both boys and girls, sometimes even in the womb, to the detriment of both.

  5. Deb says:

    Karl, has anyone commented on your hypergraphia or incredible overuse of syntax? Sentence structure etc? Geez, it makes it difficult to even talk about it (Or curious syntax ?)The first is common in people with issues in their right temporal lobe I think but the syntax issue is hard to articulate I just relates because I’ve been told more times than I can count that I use more words to say things than anyone can believe. I’ve been diagnosed as an “ultra hyfunctioning aspie” with an enormous IQ which is useless when it totally interferes with my ability to communicate effectively . It mostly just makes most people dislike me before they even meet me which is sad because all I want to do is connect with others and feel like I belong.
    The one thing I rarely if ever feel is accepted or like I belong

  6. Sncy says:

    I just wish allistic people would treat us with the respect we deserve and not insist on all of those useless and illogical social norms.

  7. Charlotte says:

    That isn’t what Serena was saying at all. Isn’t it usual for autistic people never (hardly ever) to want other autistic people to take responsibility for their thoughtlessness or inappropriate behaviour instead of excusing their conduct “they’re autistic!”. Like that makes everything acceptable from the autistic person. She was talking about bullying him into changing his behaviour but speaking to him tactfully. Autistic people who excuse other autistic people’s offensive behaviour and the same autistic people who bring everything down to non autistic people and how they’re always the problem. Consideration is a two way street and autism doesn’t mean autistic people are incapable of considering things from other people’s point of view especially when lots of autistic people love to brag about their empathy.

  8. Liz says:

    I enjoyed reading your article and found it very informative. I agree that sometimes they can be innocent and sometimes things are done out of intent to cause hurt and harm. They can misunderstand the big picture sometimes and think someone is meaning to cause them harm when that’s not the case at all. Teaching autism kids for 25 years, I’ve learned there are days when they can say cruel things to each other on purpose.

  9. Karl says:

    How does one teach the public that even though I’m an adult male with autism in the kids toy section, I’m not creepy and mean no harm. I just like Sesame Street toys. I don’t want to upset protective parents, I would like to be left alone but don’t want to get in trouble or cause chaos. I get upset easily when provoked but am working on calming down skills.

  10. Alan Edwards says:

    Autism is a disorder of brain development which mainly affects social behaviors and communication development. Therapists working with children with autism spectrum disorder often use behavior therapy as a means of treatment.

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