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 kwittig@earthlink.net.

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