I have been thinking about ethics recently in typical aspie fashion, i.e. perseverating until 4am on the issues involved in ethical behaviour and the links between social justice and ethics. Many of us on the autistic spectrum have a strong sense of social justice that is often out of kilter with mainstream society’s hierarchical structure and the way that we express that sense of social justice can be taken as highly ethical and/or as having difficulties with authority.
If you are a bookmaker (of the gambling type not the printed words on pages bound together for reading type), I suspect that your attitude towards the ethics and social justice are different to those of someone who works for the Problem Gambling Foundation. Equally, those on either side of a debate on genetic modification in foods probably have different values and ways of expressing these. For some unknown reason, these differences of opinion and resultant behaviour are generally accepted by society and yet the differences between the general population and those on the autistic spectrum about the value or worth of individuals is not widely accepted or understood.
I intellectually understand that in wider society there is an acceptance of a hierarchical social structure, which varies according to country and/or culture. This hierarchy can be loosely interpreted or extremely detailed in the value and worth that it assigns to particular individuals. However, I along with many (most) people (and children) on the autistic spectrum, and I suspect a number of others, do not accept hierarchy as a natural order or a valid way to view the value and worth of individuals. In may cultures/countries for example, a cleaner is seen as having less inherent value or worth than a surgeon or a policeman. This belief is reflected in wage disparities as well as a more generalised difference in perceived status.
However, one could argue that without cleaners, most people who enter hospital would die there or shortly afterwards from infections, spread through a lack of hygiene. This would render the work of the surgeon pointless! Logical arguments aside, I think that a prevailing view in autistic culture is that every living being is inherently equal in value and worth. This means that the way I respond to a person, no matter their perceived status in wider society, reflects that view of the inherent equality of all people. As an adult this is not often problematic, however it can occasionally be when an employer/manager makes a request or demand that requires me to act in a way that conflicts with my sense of social justice and ethics. I am unwilling for example to treat an adult with more deference because of their perceived social status. Instead I aim to be kind, courteous and compassionate at all times. Being human, I fail at times, but this is the aim.
I was shown clearly in the last few weeks that some adults do not think my viewpoint is in the least bit valid and that not only are social hierarchies alive and well but that they should be acted upon at all times. This lesson was useful for my continuing support of teachers and their autistic spectrum students, as many of the students get into trouble for not being deferential to their teacher or other high status adults. I think that one can be respectful without being deferential and that many young autistic spectrum students are not able to manage their communication and behaviours in a way that demonstrates their respect for all living beings, without annoying adults in positions of power, such as teachers and principals. I think the issue becomes compounded into a problem when these powerful adults feel that power translates into having more worth and refuse to accept the autistic spectrum idea of the inherent equality of living beings as valid or acceptable.
Further difficulties arise when there is compounding miscommunication, such as an autistic spectrum student saying no when asked of they would like to do their maths now. Most typical students understand that this sort of communication from a teacher is not a literal question, but instead a socially accepted way of demanding the student do their maths now. However, in autistic logic, it was a question to which both yes, no and maybe are valid answers. In our autistic logic, saying no should result in the same neutral reaction as saying yes or maybe. For teachers it is often taken as the student being annoying or worse.
In my 4am analysis I was reflecting on the difficulty of being ethical when my world view point is so at odds with many of those around me, and how much more difficult it was as a child! Honesty is a part of ethics that in wider society is constrained or culturally framed within a social communication structure that suggests that certain lies are not dishonest (tact) and others terrible, whilst some are seen as necessary or ok (tact, white lies) and others vary depending on to whom the lie is told (let nothing get in the way of a good story vs being a liar). This kind of social communication structure is extremely difficult to get to grips with when you believe that people are inherently equal….
Why is is good to tell someone they look good in an outfit when in fact it is not true?
– to sell the outfit – this I would categorise as unethical, whereas a sales assistant may see it as harmless and necessary to ensure they can pay their rent
– to flatter the person so they think you like them – why not say you like them or behave in a manner that makes this clear and be honest, a side effect of honesty in this instance could be to spend more time with the person helping them choose an outfit they look good in
– to avoid being rude/unkind – again unethical as others will think or say negative things about the person and/or their outfit which your honesty could have avoided.
In my opinion, it would be far better to teach our autistic spectrum children how to be honest without being unkind, teaching the aspects of social communication that convey kindness and compassion no matter what words are being used.
I shall continue to try and live an ethical life that works towards social justice for all based on the inherent equality of all and the idea that all children no matter what deserve the opportunity to achieve their potential. In the meantime, if you know a child/adult on the autistic spectrum please try and understand their perception of the value and worth of others and if you are on the spectrum, let me know if I’ve got it all wrong or mostly right and how we can continue to help others accept our views as valid.