A Syllogism: Some Autistic People Really Are Jerks

Faulty Syllogism

Note:  I wrote this post in February of 2012.  The individual I refer to in this post is a person I know in my day-to-day brick and mortar life and not in the autism blogosphere. I re-posted this piece recently in protest of the idea that autism excuses unkind behavior.  

-Leigh Merryday, January 2013 

I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this.  I find myself thinking about syllogisms today.  Those of you who endured Logic 101 should remember these.

(Logic.  Is it a math?  Is it a philosophy?  Nobody but this guy seems to know.)

Syllogisms go something like this:  All cats have four legs.  A table has four legs.  Therefore, all cats are tables.  This is a false syllogism, in case you haven’t already guessed.  In Logic 101, cats can actually be tables.  But only in a correct syllogism.

I loved this class, mainly because I got math credit for it.  A math class that involved creative and persuasive writing.  I loved being able to ignore the words while conclusively proving some silly arguments.  The nice thing about logic is that you can whip out a Venn diagram and visually prove or disprove an argument-including some pretty sophisticated ones.

And logic did teach me something.  Namely, that we have to be careful about black and white, part or whole kinds of declarations.  It’s quite easy to reach the wrong conclusions based upon nothing but personal observation and well-intentioned generalizations.

We do this a lot with regard to autism.  You know.  Autistic people having superpowers of detail and mathematical genius.  Persons with ASD not being able to maintain friendships or show affection.  Autistic people having no sense of humor.  Etc., etc.

These are annoying stereotypes, to be sure.  As parents of ASD kids, we find ourselves constantly having to correct misconceptions about autism.  And, often, we find ourselves annoyed with the generalizations of others.

So, then – I ask myself – why are we guilty of doing this ourselves?

I’m going to go ahead and call myself out here.  Because I have done exactly what I’m referring to — making generalizations and aiding stereotypes about autism.  I have made statements to others along the lines of “Autistic people don’t lie.”  I have shared mistaken beliefs about autistics not being overly concerned with what other people think.   I have compared my son to an angel, pointing out a lack of malice that seems to accompany autism.  And I have not pushed hard enough with autistic kids I know – believing that little in their socially inappropriate behavior was attributable to any fault of their own and seeking to correct other people’s reactions instead.   No, I didn’t view autism as a helpless state, but I acknowledge not having done some of the kids any favors by being overprotective and coddling.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, I came across an autistic person who happens to be a real jerk.  This individual makes obnoxious comments about others.  With a malicious gleam in his eye.  And thinks it is hilarious to be crude and disgusting to upset others.  No, I don’t mean inadvertently.  I mean he really thinks it’s funny.  He is very smart, and highly verbal.  And I found myself trying to be all kinds of sensitive to his differences.  I kept trying to justify his rude and deliberate behavior as being manifestations of autistic traits.  I kept getting indignantly angry inside at anyone not understanding what drove his behaviors.

And then I had an epiphany.  I was thinking about my son and what a calm, laid-back little fellow he is.  I have always noticed how much my daughter takes after my husband in her high-energy personality and how much my son is more like my side of the family — uber-mellow.  I have been sharing my analogy of analyzing his behaviors – the three sets of glasses – with others for a while as well.  Yet, even with this “clarity”, I still failed to make the same leap with other people with autism.  I still failed to realize that some behaviors of autistic persons have nothing to do with their autism whatsoever.  For even though they have autism, they still have personality elements that are theirs regardless of ASD.  And then I realized.  The individual I referenced would still be a complete jerk even without his autism.  Autism does not negate the natural personality, nor does it blanket the personality with complete goodness.  And, I, for all my repeated standing on my autism soapbox – somehow fell into the stereotyping trap.

I forgot that stereotypes are often based upon partial truths.  I’m from the South.  We abhor stereotypes of us being quirky, ignorant, and intolerant.  Yet, we do eat some strange things down here.  We are a bit overly friendly and take too much time chit-chatting to accomplish the least little thing.  And many of us are so thoroughly pleased with our location that we have little desire to expand our horizons and knowledge of others.  (Some of us – not me.  I love to travel.  Feel free to invite me on your European vacation any time.  I’m available.)

Does this make stereotypes okay?  Of course not.  But, as with logic, you have to make a conscious effort to really look at your argument and determine if it’s valid.  In logic and life it is all too easy to get confused by the “alls”, the “somes”, and the “nones”.  Very little in life is black and white or any kind of absolute.

Yes, it is true that persons with ASDs are often brutally honest, seeing little purpose in lying to protect social constructs some of them don’t understand.  This turns into “wisdom” such as, “An autistic person will never lie.”  Hence, a jump from a frequent – not absolute – quality to a stereotype.  An easy thing to do even for the well-intentioned.  (Take it from someone who has worked with thousands of middle schoolers comprising all sorts of brain wiring.  They can lie.)

And here’s the thing.  It is an insult to individuals with ASD.  If we are going to ask the world to treat people with special needs as individuals, then we must be willing to see them as such.  Individuals with strengths.  Individuals with weaknesses.  And individuals who are sometimes thoroughly unlikable. When we reduce persons with autism spectrum disorders into stereotypes, we place limitations on them.  In our attempt to defend and portray them positively, we become guilty of the very same prejudice.  We are so fond in the special needs community of saying that our children’s disabilities don’t define them.  And then we turn around and call them “angels”.  By calling them “angels”, we have defined them.  Once we have defined a person, we tend to be inflexible about expanding our definitions.  This is a dangerous thing to do when raising, treating, or influencing special needs kids.  Because, maybe, just maybe, they might be capable of more than what fits our definition.

So, with thanks to a complete jerk, I have learned a lesson.  Instead of spending my time further professing my son’s angelic qualities, I plan to focus on teaching him to be a good  and well-mannered person.  Yes, it was in my plans all along, but I found myself making excuses for him and others like him.  There is a fine line between noting the unique characteristics of autism and making excuses.  One is helpful, and the other is not. I am going to have to do this better. Because, one day, I don’t want anyone to have any epiphanies about him.

Here is a syllogism that works:

All human beings are unique persons with both positive and negative qualities.

All persons with autism are human beings.

Therefore all persons with autism are unique persons with both positive and negative qualities.

See Professor What’s-Your-Name?  I did learn something in your class.  Funny that the test didn’t come for 20 years.

31 thoughts on “A Syllogism: Some Autistic People Really Are Jerks

  1. Rachael

    My son was just diagnosed with autism. I just wanted to let you know that reading your posts has truly helped me to keep a smile on my face on those difficult days. Thankyou, and keep up the good work!

  2. cutemongooseAlexa Praeger

    Great post. I have an 11 you ASD son and a neurotypical 9 you daughter. I was making explanations/excuses for the negative behavior of one of my daughter’s classmates who is somewhere on the high functioning end of the Asperger/ASD spectrum, when my daughter bluntly said,” Mom, having autism is no excuse for being mean.” I was speechless for a moment and then said, “You are absolutely right.”

  3. sandytilton721

    Well done! I think at some time we all (oops! most of us) think in stereotypes. It is good to have a reminder now and again that people are unique and quirky, no matter what label they might carry.

  4. E (The Third Glance)

    This is fantastic. Yes, some people are jerks. I have a very hard time telling people about my Autism, because it feels like “an excuse to be rude”, rather than “an explanation of why I am what I am”. Quite often expectations are lowered for those of us when people know we are on the spectrum. That’s not something that helps ANY of us learn anything except that if we say “I’m Autistic”, we can get away with more. I don’t want that, and I don’t use it that way. And I think it’s fantastic that you are working with your son to be the best person HE can be, Autistic or not. I’m sure he will turn out wonderfully.

  5. Jim Reeve

    Stereotyping does seem natural at times. And so does being a jerk. The key thing, is to try and realise that we’re doing these things before we do them, which seems difficult to do. My wife and I used to focus on the good things our son did, I mean what parent doesn’t? But we soon realised that we had to teach him right from wrong, no matter how long it took/is taking.

  6. Joanna

    So true. When I do public speaking or writing, I always add disclaimers “typically people with autism…” so that people understand some generalities, but people are people…people who make choices and can learn from them. If we pigeon-hole them into little boxes of what they can or can’t do, we limit their abilities. It does help to understand why, perhaps, one person with autism might find it hard to lie or be in a noisy environment or hear idioms, but to limit them from learning those traits or skills, does just that, limits them.

    I work with all sorts of students ages 5 through 22 who have various “severe” challenges including autism and downs syndrome. You don’t know how many times I have heard people say, “People with down syndrome are angels on earth. They are so lovable and sweet.” Okay, although that person is trying to say something nice, it’s simply not a true overall statement. There are people with down syndrome that might have a sweet demeanor, but to pigeonhole them into that statement creates this sort of celestial being. Trust me, many of the students I have worked with who have downs syndrome have many personality traits that are not angelic. Some traits I have seen are sneaky, mean spirited, stubborn, etc. Just like in any group of people. Each person is themselves – the good and the bad.

    I love the comment above, “Mom, having autism is no excuse for being mean.”

    I work mainly with Adult Transition students,many with autism (somewhat severe), and we work ALL DAY long with them on “that is not appropriate” or “how about we say this instead” and we don’t just let them “get away” with rude or mean behavior (whether intended or not). We help show or model them ways to “try again” which helps them in the next social situation they find them in. For us, these types of interactions are more important for their future “survival” than some of our job training.

    Thanks for your post.

  7. Aspergers Girls

    Very well written and informative. Great points. I agree. No matter the person, we are all unique with are individual strengths, challenges, and quirks. The human mind loves to categorize….thus lots of stereotyping in order to make sense of the world. I like the open-mindedness of your post. Good thoughts that I haven’t come across in other blogs. Thanks.

  8. mrtomdaly

    I don’t think your point: “And here’s the thing. It is an insult to individuals with ASD.” cann’t be overstated.
    Love your blog btw..

  9. Jen

    I’m the last person who would ever say my son is an angel. That doesn’t mean I love him any less, just that I try to see where his behavior is unacceptable, and despite his challenges, to teach him to be better. I know he can, it’s just a little harder for him. You make an excellent point that there is a fine line between knowing what they are capable of and making excuses for them. That cannot be stressed enough.

    My son is intelligent, and sweet, and caring, loving, protective. He is also stubborn as a mule (or more), beligerant at times, and loud, obnoxious and has violent outbursts that I can’t always predict or forestall. All of this, and more, makes him Jeremiah. I wouldn’t have him be anyone else, despite my wishes for easier days sometimes, fewer meltdowns, and more cooperation in doing schoolwork.

    Ultimately, I hope to turn out a successful, smart young man into the world, to achieve his dreams and goals. I know that there will be bumps along the way, there might be roadblocks complete with detours and no map, but I’ll get there. Hopefully, we all will.

  10. Howlin' Mad Heather

    I love this article. I’m one of those people with autism who seems to defy every stereotype, from understanding and using sarcasm well to being suspicious rather than naive and trusting. Thanks for writing it and keep up the great stuff.

  11. Storm Dweller

    I have been a firm believer that where my daughter does need accommodations for her academics, and acknowledgement of what her social challenges are, that they are not in fact, a reason to give up teaching her socially appropriate behavior. The developmental Pediatrician criticized prompted socially appropriate responses, such as apologizing for something she’d done wrong, stating that it would just be a recitation, that it wouldn’t mean anything to her. But the socially appropriate response is important for getting along in society day today. Once she knows the response, then we can work on the meaning behind the response. And she is learning.

    I went through a long phase of apologizing for my daughter’s Autism, as if it were a half-assed excuse for my poor parenting, because I didn’t have any of the answers for how she was behaving, why she was yelling, “shut up” to me and other adults. I told so many people that I had no idea when to discipline her, because I didn’t know what behaviors were a direct result of the Autism or because she was acting like a kid. It was my Occupational Therapist who gave me the most helpful piece of advice, after telling me not to be afraid of challenging my Pookie, because she is definitely up to that challenge. She told me, “A child with Autism, is a child first. If she’s engaging in a behavior you would discipline her siblings for, then she should be disciplined for it as well. You just might have to get creative about which consequences are appropriate with consideration to the Autism.” That on little thing has helped me and my daughter immensely. We still have our days. She is neither an angel or a demon. She’s a kid with a lot of spunk, and a little bit of a chip on her shoulder. I think she inherited both from me.

  12. B.C.

    I agree, way too often people equate autism with a naturally good person. I’ve met some down right mean, nasty, and dishonest people on the spectrum and others who go out of their way to help others. It really does vary.

  13. Kelly Hafer

    One of the things my husband and I talk about a lot is that, “It’s okay for [our son] to be autistic. It’s NOT okay for him to be a jerk.” Of course, our son being autistic is more than just okay. We aren’t trying to “cure” him or change him. What I mean by that is, he has autism. He is wired differently. That’s okay. That’s cool. But it is simply unacceptable for him to be a jerk, misbehave intentionally or generally act like an ass. That’s what parenting is for.

    Great post!

  14. Barnmaven

    We do walk the knife’s edge with our kids, don’t we? We want them to have every opportunity their neurotypical peers have, of course we do. But we also want them to grow up to try hard, to be good people, to not use their disability as an excuse not to try, not to be good/decent human beings. It is the right thing to do as a parent to make sure our kids know as much as we can teach them about right and wrong and about how to treat others.

  15. Jennie B

    Exactly right. Sometimes people don’t realize they are being asses, and deserve to be told that, in a nice, respectful, preferably private way. But sometimes people feel the need to be jerks just because they have an audience. And that, to me, smells an awful lot like bullying.

  16. Shannon

    Well said! I love this! It’s so true! Everyone has a personality outside of their diagnosis. I always tell people who may interact with my son, “he is uncomfortable around others, but hitting / hurting others is never ok.” Autism is not our excuse.

  17. Mary_Flashlight

    Leigh, this is a brilliant post. The “unique person with both positive and negative qualities” is so true of us all, autistic or not. I’m glad I got a chance to see it. I wish more people thought the way you do. Lord knows our son isn’t an angel… but we’re trying to raise him NOT to rely on his ASD as an excuse to be a jerk either!

  18. maggie

    Being good and well-mannered is important, but equally important is to stand up for yourself if you feel you’ve been wronged. If that means people think you are a “jerk”, so be it.

  19. Varda (SquashedMom)

    Yup, you nailed it! My autistic son Jake is always defying those stereotypes too. Currently he’s exhibiting his wicked sense of humor by making scatological substitutions into known phrases – such as when I sing his goodnight songs to him he sings along but it’s “twinkle twinkle little poopy-head” or “farty-pants” instead of star, by him.

    Also? He definitely, deliberately sets his brother off by calling out to him in that sing-song teasing tone of voice: “Ethan’s a zombie, nya-nya nya nya-nya !” And then laughs when his brother yells at him to stop. He SO knows what he’s doing, the little jerk, this is NOT just thoughtless scripting. (Then again it’s often the only way for Jake to get Ethan’s attention, so I don’t blame him too much and try not to laugh while disciplining him, while also reminding Ethan that if he gave his bro the time of day in a positive way, he wouldn’t be seeking the negative attention so much.)

    Bravo to you for another brave honest post. And boy am I tired of these internecine wars. xoxoxo, my friend.

  20. Walter

    IF…. (reserving syllogistic judgement) ….. an “autistic” person truly is as intelligent as so/too often portrayed in current society, wouldn’t that person be smart enough to recognize that blurting out potentially rude and hurtful statements is NOT “smart” ?
    I have sometimes said hurtful things and later regretted them. Hopefully I have recognized those mistakes and apologized. When I was either too proud or immature or stupid at times, I have tried to confess to God and society after realizing my errors. In case I did this poorly, I hereby re-apologize and beg forgiveness.
    And I hope I have allowed others the flexibility to reconsider their own similar mistakes. Being “human” is tough on ourselves and even tougher on others.

    1. Profile photo of FlappinessIsFlappinessIs Post author

      Walter, that’s where autism gets complicated. Yes, these children are intelligent. But that intelligence comes with often severe limitations that impede true functioning in a complicated world – hence, the classification as a disability. My son lacks the ability to understand the perspective of others, due to his severe language disability. Depending upon the level of disability, that skill can be learned, but often differently. Similar to how one might teach a color blind individual to coordinate their outfits each day. We can make them memorize the facts of what colors coordinate and give them rules, but they’ll never be able to look at something and instinctively know what looks good to us. They’ll never be able to sort out the variations in shade and tint that might change the rules of what colors coordinate. Is it an orange red, a violet red, or does it lean toward pink? Social skills are just like that. And if you are born without a “sense” for them, the world will simply have to understand when you sometimes clash.

  21. Cuz I'm the devil 666

    Regardless of what u have and who u are, we are all human. Some people are jerks because maybe the don’t understand. Maybe they never had a chance to learn about it. Or maybe if they are younger, its because they where taught to hate by, yep, parents. Parents can be the problem sometimes, because some don’t want to have cgane. Or they just plain and simply don’t get. Maybe teaching people is great, but let’s start with the kids.
    I’m autistic and I had my fair share of jerks and friends. Some who thought I was socially odd or I was completey stupid (I suffer from a learning disability in writting . so sorry about the grammar). For example, I was told I wouldn’t graduate high school when I was in middle school. Five years of high school later and I did. Even (sorry) teachers and school people can be jerks.
    Thanks.

  22. LUKE MADIGAN

    People with autism such as myself typically don’t give a flying fuck about anything but themselves, cause we feel we’re better than everyone else…which we are.

    1. Profile photo of FlappinessIsFlappinessIs Post author

      Really? I know a lot of people with autism. Most of them care a lot about others, but sometimes struggle to convey that in ways that are recognizable to neurotypicals. If you don’t give AFF about anything but yourself, you might really be a jerk — irrespective of your autism.

  23. Marna

    My 17 year old stepson has Asperger’s Syndrome. He was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old. At 6 years old, my husband finally got a court order for regular visitation. We have been very involved in his life from that time. At age 11, he was placed on the DD Waiver Program. It was then we discovered he did not know he had autism. We told him. By age 14, his relationship with his mom had deteriorated to the point where he moved in with us, and chose to cut off all communication with his mom. He is a selfish, inconsiderate, ungrateful, uncaring, withdrawn, disrespectful, extremely stubborn jerk – at home. At school, although he struggles with his grades due to learning disabilities, he’s a shining star. He gets along well with his peers, is enthusiastic and positive, participates in extracurricular activities, and was selected for a competitive position in his school’s IT department this coming year. Unfortunately, he remains in complete denial about his autism, hides it like a dirty secret, all but blatantly refuses to follow any IEP accommodations, and as I said, is a complete jerk at home. I believe much of this stems from early childhood. I don’t think his mom tried to teach him basic manners, or disciplined him for acting up, because she mistakenly believed it was always his autism causing any issue he had. Reading this blog post is very insightful. It helped reinforce what I already knew: autistics can be jerks. Unfortunately, this is what my stepson is: a jerk. He most likely has issues with abandonment, trust, etc., besides not being held accountable, and being coddled, when he should not have been. But yet he’s totally resistant to counseling. My husband and I are making plans to get him out of the house as soon as he finishes high school in less than a year. I doubt we will see or hear from him much after that. At this point, I’m just done.

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