Thursday, 29 January 2009

On Loyalty

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to write about Euan for The Herald Magazine, the Glasgow-based newspaper supplement where I work (you can read the finished article here). As part of the exercise I interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen, and while talking to him I took the chance to ask him about a less obvious trait of autism that I'd recently found out about. His answers were enlightening and, in a way, heartening.
Let's start with a well-known drawback: autistic people have great difficulty making friends. Those with Asperger's syndrome, in particular, often experience extreme frustration and worse from their difficulties in forming social relationships. It can seem as if the real world is something that happens on the opposite side of a ravine: you can look and shout across, but unless someone is prepared to throw you a rope bridge, you have little hope of joining in.
And yet there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that autistic people make extremely good friends to those who can manage to put up with their anti-social quirks (which can be equally frustrating to the non-autistic friend). In short, they can be fiercely, almost intimidatingly loyal. Baron-Cohen put it this way: "A lot of people with autism figure out their own rules of morality and believe passionately in things being done correctly, and certainly don’t have any wish to harm other people. So they may well have figured out that the world can be divided into people who are good to you or people who are bad to you, and they want to be good to other people and expect the same back in return. So that notion of loyalty is simply because people with autism don’t typically engage in deception ... I think there’s a huge honesty in people with autism, and you could say that that’s not common in the wider social world."
So there you have it: part of autism is not "getting" the notion of lying; of deceiving others for your own advantage; of ingratiating oneself with people one secretly can't stand. It can make autistic people look blunt, rude and stand-offish; but it also reflects a desire to stay true to yourself and not to sacrifice your principles for short-term personal gain. Baron-Cohen likened it to the habit, common among autistic children, of taking toys and pens apart: "When you take a toy apart to try and understand how it works, you’re trying to get at the truth of the world: what is the truth of this object? When you interact with people you also expect that what they tell you should be true, and what you tell other people should be true. So I think there’s a strong focus on the truth and they don’t necessarily see the point in lies or not being genuine."
Looked at from that perspective, it begs the question: who's really disabled - The autistic child, or the neurotypical adult who's built a labyrinth of lies to excuse their behaviour?

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