A Touch of Alyricism

Dedicated to the equally fascinating topics of autistic advocacy and the 'sisterly sophistries' of radical gender feminism. Other topics may occasionally crop up. Contactable at alyric@gmail.com


Polemicist since Grade 8

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Blueprint for a 21st Century Witch-hunt

Martijn Dekker famously commented that the internet was for the autistic community, what sign language was for the deaf. At long last, here was a method of communication ideally suited to a disparate population with a preference for the written word as the means. Here, what they had to say could emerge, whole and undistorted, exactly as the author intended, an unheralded and intoxicating experience. But, inevitably, benign tools can be bent to other ends and the same platform that supports groups intent on reaching out to each other in positive explorations of commonality and difference, also supports groups whose purposes are less positive and in some cases, wholly negative.

The cyber village of common interests made possible by the internet, is in many ways quite similar to the mediaeval village of the original witch hunts and neither the motives for nor the methods of witch hunting have changed substantially. The victims of yore were generally the most vulnerable of their social grouping, the elderly, the solitary and the strange. In the odd instance when that wasn’t strictly the case, they were certainly more vulnerable than the perpetrators. The victims in this modern version of an old drama are also the most vulnerable of their society, bearing as they do the stigmata of difference, a diagnostic label of the psychiatrist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM IV). The particular label of interest to me in examining the modern witch-hunt is Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

AS make particularly good victims and there seems to be no shortage of villages in cyberspace devoted to informing the general public about the insidious perfidy of this particular group. The scale of perfidy depicted varies widely, but for the purposes of this essay will be confined only to those groups that show the signs of the true witch-hunter: fear mongering and sensationalism, an over-investment in caricatures and no supporting data.

Fear mongering is universal among witch-hunters. From Maxine Aston’s portrayal of the AS as the default perpetrator of domestic violence to Sheila Jennings Linehan’s portrayal of AS as the default perpetrator of child abuse and Kathy Marshack’s FAQ on Asperger’s Syndrome, the picture is one of fear and loathing on behalf of the poor innocents whose lives have been contaminated by this evil presence. Linehan, along with her colleagues from ASpar is a leading proponent of the AS parent equals hazard to children school of witch hunting. The Ann Coulter of anti-Aspergers activism, her evidence for this springs from the divorce courts, anecdotes of sparkling generality from her cohorts or articles which don’t mention child abuse at all. The article that Linehan cites as seminal, that is, pivotal to her thesis, is discussed in detail later. What is notable about Linehan is her total avoidance of the abundant evidence that would effectively contradict her sweeping assertions – the websites of a large number of autistic parents.

Objectification of AS is elevated to an art form by these practitioner’s of witch-huntery. Maxine Aston’s Asperger’s Syndrome in the Counsellor’s Room shows how it can be done. First, his behaviour is expressly designed to make you uncomfortable. Next, the problems in the relationship can be situated in one of two places, the AS or his personality and the primary objective of the counsellor is to sort out which is which. So, although he may have walked in as a tax-paying member of Homo sapiens, he is now a ‘problem’ to be dealt with, not a live human at all in a live relationship with another human being. The partner’s contributions don’t rate a mention apparently. She could be Attila the Hen with half of the DSMIV 301 category under her belt, but that doesn’t matter, when he can be reduced to a ‘label’ and the logical repository of all the problems in the relationship. A stroll through Dr Marshack’s website leaves much the same impression. This is a relationship between an affliction and a candidate for beatification.

The hallmark of this group is to create a caricature and none do it better than the FAAAS website. There you will find a veritable rogue’s gallery of miscreants all bearing the witches’ caul – ‘flat affect’. According to this site, AS all talk in monotones and since their emotions aren’t clearly visible on their faces, the assumption is that they don’t have any. Worse, there are a large number of people, Aston and Marshack among them, who treat this ‘flat affect’ as a blank canvas on which any interpretation of the (non-existent) non-verbal language can be made. Neither seems to be aware that an inability to read non-verbal signals indicates an equal inability to use this form of communication. Aston’s interpretation is that all AS lack empathy. This is contrary to emerging research, which notes very sensibly that there is a world of difference between the method of accessing another’s feelings and the ability to empathise once that state is known. Dr Marshack’s interpretation is worthy of a Victorian maiden complete with fainting couch. Prominent on her site is a sample book chapter from an anthology of stories she has compiled showcasing the plight of the spouse in relationships with an AS partner. This is a sample of the text:

“I have lived with this man for two decades and have become accustomed to this unfeeling style, so did not skip a beat in responding to him. He always needs my help in understanding these simple things. Still speaking slowly so as not to create pain, I said, “Grant, I need your help. I cannot get up. I want you to get up out of bed and come help me stand up so that I can get to the bathroom.”
“Now?!” he said, with great incredulity.
“Yes, Grant. I need you to get up and help me. I cannot move. I am in great pain. I fell to the floor because I have a pinched nerve in my back. You must help me get up.”
“Oh,” he said. “I was wondering what you were doing on the floor.”

Contrast that with this.

the Apperistion of Sarah good did most greviously torment me by presing my breath almost out of my body and also she did immediatly afflect my child by pinceing of it that I could hardly hold it and my husband seing of it took hold of the Child but it cried out and twisted so dreadfully by reson of the torture that the Apperishtion of Sarah good did afflect it with all tha it gott out of its fathers armes to:

Marshack’s overblown rhetoric is equivalent to this sworn testimony from the Salem witch trials. The language of the second may be archaic, but both the lack of evidence for any real wrong doing combined with appeals to emotion to cover the lack of anything concrete are identical.

The problem with caricatures is of course that in order to sustain them you need evidence of one sort or another. One can only assume that it’s the complete absence of real data rather than the art of the anecdote that provokes the sensationalism of the claims of this merry band. Aston is really in a class of her own on this one. Consider this opener in bold and italics from the article cited by Linehan as ‘seminal’.

“The possibility of an adult with Asperger's syndrome should be considered when there is conflict and domestic violence in a family, say counsellor Maxine Aston and children's services manager Ruth Forrester”

That’s clear enough – if there’s domestic violence - look for AS because that’s a reliable source of violence. It’s also a ridiculous assertion. In the UK, there are roughly 6.5 million incidents of domestic violence annually and using vastly inflated numbers, I figured there were around 300, 000 autistics and close cousins (not quite autistic) capable of being in a position to inflict domestic violence. Obviously, there just aren’t enough autistics to go around. Nevertheless, the conclusion to be drawn is unmistakeable. Most AS folks are violently dangerous. Statements such as

“Any serious strategy to assist families must start with the principle of protecting children from significant harm, as well as the unacceptability of violence and intimidation”

.make that very clear, if by some chance you missed the opening salvo. There is no evidence given for this at all. None. Just a short telephone call away from Ms Aston, a resident of Coventry, is Cambridge University and Professor Simon Baron Cohen, Director of CLASS (the Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service). According to the good Professor [1], his data shows that the number of AS in intimate relations who are violent is ‘a small minority’. Unlike Aston, he also warned that his sample is ‘clinical’ so the real prevalence is likely to be less than his data show. In other words, when it comes to violence on the domestic front, AS folks are no more violent than the general run of humanity, which is not what Aston would have you believe.

Aston’s article is incomparable for other reasons. Two out of three of her references are bogus. Aston cites the National Autistic Society UK as having supported certain research (paragraph 3). This is cited to give credence to the notion that this is a serious article, whose contents an organisation like the NAS approves. The NAS have stated categorically that they have no record of having supported any such research. They also characterised the entire article as ‘biased, one-sided and misleading’ [2]. The tragedy is that a number of British social workers have this as their introduction to Asperger’s Syndrome. If that’s not bad enough she also quotes the guru of all things Asperger’s, Dr Tony Attwood.

Attwood1 describes a spectrum of Asperger's behaviour, from the passive to the arrogant and aggressive, and it is likely to be the latter who perpetrate domestic violence.

This is a complete fabrication. The words ‘arrogant and aggressive’ do not appear anywhere in the cited book.

Nor could any reading of the actual reference be construed to read what she attributes to him. Page 169 says something quite different:

“ although the actual incidence of violent offences is remarkably low”

Deliberately misquoting an expert in the field is one thing, but Aston has done something more. Attwood’s words as quoted by Aston imply that psychology has found a 1:1 correlation between arrogance and aggression. If psychology had done so, it would be front-page news. Psychologists of Attwood’s calibre do not make such statements. The final interesting feature of Aston’s article is her unique method of referencing. The reference to the NAS is to the whole website and her reference to Attwood is the entire book, no pages cited. Is there any way that the reader can access the (admittedly fictitious) citations? Community Care magazine apparently found this acceptable. A reputable journal, one would hope, would not, but one could be wrong.

In the rush to jump on the bandwagon of this relatively undiscovered gold mine of possible academic glory replete with books, articles, speaking engagements and the whole panoply of ‘discovery’, even reputable journals, anxious to be ahead of the trends, can be blinded by the magic words ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’. That is the only comprehensible explanation for why the Chronicle of Higher Education saw fit to print the inaccurate and misleading musings of an academic with an education in English literature, who thought she had sufficient know how to diagnose her former colleagues with the Syndrome based on a cursory glance at the DSMIV.

To be successful, witch hunts both ancient and modern, need something in addition to appeals to emotion in place of hard data. In order to render the victims exempt from the usual ethical considerations, evidence for one’s assertions for example, it is necessary to reduce the human element. That is, position them as not quite human, an object. Witch hunters of yore believed that the witch was under the control of the Devil and therefore no longer human like themselves. This modern variety resorts to the argument that AS can’t help what they do because they aren’t aware of the negative sequelae to their actions or inaction. This content free statement, made both by Brenda Wall and Kathy Marshack serves very well to distance AS from humanity by casting them as unaware objects. An unaware object is like a loose cannon. You never know what they’re going to do next. Without this crucial step, there is no salve for the conscience for the nasty consequences the witch hunters are about to inflict. Burning at the stake could be rationalised under the idea that saving a person’s immortal soul and protecting the souls of the vulnerable took precedence over any suffering inflicted. Casting AS as the automatic perpetrator of all kinds of child and spousal abuse can be rationalised again as protection of the vulnerable and again it does not matter what damage is inflicted.

The victims of witch hunts both old and new are faced with the same dilemma – proving a negative. Because of the association -satanic or psychiatric, they must prove that they are NOT hell bent on wreaking violence, abuse, black magic or whatever negativity they are judged, a priori, to be prone to. It cannot be done. It is the oldest of logical fallacies that underpins prejudice of all kinds. AS folk are but the latest in a long line of suitable victims.

[1] Personal communication. Professor Baron Cohen will always answer a reasonable question, which is rather nice of him.

[2] A clarification sent by the NAS Information Officer at the time to a friend of mine. He copied the email to me.