Moral Consistency Is Not An Autistic Deficit : A Letter to Hu et al

Some researchers need to be reading books by neurologist Oliver Sacks.

One of the greatest joys in reading about the neurological disorders he treated, including autism, was his delight in all the myriad ways brains work. He didn’t treat people as defective. Where other people saw deficits, he saw potential, talent, opportunity, and skill. He celebrated neurodiversity before it was even a thing. Decades later, I can pinpoint specific stories he told that helped me see the ways “disorders” like Tourette’s or autism could be assets – despite the difficulties they cause in a world filled with people who believe brains should only function in certain ways.

Unfortunately, a lot of neuroscience researchers haven’t gotten Dr. Sacks’s message. They see difference as deficit if you have a disorder, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. (Prefer YooHoo to Pepsi? If you’re allistic, you’re quirky. If you’re autistic, you’re defective – and suddenly, enjoying YooHoo is an issue that needs to be cured.)

So you end up with papers like this one, wherein the authors discover that autistic folks are more morally consistent than allistic people, and decide that’s because their brains are broken:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a core deficit in theory-of-mind (ToM) ability, which extends to perturbations in moral judgment and decision-making. Although the function of the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ), a key neural marker of ToM and morality, is known to be altered in autistic individuals, the neurocomputational mechanisms underlying its specific impairment in moral decision-making remain unclear. Here, we addressed this question by employing a novel fMRI task together with computational modeling and representational similarity analysis (RSA). ASD patients and healthy controls (HC) decided in public or private whether to incur a personal cost for funding a morally-good cause (Good Context) or receive a personal gain for benefiting a morally-bad cause (Bad Context). Compared with HC, individuals with ASD were much more likely to reject the opportunity to earn ill-gotten money by supporting a bad cause than HC. Computational modeling revealed that this resulted from unduly weighing benefits for themselves and the bad cause, suggesting that ASD patients apply a rule of refusing to serve a bad cause because they over-evaluate the negative consequences of their actions.

Huh. My parents taught me it’s important to do the right thing, even if no one’s watching, and even if doing the wrong thing meant I’d get something nifty. I guess they were defective, too.

My friend Andrew Hutsell, who is autistic, isn’t having it. They, together with friends JadeHawk and Alyssa Hillary Zisk, wrote a letter to Hu et al explaining the authors’ many critical failures. They’ve given me permission to share it here:
Have the authors considered the possibility that autistic people having moral consistency may not be a deficit?

Autistic people here are characterized as lacking Theory of Mind [ToM] or having a deficit. It would seem the authors’ ToM deficits are evident in their inability to interpret autistic behavior and decision-making.

For instance:

We show that ASD individuals are more inflexible when following a moral rule even though an immoral action can benefit themselves, and suffer an undue concern about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost.

When I and other autistic people look at this same set of data we see it this way:

Allistics are less able to follow a moral rule when an immoral action can benefit them; they suffer from a reduced concern about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost.

The framing here matters. The authors did not consider the existence of other valuation systems, and attributed autistic ethical valuations as indicative of a faulty cost-benefit analysis.

Autistic integrity in moral judgement could instead be interpreted as a highly developed Theory of Mind.

Theory of Mind is described in the literature as:

[…] our appreciation for people’s cognitive states, such as beliefs and knowledge. (Lane, Wellman , and Kerr, 2010)

Emotion understanding as:

[…] our ability to identify overt emotionals reaction, to predict others’ emotional reactions, and to appreciate that people have both palpable and private emotional experiences. (Lane, Wellman , and Kerr, 2010)

Given these definitions, it seems there could be a link between the development of Theory of Mind and moral integrity. Lane, et al., did find a positive link between children’s development of theory of mind and higher level moral reasoning. (Lane, et al., 2010)

Interpreting the autistic people’s choices and behaviors as a deficit is a choice the authors made according to their own lack of understanding their autistic subjects. Autism research tends to rely on a deficit model to interpret autistic behavior and traits. This model creates a bias in researchers, to the point that moral integrity and consistency is even seen as a deficit.

Allistics’ lack in understanding autistic people, and vice versa, has been termed the “double-empathy problem.” (Milton DE, 2012)

In an Expert Discussion of Autism and Empathy, moderated by Dr. Christina Nicolaidis, published in Autism in Adulthood, 2019, Dr. Milton shares that comments from autistic people regarding lack of understanding from allistic people “[…] far outweigh any comments and issues autistic people have in understanding others.” (Nicolaidis, et al. 2019)

Dr. Milton goes on to discuss how autistic people are often putting in much more effort to understand allistic people, while allistic people are not putting in the same effort. It would behoove researchers to question their biases and interpretations of observed autistic behavior.

Furthermore, the researchers assume lack of ToM as the basis for this paper, even though there is a significant lack of actual empirical evidence that autistic people lack ToM (Gernsbacher, Yergeau, 2019). In this study, they found a lack of convergence for the definition of ToM, lack of reproduceable results regarding autism and deficits in ToM in larger sample sizes, and various other issues with previous empirical findings and studies based on autistic people’s proposed lack of ToM.

Lane JD, Wellman HM, Olson SL, LaBounty J, Kerr DC. Theory of mind and emotion understanding predict moral development in early childhood. Br J Dev Psychol. 2010 Nov;28(Pt 4):871-89. doi: 10.1348/026151009×483056. PMID: 21121472; PMCID: PMC3039679.
Moderator: Christina Nicolaidis, Participants: Damian Milton, Noah J. Sasson, Elizabeth (Lizzy) Sheppard, and Melanie Yergeau. Autism in Adulthood. Mar 2019.4-11.
Gernsbacher MA, Yergeau M. Empirical Failures of the Claim That Autistic People Lack a Theory of Mind. Arch Sci Psychol. 2019;7(1):102-118. doi:10.1037/arc0000067

So yeah, this is where pathologizing neurodiversity has gotten us: pretty much everything autistic folks do differently than allistic people is seen as a defect, and they assume it’s autistic folks who need to be fixed. They don’t examine their own behavior to see if maybe folks on the spectrum are the ones who’ve got it right. And they don’t question their assumption that autistic = defective, which causes them to do asinine things. Like, for instance, assuming that moral fidelity is somehow wrong.

This particular instance is unintentionally hilarious, but it exemplifies the kind of framing that leads to autistic people being punished and abused for behavior that isn’t actually wrong. It’s insidious, and it’s dangerous.

Thank you, Andrew, JadeHawk, and Alyssa, for taking the time to show Hu et al that their framing is bad, and they should feel bad.

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Moral Consistency Is Not An Autistic Deficit : A Letter to Hu et al