Autism and Tech - the 80s and 90s vs. now [UPDATED]

(edit: added a little historical context and statistics on sex differences in autism diagnoses)

Ever pondered how much of an impact a transition period of a decade or two of practical but low bandwidth communications technology might have had on the current composition of the tech sector? Here's an excerpt from the abstract of a recent paper assessing how those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are judged by others:

we find that first impressions of individuals with ASD made from thin slices of real-world social behavior by typically-developing observers are not only far less favorable across a range of trait judgments compared to controls, but also are associated with reduced intentions to pursue social interaction. These patterns are remarkably robust, occur within seconds, do not change with increased exposure, and persist across both child and adult age groups. However, these biases disappear when impressions are based on conversational content lacking audio-visual cues, suggesting that style, not substance, drives negative impressions of ASD.

That last bit suggests to me that one place autistic people would be particularly likely to make good first impressions, and thereafter good friendships, was the old, pre-Internet Bulletin Board System (BBS) era. Technology was adequate to enable people to communicate fairly easily using BBSes, but still low-bandwidth enough that BBS users were likely communicating using only text.

It seems to me that this paper's conclusion that bias against autistic people disappeared when people using text-based communications might help explain a seeming anomaly in the gender-ratio of computer scientists once you consider that boys are 4.5 times as likely as girls to be diagnosed with autism:

A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising.

If a form of technology enables a particular subset of the population to better make friends, it'd seen not unreasonable to suppose that many of them might pursue that field as a career. In short, historical circumstances seem to have been such that you might expect computing in the 1980s and 1990s to have been unusually appealing to autistic people then1 - such that it might have both produced some level of cultural change and increased the overrepresentation of men in the technology sector.

... Enter the the double empathy problem

Roughly stated it's the notion that autistic and non-autistic are likely to have severe difficulties understanding each other2. It seems to me perhaps most eloquently expressed here:

I sat on the bed across from my partner, tears in my eyes as I prepared to share with him an insight I'd had at therapy that day. I felt incredibly vulnerable, ready to open up this secret part of me I'd kept defensively hidden, even from myself, for many years.

... I opened my mouth to speak…

But first, he wanted to share his own insight he'd had that same day. With all the sincerity and loving care he could muster, with the best intentions, he said the most hurtful possible thing he could have:

"I've come to accept that you're just an uncaring person. Feelings for others just don't come naturally to you. I acknowledge that about you. I love you anyway."

I tried to explain. I tried to argue. But he interrupted, insisting. He simply would not hear me out. I'm sure he was trying to soothe my feelings, to argue against what he thought was my own defensiveness and lack of self-acceptance.

But in so doing, he couldn't really hear me. He loved and accepted someone else in that moment. Not me. Who I really was, was being ignored, erased, written over with yet another misunderstood Luna.

Where autistic and non-autistic people meet you might expect to find friction ...

Fast forward to today's concerns over diversity and "social justice"

How might you integrate the above together? A population in which autistic people are significantly overrepresented might be expected to have somewhat different characteristics than the population at large.

This seems to me to be a clear example of a situation which shows the limits of the current model of "social justice", which seems to posit a single "diverse" way of doing things rather than diversity standing for doing a multitude of different things in parallel. Basically it's a model of Exclusive Inclusivity:

If I could communicate one single thing to the world, contributing my part to engineering culture, it would be this: All of the things that are obnoxious, weird, unpleasant, problematic, about hacker and geek culture, that is what their safe space looks like. If you want to create safe spaces for other people, that’s great! Everyone deserves their safety. But by coming up to an existing safe space, pointing at all the weirdos inside, declaring them problematic, and displacing them to create a safe space for another group, that’s not inclusion. Inclusion would attempt to accommodate everyone. Displacing one group of people to accommodate another is just a culture war. War is hell. We’re better than that.

Schelling points play a pretty significant role in the remainder of the above article. Oddly a joke that I saw on Twitter after Thomas Schelling passed away in December 2016 seems like a good way to introduce the concept:

I'd try to sum up Schelling Points as (somewhat arbitrary) things towards which people gravitate in the absence of central coordination - Schelling used as an example people trying to meet each other when each only knew that the other was looking in New York City. There's a lot of ground to cover there, but certain places upon which people might converge. Similarly, when it comes to interests, outside the tech sector conversations might gravitate towards subjects like local sports teams and the whether, whereas in the tech sector subjects like science fiction often serve a similar purpose.

How should you respond to articles like A new study shows how Star Trek jokes and geek culture make women feel unwelcome in computer science? I'd suggest the approach advocated by the author of Exclusive Inclusivity:

Why should there even be one engineering culture to criticize in the first place? Google reports that there’s six hundred thousand software professionals in the States. Do you really think that every single one of those 600 kilopeople has the same superficial taste in media? If they did, that would be cause for alarm.

Software engineering, like every single other profession and social organization in the world, has niches of all shapes and sizes, all over the place. Hate Star Trek? Find the team of six that hates it as much as you do. There’s a hundred thousand of them; luck is on your side.

We talk about this theme a lot here in Status 451, and we do this because it is critically important. People seem to have this unshakeable tendency to universalize their preferences. Star Trek repels and excludes women, therefore there can be no Star Trek or, at best, it must be trivialized. For reasons unknown to me, the idea that there could be multiple cultures running in parallel falls on deaf ears. There’s more than enough people, places, and work out there for everyone to be happy. Why should we impose misery on group A just to make group B happy. Make everyone happy!

  1. Note that I don't think that the accidents of history and a corresponding cultural impact are the full explanation for the overrepresentation of autistic people in the sector. Microsoft announces pilot program to hire people with autism includes buzzwords like "diversity", but I don't think that this program is likely to improve their diversity much if at all. ↩︎

  2. For a fairly-readable if somewhat technical discussion of the double empathy problem, this seems like a good place to start. ↩︎