Are Autism Experts Experts in Autism?

No, I recently had an email exchange with a psychology professor at the College of Charleston who specialized in autism and it didn’t go well. I was working with her on creating sensory-safe parties and other special needs support on campus. I’m not going to recount it all here but that would be tangential. The most important thing I took away is she had no understanding of the autistic experience. She felt I came across as strong since I barely knew her and was flooding her with suggestions and she was offended when I suggested I had scientific means to reduce incidents of narcissistic traits among sorority girls (I had a number of “mean girl” experiences there that left me rather traumatized)

To the last one she was offended that I associated negative traits with any demographic and that included associating “mean girls” with sororities, she treated me as a bigot for the offense. She literally said it was contrary to being inclusive. It (what I said) was not an ad hominem attack on all of the school’s sororities but the attempt at introducing scientific reforms to reduce narcissistic traits. What was apparent to me was while this woman may have had a PhD in psychology and had studied autism, she was utterly blind to the first-hand experiences of people on the spectrum. She bailed on the project after being offended by two emails which, while slightly frustrated, were not completely unprofessional.

The email was, more or less, unmasked and to that a literal PhD in psychology who studied autism got offended and stormed off. You’d think that of all people who would not storm off after being offended by two mildly uncouth emails, it would be her. Most likely, she had never done any field work with autistic adults on the higher end of the spectrum. Her experience was likely with the lower end and with children which is on the other side of the universe from my people. That said, even with the limited knowledge she had, she probably could have done better because this was not a meltdown, it was an arguably mildly impolite email exchange and she just didn’t have the balls to see it through.

Which illustrates the broader problem, a complete defecit of empathy and courage. To be an expert, especially on the higher end and with adults, requires the book smarts of psychology but also the street smarts of life and a lot of empathy. Most autism experts know the overt sympoms of low-functioning autism and that you can mostly do from hard science. The higher-end and, especially, the adults there, are a different story entirely. It requires accepting people who may discomfort you and trying to understand people who you don’t intially get. It requires the humility to accept one’s limitations such as overcoming the Dunning-Krugger Effect and the grace to tolerate people for who they are and how they may afflict one’s feelings.

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