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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social Justice and Autism: Links to Personality and Advocacy

  • Author(s): Kapp, Steven
  • Advisor(s): Kasari, Connie L
  • et al.

Autism’s history as an independent condition may originate from “autistic psychopathy”, but autism and psychopathy may entail opposite patterns of personality. Autism may incline people toward moral intuitions in the dimensions of care, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and especially fairness. Yet these may play an unconscious and visceral role that in combination with difficulties with moral reasoning and the understanding of one’s own and others’ emotional and mental states, reduces self- and other awareness of autistic people’s moral drives. Conversely, psychopathic people may have low moral values (particularly for care and fairness), yet usually strong moral reasoning skills, cognitive empathy, and mentalizing abilities. This contrast adds to the literature in part through emphasizing basic sensory and motor differences, in transaction with the social environment and life experience, as underlying these personality-relevant distinctions between autism and psychopathy. It thus attempts to embody both conditions, with the understanding that all behavior involves motor activity, and to think of both conditions as neurodevelopmental in their origins and early trajectories. Such an analysis raises the importance of strengths, as a matter of individual differences as well as influences from the environment, that can help to distinguish and even cause the conditions. For example, sensory hypersensitivities in autism may both give rise to talent but also overload individuals and interfere with language and cognitive development for some. Early abilities in imitation may help to explain why individuals biologically vulnerable to psychopathy may have such strong influence to adverse home environments, as they mimic the harshness and lack of warmth they witness by caregivers. Indeed, individuals with putative “social disorders” may have particular susceptibility to their social environments, particularly parenting practices. They also suffer from unfair social norms that often in effect reward psychopathic individuals and punish well-intentioned autistic people. Both conditions challenge the notion of social dysfunction as an individual problem rather than reflecting lack of reciprocity or injustice experienced interpersonally or societally. Supportive environments that meet the needs of people prone to autism and psychopathy may avoid pain and punishment that possibly plays central roles for both conditions, with starkly different effects, perpetuating social injustice.

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