I’m taking a big risk writing this post. I recognize that it may be misinterpreted as an agreement with concepts that go completely counter to my intention. It’s time, though.
The media is currently abuzz with the planning and execution of Friday night’s murders at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. He must have been mentally ill, people argue, to have written a 100+ page manifesto explaining his motivations. No one sane would have uploaded a YouTube video detailing his plans for retribution against the women of the world who refused to date or have sex with him. While most mainstream media outlets gloss over the inherent misogyny of his actions (and the clear connection between his choices and those of Marc Lepine in Montreal in 1989), the speculation of the role of mental health is high. Described as disturbed and unstable by people who claim to have known him well, the preferred focus appears to be on demands for greater gun control in the US as a way to prevent this from happening again.
The other media focus has been (as with many mass murders committed by white men before Elliot Rodger) on his status as an autistic person. He had Asperger’s, folks say, so this is obviously why he hated women, killed his roommates, and planned to slaughter every woman he encountered. Because autism makes you disconnect, socially isolated, a dangerous loner. Because autism means you are incapable of empathy or of seeing other people as human beings. Because autistic people are volatile and unpredictable.
You do all realize that’s bullshit, right?
Here, however, is where I may lose a few of you: while autism does not make someone more likely to be a misogynist, autistic men are definitely disporportionately more vulnerable to the messages of pick-up artists (PUA) and men’s rights activists (MRA). The reasons for this are complicated, and deeply tied into our ableist, sex-negative culture.
As a culture, we traditionally do as little as we can get away with when we discuss sexuality with children. We describe the mechanics of puberty in technical terms, we talk about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in as abstract ways as we can, and we avoid avoid avoid as much as possible, with the assumption that kids grow up and figure most of this out as they go along, or that they don’t need the information because it won’t be relevant to them, or we hope, as parents, that the school will do the awkward work for us. I’m just talking about kids who are perceived as able-bodied in this description. Disability compounds the conversation. As parents of autistic kids, we’re told to lower our expectations. We’re indoctrinated with the idea that our children will grow up to be asexual misfits who are incapable of making intimate connections and partnerships.
For young autistic men who are seen as “high-functioning” (as I’m going to assume Rodger was), the two scenarios combine: we assume that they’ll probably not be interested in dating and relationships, but if they are, they’re smart enough to figure it out when it’s time.
It’s not about being “smart enough.” The common understanding of how autistic people learn is that direct instruction is integral to comprehension. A lot of us are not so good with abstract concepts and figurative language. We are often concrete thinkers who benefit from step-by-step explanations. Guess who’s really good at offering young men step-by-step explanations on how to get a girlfriend?
Pick-up artists. They demystify a terrifying process. While social skills groups and parents go around the idea of dating and sexuality, PUAs jump right in and offer concrete steps on how to get exactly what you want. They give advice on appearance and approach, and offer praise for attempts at contact. They acknowledge that autistic young men are capable of and interested in being sexual with other people (in this instance, women) – validation few others in their lives are willing to consider.
So, yeah. Autistic young men who are interested in women are definitely at risk of embracing MRA philosophy, and of emulating misogynist pick-up artist practice. There. I said it. It’s out there. Now, what do we do about it? Simple answer, more complicated execution. The short answer is that we ensure that every young person has access to comprehensive sexuality education that’s based in respect, mutual pleasure, and consent. We humanize sexuality, and include the emotional parts of it in our conversations with youth. We acknowledge that sexual interest lies on a spectrum. We reinforce the idea that no person on this planet is owed sex by another person, for any reason.
For autistic youth* in particular, we incorporate dating and sexuality into social skills curricula. We talk frankly about dating behaviour, about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. We study examples from popular culture and role play how to talk to women respectfully. We model concrete ways of interacting with romantic interests, and provide young people a tool box of strategies. We provide a space in which they can talk freely about their feelings of frustration and isolation, but also about their successes. We replace the PUA step-by-step approach to getting laid with our own step-by-step approach to building confidence in interacting with attractive-to-us people.
Yes, the fact that Elliot Rodger was SEEN AS autistic matters. The fact that the only people he felt took him seriously also actively encourage men to hate women matters more.
* Throughout this post, I’ve spoken exclusively about young autistic men who are sexually attracted to women. I have not talked about men attracted to men, nor have I talked at all about autistic women’s experience of sexuality. I am in no way ignoring that comprehensive sexuality education needs to include a concrete approach for young women, nor am I overlooking sexual orientation as a piece of this educational approach. For the context of this particular piece, however, men who want to have sex with women are my target audience, for what I think are obvious reasons.
(edited to clarify that we don’t actually know if he was autistic, only that it’s been reported.)