The NY Times printed a letter and advice about the inappropriate behavior of a man most likely with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) in an office, the headline calling him “creepy.” (People in the office had identified him as on the autism spectrum.) That the man was a supervisor only made it worse. I’ve had similar issues with teens who have AS and NLD who have been accused of everything from stalking to harassment.
This man’s “creepy” behavior was that he liked to speak to young women, he talked too long so it was difficult to “escape,” and occasionally he said something seen as “too personal.” He once took the same train as a young woman and later told her he’d think of her when in her neighborhood. There was a pattern of behaviors involving women that were seen as socially inappropriate and unwanted; they made women co-workers uncomfortable. He also took private medical calls about “intimate issues” at his desk in an open work space.
My NLD teenager’s “stalking” behavior was also unwanted: he was staring at a young woman in his school whom he liked, making her uncomfortable. The other episode of “stalking” was a young teen with AS who sent too many texts to a girl. While I refer to boys as exhibiting this behavior, girls also can be misinterpreted as stalking boys.
Clearly, people of all genders with AS would benefit from training about sexual harassment, specifically about what behaviors might be perceived as sexual harassment. Also, people need to be educated about autism so that they can understand the difference between behavior that may be socially awkward due to missed or misinterpreted social cues and behavior that is an attempt to be deliberately provocative. There is a difference between annoying behavior and harassment.
The columnist in the NY Times felt the man should take responsibility for his behavior towards women. The man had already been reprimanded about the phone calls. I felt the man with AS deserved to have clear explanations and coaching from HR instead of punishment. Given the seriousness of accusations of harassment against him, his understanding of sexual harassment and of his behavior being regarded as harassment must be clear and comprehensive. He would also benefit from a place to make private calls, since many doctors are only available during work hours.
The co-workers in this man’s office need training so they might understand AS and be less likely to see his behavior as threatening. They could be taught how to give him appropriate feedback when he missed cues or social rules without negative judgments like “creepy.”
The same interventions are vital in schools. School staff members must be trained to understand AS, not just the diagnostic criteria but how poor understanding of social cues and rules can result in behavior perceived as harassment. I find staff often don’t recognize the behaviors associated with Asperger’s or NLD in general, and misunderstanding leads to inappropriate responses.
Students with AS require explicit guidelines on harassing behavior and behavior that could be perceived as harassing. Explaining socially inappropriate sexual behavior to teens with AS, NLD or other syndromes affecting social communication and understanding can be complex. Kids look to other kids for models, and in any high school, they will see all kinds of sexual behavior, from kids looking at each other to kissing and touching. What they will miss are the social cues to indicate what is wanted.
Neurotypical students need education in neurodiversity, starting in early grades, and to have models of acceptance of those who are neurodiverse. They should understand helpful and respectful ways to respond to their neurodiverse peers.
This is all part the importance of education to achieve greater understanding of people who are neurodiverse. It’s critical that parents, schools, students and HR departments “get it” and understand individuals with AS, NLD, or other forms of neurodiversity. Certainly, training and coaching for those with AS, NLD or other social communication disorders would protect them as well as others. With education, these situations could be addressed with understanding and respect for everyone’s feelings.