📆 October 10, 2023 | ⏱️ 4 minute read | 🏷️ autism

Should Autistic People be Held Accountable for Their Actions?

I want to address one of the biggest misunderstandings about autism and other mental health conditions, which I think can partially be blamed on the confusing nomenclature. In English, we say that a person “has” autism. This is a misleading verb for the context of mental health conditions because the idea of “having” something, in most contexts, implies that that which is had is separate from the haver. This leads to a conception of autism that I call “the ghost in the machine”.

As an example, sometimes people laboring under this conception of autism ask me strange questions to the effect of “Is X caused by your autism or is it just you?” as if the two were so easily separable. It’s not like part of my brain is autistic and the other part is the “real” me and we’re fighting over control. The whole brain is autistic.

But neurotypicals make this uncritical, hard and fast distinction between “myself” and “my autism”, appointing themselves as the ultimate authority on where that line gets drawn without having done any research on autism. Then they use their uninformed and fallacious notion of autism to dismiss all my real challenges, claiming that any traits they deem undesirable aren’t “caused by autism”, but rather “of my own doing”, and therefore my fault as well.

A live example of this thinking is “Oh, you burn out at every job you perform? Don’t blame that on autism! That’s just because you are lazy.” Comments to this effect aren’t always self-evidently negative either. Sometimes they take the form of toxic positivity: “Oh, you burn out at every job you perform? I know you can overcome your autism! Just try harder! :)”.

Let’s consider some better ways of holding autistic people accountable:

Example 1

If we cower and cover our ears in the presence of loud noise, our behavior might be breaking social mores, but it’s both harmless and involuntary.

So there’s really no basis to castigate us over it.

Example 2

If we hurt someone’s feelings due a lack of social awareness, our behavior is harmful but unintentional.

In that situation, it might be prudent to pull us aside and fill us in on what we just unintentionally did, but there’s no basis to criticize us over it. It was an accident.

Example 3

If we hurt someone’s feelings intentionally, our behavior is harmful and we should be held accountable.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between someone who is unintentionally a jerk due to lack of social awareness and someone who, unfortunately, uses autism as an excuse to be a jerk. One just has to use their best judgment knowing the person. Autistic people can be jerks too.

Example 4

If we regularly show up to work exhausted and late and our coworkers have to pick up the slack, are we responsible for that?

Well, we could be held responsible if we make no effort to sleep on time. At the same time though, a high percentage of autistic people suffer from sleep problems, so we might still be sleepy even doing everything right. In that case, it wouldn’t make sense to attribute our tardiness to a moral failure on our part.

From the perspective of any of our coworkers, even if they know we’re autistic and the implications of autism for sleep, it’s not obvious to them how much effort or lack thereof we’re making to sleep on time. The point is that one may not be in a position to have sufficient information to effectively hold someone accountable. It’s not always black and white.


To answer the original question posed in the title of this entry, autistic people and those with other mental health conditions absolutely should be held accountable for our actions, but there are a few important things to remember when doing so:

  1. Autism and other mental health conditions are descriptive, not causal
  2. “Being weird” is not a moral failure, even if it makes others uncomfortable
  3. We shouldn’t be held to the same expectations as neurotypicals
  4. We have to be judged differently than normal people, according to what behaviors we can and can’t control, given the fact of our condition