People Behaving Badly
Bad Behavior No Matter What
Roger N. Meyer
Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved
The following post is a
modified, later edited version of a response first sent to a listserv
specializing in adult Asperger Syndrome issues. It was sparked by a lively
discussion concerning AS adults caught in criminal entanglements, and the
rush to their defense of some individuals in the disability support.orgmunity.
Over the past couple of
weeks, there have been a few posts dealing with AS individuals who have
found themselves "on the other side of the law."
Newspapers and the media
love sensationalism, and there's nothing quite as juicy as a tie-in between
mental health conditions and aberrant behavior. The only problem in dealing
with AS or autism, generally, is that reporters simply don't take the time
to b.orge fully informed about the individual's particular flavor of the
condition. Further, in their rush to get the story out, reporters rarely
cover background other than what adds to titillation and sensationalism.
Such sloppy but highly focused reporting guarantees readership and returns
to the story in search of even more juicy details as a case progresses
through the legal system.
None of this has anything
to do with public education about autism. It has all to do with reporters
and stringers keeping their jobs, and climbing up the illuminated ladder of
journalism through authorship of feature articles masquerading as news
stories. While these articles can be called news, they are far more
accurately characterized as further curious bits of titillation for
A recent story about a
Asperger Syndrome Danish young adult who repeatedly and unlawfully accessed
and disabled telephone systems was sympathetically received by a few readers
of an adult list serv dedicated to furtherance of partner and family
understanding about Asperger Syndrome. Early responses to the news story
revealed more knee jerk sympathy with the perpetrator than with his victims.
Providing the person has
the capacity, it's possible to take someone with normal aberrant behavior,
move them towards remediation and acknowledgment of the wrongness of their
behavior, rehabilitate them, and ultimately put them to service in the
industry they've hacked or harmed.
But here we're dealing
with behavior which is truly, and by every public and private test,
For and with individuals
acting in this manner, there is little understanding by the individual
himself of the true criminal nature of his behavior. His.orgpulsive conduct
was anything but harmless to others. Whether obsessive or.orgpulsive or
autistic, the results were the same. In most such cases -- and they are
rare-- the individual has been found to be constitutionally incapable of
appreciating the consequences of his behavior. In this young man's case,
there was a determination by prosecutors as well as mental health
professionals that the malefactor is incapable of redemption and must be
removed from society because he appears incapable of correcting his course
of action, or even appreciating the consequences of what he's done.
McNaughton Rule or no, remember that the other half of the social formula
for isolating such individuals from further opportunity to repeat
unconscionable conduct is the expression, "Harm to others."
It's easy to spray pity
about, like one would take a few squeezes on the atomizer bulb of a room
freshener, but folks interested in spreading pity or sanitation around
really do themselves little credit, and the perpetrator of these harmful
acts much good. Yes, it leads the sympathizer to a "feel good" experience,
but most sympathizers don't have to daily deal with the detritus and
wreckage that such individuals leave in their wake. For the most part, the
pity party-goers are lat.orgers to the game, given to easy tugging of their
heartstrings, with little true understanding of the background of
individuals on whose behalf they offer the balm of a soft landing in the
social blame game department.
To put it neatly, there
are pathologues amongst us, just as there are in the general population. In
fact, and taking remarks slightly out of context, Stephen Shore frequently
says -- when asked about AS individuals -- what distinguishes us from
others, he says that we are just like everyone else, only more so.
While there's humor to
this.orge back, there's also a strong element of truth. However, there.orges a point in behavior where "more so" crosses the line into true
pathology. This is the line not often observed by those offering public
exculpatory remarks on the behalf of individuals they neither know nor
One of the reasons I
decided to suspend my Social Security practice was out of concern that my
personal feelings about some of my AS clients were b.orging far more cynical
than warranted by the client's individual situation. A year earlier, I
started to conduct extensive family histories on behalf of my clients,
unearthing facts and tidbits about their families of origin on both sides.
The results were astounding. They explained the client's conduct and
extent of impairment. In many instances, the client didn't know better
because the family didn't appear to know or do any better. Family
histories often provided an unflattering picture of multiple acts of
wrongdoing, not just of good people behaving badly, but also of bad behavior
occurring with such frequency that cause and source began to blur and blend
into an explanation about the distant past -- and by extension to the
present -- that explained the client's peculiar condition. I was able to
construct arguments convincing to Social Security. As I became increasingly
proficient in proposing the inevitability of the client's impairment, I
began to despair about the human condition generally.
As I unearthed family of
origin dynamics and delved into multiple generations of AS in my clients'
extended families, it became more difficult to remain neutral about the
extent to which uncritical, unknowing defenders of their conduct endorsed
acts of unspeakable insensitivity invoking Asperger Syndrome as a sole
justification for unacceptable behavior towards others.
It was then that I
decided to take a year's vacation from my Social Security practice. I needed
to regain some sense of balance to my judgment regarding good people
behaving badly. If I were to take up social security cases again, I needed
that time to heal my conscience.
Danger to oneself and
danger to society
These are words that mean
many things to many people, but to those who count, those who define danger
in real terms by looking at the harm and the true injury and costs of
repeated acts of unacceptable behavior, things must have a beginning point
and an ending point. Justice demands conclusive not inconclusive results,
and does not tolerate incessant calls to keep the book of judgment open.
Society needs to close the circle, to officially provide opportunities to
victims to experience closure. This is true of victims at many levels,
whether they be individuals, or particular industries, or society as a
whole. Civic culture demands that we all concern ourselves about our
safety, security, welfare, and the integrity of our own privacy and personal
When individuals such as
the Danish phone hacker present themselves in our midst, we at once
acknowledge their cleverness, as most of us have fairly unsophisticated
feelings (akin to being Luddites) about technology and the individual genius
of persons able to defeat it. But in the case of this hacker, as in the
case of the New York Subway perseverant, we hover at the edge of credulity
when do-gooders amongst us ask society as a whole to either indulge, or
coddle, or, in instances of both perpetrators, urge their employment in the
very elements of industry or service they appear to have little if any moral.orgpunctions about continually violating.
That's where rubber meets
the road. It's no longer funny or admirable if safe crackers move after
your personal bank accounts or your safety deposit box, or your unlisted
telephone number, or your credit card accounts. Does it truly make a
difference to the victim whether or not the perpetrator of multiple acts of
boundary violation can form criminal intent, or appreciates the consequences
of his behavior? All persons' desires to assure their personal safety,
security and privacy attend to a basic need to be free from threats or
Persons who ritualize
violations of individual or collective senses of safety, security and
privacy out of their own perseverative need to perpetuate a routine for
themselves must be isolated and first dealt with as miscreants, not as
victims of their own developmental or cognitive shor.orgings.
Some individuals can't
form criminal intent, even if they repeatedly act in ways that are harmful
to others. Other individuals are deficient in the mechanisms of tying their
behavior to the consequences they leave in the wake of their repeated,
obsessive and public misconduct.
And for these folks,
remediation should be the last thing society looks at, not the first thing.
Just as with the mayhem threatened when you put a dangerous weapon into the
hands of a severely impaired person, or the innocent but nonetheless awful
consequences of putting dangerous weapons into the hands of infants or
children, so, with those of our own utterly incapable of appreciating the
calculus of their misbehavior, or weighing the moral probity of their
impulses, there is a demand for those injured, first of all, to be
In First Aid, you first
divert o.orging traffic around an accident scene. Then you stop the
bleeding. Then you call the medics. Finally, once the scene has been
cleared, you conduct a thorough post-mortem on the event. That's the time
you look for cause, and in so doing, you also weigh consequences.
Social order demands
This the "excusers"
rarely do. In my estimation, their eyes are on the wrong prize. Not that
they are incapable of a more.orgprehensive perspective, but most folks who
first offer sympathy for the offender rarely know the full story of the harm
caused by the offender's misconduct. It's an almost parent-like knee jerk
response akin to "defend my kid no matter what."
Sometimes this is a
response that's well warranted, especially when there's been little
premonition about the person's inclination to act unacceptably. But where
there is knowledge, indulgence, and -- ultimately -- enabling, that's where
things have gone seriously off the track. Based upon a.orgprehensive
post-mortem, in nearly all cases, there were unmistakable prior warning
signs. Deals and bargains are routinely discovered that have had the effect
of keeping the individual out of the limelight. Such behavior b.orges
ritualized in families protective of their aberrant members. Family rituals
of denial and enablement continue long beyond the initial event, often
leading to protecting the malefactor from the consequences of the
increasingly weighty damage of his behavior.
If the family is highly
dysfunctional, social institutions designed to protect vulnerable
individuals often perpetuate the same denial and enabling, this time as a
matter of public policy, often with official secrecy and confidentiality
attached to outrageous individual acts of misconduct that have had
widespread public impact. Applying the bigger public bandage on an open
wound may at first appear to be a humane act, but it may also be poor
medicine. It may be just as poor a fix as prior efforts if public
caretakers fail to undertake an equal responsibility to guarantee public
safekeeping to the society upon whom they eventually unleash charges earlier
thrust into their care.
Public outrage against
public agencies and institutions demonstrating apparent uncaring policies
and practices result in hammerlock calls for zero tolerance policies,
mandatory sentencing guidelines, three strikes and you're out, and other
Draconian and invariably ineffectual public safety measures.
In the case of the New
York subway miscreant, his prior behavior was well documented. As his tale
and his record grew curioser and curioser, each time he was discovered and
dealt a modicum of public rebuke, and in each and every prior instance there
was no further diminution of the malefactor's conduct. In fact, after
successive periods of incarceration his behavior became increasingly
calculated and an even clearer provocation to public authorities
concerned about public safety and security from his perseverations. Because
he utterly failed to see a connection between his conduct and danger or a
sense of danger to others, the ultimate act of charging him for the full
consequences -- intended or not -- of his behavior fell upon those the
public charges to see to society's sense of safety and security.
Not to individual parents
or family members. Not to sometime sympathetic supporters. Not to
individual clinicians or counselors.
But to the full weight of
the law and the criminal justice system. This time: the heavy hammer fell,
and there's little likelihood of a defense of any type of diminished
capacity being successful. Common sense and good legal judgment, even in
the hands of a skilled defense attorney, militates against it. And for good
reason. Such defense wears thin quickly, often leaving those on whose
behalf it is successfully argued in worse shape, not better. Society is no
better shape either, nor is the public's already cynical view of the legal
The biggest problem to
creating public legends, or contributing to public myth about such eccentric
miscreants, is that doing so really does teach those less capable of
appreciating the moral consequences of misbehavior a valuable lesson. When
uncritical admiration continues to flow from us, children and adults with
less than fully formed senses of justice or morality fail to get the point.
If we don't personally
teach the teachable those lessons and remind ourselves of their value, upon
whom does society ultimately rely as the arbiter of acceptable conduct?
Certainly not those whose
conscience and whose own personal sense of justice and social well being
fail to provide a safe example for the least of us.
Our cries of dismay are
perceived as cries of "Wolf!"
The Asperger Syndrome
A defense just as likely
to suffer the fate of Dan White's "Twinkies Defense." Dan White was the
demented firefighter and former San Francisco City Councilman so unhinged by
gay rights that he murdered the mayor of San Francisco and his personal
nemesis, Harvey Milk over the mayor's refusal to rescind his impulsive
resignation from public office. White was acquitted by a knee-jerk jury
based upon the Twinkies Defense. Several years after his public
exculpation, White took his own life, much more quietly, one may add, than
with the fanfare by which he took two others.
Powerless to preserve
society against repeated assaults by those amongst us least capable of
forming responsible notions of personal accountability, we b.orge ridiculous
apologists for equally ridiculous -- and dangerous --conduct.
Let the Twinkies Defense
be a lesson to us all:
We reap what we sow.
Roger N. Meyer is a
Portland Oregon resident. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in
1997. He was a cabinetmaker for 26 years, and had a parallel volunteer
career as a counselor, mental health advocate, union activist and
apprentice instructor. He was a.orgmunity mediator trainer, and case
developer with Community Boards of San Francisco. While there he
co-authored its manual on Large Group Conflicts and frequently contributed
materials to the organization's training archives. Since he left the
building trades, he has founded a support group for AS adults that meets
monthly. He co-facilitates a partners group in which one or both partners
are on the autistic spectrum. He maintains a private case management
practice for families with young adults with AS, and is a transition
specialist, disability advocate and parent/student special education
advocate in the public schools and adult.orgmunity service agencies. The
author conducts person-centered planning trainings and in-service
trainings on AS and adult learning disabilities. He is a member of the
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the American Counseling
Association, the American Society for Trainng and Development, and the
Oregon Mediation Association. He is co-founder of Oregon Parents United, a
parent advocacy, special education, and support group for families with
children who have hidden disabilities. With a colleague he has conducts
introductory presentations and study groups for adult counseling
professionals interested in understanding AS and working with AS adults."