On Harmful Autism Professionals in the Public Sphere

Image Description: photographs of Tony Attwood and Simon Baron Cohen behind gold text reading “nothing about us without us”.

There are many professionals in the field of autism whose work is actively harmful to autistic people. This includes ABA therapists and those researching a cure, but thankfully most of these people never make it into the media or the public sphere of influence. Unfortunately, a few rare autism researchers have gained fame on the backs of harmful, inaccurate theories around autism, its causes and whether it should be “cured”.

In this, I will focus on two men whose theories on autism have caused untold damage to autistic people across the globe. These are: Simon Baron-Cohen and Tony Attwood. The damage each of these men has done has been different, but they have both caused harm to my community, and are still respected figures in the field of psychology. In light of attempts by Baron-Cohen to gain support among autistic people, it is especially important that the harm he has done is addressed.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen is a British psychologist based at the University of Cambridge. His main field of study is autism, and throughout his career he has devised a number of theories relating to autism and published books on these. These theories include the mind-blindness theory and the empathising-systemising theory (known also as the extreme male brain theory or foetal sex steroid theory). He has published a number of books on autism, including Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind; and The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain and this year, The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention.

The mind-blindness theory argues that autistic people have no theory of mind, which means that autistic people are incapable of empathy or of understanding that other people have different thoughts and beliefs to them. There are countless examples which show that this is most certainly not true of all autistic people, however due to Baron-Cohen, this has become a commonly held belief. This is hugely damaging, as it presents autistic people as unfeeling monsters and can cause people to be wary of us.

Aside from the damage the extreme male brain theory has caused to autistic people, including furthering the beliefs that cause women and girls to be underdiagnosed and diagnosed much later than male peers; this theory is also greatly harmful to all. It reinforces gendered stereotypes that men are unfeeling and logical, and that women are emotional and lack systemic thought. It is also a harmful theory to trans people, especially non-binary people who fit into neither category.

Baron-Cohen has in recent years appeared to change his views, and has begun advocating the neurodiversity paradigm in some situations. This is, on the surface, a welcome change, however digging deeper, there are signs this may not be an entirely accurate representation of his present views and research. His recent book appears to be a different take on autism from his past publications, but are they really all in the past?

He continues to promote his older books which contain damaging, debunked theories of autism, extending the harm he is doing to the autistic community for longer. You can see this on his website and in his twitter bio. His research into the extreme male brain theory has continued, and he intends to present about it on a webinar four days in the future from the time of writing. These are not the acts of someone who no longer believes old theories.

Tony Attwood

Tony Attwood is based at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia and specialises in Asperger’s Syndrome. He is best-known for a number of books on Asperger’s Syndrome including The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome which was my own father’s go-to guide for responding to my behaviour when I was a young teen. He faced backlash from the autistic and trans communities in June 2020 for calling for an inquiry into the alleged “overrepresentation” of autistic teens in gender identity clinic.

The titles of Attwood’s books do not clearly demonstrate how they cause harm, but the harm is nonetheless there. Firstly, take the use of the term Asperger’s Syndrome. This was for years a separate diagnosis to autism, though new diagnostic manuals such as the DSM-V and ICD-11 have merged the diagnoses into Autism Spectrum Disorder. Asperger’s is considered to be synonyms with high-functioning. Functioning labels are harmful to autistic people, though this goes beyond the scope here.

Attwood continues to use the term Asperger’s despite the harm of functioning labels, and despite the knowledge that Hans Asperger was a Nazi collaborator which has led to many people, even those whose diagnosis was Asperger’s Syndrome, preferring to refrain from using the name. The continued use of this term in research despite the decision not to include it as a separate diagnosis in new manuals continues to spread the belief that Asperger’s is separate from autism even though research has indicated otherwise.

Attwood has also come under criticism for being sexist as well as transphobic. In his book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, he states that autistic boys may feel that only female people accept them and thus this may lead to gender-identity problems. He also believes that autistic girls prefer to be friends with boys as boys are less complicated and more logical than girls. These two claims alongside his anti-trans calls for investigating the link between autism and being trans are proof of his views on gender.

Dishonourable mention: Andrew Wakefield

Andrew Wakefield was the doctor who first published the alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He is not a main feature in this because he has been discredited by the mainstream, however he deserves a mention as his harm is ongoing in some circles thanks to the spreading anti-vaccination movement, which has led to a decrease in the uptake of vaccines in several countries.

His harm is twofold: one, children of anti-vax parents are now not protected from various dangerous diseases and have reduced herd immunity (in the proper meaning of the word) for those who are unable to get the vaccine for health reasons. Two, it has the implication that autism is a fate worse than dying of a deadly disease. I do not need to state why that is a harmful implication to autistic people.

Reducing their harm

Unfortunately, as long as people continue to spread damaging theories about autism, harm will be done to autistic people. Harm-reduction is therefore important, and there are a number of things that can be done here. Firstly, attempting to reduce the spread of the harmful theories: if you own a bookstore and happen to be reading this, please don’t stock the harmful books listed here. Second, continue to debunk the theories so that those who read the initial theory can find a counterargument. Third, try and change the minds of those spreading the theories.

Simon Baron-Cohen has been trying to gain support in the autistic community; make it clear to him that this support will not be forthcoming without apologies, retractions and a promise to stop spreading harmful theories further. Tony Attwood is a bit of a lost cause in my opinion, so don’t give him a platform. Andrew Wakefield is still on a mission to destroy public health, so fighting back against the anti-vaccination movement and preventing it from spreading further is the only option.

Autistic people will not be safe until there is a shift in public opinion towards autism acceptance and away from the rhetoric that we are broken and need to be cured and fixed. The autistic rights movement will continue to fight until ABA is banned, until we are no longer often locked in institutions, until people do not seek to rid the world of us. We exist, we deserve to exist, and people need to accept that.