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The call came from a former colleague who coaches college students on the autism spectrum. “We’ve got someone who’s in trouble, and we could use some advice. It’s one of those Title IX things.” She told me the story. The student loves punk music and wanted to start a band. He put up fliers on the campus, which in itself was an issue because he violated the institutional posting policy.
But even in today’s climate, I thought, that doesn’t usually rise to a Title IX complaint. She continued. “He wrote something in Morse code on the flyer, a message directed to women, because he was trying to recruit some to join the band. It was a little ‘stalky-creepy’ -- OK, pretty creepy -- but this guy is totally harmless and clueless and just doesn’t know how to meet women.”
My first reaction was to smile. Morse code? How many college students even know what it is? But it didn’t surprise me to learn this about a student with Asperger’s syndrome, the commonly used term for those with high-functioning autism. Indeed, this kind of situation, I have come to realize, exemplifies a disastrous nexus of two trends on college campuses: the increased awareness of Title IX’s expectations for student behavior and institutional response, and the growing number of students with a diagnosis (or simply just characteristics) of autism who are attending college.
I imagined the student had learned Morse code at the age of 5 and was no doubt still fluent in it. In his mind, a wondrous place created by the distinct neural connections common among those with this diagnosis, the use of Morse code to signal his interest in meeting women made perfect sense. To those who know him, it is one of many quirky characteristics -- some of them sweet, some of them annoying -- that require a bit of translation for him and about him as he moves within the world of higher education.
That’s what these professionals like my friend do, taking the place of parents who have provided this kind of interpretation for years. They, and occasionally I, try to explain to a student that what is being expected of him is a reasonable request from a peer, a faculty member, an administrator. And then we explain to that peer, professor or staff member that the way the student is responding makes sense when viewed through his eyes. Working with students on the autism spectrum is about 75 percent translation services.
The reason for this lies in the very nature of autism, a communication disorder rooted in brain anatomy. In every interaction we have with another human being, our brains are detecting and calculating thousands of bits of information: the expression on the person’s face and their tone of voice, the context of the interaction, the relationship between the two individuals, the reactions of those who might witness the interaction. At lightning speed, the brain takes in all of this information, calculates it at a rate comparable to that of a powerful computer and spits out a suggestion of how to respond. Every interaction, every day. Our brains never get the credit they deserve for this astonishing feat until something doesn’t compute: a comment is misinterpreted, a joke is not understood. We then must hit the pause button and recalculate, using additional information.
The autistic brain is its own curious computer. Most people know about those Rain Man savants who can calculate large numbers, count cards and repeat lengthy passages from books or movies but are unable to interact normally with others or take care of themselves. Most college students with autism, however, are not like the Dustin Hoffman character. They can interact with others, although they may come off as a little odd. (“Quirky” is the common term.) They can care for themselves, for the most part. They can get to classes and turn in assignments and live, with varying degrees of success, in a residence hall. And they want to do such things, which is why they have been motivated enough to overcome the social and communication challenges their autism presents.
What are they not good at? Interpreting the subtle cues of social interactions, seeing the often fine line between wanted and unwanted attention -- flirty and creepy, appropriate and inappropriate. And that is what lands these students in a chair in the office of a Title IX investigator.
My advice to my former colleague was to coach her student to begin the conversation this way: “I have autism” (or Asperger’s, which is sometimes what students prefer to say). “It is a learning difference that sometimes makes it difficult for me to understand the implications of things that I say, or that others say to me. I’m sorry if my posters offended anyone, and I won’t do this kind of thing again.” I heard later from my former colleague that this is what he did, and the situation was resolved through the conversation with the investigator, with no further action required.
Acknowledging Communication Deficits
But I found myself returning to this scenario over the next few days, because situations like it seem to be occurring more frequently, if the requests for assistance I’m receiving are any indication. My background as an experienced student affairs professional, combined with my work with students on the autism spectrum, has given me the opportunity to consult with families and lawyers who find themselves assisting a student with autism who has been charged with sexual harassment or sexual assault.
Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has made clear that sexual assault is a violation of Title IX. In addition, they have broadened the definition of sexual assault to include any unwanted physical interaction of a sexual nature. Colleges and universities have invested considerable money and effort into following, as closely as possible, instructions provided by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights. On most campuses, recognition of Title IX violations and responses to accusations of violations have improved considerably, though many people believe a lot of work still needs to be done to sort out the enormous complexities.
It is not my goal here to dive into a battle that many writers and activists have taken on with great skill. What I do want to assert is that at the root of the many controversies involving Title IX is the lack of a common agreement about many of the crucial terms: consent, sexual nature, unwanted, incapacity and standards of evidence. Even the term “evidence” and what constitutes it is the subject of intense debate.
I cite those terms not because I want to engage in semantic battles but because of this fact: students on the autism spectrum often have a very difficult time interpreting social cues and reading social context to determine what kind of response is appropriate in a social setting. They seek clear and precise instructions and structure in order to manage their worlds, which, because of their neural anomalies, often feel distressingly chaotic.
That is where the second trend flows into the first, two rivers combining to create a third that routinely overflows its banks. The number of students with a diagnosis of autism who are arriving on campuses each year is growing. Ponder this confluence for a moment: an institution where there is going to be a swift response to a student behaving in a way that appears to be inappropriate and a growing number of students who, because of the way their brains are wired, often behave in ways that are unexpected (a less judgmental way of saying “inappropriate”).
Among the students whose families have sought my input are those who have had what they believed to be consensual sex, who have been accused of stalking, and one whose behavior appeared to another person to be sexual in nature but who contended he was moaning and rubbing the groin muscle he had just pulled. That particular claim was supported by a staff member who happened along right after the accusing party had observed him; he stopped to ask the student, whom he knew, what was wrong and was told by the accused student that he had just injured himself. Nevertheless, he was the subject of a complaint from the initial observer and went through a humiliating and stressful investigation into his actions (and was ultimately exonerated).
We have all heard about male students who believe they have been wrongly accused of sexual assault and of the growing concern among activist groups and family members that the pendulum of response to sexual assault on campuses may have swung too far in the direction of believing accusers to the exclusion of considering other perspectives. That debate will continue, perhaps indefinitely. Those who are survivors of sexual assault and their defenders want to be believed, a reasonable request. But those who feel they have been unfairly accused are equally determined to uncover what they feel is a rigged system.
What I am suggesting is that among those who have been accused are some with a diagnosis, or characteristics, of autism spectrum disorder. Let me make this clear: such a diagnosis does not excuse behavior, does not mean someone could not have sexually harassed or sexually assaulted another person. It does not mean that if a student is found responsible for such an act, they bear no responsibility. I am speaking here of those students whose communication deficits leave them at a significant disadvantage in their interactions with peers.
As most of us would probably admit, the social landscape of traditional-aged college students is, at best, one of mixed messages, uncertain responses, peer pressure and alcohol-impaired judgment. Asking a student with a communication disorder to interpret subtle, or even not-so-subtle, signals is akin to expecting a student with a visual impairment to read a “No Entry” sign on a door and then faulting the student for walking through it, or holding a hearing-impaired student accountable for not exiting a building during a fire drill that involves only an audible fire alarm.
Sadly, it also leaves those students vulnerable to the bullying or ridicule of their peers, some of whom find great sport in exploiting the apparent social ineptitude of others. Perhaps they encourage a student on the spectrum to pursue a woman he likes, assuring him she shares his interest. For a student on the spectrum, it does not seem logical that someone would lie about such a thing. Lying is one of those enormously complex brain operations that we take for granted until we encounter someone who is unfailingly honest and trusting.
Student conduct officers have long been familiar with students on the autism spectrum and the particular difficulties they face on a college campus. These students are sometimes disruptive in classrooms because they talk out of turn or say things others believe are inappropriate. They can create residence hall challenges because of their sometimes inflexible commitment to following rules (and expecting others to do the same) or sensory sensitivity. Conduct professionals have been negotiating “stalking” claims for years, trying to help a student with autism understand appropriate boundaries or one who feels “stalked” make clear and unambiguous statements about their lack of interest in the accused student’s attention.
But there is now another minefield for these students and conduct officers to navigate: the increasing willingness of a student to report behavior they believe violates Title IX. Again, there can be great benefit in this willingness. But are Title IX investigators and hearing officers, many of whom have not previously worked in the student conduct arena, aware of the challenges that students with autism bring to campuses and the challenges those students themselves face?
Both of these streams -- Title IX-based reporting and the matriculation of students with autism -- will continue to grow. Colleges have a duty to the students they’ve admitted, especially students with known disabilities, to assure proper training and response. The Americans With Disabilities Act requires it.
But a student may exhibit autistic characteristics and lack a formal diagnosis. Or they might never have been told they have autism. Or they may know but choose not to disclose. A recent study of over 600 students at one institution showed that while just 10 first-year students disclosed a diagnosis of autism, 148 students reported they had enough autism-related characteristics to warrant a clinical assessment.
One could say that failing to disclose removes from the institution any responsibility to treat the student differently. But if certain characteristics and deficits may lead to a student being suspended or expelled, does it not seem incumbent on institutions to be certain they are fully capable of making such distinctions?
In my work with campus staff, I often differentiate between “capital-A accommodations” and “small-A accommodations.” The former are those that have been determined by the disabilities professionals charged with making these decisions and include things like extended time on tests, a single residence hall room or a distraction-free environment for exams. Small-A accommodations are demonstrated by, for example, an instructor’s patience with a student who blurts out answers in class. A small-A accommodation is the result of understanding that a person’s overreaction to a situation or a person’s inability to fully grasp another’s perspective are not signs of moral weakness but a difference in brain wiring.
A small-A accommodation costs nothing but has tremendous value. It may mean the difference between a passing grade and a failing one, a successful semester in a residence hall and being asked to leave because of chronic disruptions. In Title IX-related situations, the stakes are high. A student found responsible for a charge of harassment or assault may lose their opportunity to continue their education. Lawyers and costly expenses may be involved. A lot of staff time is monopolized by a charge and its fallout. Students with autism are not, of course, incapable of harassing or assaulting others. But often their behavior is misinterpreted in a way that starts those involved down a slippery slope of accusation, denial, frustration and sanction.
It could be different. A knowledgeable Title IX investigator and hearing officer can interpret a situation through this lens and perhaps help all parties reach different conclusions.
The streams of both Title IX awareness and students with autism enrolled in college are rising rapidly. Administrators must do more than stack sandbags. We must more fully understand the nature of autism, the campus experience of students with autism and the confluence of these students’ experience with the expectations students have for one another and their institutions when it comes to sexual assault response. Too many students are being swept downstream when a simple handrail and a warning sign might have kept them from slipping into the water in the first place.