How Does Society Judge People With Autism?

There seems to be an awful lot of testing in the current day and age. From early childhood all the way through to job interviews and ‘fitness to work’ and all that goes on in between; one can be ‘tested’, for example, in any of the following areas: educational evaluations, various developmental milestones, diagnostic assessments, psychometric testing, interviews, Doctoral viva, personality – the list could go on.
So? What’s the problem? What’s the point of this in relation to autism (NB this includes Asperger Syndrome).
The issue is fairness and equality, as well as accuracy of ‘results’. My critical premise is that a test for one person that provides accurate results may not give as accurate results for someone else who may process that test in a different way. If ‘testing’ is developed with the majority of the population in mind, then surely there is a reasonably robust argument to suggest that if one falls outside of the demographic majority then the test may not be as applicable in terms of efficacy and/or accuracy of results. Take the following example:

It is GCSE maths and the exam is imminent. An autistic pupil takes the test, but rather than following protocol, he simply answers the questions without showing how he has worked them out. His argument – which makes perfect sense to him – is that he doesn’t need to show how he has worked his answers out, as by getting them right it should be self-evident that he knows how to work them out. Conversely, he feels very strongly that should he get the answers wrong then he does not deserve any marks at all. He is, in fact, a very gifted mathematician.

In this example, the student may score fewer marks than someone who dutifully shows their workings out, and yet he may have answered all questions correctly. Is the test, then, an accurate reflection of mathematical ability, or a reflection on how well one engages with the test itself? In the case of the autistic student it would seem that it is the latter, and not the former. Subsequently, despite being excellent at maths, the student may not have the opportunity to have this reflected in his grade.
Another aspect of ‘testing’ that stands out for me is the job interview. I find it incomprehensible that most employers still use this form of assessment when trying to identify potential candidates for employment. Quite aside from the plethora of issues that face an autistic individual and the potential disadvantage they might face in an interview situation, logic alone dictates that demonstrating expertise within an interview is exactly that – being good at an interview. This does not necessarily correlate with being any good whatsoever at the job one is being interviewed for. The converse is perhaps far more important – representing poorly at interview does not necessarily mean that one is going to be an inadequate employee. So many people with autism bemoan the fact that interviews are the barrier that preclude them from gaining employment, despite feeling that they are well able to do the job. As someone mentioned to me, “instead of interviewing me, please just observe me doing the job for an hour instead – and judge me on that” – which I think in many cases is eminently sensible advice. Of course, it is not always practical, possible, pragmatic, or even appropriate to observe a potential employee at work – but it’s certainly an idea worth exploring to go some way towards making employment opportunities more available and, perhaps, fairer.
Taking the argument to a conceptual level, if any test is attempting to reflect the neurology of an individual in any way – then unless the test is adapted to suit the cognitive style of the ‘testee’ then how can results be said to be valid? Many (if not all) individuals with autism will have ‘spiky profiles’ – i.e. neurological strengths and weaknesses. This may result in an inaccurate reflection of both ability and difficulty. For example, an individual with autism may take a psychometric test to ascertain her intellectual quotient (IQ). The British Psychological Society (BPS) (BPS.org.uk, last accessed 12.11.15) note that tests are devised very carefully and that large numbers of people are used in a pilot. The BPS also acknowledge that tests will determine how ‘typical applicants’ score on the test. However, large numbers of people presumably don’t take autism in to account, and would an autistic person be considered a ‘typical applicant’? If results are taken at ‘face value’ without the individual’s neurological profile being taken into consideration, does this mean that the outcome is questionable? Quite possibly,¬†yes.
As already noted in relation to job interviews, individuals may have good skill sets relating to employment but without the requisite skills at interview. There will also be situations – which can cause just as much distress – where judgements are made and assumptions formed about an individual’s level of skill in one area based on another. In other words, an assumption may be made along the lines of ‘well, he’s academically brilliant, so he simply must know that telling the truth about his neighbour’s weight problem to her face was a daft thing to do’. Well, for a person with autism his academic intellect may have nothing whatsoever to do with skills around what (and what not) to say to a neighbour. Such assumptions may be very dangerous indeed.
So, as (almost) always, the answer lies in treating the autistic person on an individual level, not using generic assessments but tailoring them to take the person’s way of communicating, interacting, and processing into account. Unless we make adjustments in how skills are determined, we run the risk of making erroneous assumptions around what a person can and can’t do – which, simply, seems unfair.