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ASAN’s Response to Dr. Tony Attwood

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network recently created a petition and a statement to the community regarding the need for Dr. Tony Attwood and Dr. Isabelle Hénault to disassociate themselves from hate groups that use stereotypes and pseudoscience to incite discrimination against Autistic people in family law and relationships. We received a reply from Dr. Attwood consisting only of a form letter, sent to numerous recipients, which wholly failed to address the central issue of his and Dr. Hénault’s associations with Maxine Aston and FAAAS and the ongoing harm to Autistics and others with disabilities resulting from these associations. We consider Dr. Attwood’s reply grossly inadequate and have set forth a point-by-point response below, with Dr. Attwood’s statements in italic formatting.

 

Dr. Attwood: I would like to state quite clearly that having a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s syndrome does not render a person automatically incapable of being a good partner and parent. Indeed, many of the people I know with autism and Asperger’s syndrome as clients and friends are exceptionally good parents and partners. Should a separation occur between partners and a Court examine the issue of custody of children and access then in my opinion, any decisions should be made on the basis of the abilities of each parent and not simply assume that a parent with autism or Asperger’s syndrome is incapable of being a good parent.

ASAN: In addition to the possibility that an Autistic person might be assumed to be automatically incapable of being a good partner and parent, which is the most extreme danger posed by false stereotypes of family violence, these stereotypes have given rise to more subtle forms of discrimination in family law. FAAAS has explicitly urged family law courts and social workers to view Autistic partners and parents as more likely than others to be abusive. An article by Sheila Jennings Linehan on the FAAAS website, entitled Representing Cassandra in Matrimonial Law, characterizes the non-Autistic spouse as “a normal individual subjected to prolonged moral distress” who is not believed when she “accurately predicts future harm to her children.” Along with Maxine Aston, the article specifically cites you, Dr. Attwood, as authority for such statements. FAAAS member Harriet Simons presents seminars for social workers in which she makes similar claims. Your continued association with FAAAS suggests that you endorse these false claims and, as such, increases the risk that Autistics and others with neurological disabilities will face discrimination within the family law system.

Dr. Attwood: The term “Cassandra Affective Deprivation Disorder” has been coined by Maxine Aston. It is not an official diagnostic category. I do know that stress within a relationship between an adult with Asperger’s syndrome and their partner can lead to the neurotypical partner having signs of a clinical depression. Effective relationship counselling by a counsellor knowledgeable in the area of autism and Asperger’s syndrome can significantly improve the relationship and help alleviate the signs of depression.

ASAN: By failing to acknowledge that stress within a relationship can contribute to depression for either partner, Dr. Attwood—and by your repeated endorsements of Maxine Aston in books and interviews—you are perpetuating the false claim that being in a relationship with an Autistic partner is psychologically harmful to a non-Autistic partner. There is no scientific basis whatsoever for suggesting that depression affects only the non-Autistic partner or that it is caused by affective deprivation related to the Autistic partner’s responses. Several recent research studies specifically examining the affective dimensions of empathy and alexithymia found no impairment in the affective responses of Autistic individuals. (Rogers, Dziobek, Hassenstab, Wolf, & Convit, 2007; Berthoz & Hill, 2005; Silani, Bird, Brindley, Singer, Frith, & Frith, 2008.) Rather, cognitive and linguistic differences lead to misunderstandings. Thus, a presumption that the non-Autistic partner suffers from affective deprivation is unwarranted. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network recommends that those who counsel couples with one Autistic partner should adopt a nonjudgmental approach to identifying and constructively addressing misunderstandings that have occurred.

Dr. Attwood: According to my knowledge, there is no research to suggest that people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome are likely to be violent in a relationship to any greater degree than a typical person in the general population. I do know that a significant proportion of the clients that I see in my clinical practice express to me their concern in their ability to manage their temper but we now have programs such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to help those with autism and Asperger’s syndrome manage feelings such as anger. Problems with anger management also occur in the ordinary population but the nature of the treatment of difficulties with anger management must include an appreciation of the different experiences and cognitive profile of someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

ASAN: Research studies have established that Autistics are no more likely to commit violent acts or violent crimes than the general population (Murrie, Warren, Kristiansson, & Dietz, 2002; Barry-Walsh & Mullen, 2004). Notwithstanding the scientific evidence, however, FAAAS has repeatedly and falsely stereotyped Autistics as likely to be violent and abusive toward family members and others. When interviewed in July 2008 for a Canwest News Service article, Karen Rodman, founder of FAAAS, asserted that Autistics often lose their temper for no reason. In a local news interview with the Cape Cod Times in February 2007, Rodman argued that Autistic students should be put into segregated schools because their presence purportedly could endanger other students. Dr. Attwood, by continuing to associate with FAAAS and by serving on its Professional Advisory Panel, you are in effect endorsing and lending your credibility to these harmful and prejudiced assertions. In this context, your discussion of clients seeking help for anger problems, who clearly are not a representative sample of the Autistic population as a whole, serves only to muddy the waters further.

Dr. Attwood: I have presented workshops for FAAAS for couples where one of the partners has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and in all my presentations, I have approached the issues in a very positive way examining strategies to make a successful relationship.

ASAN: In light of the clearly documented history of false stereotypes of violence and psychological harm promoted by FAAAS and other groups associated with the pseudoscientific affective deprivation concept, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network suggests that presenting couples workshops in different venues would be far more likely to result in positive and successful relationships. Dr. Attwood, we therefore reiterate our demands that you promptly disassociate yourself from Maxine Aston, FAAAS, and all similar groups and apologize to our community for the harm done by your past associations with them.

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