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As a moderator on Stack Exchange, users suspended for rudeness have repeatedly argued along the lines of the following:

I am autistic and therefore I am unable to recognise when something I write is offensive. Therefore the code of conduct discriminates against me.

My question is: Is there any merit to this argument, i.e., is it really more difficult for autistic people to adhere to a (reasonable) code of conduct?

Some clarifications and constraints:

  • I only care about written communication. Also, I do not particularly care about instantaneous communication like chat.

  • I only care about clear transgressions of a code of conduct, i.e., anything worthy of a suspension. Being slightly off tone or similar doesn’t qualify. As a rule of thumb, I do not care about anything that could also happen to a well-intentioned non-native speaker of English (or whatever the language of the community is).

  • This is not about the possible conclusions for moderation, e.g., whether it should be more lenient. If anything, this would be a separate follow-up question.

My thoughts so far is that none of the typical symptoms of autism supports this argument. In particular, most communication difficulties encountered by autistic people revolve around non-verbal communication, which is naturally absent from written communication. There are exceptions like difficulties with understanding figurative language or irony, but I don’t see how those would result in a suspension, unless in a very unfortunate chain of coincidences. Moreover, in none of the cases I encountered could I see a link between the transgressions and autistic communication difficulties.

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  • Thanks for excluding consideration of imposed consequences, which I agree agree are a separate (and quite interesting) question. One could even make an argument that users with autism should receive harsher penalties on the basis that they lack the capacity to choose appropriate behavior, and are thus more likely to be unable to be rehabilitated. Nov 4, 2022 at 12:59

2 Answers 2

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Is there any merit to this argument, i.e., is it really more difficult for autistic people to adhere to a (reasonable) code of conduct?

There is some merit to this argument, in certain circumstances.

The Double-Empathy Problem

Simply put, the theory of the double empathy problem suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other. This is likely to be exacerbated through differences in language use and comprehension. – Dr Damian Milton, 2018-03-02

Instead, much like the English word ‘hough’ can have many different pronunciations and meanings (huff, hock, how, etc) non-autistic language and actions are often bewildering and contradictory– dazzle of hints and secret signals which leave me thinking that much of their language must be in a pitch which I am unable to hear. – thearhystocrat, 2020-01-10

When you write a code of conduct, you need to write it for an audience who doesn't already understand what you mean by "be nice". Here's an example:

  • When people correct me on things, I consider that a kindness, for obvious reasons.
  • When I correct certain other people, they consider it an insult. This has something to do with status and implicit social hierarchies ("the pecking order"), I think. People I correct often become:
    • inexplicably angry or hostile towards me, or
    • subdued, deferent, and less inclined to correct me,
      • often to talk badly about me behind my back at a later point.

Often, when people write Codes of Conduct, they do so so they have a Code of Conduct; this is fairly useless. A Code of Conduct should clearly set out:

  • What kinds of behaviour are recommended.
    • And why.
  • What kinds of behaviour are unacceptable.
    • In enough detail that a total ignorant can understand.
    • And why.

There's little point having things in your Code of Conduct that don't apply to your community. Stock CoCs are all well and good, and it's good to peruse them to make sure you haven't forgotten something relevant, but normally you'll want to write your own Code of Conduct for your own site. This way:

  • it's directly relevant to the problems that your community has, and the guidance that your users need;
  • you'll feel more comfortable about editing it when necessary.

If your Code of Conduct is clear, actually

You're moderator of a Stack Exchange site. Our old-skool Be Nice policy was good enough in most instances, and the current Code of Conduct is, by and large, even clearer than it was. (I wouldn't use it as a model for another community's CoC, but it does the job.)

I am autistic and therefore I am unable to recognise when something I write is offensive. Therefore the code of conduct discriminates against me.

I only care about clear transgressions of a code of conduct, i.e., anything worthy of a suspension. Being slightly off tone or similar doesn’t qualify.

Moreover, in none of the cases I encountered could I see a link between the transgressions and autistic communication difficulties.

This sounds like a textbook case of "making excuses". Autistic people are, normally, not arseholes. Keeping arseholes on your site has nothing to do with inclusivity. “And therefore I am unable to” are the words of somebody who knows full well what they're doing wrong, and why, and refuses to change their behaviour.

For Stack Exchange moderation specifically, this user's behaviour meets both reasons for a suspension.

But what if it isn't clear?

So you want to give the user the benefit of the doubt? Try:

  • Pointing out that social norms are different in different communities;
  • Asking them which behaviours they're confused about the "legality" of;
  • Asking them which parts of the CoC they're confused about;
  • Explaining some rules-of-thumb they could follow to avoid getting into this situation in the future.

If this resolves the issue, chances are your CoC needs updating – or, at the very least, you need a supplemental help page. If the user keeps coming up with an excuse for everything you say, they're probably acting in bad faith.

If the rules are as simple as "don't use these words to describe people, on this website", and they're still "not getting it", it doesn't matter either way. That's not the kind of phenomenon you want in your community.

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    @Ethan Thanks for the suggested edit, but those weren't actually grammar corrections. (And one of them was in a quote from the question.) If the suggested edit was automated, e.g. using something like Grammarly, I'd recommend not using that system in future.
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 5, 2022 at 13:54
  • Thank you for your answer. Unfortunately, I don’t see how most of it addresses my question as it is about how to build a code of conduct or how to react to such a claim. The double-empathy problem could support the argument but only if the misunderstandings are sufficiently intense (and persist in writing). For example, if people differing in their attitude towards corrections (as you describe), this is not an automatic CoC breach. Instead the CoC breach would be them becoming uncivil about this disagreement, which I don’t see as different from becoming uncivil about any other disagreement.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Sep 6, 2022 at 8:03
  • @Wrzlprmft If this were asked in a SE-mod-only space, I'd be saying "this is a troll". However, this site is more general and your question wasn't tagged with stack-exchange, so I tried to make the answer more general. There are circumstances under which that argument could be a legitimate statement; just, I don't think any of those apply here.
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 6, 2022 at 12:04
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    In terms of how to react to the claim... The user has (presumably) already been warned that their behavior is not okay before being suspended – or if not, the suspension is informing them of that. Once they've been informed of the problematic behavior, then they can't really use "I didn't know I was doing anything wrong" as an excuse – regardless of why they didn't originally know.
    – V2Blast
    Sep 8, 2022 at 16:43
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I am autistic so I have a say in this matter.

In some cases it is easy for me to stick to a code of conduct. Like "Don't bully others". I would not.

But sometimes indeed I trouble to figure out why I am not being considered "nice" when I am steer clear of my intentions being good, and being end up totally misunderstood. I don't understand why this happens.

Also I am very much impatient and restless so sometimes it happens a SE moderator says me to behave in a certain way, I try but I fail to strictly adhere to that behaviour. The failures make me ashamed and guilt which are painful feelings.

Also personally my writing quality is quite not up to professional level. I tend to incorporate contextual information that may seem irrelevant to other users. I personally face difficulties to figure out what exactly to say or what exactly to ask. Because I can't often see which associated informations may be less important.

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    Thank you for your answer. You say that policies like “Don’t bully others” are not an issue, but can you mention some of the policies or instructions that do pose a problem?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Nov 6, 2022 at 8:40
  • Yes. like "Don't tell the party organisers that your kid is having trouble with noise, rather ask may I leave early? would be an unhelpful suggestion. whereas "clearly communicate you may not bring your kid to the party because he cant withstand noise" is a helpful code of conduct. Nov 8, 2022 at 11:43
  • At past I spotted issues with "Be nice" policy examples and I communicated it on meta. I will add it into answer. Nov 8, 2022 at 11:45
  • I am sorry, but I fail to understand how your example with the party and the kid relates to the question.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Nov 9, 2022 at 6:49

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