Autism should never be used as an excuse for bad behaviour

‘I think I might have some kind of light level autism in the mix,’ said James Watt, co-founder and CEO of provocative brewing company Brewdog.

I’m sorry, what? The phrase sounds more applicable to a pale ale descriptor than a neurotype.

Appearing on Steven Bartlett’s ‘Diary of a CEO’ podcast, Watt discussed being described as ‘obsessive’, ‘cold eyed’ and struggling to ‘express empathy or read social cues’ in a Sunday Times article last year.

As a result of such labels, Watt decided to see a specialist. 

I was shocked to read about such a high-profile person attempting to justify their alleged-misconduct by blaming a potential autistic profile.

James Watt’s latest comments came about after almost 300 former employees signed an open letter accusing him of creating ‘a residual feeling of fear’ in the company – all of which was the subject of a recent BBC Disclosure investigation.

In this respect, whether or not James Watt is autistic, is irrelevant. Being autistic does not excuse bad behaviour, because being autistic does not equate to being badly-behaved.

I grew up without knowing I am autistic, and at 40+ years old have a squeaky-clean criminal record and driving licence. I know what is morally right, and I know how to treat others with kindness.

On my bad days – when I am struggling – I may be a little curt. If I’m in extreme autistic distress (usually as a result of hostile surroundings or sensory overload) it is short-lived and ceases when the necessary adjustments have been made.

Autistic people have empathy – we are not devoid of feelings and compassion towards our fellow humans. 

Associating unpleasant human traits with the autistic identity is deeply damaging to all the progress made by passionate advocates, who have worked tirelessly to reclaim the label from stigma and misrepresentation.

Attempting to pass off an alleged ‘culture of fear’ as autism damages all autistic people, everywhere – regardless of if he has actually received a diagnosis. 

If we are to give him the benefit of the doubt, I understand the significant impact large-scale change (such as Watt’s marriage ending) can bring to daily life and wellbeing.

Autistic people have empathy – we are not devoid of feelings and compassion towards our fellow humans 

Big changes to our everyday lives can be overwhelming, especially if not of our instigation, and can bring about debilitating anxiety and trauma.

His decision to seek therapy to work through the impact is commendable. Many later-life diagnosed autistic people request assessments after struggling through difficult periods in their life.

They describe feeling things more intensely, and significant life events are likely to be difficult to navigate through, especially if you do not know you are autistic and do not have the best techniques at your disposal to help.

Some autistic people dissociate as a coping mechanism. I’m occasionally told that I’m ‘distant’, that my eyes ‘aren’t there’. This is because I’m zoning out in a subconscious act of self-preservation during a difficult time.

But there is a world of difference between struggling personally when life is too much, and behaving in such a way as to create a ‘toxic’ environment, which Watt is alleged to have done.

And I’m in no doubt that the majority of autistic people who have heard his recent comments are also rolling their eyes. 

While autistic people – like all people – have the capacity to treat others badly, it is not because they are autistic that they do so. 

All Watt is doing is adding to the stigma; it’s something that’s ever-present in society.

I have been described as lacking in empathy (by a very uneducated person), and it wasn’t nice. 

It felt as if they had chosen the nastiest trope associated with autism and applied it to me for effect. It was a lazy analysis and specifically used to criticise me as a human being. Quite frankly, it made me feel like rubbish, and it still does.

Following Watt’s revelations, I only expect these kinds of comments to increase. 

I want people to know that I am aware of the difference between right and wrong and care deeply about doing the right thing. This innate moral code stems from my strong sense of social justice and my unshakeable honesty.

But the damage is done. 

Watt describing himself as possibly ‘a little bit autistic’ is also offensive.

There is no mild autism. There is no severe autism. There are just autistic people, all of whom have differing strengths and struggles.

Autistic people are so much more than a collection of traits – we are creative, innovative, caring, vibrant, and are all individuals, so please let’s move away from these harmful and outdated descriptors.

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