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The large-scale weaponization of Title IX against students with autism

He pulled his groin muscle, rubbed it and groaned. A staff member asked him what was wrong. He explained he had just injured himself.

That didn’t matter to the female student who had just accused him of sexual misconduct. He endured a “humiliating and stressful investigation into his actions” before the school belatedly exonerated him.

This is what happens when Title IX warriors, blinded by their Manichean vision of helpless victims and toxic masculinity, set their sights on autistic students.

Lee Burdette Williams, director of higher education training at the College Autism Network, writes about her experience working with accused students on the autism spectrum and their families in a must-read Inside Higher Ed essay.

They include “those who have had what they believed to be consensual sex, who have been accused of stalking,” and the kid with the pulled groin – all of whom end up in proceedings designed to punish and stigmatize those who aren’t considered normal.

“The autistic brain is its own curious computer,” the longtime student affairs professional writes:

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. …

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.

Title IX practice is already rife with disagreement about how to define terms such as “consent, sexual nature, unwanted, incapacity and standards of evidence,” not to mention what even counts as “evidence,” Williams writes – and we expect students on the spectrum to know how to comply?

They seek clear and precise instructions and structure in order to manage their worlds, which, because of their neural anomalies, often feel distressingly chaotic. …

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”).

This is practically inhumane when you consider the college landscape for students who can read social cues – “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.

Colleges are already using Title IX investigators and hearing officers without experience in student conduct, but they run into legal problems when these officials shirk their Americans with Disabilities Act obligations, Williams writes.

They also can’t demand that student prove their condition with a formal diagnosis:

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.

Consider what these students who can’t read social cues are facing, she warns administrators:

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. … [O]ften their behavior is misinterpreted in a way that starts those involved down a slippery slope of accusation, denial, frustration and sanction.

There’s a simpler way for administrators, she says: Remove the simplistic and ignorant view that everything is intended to sexually harass someone, and “interpret a situation through this lens” of social blindness and brutal honesty.

Read the essay.

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