Thursday 30 March 2023

Unconscious Bias and Autism

Recently I have undertaken unconscious bias training. This will probably be familiar to anyone who works in a large organisation, but for those who have not come across the idea before here is a brief summary. 

I should say at the outset that I think unconscious bias is real and the training I received was effective and made its points well. There is a paradox at the heart of the matter, though, which is this: once one becomes aware of unconscious bias, it is no longer unconscious and is then just plain bias. That tends to reduce the amount of self-forgiveness available (given that we all have these biases) which is a bit tough to take. But so be it.

My purpose in this post is specifically to think about how autism and unconscious bias may or may not connect. Of course autistic people are just as likely to exhibit unconscious bias as anyone else. However, there may be differences in the way it works.

During the online training, there was an exercise (not part of the final test). We were presented with nine images and asked to group them into three groups. I immediately saw that three of them were red, three blue and three yellow/green. So I dragged and dropped them into those groupings. It did strike me as slightly odd that yellow and green were together, but I quickly rationalised that by thinking of the colours of the earth wires in a plug.

I clicked the “submit” button and the system responded:

“That’s an interesting selection. Most people would have grouped them as cars, lorries and motorcycles”.

I was stunned and, to be honest, felt rather foolish. Making taxonomies is a frequent part of my research work and yet it had never occurred to me to group the images by what they depicted! I thought of Magritte and his “ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Perhaps a lifetime of contemplating surrealism had led me to disregard depiction and focus on the properties of the image itself? But no, that was not it. It was just my autistic brain doing what it does. I realised that my interest in surrealism has probably been a way of seeking to understand its processes all along. Another moment of epiphany!

But now my attention turned to the training and the comment “Most people would have…”. I began to feel very different. Of course, autism means I do not think like “most people”. I started to resent the tone of the comment, which then led me to ask: is the test itself showing unconscious bias? 

The test was designed to make a simple point - that we unconsciously tend to group people based on appearance. But what if your whole way of grouping people is not at all based on the way they appear, but on some other attribute? I’ve never understood racism, for example, because skin colour and the various other stereotypical characteristics are just not what I notice. Does that mean I have no racial bias? Probably not, but it is buried under a mountain of other stuff that filters it out, on the whole. I unconsciously group people, for example, by the extent to which they try to make eye contact, or by the sounds they emit, or by their smell. I’ve always done that. I know that racism exists, and I hate and try to resist it when I find it, but I don’t understand it. It just makes no sense.

The same is true of body language and eye contact. I’ve done quite a few interviews recently and the HR guidance we’ve received emphasizes the importance of not giving the wrong impression to candidates through inappropriate body language. And of course I, like everyone else who uses Powerpoint, have seen the kind of advice, or even assessment criteria, that give plus-points to a presenter who makes “good eye contact” and shows “positive body language”. 

Whenever I encounter these kinds of advice, which are everywhere, I kick back against them by pointing out that not everybody can control their bodies and not everyone is able to make eye contact. Why should people be penalised for that? Is it not the very essence of bias to do so? I am deeply sceptical about the very concept of “body language”. Like many autistic people, I have spent a lifetime studying it, trying to figure out what on earth neurotypicals are communicating, or believe they are communicating. What I find is that there is a kind of “language” there, but it is one that continuously reveals untruths, deceptions and confusion. People use body language to reassure others, but in doing so they frequently engage in a collective self-deception that is comforting to the group, I suppose, but also delusional.

Here, it seems to me, is a real unconscious bias: against people who do not appear to go along with these incredibly subtle modes of non-verbal discourse. Since people do not understand body language, but just deploy it “instinctively”, they are completely unaware of the extent of its influence on their attitudes and decisions. It would be extremely difficult to unpick this in practice, and I imagine that nobody would be motivated to do so, so it looks to me that this kind of bias is here to stay and will escape my paradox by remaining perpetually unconscious. 

So, to get back to the training test, I’m afraid I did come to the conclusion that it was designed by neurotypical people for neurotypical people. The slightly sneery comment the system made just reinforced this impression. As an autistic person, I tend to view neurotypicals as a separate group, almost a different species. I guess that could make me biased against them, but I have spent a lot of my life trying to measure up to their standards, so actually I tend to think I am more biased against myself. Autistic advocates call this “internalised ableism”, which is about right. I reckon many of the difficult moments I’ve had in life have come about because of this failure to understand that I am judging myself by the wrong criteria. Now that is unconscious bias.