February 9, 2018

THE NEXUS OF AUTISM AND TITLE IX.

The call came from a former colleague who coaches college students on the autism spectrum. “We’ve got someone who’s in trouble, and we could use some advice. It’s one of those Title IX things.” She told me the story. The student loves punk music and wanted to start a band. He put up fliers on the campus, which in itself was an issue because he violated the institutional posting policy.

But even in today’s climate, I thought, that doesn’t usually rise to a Title IX complaint. She continued. “He wrote something in Morse code on the flyer, a message directed to women, because he was trying to recruit some to join the band. It was a little ‘stalky-creepy’ — OK, pretty creepy — but this guy is totally harmless and clueless and just doesn’t know how to meet women.”

My first reaction was to smile. Morse code? How many college students even know what it is? But it didn’t surprise me to learn this about a student with Asperger’s syndrome, the commonly used term for those with high-functioning autism. Indeed, this kind of situation, I have come to realize, exemplifies a disastrous nexus of two trends on college campuses: the increased awareness of Title IX’s expectations for student behavior and institutional response, and the growing number of students with a diagnosis (or simply just characteristics) of autism who are attending college.

I imagined the student had learned Morse code at the age of 5 and was no doubt still fluent in it. In his mind, a wondrous place created by the distinct neural connections common among those with this diagnosis, the use of Morse code to signal his interest in meeting women made perfect sense. To those who know him, it is one of many quirky characteristics — some of them sweet, some of them annoying — that require a bit of translation for him and about him as he moves within the world of higher education.

Or, you know, we could have better, less-stupid rules, and not involve the university bureaucracy in the dating behavior of undergraduates.