Students With Asperger’s Are Disadvantaged by Title IX, Says Lawyer

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Male students with Asperger's and high-functioning autism are especially disadvantaged by the campus Title IX system, argues one disability rights lawyer.

Lori Tucker is an educational law attorney in Massachusetts. She recently penned a series of op-eds for students with Asperger’s, including “Preventing a Violation of College Sexual Misconduct Policies” and “What To Do If You Are Accused of Campus Sexual Misconduct.” While Tucker launched her career as an attorney for K-12 students with disabilities, her attention shifted several years ago to campus Title IX trials.

In an interview with PJ Media, Tucker -- the proud mother of an autistic son -- highlighted numerous concerns with Title IX trials.

One of her major concerns is that students with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism are significantly more likely to inadvertently violate campus sexual misconduct policies due to their deficits in social communication and difficulty reading social cues.

“Simply put, they often do not possess the needed skill set to realize how their behavior may be perceived by other people,” Tucker told PJ Media. University of New Mexico Professor Geoffrey Miller has highlighted a similar concern about campus speech codes.

For example, if a student with Asperger’s wants to date a woman, he may text or call her repeatedly asking to hang out. If she’s not interested, she might decline with an invented excuse such as “too much homework” instead of directly telling him she’s not interested.

A student with Asperger’s may be unable to sense the subtext, and may continue asking her out. He might even show up at her dorm. While well-intentioned, this behavior might be interpreted as harassment, and he might find himself under investigation.

This is just one way a student could fall into a campus Title IX investigation, but Tucker explains that no matter how silly or serious the allegation may seem, students must contact an attorney if they find themselves under investigation.

“No autistic student should attempt to navigate these proceedings without legal representation from an attorney who has experience working with people on the [autism] spectrum and experience in Title IX proceedings,” Tucker told PJ Media.

If these students attempt to represent themselves, a complicated investigation process be confusing for some. Also, a trial could pose a number of problems.

“[The] complexity of the policies and proceedings could become overwhelming for a student on the spectrum,” explained Tucker. “They may not be comfortable advocating for themselves, so they will not ask for needed breaks or for questions to be repeated.”

“Additionally, many students with autism have sensory issues and processing issues which make it exceedingly difficult to sit for the long periods of time required during an investigation or hearing,” she added.

Many students with Asperger’s lack some of the organizational skills needed to defend themselves, such as compiling witnesses or exculpatory evidence, or drafting an appeal letter, Tucker added.

Even more worrisome, normal autistic behaviors may be misinterpreted by Title IX administrators. In fact, most of Title IX training involves attributing “negative connotations to behaviors which are quite common to autistic people,” explains Tucker. Examples of this include “failure to make eye contact, delay in providing answers during questioning, lack of emotion, and defensiveness or anger if the student feels they are being challenged,” Tucker told PJ Media.

The training of campus Title IX administrators often makes no concession for the possibility that an accused student may be on the autism spectrum, despite anywhere from roughly 2% to 10% of boys possibly being diagnosed.

Tucker urges the parents of any college students on the autism spectrum to contact a lawyer if their child is accused. “Even a simple misunderstanding or seemingly innocent misbehavior can result in involvement in a Title IX proceeding,” she explained. “If an accusation arises, do not try to handle it on your own.”

There’s a lot of hard work involved in getting into college. “All of that hard work will be in jeopardy if your child has the misfortune of becoming involved in a campus sexual misconduct proceeding,” Tucker added.

Lori Tucker can be reached here. Her series of advice op-eds can be read here. She lives in Massachusetts, and consults with students and parents nationwide.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen