Autism and the tragedy of the commons

Last summer, I put Cooperation and the tragedy of the commons, from the Anecdote blog,  in my “to blog” pile.  It seemed relevant, but I just couldn’t quite figure out how.  In his post about an Alliance for Autism, Mike Stanton raises the problem of reconciling the individual wishes and desires of parents and adults with autism with the long term goals of autism advocacy, which has helped me better understand the relevance.

The problem Mike raises shows up in many different domains and is known as the tragedy of the commons.  Simply stated, tragedy of the commons is:

a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

The anecdote post references a story on washingtonpost.com discussing the Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the results of a study done by social psychologist W. Keith Campbell.  From the study:

… because the volunteers did not know whether their kindness would be reciprocated by others or exploited by competitors, people raced to cut as much timber as they could and quickly razed the forests to the ground. Groups with volunteers more willing to think about the collective good preserved their forests longer. But selfish people within these groups had a field day exploiting the altruists — and the forests perished anyway.

Campbell’s experiment is particularly relevant to politics, because he found that groups with a larger number of narcissists — people with an inflated sense of their own importance — tended to raze the forests much faster than groups in which people felt less self-important. Politics, unfortunately, happens to be a domain that self-selects people with an inflated sense of their own importance.

Political scientist Edella Schlager offers the following as a solution:

… the only way to prevent tragedies of the commons is to set up structures in advance that reward long-term thinking and punish short-term selfishness. This happens mostly among competitors who share long-term interests and have social relationships of trust: If you and I are Maine lobstermen, we are likely to agree to set up limits on the overall catch each year because we see our future, and our children’s future, inextricably linked. In the absence of trust and long-term relationships, the only way to prevent these tragedies is to have an outside regulatory agency step in to establish — and enforce — limits.

Sadly, many of the “competitors” in the autism community (communities?) don’t seem to think we share any long term interests, despite the fact that I’m sure we probably do.  Nor are there too many “social relationships of trust”; even here on the Hub there is a general undercurrent of mistrust between adults with autism and non-autistic parents, stemming I think from the lack of shared long term interests mentioned above.

On the other hand, it is easy for the Hub’s “competitors”, as exemplified by the folks at Age of Autism, to avoid the TOTC:  they speak with a single voice (“Vaccines are bad”, “Vaccines caused my kid’s autism”, “Neurodiversity believers are deluded and in denial”) and trust that everyone on “their side” will stay on message.  There are, of course, some more reasonable voices among the bio-med group, but it is the vocal (apparent) majority that makes the most noise.

Mike is on the right track with his proposed Alliance for Autism.  The first step is to figure out what our shared long term interests are, and from there work to build the trusting social relationships that we need to move forward.  Who knows, we might even find that we have some common ground with our “competitors” in what we want for our kids when they become adults.  Wouldn’t that be something.

I’ll kick it off with a couple of my own long term interests and goals:

  • My son receives an education (from me, the schools, his peers) that allows him to participate in the world around him to the extent that he chooses to participate.
  • The general public becomes more aware that adults with autism are adults first, that they have dreams, desires, and interests just like everyone else, and should be allowed and empowered to pursue those dreams, desires, and interests.
  • A legal environment that enforces the above, when necessary, in the workplace and other areas where autism, and other disabilities, are treated with disdain and disrespect.