Rules, boundaries, and autism

2012-01-22 13:14

Something that has screwed me up occasionally is that I tend to take people precisely at their word.

Back when I was in college, there was a rule against breaking into other peoples’ accounts. Reasonable enough rule, right? I got in trouble, though. I did a few things.

One: I disabled the password authentication for my account. (I did this because the intentionally-slow login process could time out during busy times.)
Two: I ran dictionary lookups against the password tables and made lists of accounts with bad passwords. (“zeppelin” was very common.)
Three: I wrote a program which emulated the login procedure, recorded passwords, pretended to error out, then let the actual login procedure take over.

Now, those of you who aren’t autistic are probably utterly unable to see why I would have done any of these things, given that rule. Those of you who are autistic are probably either unable to see why I got in trouble, or laughing knowingly.

To explain: The issue here is that there’s no reason to do the password-cracking without intent to break into accounts, except pure curiousity. Most people aren’t that curious, and most people tend to view behavior which can lead directly to bad behavior as highly suspicious at the very least. But… For me? I was given a rule, it seemed reasonable (I mean, you wouldn’t want people breaking into accounts, right?), and I followed it. When I was curious as to whether people chose good passwords, I found out by the simplest means available. Since I wasn’t breaking the rule, I didn’t anticipate trouble.

And here we get to why, even “high-functioning”, autism can functionally be a fairly serious disorder. The net result of this is that a large portion of the potential value of my college education was destroyed, because the stuff I could have been learning (and getting formal credentials in) was temporarily made inaccessible. See. The administrative staff involved (Lynn Steen and Roberta Lembke) decided without talking to me at all that I was clearly guilty of whatever I was accused of, and they kicked me off the school computers.

Even with the benefit of understanding at least part of why they thought this was a big deal, I think that was the wrong call. Preventing kids from learning should be a really big deal. You shouldn’t do it based on hearsay accounts and speculation.

I still don’t know what actually happened. My guess is that there were social issues other than just the obvious stuff, and that the social issues are why the administrative staff handled this in such a dramatic way. At the time, my complete non-awareness of status tended to look to people like arrogance and smugness; amusingly, now that I’m comparatively high-status in general, the exact same trait looks like admirable humility. Hah.

And come to think of it: I’m curious enough that I may actually ask them what the deal was.

Peter Seebach

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