I Think My Friend Could Be Autistic. Do I Tell Her?

Recently, a discussion with a close friend where we talked about our feelings reignited a thought I have had since first meeting her — my friend might have Asperger’s syndrome. In light of my friend’s personality and the kind of intimate details we’ve shared, I am quite confident she does not actively consider herself to be on the spectrum. I am struggling with the ethics of broaching the subject, and whether or not I am even in a position to contemplate bringing it up. I’m a health care professional, but I’m not a psychiatrist, and would never want to cause her unnecessary pain if I were to be wrong. But given how Asperger’s is underdiagnosed in women, and the improvements in quality of life a diagnosis could potentially bring, I wonder how I could open this subject (if I even should) without hurting her feelings and inadvertently pushing her further away from seriously exploring this possibility. Ultimately, I am quite sure that she would want to know if this is why she has trouble making and keeping friends, and why she frequently feels isolated and lonely. Name Withheld

In the scenario you’re worried about, your friend will think you have pathologized her personality, treating her not as a friend but as a patient, as you cast her characteristic behaviors as symptoms of a neurodevelopmental disorder. But, especially as the culture has grown more open to the framework of neurodiversity, there’s another scenario: She’ll hear that she may belong to a recognizable type, and that people like herself have developed useful strategies for interacting with the world. Although “Asperger’s” has been retired as an official clinical term — only the broader category of “autism spectrum disorder” is used by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (D.S.M.) — people often still do identify as “Aspies” to assert membership in a particular subset of those with autism.

For many, the label sustains a useful social identity. The philosopher Ian Hacking used the term “looping effects” to discuss the social and psychological mechanisms by which such labels generate kinds of people; the designations affect the way we see ourselves and are seen by others (which, in turn, affects what the designations means). These ways can sometimes be pathologizing; they can also be self-affirming. Increasingly, some people who are “on the spectrum” have sought to reclaim an identity that isn’t just an artifact of the D.S.M. and its shifting diagnostic categories. Communities have formed; helpful information is pooled and shared, along with moral support. Because there’s a great diversity among the neurodiverse, exactly what works for your friend — should she embrace the description — is something she’ll have to work out.

I probably don’t have to remind you that you are her friend, not her therapist, and that you should approach the topic with care and sensitivity. Invite her to look into this possibility. But the choice to do so is for her to make.

I have a physical disability — my right arm is paralyzed — and after much trepidation I am trying to date again. My question is whether I should disclose the fact that I have a disability on my online profile. It feels disingenuous to not put it out there, but it also feels like something that shouldn’t be a measure of who I am. Daniel, Colorado

This condition, as you note, isn’t who you are. Still, your monoplegia will be apparent on a first meeting; it isn’t information you can titrate. Mentioning it on your profile could eliminate real prospects; it could even draw people who have a fetish you may find off-putting. But disclosure would also spare you from having to deal with people who can’t deal. You won’t go wrong by being upfront.

I was adopted as an infant, and about 15 years ago I searched for and found my birth mother. I soon learned that she has had mental illness and addiction problems of various intensities throughout her life. Although she is mostly stable now, both talking with her by phone and occasional in-person visits are unpleasant, mostly due to her negative and combative perspectives on everything. I get very little out of the relationship and mostly avoid interacting with her.

My birth mother has burned bridges with most of her friends and family members and is currently alone and isolated, living on public support in subsidized housing. She has never asked me for money, though twice I have helped with medical bills. Now that she is in her 80s, I am wondering what, if anything, I owe her beyond periodic phone contact. She is strong-willed and independent, but as chronic conditions increasingly take their toll, I can foresee a time soon when she will need help. Do I have a moral obligation to assist someone I barely know and don’t particularly like, but who happened to have brought me into the world? Name Withheld

Children don’t have obligations to their parents merely by virtue of being biologically related. Those obligations arise only from a proper relationship with them. With deeper ties come expectations. Because you find your interactions with your birth mother unpleasant, you already have one reason not to go on with a relationship; creating an unwanted form of dependency is another. So far, she hasn’t asked for your help. By limiting your interactions with her, you won’t lead her to think that she’s in a position to do so. Whatever assistance you provide will be a decision, not a duty.

My father-in-law verbally and emotionally abused his late wife of over 50 years. I didn’t know the extent of the abuse until after she died, and have since learned it was far worse than I could imagine.

Now, less than a year after his wife died, he is engaged to be married. It has been a difficult year for us, his family. We miss our matriarch. Now we have to see this man spoil his new fiancée with gifts and kindness. She says he’s the sweetest man she’s ever met. From what I know about domestic violence, it is likely he will fall back into the same old patterns once they are married. Do I have an obligation to tell this woman she’s engaged to a scary and abusive man? Name Withheld

Tell her what you know; she is entitled to the facts, and you should be as clear and specific as you can about the abuse your mother-in-law suffered. But understand that this woman will make her own judgment about what her partner’s past behavior means for her.

Don’t be surprised if she takes little notice of what you have to say. Among other things, she may suspect that you are driven by your devotion to the late family matriarch. And she is no doubt in love with your father-in-law and enjoys being pampered.

In the end, it’s not up to you to protect her from her choices; all you can do is ensure that her choices are informed ones. Even if she ignores your warnings now, they could be helpful to her in the future should the relationship take a nasty turn.

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]. Want the Ethicist directly in your inbox? Subscribe to our new newsletter at

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