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Autism/Question about autism and fairness understanding



I have Asperger Syndrome (High-Functioning Autism), and pragmatic language difficulty (I believe that is fairly common for people on the Autism Spectrum).  Because of my pragmatic language difficulty, my way of thinking tends to be very literal and rigid.  You know how when kids are 4-6 years old or so, their parents/guardians, teachers (or other adults they have close contact with), the books they read, and the shows and movies they watch usually teach them that fairness is when everyone gets two cookies?  Or 5 presents on their birthday?  Or a turn to choose what to eat for lunch?  They don't really teach kids that fairness doesn't always mean everyone gets the same thing, it means everyone gets what is appropriate for them.  But by middle school/Jr. High or high school age (or whatever they call it where you are), most kids have realized that the definition or fairness the adults in their life gave them when they were younger isn't always accurate.  Kids this age usually understand that taking turns and sharing are only a small part of fairness, and that fairness really means everyone gets the thing that is appropriate for them.  

I however, still thought fairness means everyone gets the same, even in high school (although, I did realize that the teachers were only going to give good grades to the students who actually put in the effort).  If I saw my parents (I think particularly my dad, but my mom as well) let my brother (who is only younger than me by a little less than two years, and doesn't have any disabilities) get away with something that would've earned me a good talking to when I was his age, I would think, "that's not fair!  I wouldn't have gotten away with that when I was his age!  And now he does?!  Dad must love him more than he loves me!"  I thought it wasn't fair because it wasn't the same as what I would've gotten when I was his age.  Not because I felt like he deserved it more than I did.  And if he did something brothers are known for (like teasing), my parents would say, "honey, he's a brother, and brothers do that!"  But if I did something girls are known for, they wouldn't tell him, "Honey, she's a sister, and sisters do that."  I would again think, "that's not fair!  They do that with him, but not me!"  My brother and I are both our parents biological children, so adoption had nothing to do with it.  There were only two children in our family (my brother and me), so we didn't have the typical family dynamics (it was oldest child and baby instead of oldest child, middle child, and baby).  My parents were always together when my brother and I were kids, so single parenthood and step-parenthood didn't play a role.

I was reading a book in my college library one time about students with special needs (I think they specifically mentioned Autism) in mainstream classrooms.  The book mentioned how some teachers are hesitant to give students with special needs certain accommodations, because they think it wouldn't be fair to the other students in the class who don't have those accommodations, but really, it's not fair to the child who needs those accommodations if he or she doesn't get what he or she needs.  I realized then that fairness really doesn't always mean everyone gets the same thing.  It means everyone gets what is right for them

Is it common for people with Autism to think fairness is when everyone gets the same thing long after most kids without Autism have realized that it doesn't?

Hi Leanne,

It sounds like you answered your own question. You explain well, with examples, of when your thinking is literal and concrete, and how this is typical of all children when young. But then as they approach adolescence, most kids begin to understand the nuances of "fair" and how there are grey areas.

People on the autism spectrum are often black and white thinkers, who don't easily see the grey areas. There are some theories as to why this may be so. If you read some of the books by Temple Grandin and Donna Williams (both highly articulate women on the autism spectrum), they describe their minds as being almost overly compartmentalized. For something to be remembered well, the situation has to almost exactly match the original time when they learned/experienced that incident. Some studies suggest that people on the autism spectrum has less white matter - the connections that link the various parts of the brain, making it easier to relate one piece of learning to the other.

This would make it more difficult to make sense of the world. Often people with often rely heavily on rules, which would provide an explanation as to why things are the way they are. It would make it easier to predict and know what to expect in given situations. Kids with autism often display this rule-governedness, holding rigidly to the routines they've learned and becoming the class or playground police, enforcing all rules. Unfortunately, life does not follow rigid guidelines and it's important to understand nuances.

But it is important to remember that the brain is plastic, meaning it is able to constantly learn new things. People with autism may not take to some things readily, or find some things difficult, but this does not mean they cannot learn them. It sounds like you have gained an understanding that fair is not always equal, whereas this was a more difficult concept for you when you were younger.

You are right that fair does not mean the same thing for everyone and that fair often means giving an individual what he/she needs, rather than applying the same rule to everyone. Even colleges recognize this and generally offer accommodations to those with disabilities. Richard Lavoie talks about this quite well. You can watch it here: There is a shorter clip with just the part on fairness here:

Some researchers speculate that the maturity level of those with autism lags behind that of their peers. Some suggest that you cut the person's age by a third and that is the emotional maturity level of the individual. If you look at it that way, then it makes sense that the person with autism might take longer to develop a more mature outlook on the concept of fairness.

I wish you well in college.


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Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell


Sharon can help with parenting and educational concerns. She has worked in teaching, special education, counseling and consulting for over thirty years and gives workshops to educators and parents on working with kids with autism spectrum disorders. Sharon speaks from both the education and parent points of view, having an adult son with Asperger's.


Sharon has spent decades as a special education consultant with a school district and autism consult for the province's Department of Education, giving workshops and individual consults. Currently she works as regional autism consultant for a health district in between teaching university classes. She is an Amazon bestselling author or a series of novels, each depicting a child who has an autism spectrum disorder. Sharon's Master's thesis looked at the long-term outlook for persons with high functioning autism and Asperger's. Her Doctorate focused on strategies to help those with autism spectrum disorders.

Website at and sits on Autism Today's Panel of Experts (

Author of "Autism Goes to School" - a novel about autism that that became an Amazon bestseller. Get this Amazon bestseller free at In the next book, Autism Runs Away, Ethan is only in grade one and already has been kicked out of one school due to his tantrums and pattern of running away when in a panic. Now in a new school his mom remains glued to her phone, waiting for the call to tell her that they don’t know what to do with a child who has autism. Sara is about to learn if this new school is up to the challenge. ( Autism Belongs is the 3rd book. Manny's life has shrank to the confines of their house. His parents are desperate not to rock his world because the aggression has gotten to much worse. Where will this lead? Is there a chance that Manny could actually belong out in the world? You bet! Get a free sample at Book four, Autism Talks and Talks, is about a 12 year old girl who has Asperger's. She's bright, inquisitive, highly verbal, but lacks social skills. Try a free sample at Book five, Autism Grows Up features Suzie, a bright, twenty-one year old whose life collapsed after she finished high school. Now, she lives in her mother's basement, spending nights on her computer, afraid to broach the world outside their door. Autism Grows Up is found at Prefer a boxed set? Get the first 3 books bundled together at Co-author of bestseller, The Official Autism 101 Manual (

B.A. in Psychology, B.Ed. in Special Education, M.A. in Educational Leadership PhD. in Psychology Management, specializing in autism.

Awards and Honors
B.R.A.G. Medallion for the novel Autism Goes to School - Book 1 in the School Daze Series. ( Like Autism Goes to School, the third book in the series, Autism Belongs, also ranked #1 on Amazon ( Manny is not like other children. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t leave the house. His parents desperately try to arrange their world so that Manny does not get upset. Because, when he does, well, the aggression was getting worse. At ten, Manny was becoming difficult to handle.

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