After months of staff allegations of toxic bullying at Scottish beer company BrewDog, the company’s chief executive has finally explained the cause of his “intense and demanding” behaviour: he suspects he has “light-level autism”. In an open letter published last year and signed by hundreds of staff, James Watt was accused of presiding over a “rotten culture” typified by a “culture of fear”, institutional misogyny, summary dismissals, illegal corner-cutting, and health and safety breaches.

Yet in a podcast broadcast this week, Watt said he had “100% good intentions” towards his staff, and that his past behaviour stemmed from being focussed on success. At the same time, though, he suggested that a previously undiagnosed condition of autism might be partly responsible too, and said he was “working with a specialist at the moment to see if there’s a diagnosis there or not”.

There are a few peculiarities here, not least Watt’s ability to make the difficulty of diagnosing autism sound rather like that of discovering sub-atomic particles in the Hadron collider. To my knowledge, detection usually involves a relatively uncomplicated assessment, readily available to someone of Watt’s means. But perhaps when autism is only “light-level”, and compatible not just with running a billion-dollar company but also with savvily evolving a brand that many consumers approach with the reverence of a cult, clear traces of autism are quite difficult for medical professionals to detect.

In his 2015 book Business for Punks: Break All the Rules The BrewDog Way, Watt — rather in contrast to the stereotype of the socially unaware, rule-following loner — tells readers that “your biggest challenge from day one is to give people a reason to care, and that reason has got to be your mission… figure out how to make people want to care about what you do”. Under Watt’s leadership, the company has proved very good at making customers care about their beer, creating a genuinely fervent fandom among its mostly male customers via various laddish marketing schemes.

Their gonzo campaigns have included dropping taxidermied cats over London, dressing Watt and fellow founder up as prostitutes in a crowdfunding campaign, and offering free tattoos of the company logo to customers in return for 20% off the price of beer. There has also been the chance, apparently exciting to many, to attend the company’s “annual general mayhem”, otherwise known as the company AGM, proving at the very least that BrewDog are capable of organising a piss-up in a brewery.

Post-scandal, Watt has again apparently adjusted well, steering his company away from the metalheads and fans who think Dave is Britain’s best TV channel towards a more sensitive image suitable for these highly sensitive times. The company has ditched the private jet, gone carbon negative, launched a beer called #IAMWHOLE while telling customers “It’s OK to be sad AF”, and committed to planting millions of trees — albeit that, according to a BBC documentary, the latter will be at the taxpayer’s expense.

Only last week, BrewDog announced that it will be launching the UK’s largest pub at Waterloo Station, a place where, Watt says, you can “record your own podcast, explore our hidden cocktail bar, or stoke some competition with a game of duckpin bowling or ping-pong”. Assuming that the targeted demographic for BrewDog is still mostly male, it seems safe to conclude from this alone that perceptions of masculinity have been on quite the journey in the last decade. And with these many markers of benign corduroy hipsterism proudly on display, it is perhaps not surprising that a self-exculpatory autism diagnosis has been thrown in for the CEO.

Presumably though, Watt’s diagnosis, should he obtain it, won’t be the kind that records severe sensory issues, learning disabilities, debilitating repetitive behaviours, and speech and language problems — but the sort that makes you a misunderstood maverick genius who sometimes gets people wrong in an ultimately loveable way. It’s perhaps worth remembering another dictum from Watt’s book here: “Everything is marketing.”

As in other areas, Watt’s embrace of the label seems in tune with the times. Autism diagnoses have mushroomed in recent years, with one US survey noting a prevalence of 1 in 54 in 2022, as opposed to 1 in 166 in 2005. In the UK, a rise of 787% in 20 years is reported. Social media accounts are awash with hashtags indicating various kinds of neurodiversity generally. The reasons for this are no doubt complicated, but include the way that autism, in the terminology of philosopher Ian Hacking, tends to exhibit social “feedback loops” in its historical trajectory through the human population.

One such feedback loop is that increased public knowledge of the diagnosis seems to increase the numbers of people diagnosed. Every school-teacher or university lecturer has seen the effects of this, witnessing an uptick among students, especially in secondary schools, and especially among children from relatively affluent homes. When a child in a household is diagnosed as autistic, there is anecdotal evidence that an adult in the same household is then more likely to be diagnosed too — which apparently also makes it more likely that the adult will then appear in an article in The Guardian. And as with other mental health conditions, social feedback loops also seem to have expanded the range of symptoms classified by medical professionals as indicative of autism. These now encompass a spectrum, from extremely debilitating symptoms to the only relatively mildly impairing.

This last point raises familiar questions about what happens in practical terms when a numerous and extremely diverse group, symptomatically speaking, are treated as having the same condition, especially where the majority eventually skew to the mild side. It looks obvious that resources and attention will then be diverted from the more severely impaired majority, unjustly.

But an increased tendency of relatively high-functioning adults to seek diagnoses late in life, especially when — as it seems with Watt — a diagnosis is sought in the service of a retrospectively exculpatory narrative, also raises another and less examined question. What happens to social norms determining what counts as civil and respectful behaviour, now that we live in a culture which apparently offers such easily won psychological justifications for adult behaviour that falls short of this? And more specifically, what happens to those norms of behaviour when it becomes socially acceptable for potentially large numbers of adults, via diagnoses of autism or of some other relevant condition, to avail themselves of exactly the same ethically exculpatory narratives that are available to those with very severe forms of “the same” condition? In moderately severe forms of autism, deficits in impulse control, executive function, emotional regulation, and understanding of other people’s intentions can all have a bearing on how moral judgement works. But what happens when feedback loops make membership of this category more readily available to those with more “light-level” forms?

Apart from the fact that this doesn’t seem fair to those with more severe versions, it also threatens to let bad adult behaviour flourish in society under the radar, even more unchecked than it already is. If, for instance, a bullying, sexist, cruel man can reinvent himself as a #neurodiverse person with an unsought mental health condition that excuses his behaviour — especially in the age of cuddly masculinity, where it seems that a British man can now go to a pub in order to make a podcast, have a cocktail, play ping-pong, and not die of shame in the process — then why wouldn’t he?

So while extremely macho behaviour towards women may no longer be celebrated in BrewDog advertising campaigns, that doesn’t mean it can’t still thrive in less visible ways. The online world, after all, is full of dreamy-eyed men with hashtags in their profiles referring to kindness, empathy, and inclusivity, telling women they don’t like to just go top yourself already.

I assume none of this is likely to matter to Watt, entirely focused as he seems to be on making his company more successful, and reinventing himself once again in whatever way furthers that goal and fits with the zeitgeist. After all, this is the man who once gave us the instruction: “So whilst the fools, rats and wannabes are massaging each other’s egos you need to be plotting your revenge… You need to be quietly planning how to blow the status quo to pieces and create a whole new world order.”

Others may be more sympathetic to his story than I am. But when we consider nodding through convenient redemption narratives of multi-millionaires about their mental health, we probably ought to think about what else society might be losing.

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