Are aspies the next evolution of the human species? Do aspies have super powers? No, No, No, and No. Also, No. Or, should I say that if this is true, I want none of it? Read on to find out why.
In 2013 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was updated to reflect changes in the way autism would henceforth be diagnosed. Gone was the separate diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (among others), introduced just under two decades earlier in the DSM-IV. (Asperger’s Syndrome continues to be a diagnosis outside the U.S. where the ICD-10 is used instead of the DSM.) Please refer to this excellent academic examination of why Asperger’s Syndrome disappeared. But not surprisingly, aspies everywhere were upset. One teen was quoted at the time in a telling piece of journalism entitled Farewell to Aspies: Some Families Reluctant to Let Go of Asperger’s Diagnosis:
“Some of the most brilliant people had Asperger Syndrome, and you just can’t put that under the title of Autism,” he wrote in an 8th grade school assignment. “This disability, which is ironically not at all a disability, causes the recipient to be antisocial, physically weak … However, it is so much more. It allows a person to think in whole different ways, to see things in a different light than others.
Now if you thought I’d be going after a teenager, shame on you. But I quote him because this idea is widespread among “aspies” and I have problems with it. Not because I in fact think Asperger’s Syndrome is a disability, but because of the conclusions that some aspies draw in making these assumptions. Assumptions that are often held by some well-respected clinicians as well.
Nevertheless, I’ll say upfront that yes Asperger’s Syndrome is a disability depending on some important context that is curiously always missing. This context is almost always missing because of the overwhelming predominance of the medical model pervading disability discourse that not even aspies are immune from.
Yes, aspies, I have a problem with you. Admittedly, I too embraced the aspie identity at first, but quickly distanced myself from it upon realization of the company it was associating me with. I have a bone to pick, so to speak, with those aspies who reject the neurodiversity paradigm. You might be wondering: what aspie rejects the neurodiversity paradigm? Good question: the ones who continually wish to distance themselves from who they arrogantly see as actually disabled–the hopeless “low-functioning” tragedies on “the other end” of the spectrum. Two things: firstly, not all who identify as “aspie” harbor such nonsense and I am not talking about you, so don’t make it about you; secondly, though few aspies will admit it, you and every alarmist “autism mom” maintaining that autism is a modern epidemic of toxic exposure and/or vaccine injury reach the same conclusion despite dramatically different starting points: that autistics need be diagnostically segregated.
I’m so tired of hearing that you all think you have “super powers.” I get it. You have your own highly selective interpretation of the neurodiversity paradigm that evidently only applies to you. (To be clear, the neurodiversity paradigm is not autism-exclusive, just to avoid any confusion.) You want to change the stigma associated with what “normal” people see as “abnormal” behavior so you can get ahead in your career, as though autism is somehow reducible merely to differing behaviors. But implicit in this is an assumption that you stand apart from the alleged tragedy and stigma of autism and logically require your own label to keep undesired associations at bay. You want the world to see your strengths instead of a long list of deficits. You want what sets you apart from the neurotypical world to be valued instead of scorned. It may come as a shock to some of you, but this applies equally to every autistic person whether they speak or do not speak or if they have intellectual disabilities alongside autism. Aspies are concerned with fighting the stigma that being associated with autism brings them rather than fighting the stigma which harms all autistic people.
But what better way to challenge stigma than to have a list in hand of famous autistic people to prove that we are actually valuable: musicians like Questlove of The Roots, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, actors like Dan Aykroyd, Daryl Hannah, Robin Williams, historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Beethoven, Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Banneker, Isaac Asimov, Jim Henson, Andy Warhol, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Nikola Tesla, etc. Leaving aside the fact that these lists are nearly entirely made up of white people, I object to any notion that we must catapult famous people to the forefront of any discussion around autism to justify our existence.
The psychologist who I went to see more than a year ago about an autism diagnosis practices at a clinic called Southeast Psych in Charlotte, NC. Southeast Psych is home to Asperger’s Syndrome expert and YouTube star Dr. Frank Gaskill. He has undoubtedly had a positive impact on autistic teens (he only sees kids up to age 18 to my knowledge). Autistic teenagers, like I myself once was though without any knowledge of it, struggle often very significantly with depression, anxiety, lack of self-worth, bullying, inability to make friends. For many teens, Asperger’s became their identity. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Gaskill and his “Aspie Nation” decried the removal of AS from the DSM in 2013. As a separate diagnosis from “Autistic Disorder” in the DSM-IV, it didn’t last even two decades, and the reasons for this are quite sensible to me.
Gaskill refers to aspies as “Human 2.0,” as the evolution of the human species. Aspies are not disordered Gaskill says, they’re different, and they should not have to be forced to socialize the way neurotypical people do. He believes our genes are essential to the progress of humanity. He lays this all out in a short five minute presentation on YouTube you can watch here. Aspies like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk, and other Silicon Valley
exploiters… sorry, “innovators,” are the human species, evolved. This view is not unique to Dr. Gaskill. Being an aspie is apparently widely believed to put you a step above others in the workplace despite significant social difficulties. Says journalist Matt McFarland of the Washington Post in Why Shades of Asperger’s Syndrome are the Secret to Building a Great Tech Company:
The individuals who have founded some of the most successful tech companies are decidedly weird. Examine the founder of a truly innovative company and you’ll find a rebel without the usual regard for social customs.
This begs the question, why? Why aren’t more “normal” people with refined social graces building tech companies that change the world? Why are only those on the periphery reaching great heights?
If you ask tech investor Peter Thiel, the problem is a social environment that’s both powerful and destructive. Only individuals with traits reminiscent of Asperger’s Syndrome, which frees them from an attachment to social conventions, have the strength to create innovative businesses amid a culture that discourages daring entrepreneurship.
Drake Baer of Business Insider quotes Thiel further:
Peter Thiel — the PayPal founder, Facebook investor, and bestselling author — hates groupthink.
He avoids hiring MBAs, since he says they tend to be “high extrovert/low conviction people,” a combination of traits that “leads towards extremely herd-like thinking and behavior.”
Similarly, he says that “people end up behaving more lemming-like” in places like San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, where tons of tech companies are crammed into a .635 square mile area.
All that socialization leads to conformity, he argues, preventing people from coming up with original, innovative ideas.
To Thiel, originality is the name of the entrepreneurial game, since it’s the quickest route to gaining a monopoly, as he says Google did with search.
From that logic, he argues that a psychological condition usually thought of as a disorder — Asperger’s syndrome — provides a startup advantage.
If you ask Dr. Gaskill, what we need is more and more of these folks to “get girls” and have sex and a millennia from now we’ll be able to save our species from the doom that endlessly small-talking and chatty neurotypicals would obliviously lead us into.
Here’s a question Dr. Gaskill: what about the largely neurotypical people who line Silicon Valley aspie pockets? Perhaps we ought to talk about Tesla aspie CEO Elon Musk. One Tesla factory worker says “everything feels like the future but us.”
The appetite for Musk’s electric cars, and his promise to disrupt the carbon-reliant automobile industry, has helped Tesla’s value exceed that of both Ford and, briefly, General Motors (GM). But some of the human workers who share the factory with their robotic counterparts complain of grueling pressure – which they attribute to Musk’s aggressive production goals – and sometimes life-changing injuries.
Ambulances have been called more than 100 times since 2014 for workers experiencing fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing and chest pains, according to incident reports obtained by the Guardian. Hundreds more were called for injuries and other medical issues.
Other of Musk’s workers have spoken out as well:
Musk’s account of the company’s approach differs from that of the 15 current and former factory workers who told the Guardian of a culture of long hours under intense pressure, sometimes through pain and injury, in order to fulfill the CEO’s ambitious production goals.
“I’ve seen people pass out, hit the floor like a pancake and smash their face open,” said Jonathan Galescu, a production technician at Tesla. “They just send us to work around him while he’s still lying on the floor.”
He was one of several workers who said they had seen co-workers collapse or be taken away in ambulances. “We had an associate on my line, he just kept working, kept working, kept working, next thing you know – he just fell on the ground,” said Mikey Catura, a worker on the battery pack line.
Richard Ortiz, another production worker, spoke admiringly of the high-tech shop floor. “It’s like you died and went to auto-worker heaven.” But he added: “Everything feels like the future but us.”
Here’s the reality, since we’re unlikely to get it from the likes of “aspie supremacists”: all autistic people can thrive in environments that allow for our strengths to flourish. The idea that we have super powers would be hysterical if it weren’t for the fact that so many aspies evidently believe it. But what you believe to be super powers is simply the fact that you may have found an environment that is suitable to your real (or perceived) strengths and abilities. And here’s another dose of reality: all of your Silicon Valley aspie
exploiters “heroes,” like the vast majority of the capitalist class, have no super powers at all, they were either born wealthy or got lucky, or both, unlike the rest of us who have no choice but to go to work for them. Being an aspie does not make you a good CEO. It makes you an aspie CEO. Autistic or not, being a capitalist owner with grotesque wealth bestows a level of power that the vast majority of us will never enjoy.
So if aspies and their modern Silicon Valley heroes aren’t disabled, what counts as a disability then? The problem lay within the question itself, and that some people get to arbitrarily decide they’re not disabled while others are considered disabled based on subjective criteria laid out by clinicians. Real life is always more complicated than this.
Allow me to quote from an excellent piece published at Socialist Worker:
Exclusion and discrimination toward people with physical or mental differences are not a natural consequence of human nature; impairments exist in a context where exclusion and discrimination based on impairment are permitted.
Under capitalism, it is very much the case that the labor market and the organization of work are fundamental components in the construction of disability as a social category. Inherent in the ideology and practice of capitalism is the idea that a person’s well-being is dependent on their ability to sell their labor for a wage.
Thus, physical and mental differences that preclude or interfere with performing wage labor are considered central to very condition of “disability.” The Social Security Administration of the United States plainly states on its website, “You cannot do work…This is a strict definition of disability.”
The issue here is not that aspies are disabled but simply refuse to see reality. The issue is that believing you are not disabled but rather different with super powers is a reflection of the “success” you’ve acquired being in an environment that more or less allows for your impairments to be less visible, like the aspie coders and engineers who work for other much more powerful aspies in Silicon Valley. If the environment is built around your needs, to whatever degree possible, like magic, your otherwise obvious disability can subside as you merely sync into the background. That is at least until lunch when some have to venture out into the real world and talk with some neurotypical in line who must “chat” like it is their job.
The vast majority of us struggle in jobs that are decidedly not suitable, with work environments that can be outright toxic for an autistic person. This is if you can even get a job considering the astronomical unemployment and underemployment rates for autistic adults. Every day I go to work I’m reminded myself in countless ways that I have a disability, and often I’m reminded by others when I’m told that I need to be more personable, more social, more talkative, smile more, be less awkward because it’s uncomfortable for neurotypical people, and yet I can do none of this short of requiring a real effort to hide who I am over and above the effort I already put in to mask my autism, and non-autistic people do not understand how exhausting this is.
Disability is not a hard line drawn in the sand, but a social construction in its entirety. This does not mean impairments do not actually exist that require support. But a reorganization of our society that makes basic subsistence needs a right of everyone will have no particular need for arbitrary social distinctions like physical or neurological disabilities. Certainly there will be no need for “gatekeepers” who get to decide who is properly disabled and who isn’t. All disabled people will receive the support they need with full accommodations met. Neurotypical people take this for granted because the world we are all born into has specifically been designed to accommodate your needs, no thought or knowledge that there are other people with different needs required on your part.
But right now, every autistic child, teen, and adult deserves to be accepted as autistic. All deserve the chance to flourish in an environment that fully values them no matter the severity of their disabilities, and even if it means they cannot produce surplus value for a corporate exploiter. Moreover, rather than fighting to liberate aspies who believe they’d be millionaires were it not for the neurotypical chains that bind them, I want a world that values the contribution of every person, disabled or not, which meets our basic subsistence needs as a right of us all, instead of the artificially constructed scarcity that forces us to fight each other over scraps while a handful, aspies among them, look on approvingly knowing our anger is not directed where it belongs, at them.
Our value as autistic people shouldn’t be based around a tiny subset who are believed to be uniquely positioned to run “innovative” Fortune 500 companies. There is no “Human 2.0.” How many non-autistic people, now and throughout history never had a chance to reach their full potential because they were born into lives of poverty, oppression, despair, or deliberately placed in chains and worked to death for an owner? Aspies are not awesome. Autistic people are simply part of the naturally-occurring variation that exists among the human species, just like the variation that exists among every other animal species on this planet. We need the chance to live the best lives we possibly can, and capitalism denies this to all of us, disabled or not.