Recently, young climate change activist Greta Thunberg has done much to not only draw the world’s attention to the vital issue of climate change, but also raise awareness about a little known behavioral “disorder” called Asperger’s Syndrome. At one point, the sixteen year-old Swedish girl referred to Asperger’s as a “superpower.” In a break with conventional societal norms and perceptions, which tend to stigmatize supposed handicaps, Thunberg embraced her condition, remarking that “being different is a good thing. It’s something we should aspire to be.”
People with Asperger’s, who sometimes refer to themselves as “Aspies” or “Aspergians,” argue they are “neuro-untypical,” as opposed to “neuro-typicals” or NT’s. In certain circumstances, Thunberg believes it can be advantageous to be “neuro-diverse,” which allows one to think differently. In an era of climate change, people with Asperger’s are valuable since they can “think outside the box” by helping to solve systemic problems.
Technically labeled a neurological disorder, Asperger’s is characterized by difficulties with social skills and communication. It gets a little hazy to pin down, however, since people with Asperger’s, who may display normal language development and even a high IQ, and are therefore considered to be “high functioning,” nevertheless fall within the range of a so-called “autism spectrum.” There’s huge variability within this “range,” with some individuals straining to perform everyday tasks, and others going on to high powered careers as doctors or other professions. Statistically, autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) individuals constitute one to two percent of the population, with boys four times more likely to have it than girls.
Creative but Lacking Marketing Skills
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define ASD as a behavioral, and not an intellectual disability, in which people approach learning and thinking differently from the rest of society. For example, Aspies may display an intense focus on singular or restricted interests, pursue a desire for sameness, and demonstrate a remarkable persistence and attention to detail (take, for example, this young man who was driven to learn “random points and facts about languages in far corners of the world,” which was fascinating to him but left others puzzled).
Indeed, patients are driven to explore a topic to its ultimate end in exhaustive detail, and when no new information is available, they proceed to the next topic. People with Asperger’s, moreover, are blessed with extreme discipline and analytical abilities, like to proceed slowly and methodically when exploring new interests, and may become irritated with errors in lecture handouts or other students whispering in school.
When Asperger’s individuals are given examples of a new concept in class, they may find it difficult to apply such examples on an exam if they are only slightly different. On the other hand, ASD individuals have pushed back against the notion that they somehow lack creativity. Hans Asperger, a pediatrician who performed research on autism, once remarked that “it seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” But while Aspies may display creativity, they lack sufficient marketing skills to get their ideas across to the rest of the world. As a result, their creativity may go undiscovered by those around them.
Hardly “Team Players”
In addition, ASD individuals prefer to work alone as opposed to being “team players.” Furthermore, many Aspergians express interest in at least one field of artistic or intellectual life. Since ASD individuals have difficulty in engaging in creative play, and may display “patchy” abilities where some skills are more developed than others, they may turn toward writing and painting as a form of “self-help.” Indeed, retreating into writing may provide a kind of “safe space,” because it allows for control over one’s own world and one can explore many different aspects of life.
From an early age, Aspergians demonstrate great skill in their areas of interest and may excel in such pursuits later on, be it photography, design, music, philosophy or engineering. Because they are good at spotting errors, they can make for great orchestra conductors. While it may be a little questionable to posthumously diagnose famous individuals, Beethoven, Mozart and Immanuel Kant are all thought to have had Asperger’s, not to mention Bobby Fischer, Albert Einstein, Alfred Kinsey and Stanley Kubrick. American actor Dan Akroyd has said that his Asperger’s has helped him creatively. Echoing such sentiments, Anthony Hopkins has remarked that his mild Asperger’s has helped him get into character. It is thought that Andy Warhol, too, may have had Asperger’s, since he was socially awkward while cultivating a repetitive artistic style.
Other Quirky Characteristics
To the outside observer, Asperger’s individuals may seem to display a narrow emotional range. Asking open-ended questions such as “tell me about yourself,” tend to elicit very limited information from an Aspie, who feels lost without a specific context or frame of reference. In other respects, too, Aspergians eschew an “open-ended” or improvisational approach to life and — by conventional standards at least — may seem inflexible when it comes to travel, scheduling and punctuality. This so-called rigidity may carry over into the sensory environment, with ASD individuals avoiding driving as it involves too much visual information. Similarly, they may feel overwhelmed by noise or become agitated when neighbors make a lot of racket.
Aspergians act in ways which others might consider eccentric, and may retreat into social isolation. Typically diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, they’re aware of the presence of others but may approach people in a peculiar manner, or prefer long-winded conversations with adults concerning a narrow topic. Though they may express interest in meeting people and making friends, their awkwardness and strange facial expressions may doom such encounters to failure. Indeed, Aspies find it difficult to form proper facial expressions at the appropriate time, or alternatively they simply remain expressionless or produce looks which may seem opaque or difficult to interpret to the casual observer.
Conversely, Aspergians may find other facial expressions difficult to read. Tony Atwood, a British psychologist and professor who is known for his work on Asperger’s, has remarked that ASD individuals “use up so much energy processing facial expressions that this leads to depression or depletion of energy.” Other particularities and tics may include speaking formally or in a monotone. Aspergians moreover may fail to grasp certain nuances in language or jokes, or have difficulty with motor skills such as catching a ball.
On the surface at least, such definitions can seem clear enough, but there’s some disagreement about Asperger’s itself, which has fueled a debate as to whether the disorder even exists as a unique condition. Originally coined as a term in 1981, Asperger’s became an official diagnosis separate from autistic disorder thirteen years later. Even then, however, the lines were somewhat hazy, and in 2013 an official scientific manual finally eliminated Asperger’s altogether, replacing it with the notion of an autism spectrum ranging from level one, meaning someone requiring support, to level three, requiring substantial support.
The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, has eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome from its own classification of diseases, calling the condition “autism spectrum disorder without disorder of intellectual development and with mild or no impairment of functional language.” Today, experts may use the term “high functioning autism” instead of Asperger’s, though over time society has concocted any number of terms for such individuals ranging from misfits, oddballs, introverts, nerds, geeks or other labels which may encourage marginalization and social ostracism.
Some observers worry that rulings by the WHO may jeopardize recent progress in identifying and providing support for Asperger’s individuals, who might otherwise return to a state of ambiguity, since they are “too well-functioning to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, but still in need of significant support.” But on the flip side, others worry that as Asperger’s becomes “part of the cultural landscape,” patients might seek out treatment and wind up getting categorized as being on the spectrum, when in actuality they are simply experiencing some form of mild social disability. In this scenario, shy and timid individuals with quirky interests may get lumped on to the spectrum, which renders a disservice to them in the long-run.
Without a proper understanding of ASD, many people resort to blame or shame if the individual seems uncaring. In such circumstances, Asperger’s individuals may feel swamped and overwhelmed by the majority culture, at best, or alternatively be driven to addictive behaviors and fall through the cracks of the social support system, at worst. The “seeds of depression can be there from rejection from one’s peers,” Atwood notes, “and you’re different and bad. But you didn’t get that belief from your parents or teachers, but from friends.”
Though Aspergians can be honest, trustworthy and reliable, they lack other crucial qualities which are vital to social functioning. In an intriguing video, therapist Sonya Bruner explains how ASD individuals may have difficulty understanding where other people are “coming from.” Indeed, Aspies lack “social pragmatics” shared by the majority and find “small talk” challenging. As a result, they can wind up monopolizing a conversation, particularly if the discussion turns toward their own particular interests. In the process, ASD individuals miss vital social cues and drive people away.
Young Aspergians have a high rate of suicide, perhaps related to anxiety and depression. In fact, the only other groups with a higher teen rate of suicide are transgender and homosexual individuals. Wrong-headed psychiatric evaluations of depression, meanwhile, may result in misguided strategies and treatments. Atwood has also claimed that Aspies are much more likely to be preyed upon and victimized, as opposed to being victimizers.
The Case of Adam Lanza
But some have pushed back against such hyper-romanticized views, arguing that Aspies are indeed capable of committing horrific acts. Writing in Guernica, Aspie Charli Devnet writes that “wounded prey may…grow desperate and strike back. A lifetime of being bullied, rejected, and relegated to the periphery of life can give rise to anger and bitter fantasies of revenge, especially perhaps among lonely young autistics that have grown up in a culture where violence is glamorized and who may turn to perfecting their skills at violent video games in lieu of a social life.”
Devnet suggests that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Connecticut elementary school massacre, may have had Asperger’s. Though advocates vehemently reject such notions, Devnet argues that we cannot fool ourselves. “Advocates prefer not to address these negative aspects of autism. The reason for this is easy to understand. First of all, scare no one. Better to portray us as shy, gentle, quirky geniuses. This is a safe depiction, but perhaps not complete. Yes, we want acceptance, but must we sacrifice some inconvenient facts, and pretend all aspies are saints? The one who is not a saint, who carries the scars of unbearable pain, must hide himself in shame.”
What is “Empathy”?
On the other hand, Bruner declares that people on the spectrum are indeed concerned when others are experiencing pain, and want to help ameliorate or relieve such pain. Crucially, however, they lack as many miR-neurons located in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex as the majority population. Such neurons are vital in helping us recognize and imitate behavior in others, while also picking up on emotions. This inability to “put yourself in someone’s shoes,” shall we say, isn’t really a lack of empathy but “more of a neuro-typical inability with perspective taking in the same way as others.” To call the behavior uncaring, therefore, renders a “disservice” to ASD people.
Dylan Dailor, a sixteen-year old Aspergian, says it’s too simplistic to say that ASD individuals “lack empathy.” In a TED talk, the young man joked that some of his classmates labeled him “a future serial killer” because of his supposed lack of empathy, though in time they realized he was a nice person. There are two types of empathy, Dailor remarked to his audience: “cognitive,” when you are able to look into someone’s mind and understand why they act in a certain way; and “affective,” “when there is this tension in the room, and you can feel it but you don’t know why.” Some research suggests that Aspergians have affective but not cognitive empathy, which leads to frustration in the ASD individual, since there is a sense of “disconnect” and a “missing piece.” Whatever the case, the concept of empathy is simply too complex for many psychologists to understand in the first place.
For me, the issue of Asperger’s carries keen personal resonance. Years ago, I was driven to search out a therapist due to a stressful teaching experience. Specifically, I experienced a meltdown after making a rather minor computational grading mistake. As I recall, the error was easy to correct and re-submit, but for some reason I blew things out of proportion. After calming me down in the initial sessions, my therapist turned things around to teaching as a whole, asking me leading questions such as “what do you think has gone wrong in the classroom?”
I’ve always wondered why certain things in life, such as writing meticulous and detail-oriented essays, seem to come naturally to me whereas social relations and particularly group situations can be confounding. In particular, the classroom presented its own unique challenges and torments. Though I got on reasonably well with my disciplined and regimented students from the former Soviet Union, there was little rapport with American white and African American working-class students. Inexperienced and guile-less, I failed to stay on top of things which led some students to cheat and take advantage of the situation.
My therapist suggested I try to engage the students by asking probing political and philosophical questions about the historical material presented in class. While a minority of students seemed to appreciate the discussions, others were passive, blasé and indifferent. Perhaps, my facial expression did not help matters: as a general rule, I do not like to have my picture taken, but when I do pose for a photo in a group setting, I marvel at how everyone else is smiling and my expression is frozen into a perpetual scowl.
After my therapist brought up my “affectless-ness,” I made a conscious effort to be more expressive in class and in other social situations. Despite my best efforts, however, I still struggled with both worlds. At one point, my therapist suggested I join his group therapy session. In the initial encounter, I asked a woman a mundane question about herself, and she turned around and announced to the group that she felt “judged” by me. Later, when the group failed to gain any cohesion and disbanded, my therapist blamed me, remarking how I had failed to contribute much to the conversation. At another point, after we had an argument, my therapist remarked, “you suck at meeting new people!”
Profile in the Guardian
For years, I remembered my argument with the therapist, reasoning that I just needed to try harder in social situations. One day, however, I read an article dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome in the Guardian. Best-selling author Tom Cutler found that his aloof disposition was damaging friendships. His frowning mien, meanwhile, exuded an unpleasant air. “I’ve always known there was something different about the way I relate to the world,” Cutler writes. “Chatting I found impossible,” he added, “and for as long as I could recall, parties had been a special kind of torture, provoking silent dread days ahead.” The writer added, “I am sometimes accused of being overly critical. I often have to button my lip at somebody’s…language error. I have had to learn that people do not want you constantly criticizing them and underlining their weaknesses.”
Seeking answers, Cutler sought out a therapist who diagnosed him with Asperger’s. The medical evaluation read, “Tom is a concrete thinker, with difficulties in reading people and social signals, which results in social awkwardness and difficulties in understanding the emotional perspectives of others…Tom’s experiences of anxiety and depression could be related to this atypical cognitive profile and its impact on a sense of ‘fitting in.’” “At last,” Cutler writes, “this condition made sense of the non-sequitur of my often lonely and overridingly out-of-sync life. I wasn’t, as I’d thought, mad; I wasn’t, as I’d thought, alone. I had unwittingly been autistic my whole life.”
Reading Cutler’s article, I began to wonder if I, too, might have Asperger’s since I exhibit many of the same traits. After talking with me for about an hour about my life experiences, a psychiatrist with experience in such matters remarked, “I would be reasonably confident you have provisional ASD,” meaning that I might be on the spectrum, though this would require additional follow-up. On my way out, after charging me a tidy sum which was not covered by my insurance provider, the psychiatrist recommended I read a couple of books, including Simon Baron-Cohen’s Autism and Asperger Syndrome.
Back at home, I read Baron-Cohen’s study and took a sample diagnostic test at the end of the book. Tabulating the results, I was shocked to find that I scored very high, indicating Asperger’s. In a text, I expressed puzzlement and asked the doctor if he could reconcile the two different findings. “It’s too complicated to explain over the phone,” he texted back, “but I am more than happy to schedule a follow-up.” I agreed and asked him when might be suitable, but bizarrely the doctor disappeared. Going online, I noticed that others had experienced similar problems with this particular psychiatrist, which led me to wonder what type of Hippocratic oath he thinks he’s subscribing to.
Unfortunately, getting to the bottom of the matter isn’t as straightforward as one might expect, since few doctors possess the necessary expertise, while others “aren’t taking new patients.” One practice, Spectrum Services, doesn’t even answer the phone or e-mail, and needless to say no one accepts common forms of insurance. Under such circumstances, it is easy to see how most people, unless they are incredibly persistent, will just give up over time. As for myself, I finally landed another appointment with a psychiatrist, though there’s a very long wait time. Assuming the second doctor can reach a definitive conclusion, then perhaps I can finally get to the bottom of the mystery.
In the wake of my appointment with the psychiatrist, questions swirled in my mind. Unlike Greta Thunberg, who has her whole life ahead of her, getting diagnosed in middle age might be a bitter pill for me to swallow. If I do indeed have Asperger’s, then what should I “do” with this information now? Judging from the online world, I am not the only person who has reflected on such matters. Take, for example, this woman who went undiagnosed well into adulthood. “I wasted what should have been the best years of my life,” she remarks, “and I’ll never get them back.” Another young man who was diagnosed in his twenties has remarked, “realizing that I was actually different wasn’t relieving, it was depressing and infuriating. For me, I was angry. Angry I missed it, angry how my family treated me before and after I was diagnosed, and angry how things were so difficult academically, mentally, socially.”
The “Little Professor”
If I am indeed an Aspergian, then this might explain certain things. For example, I suspect I have always been a “scowler” since I am constantly grimacing in old photos from childhood, except for one fourth grade photo in which I muster a half-smile, perhaps at the behest of the photographer. In this sense, I resemble Greta Thunberg, whose scowl, particularly when standing in back of Donald Trump at the United Nations, has become legendary.
On the other hand, some childhood photos capture me fully engrossed in my favorite hobbies, such as stamp collecting. To me, sorting, cataloguing and affixing stamps in my album always felt satisfying. Once I had collected all the stamps from one country, I would methodically move on to the next country. For as long as I can remember, I have been very detail-oriented, and fortunately in grammar school my quirky personality didn’t cause me much trouble.
Then, my family briefly moved to New Mexico in the late 1970s. I didn’t have anything in common with the kids at school, whose parents worked in the defense industry. My teacher, a gay man from New York, took me under his wing however. I remember how many boys my age belonged to the cub scouts, and though I had no desire to join the club, I was oddly fixated on my classmates’ blue outfits and specifically different animal badges sewn into kids’ shirts.
I loathed American summer camps and group sports, but at age eleven my parents sent me away to an international camp in Sweden which I found fascinating. Separate delegations of kids would hand out informational packets from their respective countries and perform dances while discussing varied cultural practices. I appreciated learning about the world through my experience, but it felt a little detached, almost as if I was a miniature ethnographer or “little professor.” Once more, I did not form lasting bonds with the kids though I did become friendly with an older counselor.
Focus on Animal Rights
In fourth grade, I vividly recall how our teacher told us to write reports about endangered animal species. I picked the black footed ferret, and found that I excelled at research and detail. To this day, I am still drawn to the topic of animals, particularly ones that are in peril. For a while, one of my favorite TV shows was Unlikely Animal Friends, a program documenting “heartwarming tales about special friendships an animal forms with either an animal of a different species or a human being.”
In recent years, I have kept up my interest through other favorite TV shows such as Extinct or Alive, in which an intrepid explorer sets out to remote corners of the world to see if supposedly extinct species can still be found. In addition, some of my favorite Twitter accounts include “Strange Animals” and “Extinct Animals.” On the wall of my apartment hangs a color poster of two endangered snow leopards from the Himalayas. I live with a Siberian cat, a breed known for being highly engaged and having the character of an “old Russian soul.”
To be sure, many people are passionate about animal rights, though I seem to be particularly fixated on these issues. Could there be some kind of connection to ASD? Apparently, I’m not the only one to wonder about such issues. One chat thread on the Quora web site asks “Why do people with Asperger’s/autism often like animals so much?” According to the Asperger-Autism Network, it’s very common for people on the spectrum to exhibit deep concern for animal rights. Another blog remarks that Aspies and animals “are like bread and butter.” ASD individuals, moreover, “tend to bond more with animals than they do with people…Animals will seemingly listen and not judge you based on your social skills.”
In one interesting video, an Aspergian talks about how his different perception of animals and people. “With people,” he remarks, “it’s like watching multiple channels: not only do I have to pay attention to what they’re saying, but their tone of voice, where their eyes are looking, their facial expressions, their posture. But when interacting with animals, it’s like they only have one channel. I think we’re the only species capable of lying to each other. Animals don’t lie to you.”
“Wheels Fall Off”
Happily concentrating on my assignments, such as the report about the black footed ferret, I got through grammar school without too much trouble. Later, however, I really started to run into difficulties, a phenomenon which has been remarked upon by medical professionals. As Atwood has noted, Aspergians “can hold it together in pre-school and primary school, but later in high school the wheels fall off because life is now much more complicated and they must relate to toxic teenage boys.”
People started to comment on my disposition, remarking that I seemed “aloof,” and “arrogant.” In a student evaluation, my ninth grade English teacher wrote, “he does not suffer fools greatly.” In high school, I did not identify with the jock or “popular crowd,” though conversely, I was not drawn to geeks, either. As a result, there was always a bit of ambiguity about my proper place, though in time I gravitated somewhat to the “artsy Bohemian” clique.
Fortunately, I attended an unusual high school in which some teachers recognized and cultivated my interests and talents, though if I had gone to a school in the U.S. south or Midwest, things might have turned out for the worse (not surprisingly, navigating hyper-ingrained power relations and social hierarchies later on in life turned out to be a real challenge, particularly in graduate school).
High school was perplexing in other ways, since I displayed “patchy” learning typical of people on the spectrum. My grandfather once remarked that I had a very analytical mind, and as a result I excelled at certain forms of writing. On the other hand, I was a failure at guitar, particularly jazz improvisation. In chemistry class, I could memorize scientific formulas, but I could not apply them to separate scenarios or situations on the exam (in a student evaluation, the teacher wrote charitably that “I tried”).
Over time, I have wondered about my own quirks. I don’t care for imprecise speech and typically vague American expressions such as “like,” “I mean,” and “you know.” On the other hand, though I appreciate irony, too much witty banter leaves me feeling frustrated, and when I briefly lived in the UK, I sometimes grew impatient with the theatrical English sensibility. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that I’ve always been somewhat guile-less and a terrible actor, particularly when it comes to improvisation. Though I appreciate other creative pursuits, I have my limitations. For example, though I enjoy fiction writing, I have always found it challenging to develop wider plot and story line.
I tend to speak in a flat and affect-less tone, and though I can make eye contact, I have never gotten any medals for being “warm and fuzzy.” I prefer discussions on serious topics, and I’ve never been very good at “small talk.” When people speak on their cell phones around me, or there is cross-talk in the classroom, it’s not just irritating but upsetting. If there is a couple talking animatedly to each other on the street, I will wait until they pass and resume walking. I am very sensitive to noises throughout my building, and being subjected to performers in the subway feels like a true assault. Though I got my drivers’ license without much of a problem, I have not gotten back into the drivers’ seat since my initial exam…which was in the summer of 1987.
I am generally very reliable, responsible and punctual, and if people are disorganized, frequently arrive late, try to constantly re-schedule with me or change a routine, I find it not just enervating but extremely frustrating. Though I value international travel, I don’t have a very “go with the flow” or improvisational manner, which means that I rarely meet anyone outside the usual hotel staff or tour guides. When getting together with others, I prefer one-on-one interactions, particularly in familiar settings or cafes. But when someone digs in, insisting on meeting in loud and noisy restaurants with other unfamiliar people, accompanied by cross-talk or discussions concerning topics which are new or alien to me, I feel like I am being obliged to socialize on someone else’s “turf.”
Throughout history, the majority has always sought to marginalize, ostracize or even eliminate those who don’t fit underlying political or social “norms,” and Aspergians are certainly no exception. Indeed, in light of the not-too-distant past, Aspies might even want to re-consider their own name for themselves. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician credited for his pioneering work on the autism spectrum, was hailed as a kind of Oskar Schindler-type figure who protected patients, but recent findings suggest a much darker record of Nazi collaboration and persecution of children.
Prior to World War II, Asperger was reluctant to classify children into separate groups. Within the more tolerant and leftist political climate of interwar Vienna, the pediatrician emphasized the need for treating the whole child and celebrating neuro-diversity as opposed to labeling conditions as “disorders.” Rather than labeling autism as a form of idiocy, Asperger realized that certain children were intelligent and even brilliant. He even argued that society might benefit from the unique intelligence of these “little professors,” who displayed a keen ability to think in abstract and unconventional terms. In 1944, the pediatrician reported that his patients displayed “autistic psychopathy,” a term which later simply became Asperger’s Syndrome.
Even though Asperger never joined the Nazi party, he was a member of Nazi organizations. For example, prior to Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, or Anschluss, the doctor was affiliated with Bund Neuland, a Catholic youth group which upheld fascist ideas and pan-German ideology. In addition, Asperger worked as a psychiatric expert within Vienna’s Nazi-operated juvenile court system, and sought a consultancy position within the Hitler Youth.
Within months of the Anschluss, Asperger reversed course and started characterizing autistic children as a “well-characterized group,” and later he began to call them “abnormal.” If that were not enough, by 1944 Asperger claimed such children fell outside “the greater organism” of Nazi ideals.
There is some speculation that the pediatrician was simply trying to get with the program, since he was up for promotion. By taking pro-Nazi positions, Asperger benefited professionally and his career took off, even as his Jewish colleagues were removed. The ambitious and opportunistic pediatrician fit right into the Nazi state with its hyper ideals of social conformity. Whereas psychiatry had previously been based on notions of compassion and empathy, the discipline now became part of an effort to classify the population of Germany, Austria and elsewhere into genetically fit or unfit groups.
For the Nazis, instilling the concept of Gemüt, meaning “disposition” or “temperament” was highly important, and child psychiatrists were tasked with molding and socializing the individual to the needs of the collective. Gemüt, it was believed, was actually quantifiable and could be learned by joining community organizations such as the Hitler Youth. Unfortunately, autistic children were regarded as lacking Gemüt, which made them “incorrigible,” disconnected from society and unable to fit in.
Within the context of euthanasia programs, psychiatrists and others were obliged to decide who would live or die, and children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were murdered in nursing homes. Some in fact were starved, whereas others were dosed with lethal injections and their deaths chalked up to such factors as pneumonia. Though Asperger protected some children who he deemed intelligent, he referred others to Vienna’s infamous Am Spiegelgrund clinic, a center of child euthanasia.
Indeed, some of Asperger’s closest colleagues and mentors had set up the Am Spiegelgrund eugenics program in the first place, which reinforces the idea that Asperger was hardly some sort of passive follower. After the war, Asperger perversely claimed he was a Nazi resister and called the euthanasia program “inhuman.” After casting himself as a child savior, he was allowed to go back to the Vienna university clinic, where he enjoyed a long academic career.
Mocking ASD Individuals
Though society has certainly made great strides in understanding ASD individuals, rightists continue to insult those who are different. Take, for example, Donald Trump, who has mocked Greta Thunberg, someone who has openly spoken about her Asperger’s Syndrome. When the young climate change activist was named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year, the president stooped to a new low. Thunberg, Trump tweeted, should work on her “anger management issues” and should simply “go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend,” as opposed to pursuing issues of weighty importance.
Not to be outdone, Trump’s cohorts joined the fray, with some claiming Thunberg was “deranged” and a “mentally ill child,” while others mocked the girl’s voice. At one point, Fox News host Laura Ingraham juxtaposed Thunberg giving a speech on climate change with the 1984 horror film Children of the Corn. “I can’t wait for Stephen King’s sequel, Children of the Climate,” Ingraham mused charmingly. Others have quipped that Thunberg has been exploited by the left or her parents, which feeds into an underlying narrative that autistic people can’t have their own independent thoughts or beliefs.
In a race to the bottom, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on an epic rant, remarking “The first thing to notice about Greta Thunberg is that she’s 16 years old. She claims she has Ansperger’s type — Ausperger’s — or autism — Asperger’s — some kind of problem in that area…So she’s out tweeting and politicizing, and she is free to lie and say whatever she wants to say about climate change and who’s responsible for it. And nobody is permitted to question her, you see, because she has — what did they call it? She is in the autism spectrum, so you can’t disagree, you can’t question, because she’s not well.”
Rain Man and the Autistic Savant
Perhaps, if the wider public was better informed about ASD, Limbaugh and the like would find it more difficult to get away with their spiteful attacks. Unfortunately, however, Hollywood and the entertainment industry haven’t really depicted the topic of Asperger’s very thoroughly or convincingly. To date, the only successful Hollywood film to deal with autism is Rain Man. In that 1988 movie, Dustin Hoffman played autistic savant Raymond Babbitt, a portrayal which later became a kind of common trope.
“As a beginning for autism on screen,” the Guardian notes, “Rain Man deserves applause. It gave autistic people a visibility that had previously been denied them. In one fell swoop Rain Man achieved almost overnight the kind of representation that parent advocacy groups had been working towards for decades. But as the dominant depiction of autism on screen, it also deserves derision. The autistic community is more than Raymond Babbitt.” The publication continues, “Autistic people are frequently met with the same question that a doctor asks Raymond in the film: ‘Does he have any special abilities?’… The idea that all autistic people are geniuses, or that they all have savant abilities such as extraordinary memory, is a myth, a myth that is largely alive and kicking today due to Rain Man. Yet the cultural stereotype of Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant, persists…But Rain Man’s ubiquity and its influence is hardly the film’s fault. The blame lies with the wider industry. Rain Man should have been a cultural beginning for autistic characters on screen. Instead it became a singular event, an end point.”
From Rain Man to Young Sheldon
TV shows have taken their cue from Rain Man. Take, for example, The Good Doctor, which also pushes the trope of the autistic savant. In the Big Bang Theory, another recent TV hit, Jim Parsons plays a kind of “cuddly” theoretical physicist and poster boy for Asperger’s Syndrome. The character of Sheldon Cooper, in fact, turned into a pop icon and even led to a spin-off show, Young Sheldon. But tellingly, perhaps, the Big Bang Theory never spelled out that Sheldon had Asperger’s, which meant that writers could “have their autism jokes and avoid being accused of stereotyping.”
For those who live with family members on the spectrum, such shows fall short of the mark because they tend to portray an overly rosy or “cuddly” reality. As one mother put it, “characters who make viewers go ‘aww’ over autism spectrum behaviors create an unrealistic expectation that autistic people be consistently endearing and quirky, and ultimately socially successful. There will never be a very special episode of Young Sheldon where Sheldon…cries himself to sleep because his last friend has decided he’s too weird and turned his back on him. The writers won’t allow that.”
For openly “coming out” as someone with Asperger’s, Greta Thunberg deserves a lot of credit. Indeed, some fellow Aspergians now view Thunberg as a role model and have embraced the Twitter hashtag “Autistics for Greta.” Perhaps, the high-profile climate change activist will encourage others to disclose their Asperger’s Syndrome and stop feeling a sense of shame. One enthusiastic user tweeted “such a fearless, articulate young woman. We might be considered ‘odd, weird, quirky….’ Or whatever adjectives that you prefer to insert but I’m convinced folks on the Autism Spectrum have superpowers that you all just don’t…”
On the other hand, Thunberg’s comments have stirred some controversy with fellow ASD individuals. Some have pointed out that different rungs on the spectrum can feel like a kind of “ranking,” ranging from impaired to less so. On Twitter, the hashtag aspiepower has prompted pushback from the more inclusive hashtag AllAutistics. One user tweeted, “thinking that ‘aspies’ are special shiny autistics who are functionally different from ‘severe’ autistics is aspie supremacy. Fight that. Always.”
Other Aspergians have given credit to Thunberg, albeit with certain caveats and reservations. Lizzie Huxley-Jones, who was diagnosed with ASD in her twenties, found that being on the spectrum got her into trouble in the workplace as she was seen as “uppity, going above my station, or disruptive for pointing out logical inconsistencies.” Writing in Prospect Magazine, she notes that “given the right circumstances, autistic people can use their strengths—such as passion, thoroughness, willingness to research a topic until we know everything we can about it, a strong sense of justice—to flourish.”
On the other hand, Huxley-Jones adds, “my main concern is whether these same people are making the connection between Greta’s behavior and that of the blunt, slightly-odd and brusque woman in their office, or at the school gates, or even in their family. While Thunberg’s passion and willingness to point at complacency are praised, this reverence does not necessarily play out for adult autistics, who are often seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘too blunt.’”
Special X-Men “Super-Powers”
Others have questioned Thunberg’s turns of phrase, specifically taking issue with the term “super-power.” “With the greatest of respect, I don’t view my Asperger’s as a ‘superpower,’” remarks Aspie Eliza Ketcher. Nevertheless, Ketcher adds that her disorder has allowed her to cultivate abilities which “other people may not have…There’s a clarity that comes from feeling like an outsider…Complex ideas can seem simpler…I can cut through all the unnecessary extra air around them and dive straight into what’s important.”
Meanwhile, some have gone into over-drive by taking the “super-power” metaphor to a whole new level, claiming that Asperger’s could be “the next stage of human evolution.” “In the future,” professor Tony Atwood remarks, “some of our major problems will be solved with people with Asperger’s, whether it be pollution, electricity, or whatever it might be, by people thinking ‘outside the box.’ I think we need to embrace and encourage the particular abilities, because our future is based on such individuals.”
Others, however, have remarked that far from being a super-power, getting diagnosed with ASD represented “more of a roadblock than a stepping stone.” Sara Luterman, who is autistic, has criticized progressives for putting Thunberg on a pedestal. Writing in Slate, Luterman remarks, “if not quite consecration, Thunberg has drawn intense adoration from the left, largely from well-meaning people who see a revolutionary figure in her. And that praise, too, has too often crossed the line into the dehumanizing.”
As an example, Luterman points to an article in Jacobin, a trendy web site popular amongst the socialist and Bernie set, which claims that Thunberg is “uniquely suited” to leading a world-wide movement because she is autistic. While Luterman praises Thunberg for her tenacity and seriousness, she believes that romanticizing ASD has its downsides. By implying the climate change icon forms part of a kind of “X-Men” class of mutants, the left is repeating age-old clichés such as the “blind seer.”
Penchant for Social Justice
Moreover, Luterman asks, if Thunberg’s leadership has more to do with ingrained biological traits than her ability to inspire others, then why would other neurotypicals follow her lead? “To flatten her gifts to a result of her diagnosis undercuts exactly what’s made her such a powerful advocate in the first place,” Luterman writes. “More than that,” she adds, “it’s important to remember that superhuman and subhuman are both something other than human. They are two sides of the same degrading coin. It seems that no one is interested in simply allowing Thunberg to be what she is: a remarkable, talented young person who’s breaking through to millions.”
But without getting all “mystical” about it, some have remarked that ASD individuals seem to simply display a penchant for social justice. Dania Jekel, Executive Director of the Asperger/Autism Network, has remarked that “when you grow up feeling like you’re kind of on the outside or you’re different from other people, I think it makes you empathetic for animals or people who have differences in our society.’’
Attwood, meanwhile, claims that Aspergians are renowned for being direct, and “don’t like it when something doesn’t seem fair and breaks with routine. Their allegiance is to the truth, pointing out errors and even people in power.” To hear Thunberg talk about herself, it seems there may be some truth to the professor’s theory. Indeed, the young activist has shown that she’s not afraid of politicians or bigwigs, remarking “I’m on the autism spectrum, so I don’t really care about social codes that way.”
Minority Within the Minority
On a purely personal level, I have often reflected on my own outsider perspective. Whether I had some kind of innate predilection toward outsiders, or this was borne out of my own personal experiences and politics, I can’t really say. Whatever the case, writing about forgotten, obscure or neglected groups in society has been something of an obsession. In the wake of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, for example, I crisscrossed the country four times while conducting exhaustive interviews with ethnic, religious, social and political minorities.
I have in fact probably spoken with ethnic minorities that some Ukrainians haven’t even heard of. In Odessa, for example, I interviewed a member of the Gagauz minority, who seemed surprised and taken aback to speak with a foreign journalist. Later, after compiling my interviews from Odessa, I wrote an article about an obscure region called Bessarabia. On another occasion, I traveled ten hours by overnight train to the small city of Uzhgorod, which lies close to the Hungarian border. When I checked into my hotel and explained that I wanted to learn more about the Rusyn people, the concierge was flabbergasted and dismissive, remarking, “no one is interested in that!”
Undeterred, I proceeded to conduct interviews with members of the Roma community and Hungarian minority, not to mention Ukrainian Jews who face a resurgent right-wing tied to World War II-era symbolism. In light of the many political challenges facing Ukraine, writing about minorities and their plight seemed like a worthwhile goal. Back at home in New York, I have parted ways somewhat with traditional leftists, some of whom display an overly pat and simplistic view of society in which certain groups are made into martyrs, while others are conveniently swept under the rug. On a very basic and intrinsic level, such viewpoints seem incomplete and fail to convey how I perceive the world. But perhaps somewhat oddly, my interest in drawing attention to “the minority-within the minority-within the minority” sometimes feels a little detached and scientific, which seems to hark back to long-held personal patterns.
Reframing the ASD Debate
For behaving differently or “thinking outside the box,” ASD individuals have been relegated to the margins while paying a stiff social price. But in an effort to level the playing field, some have questioned the entire notion of social norms and acceptability in the first place. “When a person doesn’t fit in with others,” asks Forbes, “is the problem the person or the others? Not fitting in is not necessarily a bad thing. ‘Normal’ is often defined by what most people are doing at a given place and time. Sometimes, being ‘normal’ can be all about maintaining the status quo, which clearly shouldn’t be done in many situations such as pollution and climate change.”
Ivonne Fernández y González, an artist on the spectrum, has remarked that she was always fascinated by the idea of multi-faceted teams in which each individual member could bring their own unique skills to bear. Unfortunately, however, in real life conformity and homogeneity are propped up as the ideal, and those who are different are marginalized. Moreover, the neuro-typical majority gets to define what is normal and that becomes the status quo. But ultimately, aren’t the supposed “weaknesses” of ASD individuals a mere matter of interpretation and context?
ASD vs. Neurotypicals
As a “thought experiment,” Fernández y González compares and contrasts neuro-typical NT’s with ASD individuals. NT’s, she writes, are more prone to obey authority, “even in violent and immoral ways.” What is more, they are “needy for belonging to a group, and belonging to such groups can in turn lead to exclusionary behavior.” ASD people, on the other hand, “own a strong moral system in the sense of Kant’s categorical imperative that is not easily shaken by peer pressure. They have a high sense of justice and high sensitivity to the suffering of others [and they] act in favor of the greater good based on what logically benefits the most people as opposed to what benefits their social status.” Unfortunately, having a strong moral system is labeled as “inflexibility” whereas blind obedience common to NT’s is regarded as normal.
In an attempt to re-frame the debate around so-called disability, Fernández y González states “I wish for neurotypicals to reflect that they also have weaknesses that some of us autistic people could well supplement if we were included in teams. I think if people listened more to autistics, we would be able to create a better world together…I would like to see diverse, heterogeneous teams full of mutual respect in which individual weaknesses and strengths are reflected and accepted. Because we have all strengths and weaknesses, but unfortunately neurotypical people too often forget their weaknesses and do not pay attention to the strengths of the neuro-diverse people. They seem to not understand how teams should work.”
Co-opting Special Abilities
Fernández y González makes some valid points, but just what kinds of “teams” are we talking about, and toward what end? In an ideal world, perhaps, NT’s would seek greater teamwork on issues of vital political and social concern, while allowing Aspies’ unique voices to be heard. Unfortunately, however, the establishment has been trying to “co-opt” Aspies for its own opportunistic purposes. As Fortune has reported, neuro-diverse individuals have become an attractive recruiting target for the corporate world, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Ford.
Goldman managers believe that failure to employ ASD individuals could represent “a missed opportunity for employers and society, considering this highly intelligent and skilled talent pool embodies intense levels of concentration and dependability, and often higher retention rates than neurotypical people.” The company recruiting program, therefore, “aims to empower and integrate neuro-diverse people into the workforce and give individuals an opportunity to bring their unique strengths and skills to our workplace.” “Once onboard,” Goldman seeks to find ways to position ASD individuals “for success,” while recognizing that not all Aspies are good with numbers.
Some ASD individuals are moving up the Goldman chain and want to make it big. Goldman managers are salivating at the prospect of herding disciplined Aspies into the company and placing individuals within engineering, operations and compliance divisions. Company bigwigs, meanwhile, remark that “employers are thinking more diversely about their workforce because they want to get the best talent through the door. We’re increasingly recognizing those talents can be found within this historically underrepresented group. It’s a lot easier than most people think to integrate someone with autism into the workplace.”
ASD and Radical Politics
Is this really the kind of “empowerment” that ASD individuals should aspire to? Instead of trying to fit in to hyper-conformist society, perhaps Aspies should cultivate their strengths to rein in the excesses of a world dominated by NT’s. Though Aspies don’t represent a monolithic bloc, let alone a community of like-minded political individuals, I cannot help wonder how many anarchists are on the spectrum. It seems logical, in fact, that ASD individuals would naturally be attracted to radical political philosophies which seek to eradicate hierarchy.
Writing in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson remarks, “the anarchist has a brain that won’t shut up. They cannot keep themselves from asking ‘What is this? What is it for? Must things be this way? Can they be different?’ Children, of course, ask questions like these, and one reason I like anarchists is that they refuse to stop asking questions that we all had as children but never received satisfactory answers to.” Robinson adds, “some of us just stop asking questions eventually, but anarchists are uncommonly stubborn people who do not accommodate themselves to the society around them no matter how intense the pressure. This can make them difficult, but it also means that they are like George Bernard Shaw’s ‘unreasonable man’: The reasonable person adapts themselves to the world, while the unreasonable person waits for the world to adapt itself to them.”
Perhaps, ASD individuals are more “wired” to criticize authority and hierarchy, because on a certain level these notions simply don’t make sense to them. Pete Wharmby, an English teacher with Asperger’s, writes that Aspies simply don’t care how they act around authority figures. “It’s not that we’re deficient,” he adds, “it’s more that this authority business is a neurotypical notion that we don’t seem to share, and thus we tend to ignore it…We automatically seek to be on a level with everyone we meet. This is subconscious and not controllable, unless we really need to. It occurs throughout our lives from childhood to old age.”
Such attitudes make Aspies “really weird” to NT’s who gladly accept authority. “This is a very good and a very bad thing,” Wharmby writes, “because sadly, unearned authority is a big part of human existence. From police and the armed forces, whose authority is granted by an abstract ‘State,’ to random adults in the street telling kids off – it’s everywhere.”
From Orwell to Traven
Whether I chose radical political philosophies or they chose me, I’m not sure. But from an early age, I became fascinated by George Orwell, an anarchist writer who may have had ASD himself since he “displayed the social impairment, narrow focus, repetitive behavior and clumsiness typical of the syndrome.” The New York Times remarks, “Orwell had major problems fitting in at British preparatory schools — not surprisingly, he hated the totalitarian tenor of teachers and school administrators — but someone on the autism spectrum could probably never have become a police officer in Lower Burma, as Orwell did.”
In high school we were encouraged to read from our favorite books for a public forum. I chose a selection from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about the author’s anarchist experiences in Spain. I later delved into other anarchist works, including The Ego and Its Own, an obscure book written by Max Stirner. To this day, I have a full library of B. Traven’s works which mostly deal with the plight of Indians in the Mexican region of Chiapas. Traven, whose real identity remains something of a mystery, became famous after his book Treasure of the Sierra Madre was adapted to the silver screen. But my favorite Traven book, The Death Ship, is centered around a stateless man who gets abandoned by his crew and winds up on a doomed ocean tanker.
Bernie’s Political Revolution
Dipping in to my books here and there, I was a bit of an “armchair anarchist,” though that would shortly change. In 2015, I got involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign and worked as a volunteer for about a year on and off. Previously, I had been inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement which prompted me to start this web site showcasing and exploring unconventional political ideas. On a purely personal level, I was less interested in joining the notion of “Team Bernie” and more intrigued by the idea of re-energizing Occupy. Even if Bernie lost, I reasoned, perhaps the Vermont Senator might create a social movement.
Indeed, Sanders himself raised expectations by speaking about the need to create a grassroots movement and a political revolution. He also remarked that Obama’s chief mistake was to have demobilized his followers after the 2008 election. In a nod to socialist union organizer Eugene Debs, the Vermont Senator declared that he wouldn’t make such tactical blunders. Hoping that Bernie would follow through on his rhetoric, I participated in the campaign in Brooklyn and even went to the south to canvas in advance of the South Carolina primary. But then, when Bernie lost to Hillary Clinton in the New York primary, I became disillusioned when it became clear that thousands of people had mysteriously been thrown off the voting rolls.
What had all my efforts actually achieved? I recall attending a Bernie town hall late in the campaign, when it had already become clear that Sanders would withdraw from the race. Despite the campaign’s imminent demise, I hoped Bernie would spell out how the political revolution might proceed and spur the growth of a grassroots movement. What I got instead, however, was a canned Bernie speech reciting a long list of social ills. If Bernie had any tactical vision of how to channel the energy of his supporters, the candidate made no mention. Far from becoming a “movement politician,” Sanders seemed poised to go back to the Senate in order to work with his “esteemed colleagues across the aisle.” Despite these disappointments, when I looked around the auditorium, I saw the enthralled crowd rapt in attention. At various points, people rose up from their chairs to deliver standing ovations, as if we were singing the Star-Spangled Banner at a ballgame. When I stayed in my chair and refrained from clapping, I noticed some in the crowd giving me the “evil eye”: a crystallizing moment and yet another instance of not fitting in with “the team.”
ASD and Buddhism
If I do have ASD, then I can probably get some use from self-help books. Such works are hardly in short supply, with titles such as Living Well on the Spectrum: How to Use Your Strengths to Meet the Challenges of Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism,Emotional Mastery for Adults with Aspergers – Practical Techniques to work through anger, anxiety and depression, and A Self-Determined Future with Asperger Syndrome: Solution Focused Approaches. But even if I don’t have Asperger’s, and it is simply a social disability, or alternatively I am just an overly cerebral person, then I can probably benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy.
Others, however, have criticized western psychological approaches while embracing Buddhism. Take, for example, Aspie Thomas Clements who “grew disillusioned with conventional treatments” and cognitive behavioral therapy. “Autism is often a heavy burden,” he writes. “It’s a barrier to life that keeps us from being instinctive, free, and spontaneous. People with Asperger’s have to go on a much more tortuous and far less accommodating road than most before they can discover their place with others.”
Ultimately, Clements turned to writing as a form of therapy. In his book The Autistic Buddha, he sought “alternative ways of reducing my own mental suffering.” Through meditation, he was able to become more pro-social in his behavior and “far more at ease in my own skin, to the extent that I began…initiating conversation with strangers.” Specifically, Clements found that by letting go of the self, “I quickly dissolved much of the naive egocentrism associated with my autism.”
Aspies’ Place in Society
I am sure that self-help books might provide helpful coping strategies, but the reality is that, fairly or unfairly, ASD people are a tiny minority and it is probably unreasonable to expect that other people will adjust to Aspies’ way of seeing things. Since Asperger’s is a personality type which does not change over time, the only remedy for the ASD individual is to try to adapt to the outside world as best they can.
Others, however, argue that society should be more accommodating. Writing in The Hill, Sam Farmer remarks that neuro-diversity should form a significant aspect of our social fabric. “We acknowledge diversity with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, skin color and political affiliation, among others,” he writes. “Why not neurology?”
As a psychological experiment, I decided to “out myself,” as it were, reasoning that if gay people could come out of the closet, then why should that be any more valid than ASD? In casual conversations both online and off, I mentioned that I was probably on the spectrum, which elicited a range of responses. Some people said nothing, others had no idea what I was talking about, still others took a pitying and sorrowful tone, while other acquaintances expressed understanding. One person remarked, “we’re all on the spectrum,” while another added, “we’ve all got something.”
Seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy, reading tons of self-help books or trying to adjust to the majority culture sounds like an exhausting task. In light of the mess which conventional NT’s have created in the world through their conformist team culture, maybe it is time for the majority to start recognizing Aspies for their problem-solving talents. Indeed, as the New York Times has put it, “members of the political establishment may have other kinds of psychopathology; but, unlike the rest of us, they at least cannot be thought of as Aspies.”
Perhaps such NT politicians have become part of the problem, not to mention the whole non-governmental organization or NGO complex. Environmental NGO’s, for example, might recognize they have become something of an industry while failing to make a meaningful dent in climate change, all of which suggests it’s time to recruit more people like Thunberg who can “think outside the box.” Going further, Jacobin remarks that the majority is afflicted with ADHD “which has become the neurological metaphor of our internet age.” In light of our predicament, therefore “perhaps a dose of autism is just the right antidote to our collective ADHD.”