At the risk of posing a somewhat grandiose question, has humanity reached an evolutionary impasse? From the turn towards authoritarian rule to systemic racism to the climate crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, our problems seem to have taken on an intractable quality. Perhaps, the fact that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which is now simply known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), may help to explain why I pose far-reaching questions. It is said that we “Aspies,” “ASD individuals,” or “Aspergians” display a relentless penchant for getting to the “why” in most anything we set our minds to, which may come off as pedantically naive to the “neuro-typical” (or “NT”) majority. Unfortunately, ASD individuals have frequently been relegated to the margins, ostracized and stigmatized. Not surprisingly, this may lead many Aspies down a very dark path resulting in severe mental health challenges, addictive behaviors or even suicide. Others wind up stuck in menial jobs which fail to incorporate Aspies’ true potential. And yet, by under-valuing or even mocking ASD individuals’ unique contributions, society may find it that much more difficult to claw its way out of rapidly cascading problems, which require a thorough examination of where we are headed as a species, or in this case where we may have gone astray.
Autism and Human Evolution
At one time, such NT majority “neuro-tyranny,” for lack of a better way of putting it, was held in check. Indeed, autism may have played a significant role in human evolution. Some experts believe that “autistic characteristics” emerged after the split between modern Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, some 500,000 years ago, since such genes have been found to be lacking in the Neanderthal genome, as well as another closely related hominid species, the Denisovans. Other research, however, suggests that some autism genes form part of our shared ape heritage which pre-dates the specific point at which modern humans emerged. Scientists, for example, observed a research monkey displaying repetition, reduced social interaction and impaired ability to modify behavior in response to others, all of which is common to ASD in humans. Later, when researchers studied the monkey’s DNA, they uncovered certain similarities with autistic humans. Other scientists have observed bonobos displaying autistic-like behavior as they fixate on shiny objects and avoid eye contact.
Whatever the case, 100,000 years ago the archaeological record starts to suggest a shift in modern human behavior. New traits apparently linked to autism began to emerge, including a focus on detail, technological innovation, grasp of complex systems and evidence of group collaboration, not to mention the exchange of materials. Artifacts uncovered at European Paleolithic sites reflect a focus on the recording of natural and astronomical systems, and contemporaneous art is replete with highly realistic depictions of animals, which in turn suggests a remarkable sense of memory and fixation upon overlapping parts in drawings. Take, for example, the Chauvet Cave in southern France which contains well-preserved figurative paintings demonstrating remarkable attention to realism and detail, as well as a hyper-focus on parts as opposed to wholes.
The archaeological findings imply a link to ASD individuals, who display “heightened visual perception,” and the ability to recognize different plants or animals. To this day, traditional societies value ASD individuals, for example in Siberia where elderly and socially withdrawn reindeer herders hold encyclopedic memories of the lineage, medical history and demeanor of literally thousands of animals in a herd, knowledge which benefits the community as a whole (such elders seem to be more comfortable in the company of reindeer than humans, pitching their tents some distance away from others and cooking for themselves). It is logical to assume that previously, individuals possessing similar abilities would have received comparable treatment and respect within traditional societies.
“Blind Allegiances” Vs. Fairness and Rules
In addition to technological and artistic advancements, there were other advantages when it came to integrating and incorporating ASD individuals. One common charge leveled against autists is that they lack empathy (though to be sure “empathy” is a controversial concept which is hotly debated even within the psychological profession). But such notions about Aspies’ are fundamentally misplaced, experts argue, pointing out that ASD individuals care about others’ wellbeing, though they may have difficulty with “perspective taking” and display a decreased ability to “intuitively” sense other people’s feelings.
Unlike some NTs, Aspies may channel their empathy into wider societal concerns such as the desire for fairness, justice and scientific progress. In this sense, ASD individuals could have fulfilled an important evolutionary role, since empathy can often lead people to blindly follow allegiances. Because they display an obsession with fairness and rules, autists would have been helpful in promoting understandings and agreements between groups, regardless of any particular allies, in contrast to reacting emotionally or bowing down to such allegiances. As a result, ASD individuals may have constrained exploitation, while simultaneously providing small-scale societies with a necessary evolutionary advantage.
Scholars, in fact, remark that “widespread connections, exchange of materials and collaboration at times of need which we see after around 100,000 years ago may have been driven by the inclusion of autistic minds into societies.” Such connections may have helped Paleolithic groups collaborate and withstand severe environmental challenges, in addition to famine. To this day, some traditional hunter-gatherers adhere to defined rules of social behavior by collaborating in times of crisis, rather than observing personal favors or complex allegiances. Within certain tribes, meanwhile, people take steps to ensure the fair sharing of food, and such rigidly defined rules prevent “emotionally-driven personal allegiances from influencing the sharing of resources.”
“Next Phase” of Evolution?
Far from constituting an alien group of “the other,” then, ASD individuals may form part of what makes us truly human. In this sense, evolution and the archaeological record doesn’t merely reflect the story of how one type of human mind progressed, but rather how autistic traits emerged and contributed to a “complex interrelationship between different minds.” Academics have surmised that “it is a good bet that Aspies with high levels of expertise in narrowly focused subjects (some would say obsessions) will be overrepresented among the innovators who move us forward.” Others have gone so far as to claim that “all human evolution was driven by slightly autistic Asperger’s and autistic people. The human race would still be sitting around in caves chattering to each other if it were not for them.”
The persistence of autistic traits over time begs the question of whether there may be some evolutionary purpose behind ASD, and such debates have in fact made their way into intriguing academic discussions. Studies have shown that inherited genetic variants linked to autism have been more selected naturally than would be expected by random chance, and that autism is highly hereditary. For those families passing down ASD genes, autism may bring certain advantages and allow for the passing down of valued skills and talents. At the most basic level, scientists say, autism may have been conserved because it makes us smarter, since ASD genetic variants are associated with intellectual achievement and “traits linked to brain performance, such as molecular functions involved in the creation of new neurons.” Other experts believe that autistic-like individuals who display “low empathizing and good systemizing abilities” might be more successful at gaining power, and therefore more likely to achieve reproductive success.
But if such traits are so desirable, then why hasn’t ASD become more common throughout the population? Within online chatrooms, Aspies themselves have been skeptical that ASD somehow represents the “next phase of evolution.” Whatever their special abilities, some ASD individuals lack social skills common to the NT majority. While the Aspie brain may be well-equipped to take in details, such tendencies may come at a cost, since the social world doesn’t focus on details but rather broad-brush, “gestalt processing.” As a result, Aspies find it that much more difficult to attract the opposite sex, or so the argument goes, and may wind up not having children at the same rate as the general public. In this scenario, the neurological future of humanity is bleak, and will come to resemble something out of the movie Idiocracy.
Furthermore, despite some extravagant claims, there is no evidence that ASD is increasing within society. That is to say, the prevalence of ASD has jumped in the U.S., not the actual incidence, and experts note that increased reporting has more to do with better monitoring and diagnosis of the condition. Perhaps not surprisingly, the highest rise in such reporting has occurred within white neighborhoods, where families of higher socio-economic status tend to live and people have greater access to quality healthcare. In addition, experts remark that an increase in prevalence was probably inevitable, given that classic definitions of autism were too narrow and failed to take the notion of a full spectrum into account. In more recent studies, moreover, cases which had previously been diagnosed as mere learning disabilities were re-catalogued, and mild cases were also included in the autism category.
But even as notions about the supposed “next phase of evolution” are debunked, some have attacked NT society while touting the idea that ASD values and traits would dramatically improve society. It is said that autists will not take anything at face value, and are constantly demanding new evidence to update their pool of knowledge. As a result, they aren’t easily persuaded by popular opinions, and may be less prone to attribute major life events to a higher power, supernatural force or religion, preferring instead to “relish life’s absurd, dark, or incongruous side.” In tandem with such tendencies, Aspies are prone to “bottom-up” processing which relies on collecting vast amounts of details, synthesizing such information and then putting facts together in an “inductive” fashion. The claim has been made that Aspies’ thinking approach “is indispensable to innovative thinking,” whereas NT’s tend to embrace generalizations and concepts first, only later looking for supporting details and evidence.
It has become fashionable to tout Aspies while promoting discussions on neuro-diversity within business circles and at Harvard, with panelists noting that ASD individuals spend a lot of time inquiring about broad “why” questions and experimenting with ideas that “others would consider crazy or a waste of time.” Some have noted an “affinity” between autists and the Information Age, given that Aspies tend to relate better to animals and machines, while others have drawn attention to the high rate of autism in Silicon Valley. Perhaps because they have been stigmatized and ostracized over time, some ASD individuals have embraced “Aspie pride” while others go so far as to adopt an “autistic supremacy” view of society. ASD individuals, the argument goes, tend to hold “untypical life goals” such as making a positive impact on society. As a result, they “don’t play social games,” in contrast to NT politicians and corporate CEO’s who seek popularity, which is fundamentally at odds with creativity. Indeed, ASD individuals resist social pressure and refuse to conform to erroneous judgments emanating from authoritative forces.
In contrast to psychopaths, who enjoy exerting power over others, Aspies are regarded as simply being incapable of deriving pleasure from wielding such authority. In traditional societies, psychopaths would have been subject to severe constraints via egalitarian norms, whereas ASD individuals were recognized as possessing special knowledge and insights about the world. In more “civilized” societies, however, autists are sidelined, exploited and persecuted, while egalitarian norms are disregarded, and therefore ASD individuals “should be recognized as the agents of a well-functioning cultural immune system.”
Wouldn’t we all be better off, some Aspies have mused, if people followed ASD tendencies such as honesty, following the rules and “saying what they mean, meaning what they say,” as opposed to constantly sugar-coating things and lying? Though such insistence might seem “inflexible,” or “rigid,” wouldn’t the world be more idyllic if society reflected Aspie traits? It’s interesting to reflect on such questions, though some scholars have cautioned against any notion of “Aspie supremacy” as some sort of magical panacea addressing society’s ills. Too much adherence to rigid rules, they note, can descend into “a lack of [ASD] sensitivity to potential emotional consequences of their actions.”
Autism and Political Ideology
For me personally, it’s a little difficult to imagine ASD individuals pursuing some sort of Machiavellian mindset: to the contrary, they seem uncontrived and incapable of inculcating agendas. Does this imply that Aspies are political outsiders or critics? Some academics believe that many autistic-like individuals take a strong interest in politics, in addition to such topics as the U.S. Congress, American presidents and history. In my own personal dealings, however, I find ASD individuals to be no more political than the general population. Perhaps, that’s not too surprising given that some Aspies are distracted by multiple mental health challenges, and therefore may not have a lot of leftover energy to pursue politics.
Whatever the case, I suspect Aspies may be more sympathetic to the underdog and victims of bullying, rather than buying into group think, “empty rhetoric” and “conventional pieties,” let alone authoritarian sentiment. Does that mean ASD individuals are more prone to be politically “leftist” rather than conservative? Within internet chat rooms, answers may vary, with some remarking that autism doesn’t “wire” a brain to think a certain way politically. Others believe that Aspies tend to identify with the disabled, and are therefore more likely to be progressive. Not surprisingly, iconoclastic ASD individuals may have difficulty identifying with a particular political party or candidate, and to the extent that they express an interest in politics, they will base their views “from the ground up in a logical way, dissecting the society we see around us and reconstructing it in our minds.”
Perhaps, during the 1960s, leftism may have appealed to Aspies since it was a bit dry, emphasized stability, job security and a social safety net. More recently, however, identity politics has divided people up and assigned blame, which is “incompatible with [ASD] inclination towards logic, consistency and intellectual honesty.” Such trends may have driven some ASD individuals to become conservative, “not because they care about fiscal politics or lower taxes, but because the left is confusing matters with identity politics and postmodernism: the notion that all values are subjective and open for interpretation. Those on the autism spectrum really can’t stand such ideas.” Even when they are conservative, however, Aspies tend to be “risk-averse” and fearful in their personal lives, and therefore unlikely to support Trumpianism, a movement which in any case mocks the disabled.
As a leftist, such questions are quite absorbing to me personally. Because I am prone to pick up on inconsistencies, contradictions or inaccuracies, I must keep such tendencies in check sometimes, since otherwise it will be difficult for me to fit into political groups or movements. I thrive on idealistic or “out of the box” ideas, or thinking in broad terms about our post-Coronavirus environmental future, even though such concepts may be considered unrealistic or not particularly “scale-able” for the needs of mass-based society. I do not read a lot of theory, and I cannot abide dogma, groupthink or doctrinaire belief systems stressing that I only have the “right” to address certain topics as opposed to others. Post-modernism seems fundamentally dishonest to me, since it interferes with free inquiry and the ability to investigate whatever piques one’s interest or boundless curiosity.
Aspie Position in Society
Given all their idiosyncrasies, how should Aspies fit into society? To be sure, ASD individuals have made important contributions to our modern-day world. But for every Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, both of whom seem to be candidates for Asperger’s, millions more have been marginalized or worse. This represents a departure from earlier Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies, in which ASD individuals would have occupied their own recognized place. While more traditional notions of alienation stress cultural, social, sexual or other factors, the Aspie is “neurologically alienated” from the NT majority, which has designed society to reflect its own particular priorities and tendencies.
Such neurological differences are more readily identifiable when it comes to certain ASD individuals, who may demonstrate palpable physical tics or other behaviors. But what about less noticeable, subtle individuals on the autism spectrum, who may fall through the cracks and thereby fail to conform or “assimilate” into wider society? It gets a little fuzzy, since it’s unclear whether such individuals should be considered “disabled” or simply different. Psychologists hedge on the issue, remarking that “both points of view are valid and should be respected. We might avoid confusion by dividing the spectrum into subgroups, but where the boundaries would be is far from clear.” Others believe that autism “is a disability that can have advantages in the right situation, and with the right support.”
While many marginalized groups are recognized as legitimate, there’s a certain ambiguity surrounding many ASD individuals. Should the latter be considered a distinct “sub-culture,” forming “part of human social life?” Academics argue it’s a misconception that people with Asperger’s are anti-social, though “autistic sociality” certainly differs from the norm, and may “often be focused on exchanging knowledge rather than sharing feelings or extended narratives.” ASD individuals certainly demonstrate many unique abilities, including a rich vocabulary, not to mention the ability to absorb and retain vast amounts of information, particularly when it comes to their own unique, offbeat or special interests. They may furthermore demonstrate an ability to “think outside the box” while generating novel solutions to problems.
On the other hand, such strengths can be easily negated by disadvantages, since Aspies may express caring in non-traditional ways which are simply misunderstood by society. Alternatively, they may feel shocked at the general level of dishonesty in others, or have difficulty understanding why NT people are so geared toward social status. While the inability to maintain hidden agendas helps to build up and maintain trusted relationships, the ASD individual could be crippled in “psychologically unsafe environments” in which he or she is seen as “dangerous from the perspective of anyone who is seeking to maintain and enhance their social status.” Though the Aspie may succeed somewhat in “assimilating” for a time, this comes at great cost, since he or she will experience discomfort in leadership positions, not to mention uneasiness while attending meetings with more than three people, especially when such get-togethers revolve around unfamiliar individuals or small-talk. Those ASD individuals who aren’t aware of being autistic may feel depressed and burnt out, or may simply be misdiagnosed and proscribed medication.
Given my own story, the question of ASD people and their evolutionary as well as current day position in society are of keen personal interest. In a previous essay, I discussed my experiences with the psychological profession, which ultimately led to an ASD diagnosis of sorts late last year. Shortly after, I took a trip to Europe and while traveling in Spain, I got the impression that social relations had now become easier: in the midst of a very gregarious culture, I over-compensated and became more social myself. At the same time, perhaps Spaniards were more prone to give me the benefit of the doubt than my own neighbors in Brooklyn. To local people, I may have simply seemed odd, though they may not have known why and just assumed that my strangeness was due to being a foreigner.
Arriving back in New York in the midst of the pandemic, I followed guidelines to self-quarantine for two weeks due to my previous travel, which did not come as a burden. Though I’m not anti-social, I do not feel compelled to constantly be around people, which fits in with my “mild” Aspie profile. Over the following weeks and months, I burrowed into my special interests including solo running while hardly missing typical activities common to the NT majority. In my spare time, I curated my collection of panoramic parade photos which exhibit varied colors and patterns. I also read about my preferred topics including radical politics, the archaeological record of primitive societies, and endangered or extinct animals. At other times, I familiarized myself with autistic literature, including Walden, in which Henry David Thoreau disdains human contact while dwelling on minute details within the natural environment; Herman Melville’s Bartleby, about a peculiar and taciturn office clerk, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which has no real narrative structure but rather fixates on outlandish encounters with random, quirky animals.
At the same time, the full ramifications of being on the spectrum really began to seep in. During conversations with a psychologist who specializes in ASD individuals, specific catchphrases such as “cognitive inflexibility,” “relatability” and “empathy” kept on recurring. Reflecting to myself, I felt a sense of incredulity: “I’ve witnessed some odd things in life…but autism?” After absorbing the initial shock, I was overcome with despondency as I thought back on the entirety of my life, wondering how literally millions of social situations might have gone differently if I had been more aware. In conversation, I mentioned to acquaintances that I was on the spectrum, which did not seem to register much or elicit interest. Alternatively, some remarked “but you seem normal!” while others would try to re-focus the discussion on presumably more legitimate social or political topics.
I began to feel a sense of indignation: “why is it always my responsibility to relate to others on their terms?” As Scientific American puts it, “one of the biggest social difficulties faced by autistic people is neurotypical people’s reluctance to interact with those they perceive as ‘different.’ That’s a social problem caused for autistic people by non-autistic people, not a social disability in autism. Asking only autistic people to change how they socialize is like asking minorities to speak and dress more like white people in order to be accepted. That’s a really bad way to combat prejudice, racial or neurological.”
Reflections on Empathy
The whole controversy about empathy, meanwhile, seemed to be framed backwards. I recalled many instances in which I had sought to understand the “NT majority,” particularly men in my own age group. Going into overdrive, I would strive to make eye contact while inquiring about their well-adjusted lives. Such efforts were rarely reciprocated, however, or I was told to smile more often. Even more ironically, whenever I mentioned my special interests, it was they, not I, who would stare up at the ceiling while avoiding eye contact. In other cases, I remembered standing up for what was right or fair in certain situations, or trying to stick up for the rules, only to be left on my own without support from “compassionate” people who pride themselves on empathy. I also wondered why many people were regarded as empathetic when they weren’t particularly political, or, even if so, they would just discuss the same old topic du jour which is endlessly repeated in the left-wing blogosphere or cable news, as opposed to expanding knowledge or expressing curiosity about other neglected groups throughout the world?
After fretting for several weeks over “NT tyranny,” I decided it was time to brush off the chip on my shoulder. After all, it would be a stretch to say I had been “oppressed” by the majority, since in order for oppression to exist in the first place there has to be consciousness of guilt. The notion of reclaiming my “rights,” moreover, didn’t seem to make sense, and the argument that people should somehow bend over backwards or give me “special treatment” made me feel uncomfortable, though to be sure it would be nice if NT society would show a bit more awareness toward ASD individuals. To my mind, the real tragedy here had more to do with a communication breakdown between Aspies and wider society. Perhaps, I reasoned, it would make sense to speak with other ASD individuals and compare notes. Over the next few months, I spoke with many Aspies who had experienced similar social problems, which felt reassuring.
Frustratingly, however, I wasn’t sure if I lined up with folks since there is great variability within the “ASD community,” with some individuals displaying very noticeable physical tics or mannered and stilted speech accompanied by a kind of delayed delivery, and others displaying more subtle “masking” behavior (an admittedly odd metaphor to use in the midst of the pandemic). Some people were painfully shy, while others were talkative and completely focused on their special topics. While some maintained jobs and seemed more or less well-adjusted, others confronted more severe mental challenges. Once in a while, I would come across an articulate, though somewhat wooden misfit who could be mistaken for my doppelgänger,a jarring experience. Even in these cases, however, it did not seem we shared many interests, but rather just some common psychological traits. Complicating matters yet further, ASD individuals don’t live in a single geographic area or neighborhood, and in this sense, they may differ from other minorities who can rely on each other in a sense of shared solidarity.
Politics and Business
Being on the spectrum gives new meaning to classic conceptions of alienation, and after being forced to conform or relegated to the margins, it might be tempting for ASD individuals to want to turn the tables. If only more political or business leaders were Aspies, the argument goes, then the world would be in a much better spot. The mainstream media, meanwhile, has been running segments about corporate America’s recruitment of ASD individuals. The business press notes that the neuro-diverse population remains “a largely untapped talent pool,” with unemployment running as high as 80 percent. Though they are frequently passed over for choice jobs since they lack solid communication skills, don’t interview well, fail to make eye contact, don’t act like conventional “team players,” and lack “salesperson-type personalities,” ASD individuals nevertheless come up with innovative ideas. As a result, many companies have reformed their HR departments in order to access “neuro-diverse talent,” ranging from Microsoft to JPMorgan Chase to UBS.
Modern politics, meanwhile, often descends into barking at one another instead of working to resolve societal problems, and this is where Aspies come in handy, since they care little for egotism and simply want to see results. Indeed, “the autistic fantasy is that we could step into national leadership bolstered by our ability to clearly see problems, unflinchingly expose those problems, and clearly lay out the plan and necessary sacrifices needed to overcome each problem.” Others argue that for ASD individuals, “politics is not our realm,” since electoral success is contingent on winning a popularity contest and the NT public lacks the necessary knowledge, let alone interest, to understand what politicians represent. NT’s prefer to be told comfortable lies as opposed to uncomfortable truths, and therefore would-be ASD politicians are at a distinct disadvantage, since they lack the ability to lie or project charisma. Perhaps, Aspies could try to “mask” or conform, but at a certain point the mask would slip and the ASD individual would be disqualified before they even attained power. On the other hand, though they may find it difficult to be politicians, Aspies would make for effective civil servants since they question orthodoxies and think outside the box. In this sense, they may contribute to creative problem solving and effective governance.
ASD Individuals and the Power Structure
Perhaps it’s unlikely that an autistic individual with very pronounced traits would achieve political power, but does this imply that others might not slip under the radar? Studies have shown that some people with “autistic-like traits” have already played a role in politics. Such individuals, who are often rigid, aloof and neurotic introverts, do not qualify for a full autism diagnosis but nevertheless possess more autistic traits than the average person. Though they differ from narcissistic politicians, autistic-like individuals are still capable of accruing power, suggesting that gregariousness and agreeability aren’t necessarily prerequisites for public life. While this may sound counter-intuitive, consider the case of John Adams, the second president of the United States, who was reportedly a recluse disdaining small talk while pursuing intense interests in restricted areas. He was also cold, rigid, and prone to depression or “black despair.”
History is replete with other cases, for example former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, regarded as humorless, aloof, not very socially adept and unable to make small talk. Brown did not care what others thought of him, and failed to show empathy with voters. The politician was also physically clumsy, and displayed an inflexible style accompanied by an incredible attention to detail. Charles de Gaulle, meanwhile, believed that a true leader should disdain friendship and isolate himself, and contemporaneous accounts describe him as aloof, cold, distant, compulsive and physically awkward. Though his command of the French language was impressive, he was sorely lacking in verbal communication skills. Or take Nelson Mandela, described as aloof, pedantic, awkward and obsessed with methodical record keeping. Cerebral German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former scientist, is clumsy, difficult to know and reportedly acts like a computer. In meetings, she gets into the minutiae of whatever is under discussion and projects analytical detachment.
Perhaps then, ASD individuals or people with autistic-like traits can be successfully integrated into the power structure, but the real question is whether this is actually desirable? To be sure, society isn’t going back to the Paleolithic era or some sort of idyllic, pre-modern form of social organization any time soon, but the scope of current global challenges suggests we must reconsider sheer scale, since “humans have evolved in highly collaborative small groups,” predicated on mutual assistance. So-called civilization, however, has undermined such inter-dependence, leading to competitive individualism, which in turn encourages extreme levels of group-think within the NT population.
With human survival literally now at stake, perhaps Aspies can help to come up with creative solutions which challenge power structures as opposed to reinforcing them, since ASD individuals are adept at picking up on errors and inconsistencies. At the same time, autists may act as “catalysts” or “translators” between different cultures or groups, since they expend much more effort understanding each individual, and tend to be more trustworthy since they are unable of maintaining hidden agendas. Indeed, autists have learned that “culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time,” and may have difficulty fitting into groups, all of which stands in contrast to “insane super-human scale societies.” By contrast, within more human-scale psychological environments comprised of up to about 150 people, hidden agendas are mitigated and collaborative advantages become an asset for the entire group.
The Economist no less has remarked that such small-scale ideas are “back in vogue, and not before time.” The publication remarks that panels of ordinary people can solve problems that many professionals refuse to address. In 403 B.C., Athens decided to overhaul its institutions in the wake of a devastating war with Sparta. The conflict demonstrated that direct democracy had led to Trump-like demagoguery, and so the city created a new body, chosen by lot, to assess the decisions of voters. Called the nomothetai, the body was given the time to contemplate difficult decisions, free of the power of orators or ambitious politicians. Today, “citizen’s assemblies” have been created to look at issues which politicians have struggled to resolve. Environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion, for instance, have advocated for such assemblies as a way of addressing climate change.
Neuro-Diversity and Evolution
For some, cultural transformation can only come about through the successful promotion of so-called “neuro-diverse” environments free of social power games. “There is no question,” remarks Psychology Today, “that neurodiverse people have brought many great things to human society. If those achievements were indeed facilitated by neurology, it logically follows that an attempt to ‘cure’ future disability by eliminating our differences would be tremendously harmful to humanity… We are realizing that autism, ADHD, and other conditions emerge through a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental interaction; they are not the result of disease or injury…When 99 neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem, it’s often the 1% fellow who’s different who holds the key. Yet that person may be disabled or disadvantaged most or all of the time. To neurodiversity proponents, people are disabled because they are at the edges of the bell curve; not because they are sick or broken.”
As an idea, neuro-diversity “asserts that atypical (neurodivergent) neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation.” In this vein, neurodiversity is regarded as “the whole of human mental or psychological neurological structures or behaviors, seen as not necessarily problematic, but as alternate, acceptable forms of human biology.” For advocates who originally coined the term in the 1990s, “neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will prove best at any given moment?…The ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability… Neurodiversity urges us to discuss brain diversity using the same kind of discourse that we employ when we talk about biodiversity and cultural diversity.”
More recently, the “neuro-diversity movement” has pushed for civil rights, equality, respect and societal inclusion for the neuro-divergent, meaning not just autistics but all neuro-minorities. “Neurodiversity Celebration Week,” meanwhile, has taken off internationally, with many schools encouraged to recognize the strengths and talents of neuro-diverse students. Advocates have sought redress against NT society, remarking that “respecting neurodiversity means not insisting on eye contact, when autistic people have stated (over and over and over) that eye contact is so hard, so overwhelming and so stressful that it destroys their ability to pay attention…Respecting neurodiversity means the professional community needs to apologize for decades of mistakenly insisting that autistic people lack emotions or empathy, and for all the harm, both physical and psychological, that has been done to autistic people (and is still being done) because of those errors made by neurotypical observers.”
A World of Neuro-Minorities
Perhaps, evolution can be seen as the story of many diverse neuro-minorities making their own unique contributions. Indeed, people with dyslexia have been found to display unusual visual-spatial abilities such as processing low-definition or blurred visual scenes in addition to peripheral information. Such abilities may have come in handy within traditional societies in which a high premium was placed on designing tools, plotting out hunting routes and building shelters. Individuals with ADHD and bipolar disorder, meanwhile, seek out novelty and creativity. In hunter-gatherer societies, hyperactivity, distractibility and impulsivity would have been regarded as desirable traits since people were constantly looking for food and needed to adapt rapidly to environmental stimuli. There could have even been evolutionary advantages to mania, “since high energy and creative expression might have fueled sexual and reproductive success.”
It’s easy to understand ASD feelings of redress against wider society, though some have wondered whether neuro-minorities and NT’s can thrive and complement one another, given more ideal conditions. Within chat rooms, some have argued that “all in all, it is quite evident…that the normal, healthy functioning of human society needs both autistic and neurotypical people…Humanity needs not only both mildly autistic people and severely autistic people but also all other kinds of people with mild to severe disabilities.”
Joanne Limburg, a writer and autist, has wondered about her own underlying place in society. Writing in the Guardian, she remarks, “I find myself stuck in the middle of…two incompatible views: on the one hand, autistic people are disturbed, naïve individuals who are incapable of knowing their own minds or speaking credibly; on the other, autistic people are super-humans with a preternatural ability to see the truth of things and to articulate it without equivocation. The world would be better without us; the world would be lost without us…Regardless of whether autistic people have superpowers or not, when the world gives us the support we need, we thrive, and give the best of ourselves in return.”