Eleven years ago, an article in Wired magazine helped establish the reputation of Asperger’s as “the geek syndrome.” As the condition has become more prominent in the popular imagination, it has acquired a close association with computer technology. One could write a whole book on the relationship between Asperger’s and the cultural fascination with and fear of technology, but here I just want to begin to question and deconstruct that relationship.
In the now famous Wired piece, Steve Silberman looks at rising rates of autism spectrum diagnoses in Silicon Valley and actually posits a genetic relationship between technological aptitude and autism. The idea that Asperger’s is synonymous with technological skill is reinforced over and over again in popular representations. Lisbeth Salander is an impossibly gifted hacker. In Adam, the title character is a skilled electrical engineer with a keen interest in astronomy. Almost every time a character with Asperger’s or autism is portrayed as a savant (which is relatively often), his or her skills are math-related. Raymond Babbitt rapidly thinks in algorithms. The kid in Mercury Rising is phenomenal at code-breaking. Kazan from Cube, the male lead of Mozart and the Whale, and the protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are mathematical savants.
Asperger’s has also come to be associated with “geek culture,” and it isn’t difficult to see why. The archetypal “geek” is also portrayed as possessing great technical skill, specifically with computers. Geeks are also portrayed as awkward and socially immature—hallmark traits of Asperger syndrome—and geekdom is pretty much synonymous with obsessive fandom. The fandoms most closely associated with “geek culture” are those of major science-fiction franchises, like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. As I have remarked upon in previous posts, people on the autism spectrum are often constructed as “otherworldly” or otherwise inhuman. We are often symbolically associated with aliens, à la Temple Grandin’s “anthropologist on Mars” analogy.
We are also often constructed as robotic. That is, we are somehow fundamentally like the machines with which we (are perceived to) have such a close relationship. In Constructing Autism: Unravelling the “Truth” and Understanding the Social, Madjia Holmer Nadesan takes a close look at this construction of Asperger’s and “high-functioning” autism.
Nadesan makes note of the fact that the diagnostic boundaries of autism have been expanding over the past few decades. For example, fifty years ago I would not have been autistic. That is not to say that I wouldn’t have possessed exactly the same cognitive and behavioral traits that “make” me autistic in a contemporary setting. It’s just that “autism” as a concept is a culturally and historically specific phenomenon, and someone who is on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum today may not have fit the diagnostic and cultural understanding of autism at another time.
The diagnostic paradigm has changed because the culture has changed, and one major way in which American culture has changed in recent decades is the explosion of new technologies. Nadesan asserts that “classic” autism is “a disorder of the early twentieth century, while the high-functioning variants of autism…are fundamentally disorders of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.” In other words, certain conditions could not have been conceived prior to those historical moments because they are enmeshed in particular historical and cultural contexts.
Of the phenomenon of these “high-functioning variants” of autism, which include Asperger syndrome, Nadesan writes
The history of “high-functioning” forms of autism must further be understood in the contexts of new standards for parenting that emerged mid-twentieth century and new economic and social conditions surrounding the purported “information revolution” that began in the 1960s. As I will argue, the public’s fascination with autism, particularly its high-functioning forms, stems in large part from the idea that people with autism are technologically gifted and are particularly adept with computer technology.
Further on in the book, Nadesan elaborates on this relationship between Asperger’s and technology:
The cognitive research on autistic intelligence establishes linkages across gender, technical facility, and autism, and, in so doing, constructs an image of high-functioning people with autism as possessing an alien form of intelligence that is simultaneously seductive and threatening…
Frighteningly, representations of autism invoking computational models of “autistic intelligence” draw upon, and exacerbate, social anxieties surrounding technology as a force unto itself, devoid of concern about the human condition. Films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) imagine totalitarian control by artificial intelligence, but in these instances technology represents an externalization of human praxis in form of produced and self-replicating machines, whereas in the case of Asperger’s syndrome the threat of technical domination rests internally within the human population.
So the underlying cultural fear is that we’re cyborgs quietly mounting an insidious invasion. Like stealthy Borg. As Nadesan concedes, this extrapolation “may seem wild” at first, but it really doesn’t exaggerate the nature of society’s anxiety about technology, particularly as it concerns computers and artificial intelligence. Mainstream news media regularly gives voice to fears about robots stealing jobs and the purported detrimental effects of social media. And it isn’t a stretch to interpret the hysteria surrounding the purported “autism epidemic” as, in part, a fear of being over-run by a new generation that seems to relate to the world in wholly unfamiliar ways.
Nadesan also brings up and discusses gender. Certainly in popular culture, math, science, technology, and all the trappings of geekdom are overwhelmingly gendered as “masculine.” Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory of autism as possession of an “extreme male brain” is predicated on the assumption that there is a fundmental, “hard-wired” difference between the “male brain” and the “female brain.” This difference is presumed to manifest in ways that you can predict even if you’ve never encountered Baron-Cohen’s hypothesis: The “male brain” is rational and analytical, while the “female brain” is emotional and empathetic. Given this web of cultural assumptions and associations connecting gender, technology, and autism, I am extremely skeptical of the idea that the apparent 10-to-1 incidence of autism in males versus females reflects any kind of physical reality. The same cultural paradigm that hinders girls and women in the fields of math and science may well be responsible for a severe “underdiagnosis” of autism in that same subset of the population.
Ultimately, my concern about the pervasive construction of people with Asperger’s as robotic and alien derives from the ways that this construction impacts real people’s lived experiences. We’re not aliens, but we certainly are alienated by a culture that refuses to accept that we live, love, and relate to world and to our communities as human beings.
Related: The Tech Industry’s Asperger Problem: Affliction or Insult? (I had to come back and add this Gawker link as soon as I found it)