In July 2017, engineer James Damore was fired for writing an internal memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” Although the memo offered ideas on how to make the company more inviting to women without resorting to discrimination, Damore was lambasted for his alleged sexism. In an interview with Damore for the Guardian, Paul Lewis suggested that his autism “may in part explain the difficulties he experienced with his memo,” since he’s “not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.”
For Lewis, the fact that Damore sought to understand “why people seem to have such different perspectives and opinions” by considering politically incorrect views, such as those expressed by men’s rights activists and Jordan Peterson—could be related to his condition, while his suggestion that Google “de-emphasize empathy” may be a result of what Simon Baron-Cohen has called the “extreme male brain” characteristics of autists.
Michael Coren described Damore in Quartz as “unabashedly socially awkward, even placing himself somewhere on the autism spectrum,” but dismisses this as just “Silicon Valley’s language” and a way of whitewashing alt-right beliefs. Marykate Jasper asserted that “Nope, James Damore’s Autism Is Not the Cause of His Misogyny,” and criticized Lewis for “pathologizing him”. Damore himself never used his autism as an excuse, or saw himself as a victim. He told Lewis that he had never informed Google of his diagnosis: “I’m not sure you’re expected to, or how I would even do that.”
Damore’s defenders, including Jordan Peterson, made little to no mention of his autism. However, fellow autist Alessandro van den Berg has argued that Damore’s difficulties were partly caused by the fact that he presented arguments that “are based on empirical findings—and not on abstract assumptions about how one perceives (or ought to perceive) the world,” an approach usually found among high-functioning neuroatypicals—though van den Berg also stresses that such people shouldn’t receive any special treatment simply because of their condition.
Those on the autism spectrum, like Damore, have continued to be in the spotlight of the west’s culture wars. If they have the right ideological allegiances, their condition is often cited as a convenient exculpatory factor. If not, it is seen as a reason for blame.
Those caught in the crossfire risk being reduced to tools at the mercy of activists. These attitudes also threaten to undo decades of progress in autism rights.
Less than Meets the Eye
People of all political persuasions have used autistic people as a prop for their agendas.
Take the charity Autism Speaks. Founded by Bob and Suzanne Wright in 2005, it’s since grown into the largest advocacy group of its kind in the United States. Yet, it has historically promoted fearmongering about those on the spectrum and it funds research into finding a cure for autism—and depicted autism as a terrifying disease (totally disregarding and discounting the experiences of high-functioning autists). It has also promoted anti-vaccine polemics, arguing, in the absence of any real evidence, that vaccination “may trigger the onset of autism symptoms in a child with an underlying medical or genetic condition.”
As disability advocate Sara Luterman has pointed out, Autism Speaks lobbied against an amendment to the Autism CARES Act of 2014, which would have given those on the spectrum greater say in the policies and research that affect their lives—such measures were not signed into law until 2019. Meanwhile, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), an organization co-founded by activist Ari Ne’eman in 2006, has revealed that only 0.16% of Autism Speaks’ 2019 budget was allocated to “Family Service” grants, which provide practical help for families. The bulk of the charity’s financing goes towards fundraising campaigns, research into the causes of autism, and generous salaries for its executives. Former executive Alison Singer, who resigned in 2009, has explained that, while some activists fail to acknowledge that the spectrum can range wildly—including, at the more disabled end, people like her own daughter who spends her time “peeling skin off her arm”—she believes that her former colleagues’ beliefs that vaccines “were the cause [of autism], despite dozens of studies” are grossly mistaken. Only one of Autism Speaks’ current board members—Dr Stephen Shore—actually has autism. The vast majority are representatives of the corporate and financial worlds. It seems that these are opportunists using autistic people to gain influence and power, while neglecting those they claim to represent.
Since 2015, Autism Speaks has quietly done away with its anti-vaccine rhetoric, though it still frames research into autism as a search for “more effective and personalized interventions.” But it’s been wokewashing its aims: promoting what it calls “person-first language”—such as replacing the term autistic people with people with autism and adding a rainbow to its logo to signal a commitment to diversity.
Media Double Standards
In the contrasting case of Greta Thunberg, the press and activists have used her autism in the service of climate activism.
Vox’s Anna North has framed criticisms of the Swede as offensive smears on those on the spectrum, while spotlighting her condition as central to her activism. CBC News writers Melissa Mancini & Ioanna Roumeliotis present her as a role model for others on the spectrum, describing critiques against her as ableism. This sentiment has been echoed by autism activist Sam Farmer who claims that her personality, of which autism is an integral part, “has led to several impressive accomplishments that could be construed as epic in light of her age and profile.” The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty, meanwhile, sees what he describes as persecution of Thunberg for her autism as proof that the right has “run out of ideas.” Thunberg herself refers to her autism as a “superpower,” not an illness.
Some have used Thunberg’s autism against her, as they did with Damore. Michael Knowles of Fox News has referred to her as a “mentally ill Swedish child,” insisting that she “has many mental illnesses.” Brendan O’Neill thinks that adults are exploiting people’s sympathy for her as an autistic child “to protect the increasingly bizarre politics of environmentalism from interrogation and criticism.” Christopher Caldwell in the New York Times, however, sees her autism as merely part of being a “complicated adolescent,” and irrelevant to any critique of her arguments.
The overall media coverage of Thunberg’s autism, however, contrasts tellingly with the coverage of James Damore’s—even in the same publications. The same condition that was used to pathologize him and depict him as other, is seen as inspiring the simplicity and purity of Greta Thunberg. While those who supported Damore usually downplayed or ignored his autism, those who lavish praise on the young Swede often depict hers as a superpower or see it as defining her. Damore’s autism is treated as fair game for slander, whether or not it’s explicitly acknowledged, while critiquing Thunberg’s is seen as sacrilege.
As though to exemplify many of these points at once, Autistic UK chair Errol Kerr has claimed that “The narrative around autism is being twisted to excuse cruelty and white male violence. We cannot let that happen.” While Kerr lambasts climate deniers for using Thunberg’s autism to discredit “a loud and outspoken climate change activist and harming attitudes toward all autistic and disabled people in the process,” he doesn’t extend the same charity to Damore. Kerr dismisses the ex-Google engineer’s claim to be on the spectrum, which he sees as a way for the press to excuse “white male violence,” citing the media’s claims that Elliot Rodger and Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock were autistic.
These responses can’t be divided neatly along political lines of right vs. left or anti-woke vs. woke. Nonetheless, the double standards are painfully clear here. People with autism are only worth defending so long as they’re deemed useful to ideologues’ and journalists’ pet causes.
The Good of the Species?
While informal discrimination still persists even in the developed world, we have come a long way since the time, not too long ago, when, at best, neuroatypicals were looked upon or shunned by society at large, perceived as misfits or degenerates. In many parts of the world, autism is stigmatised as a “shameful affliction,” and even conflated with witchcraft in more impoverished countries. As Alessandro van den Berg has recounted, even in the socially progressive Netherlands, many parents of neuroatypicals believe that their children may be vulnerable: “a great bait for all the anxiety, threads and evil in the world.” Those on the spectrum, given their general difficulties fitting in, also tend to find telling even a white lie a trickier proposition than most people, as the “development of social skills goes in contrary to telling the truth.”
People like Peter Singer view those with disabilities, including autism, as a problem seeking a clinical solution for the betterment of the species. Such utilitarian arguments chillingly overlap with Autism Speaks’ earlier rationale for “curing” neuroatypicals. As Katie Booth has argued, though the Australian bioethicist sees combating autism as a means of “alleviating suffering,” the underlying notion that neuroatypicals aren’t really people in a full sense can lend perverse justification to bigotry, eugenics and even infanticide.
Meanwhile, those on the spectrum are often victimised online, for example, by the malicious mobs who congregate on sites like Kiwi Farms. As Alia Dastagir has shown, forum members may have aided in driving a few individuals to suicide, including an autistic nonbinary developer. Social media bullying, Dastagir argues, is a complex phenomenon, but many trolls target those who “struggle with existing mental health issues.” When autistic people are framed as scapegoats, props and victims by mainstream media, it’s little wonder that crass online abusers also treat them as such. Such attitudes breed further misconceptions, encouraging fear of, and contempt towards, neuroatypicals.
So, beyond taking such opportunists and journalists to task, what is to be done?
If you’re a normie, you should treat neuroatypicals just as you would any other person. Their condition makes them neither villains nor superheroes, nor are their personalities and actions solely defined by their autism. Those on the spectrum, meanwhile, should resist the temptations of victimhood culture and not allow themselves to be idolised or pathologised. These steps would take time to have an effect and don’t provide the satisfactions that some find in outrage culture. But they would make life a little better for autistic people—and for everyone.