You may know Shift Journal as the home from which Julia Bascom’s essay The Obsessive Joy of Autism went viral late last year, to the tune now of over 40,000 pageviews. If you’ve been paying attention for a while, you may know us as a place for writing that takes “autistic as a legitimate way to be in the world” to be a starting point rather than a position which needs arguing or defending. If you’ve been with us from the start you know Shift as the site that popped up out of nowhere in late summer of 2009, earnestly seeking contributors as if we were not at all surrounded by the still-smoking craters of the Autism Wars battlefield. What served as our keynote post however described that rag-tag army of autistic self-advocates which had emerged over the course of those wars as the third and final wave of genetic justice, one which follows on the civil rights and gender equality movements.
I like to tell people that Shift Journal “is a big-picture endeavor” in part because I’m a fan of dry understatement. When one reads those earliest entries at Shift, it turns out that that sweeping claim about genetic justice wasn’t the half of what was being introduced. There are after all eight category headings along the bottom of the masthead; besides the Autism heading there are those for The Internet, Society, Politics, Evolution, Art/Play/Myth, Language, and The Unconscious — and yet all these are intended to relate back in one way and another to autism. Shift was conceived by its founder to be a forum for big-picture discussion of autism’s role not only in contemporary society but in evolutionary time.
All appearances aside, Shift Journal is first and foremost The House That Andrew Lehman Built. Mr. Lehman owns a web design firm, Andrew Lehman Designs, which is where Shift Journal came together under his direction. At that time he had for twelve years also been a serious amateur evolutionary theorist, an auto-didact first teaching himself evolutionary biology, both its science and its history, as well as neuropsychology and parts of other fileds such as physical anthropology, and then sifting through endless scientific papers with what can accurately be called obsessive dedication. He corresponded with and received encouragement from academics such as Simon Baron-Cohen, and documented what occupied him in a series of blogs, most recently prior to Shift Journal at Neoteny.org. The culmination of all this came to be a new theory of evolution complementary to Darwinism, centered around heterochronic theory and the ebb and flow in human populations of neotenous characteristics such as autism. It describes how relative hormonal levels in the mothers’ blood across generations and in response to both short and long-term environmental factors actually orchestrates the distribution of neotenous traits across populations which in turn influences if not determines the social structure of human societies. For those and other reasons he came to call it The Orchestral Theory of Evolution.
Why exactly “Shift” then as the title of the site, as well as the significance of that ouroboros in the masthead is intimately tied into that dozen years of work that led up to its launch. The obvious question of course is why Andrew is not presenting with me today, and the answer is that he had a stroke in the spring of 2010, about seven months after we had launched, and just days after his work was published in book form as Evolution, Autism, and Social Change: A New Feminine Theory of Evolution That Explains Autism. While the stroke has not impaired his ability to comprehend spoken language, it has put him in the position of having to re-learn the skills of reading, writing and speaking. All this happened in the midst of brain surgery undertaken to head off the growing risk of an aneurysm, so it was something he both was and was not able to see coming.
Recently presented online as part of a webinar sponsored by Autism NOW and The Arc.
(part 2 and more to follow …)