Geeks and Nerds: Autism’s Proxy Warriors

High School Reunion
Two articles from the New York Times and one from this week have been taking a look at what I’ve long seen as a proxy war between the autistic style in American culture and its detractors.  Proxy wars, if you need a refresher, are those in which opposing powers use third parties as substitutes for fighting each other directly. Substituting for autism in this exchange are the terms “geek” and “nerd” … and surely the detractors of geeks and nerds need no introduction.  As Bowling for Soup’s High School Never Ends has it:

Four years, you think for sure that’s all you’ve got to endure;

All the total dicks, all the stuck-up chicks. So superficial, so immature.

Then when you graduate, you take a look around and you say, “Hey, Wait!”

This is the same as where I just came from. I thought it was over! Aw, that’s just great.

In roughly that context then, NYT writer Steve Lohr this past Sunday offered a fairly straightforward article about the growing job market for what he termed “cool nerds,” a reference to the difficulty of making careers involving information technology seem attractive to high school students.  On Monday, Lohr noted in a follow-up article that, “David Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College … says that merely mentioning terms like nerd or geek serves to perpetuate the stereotype.  The words are damaging, much like racial epithets, he says, and should be avoided.”

Before we get into exactly where the damage is coming from in the use of the words geek and nerd, consider another situation, described here by an email correspondent with a family history of autism:

My … family has spent many long years being too afraid to mention autism in front of the kids (and young adults) because of the risk of damaging their self-image and becoming targets for prejudiced people … We’ve had seventy years of living like a family of Jews passing for Gentiles in Nazi Germany.

I wonder, would professor Anderegg suggest that a broad solution to this family’s dilemma be to ban the word autism from general usage?  How about if the word Juden had been banned in 1930’s Germany?  As it happens, both the professor and the Times reporter who quoted him seem to be collaborating, intentionally or otherwise, to raise a controversy and gain some attention; Lohr’s second article closes by noting that Anderegg has penned a book, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them.

Among those who took the bait was the community; the commentary they promoted was from the dad behind’s GeekDad site, Curtis Silver.  Noting that there’s been much debate on the definitions of the words geek and nerd, Silver concisely summarizes that debate by explaining:

“ … we can agree on a majority vote that “geek” implies a certain expertise on one subject. Such as photography, computers, comics, television and so on. Whereas “nerd” has an almost strictly social connotation based on the way someone appears and behaves. You can be a geek and not a nerd, or you can be both. To me, “nerd” has not always just meant someone of great intelligence, so when I read an article about the need for more “cool nerds” in the future, what I see is simply a call for more geeks as they lack the social ineptitude that seems to plague nerds.”

And what do we have there but two primary aspects of autism as manifested throughout society: cognitive strength and social deficit, expressed via the terms geek and nerd.  In response to the recent, tortured, and pointless controversy over whether Ari Ne’eman or anyone else ever claimed autism “is not” a disability, we have Curtis Silver slicing through that false choice with a simple and direct, “You can be a geek and not a nerd, or you can be both.”

In terms of autism explicitly then, you can have deep “special subject” or “restricted interest” expertise and not have significant social deficits, OR you can have deep subject area expertise and also have social deficits. Both combinations can co-exist peacefully—dogs and cats living together—on the autism (ahem) spectrum, with no clear or sharp dividing line between them.  The ambiguity, subtlety, and nuance of this reality escapes many; it’s a concept that seems particularly beyond the comprehension of those who’ve made it necessary for Sullivan over at Left Brain/Right Brain to devote time and pixels to debunking the myth that neurodiversity means denying that autism “is” a disability.

Autism both is and is not a disability; the framing of it in such narrow, black or white terms is itself what serves to collapse this complex reality to a simple and misleading “yes.”

Back to the question then of where the harm comes of using words such as geek, nerd … or autistic:  Silver’s take is that “When Dr. Anderegg calls for the abolition of these terms from the language, he’s got to be referring more to abolishing the stereotype that comes along with them, right?”  Whatever Dr. Anderegg’s message may be, I think Silver is on the right track here; it’s our stereotypes, not our words which need abolishing.

How interesting then that when “autism advocates” insist on the narrow view which reduces the multi-valenced phenomena autism is down to a one-dimensional negative (the better to assist, as the “logic” goes, in its targeting and destruction), their actual accomplishment is to lend credibility and momentum to the negative stereotyping that plagues those with autism.  To the extent that this view is at all intentional, it reveals a judgment which simply cannot be “meant in a nice way.”

Imagine for a moment the same ruckus being raised over whether geekery and nerd-dom are or are not disabilities. There was a time in living memory where the consensus answer might have been yes, but—to speak of one ability near and dear to most everyone’s hearts—thanks to the rise of computer culture just over the past generation, nowadays even a computer nerd can get laid.

Stereotypes do change and fade, and those fighting to have autism seen solely as a disability are in a fallback action, already in the midst of being routed in the battle against positive portrayals of geeks and nerds.  They are on the defensive, thus the desperation seen in propaganda exemplified by the I Am Autism video from Autism Speaks, about which Thomas C. Weiss has made much the same point as I make above—that rather than advocating for and placing value on people with autism, they seek to portray us in an exclusively negative light.

Speaking of Autism Speaks—some weeks ago, while making inquiries as to what possible philosophical or religious motivations might lie behind such an organization, I received this reply from one longtime observer:

I don’t think they are motivated by anything other than snobbery.  They’re a bunch of elitists who are upset about the inconvenience and loss of social status that they see as a consequence of having autistic children or grandchildren.

See above:  Bowling for Soup, High School Never Ends.

Or, as Curtis Silver suggests in the closing of his article, “There will always be nerds and geeks; how society views them is the only thing we can change.”

on 12/25/09 in featured, Politics | 1 Comment | Read More

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  1. […] is not so much a scientific breakthrough as a perceptual one.  If geeks and nerds can be seen as autism’s proxy warriors, there is another group which slipped unnoticed into this same theater of operations, scouting out […]

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