Autism as a Secret Society

Sub RosaThe idea that autism is humankind’s oldest and largest secret society is one I’ve suggested on this site more than once; here I’d like to explicitly make the case for that idea. Members of secret societies, it’s true, are generally presumed to be able to recognize one another; that requirement I typically sidestep with the qualifier, “… so secret in fact that its members do not even know one another.” Beyond this detail however the case still holds up well enough, at least to serve as a useful way to understand autism’s hidden presence in society.

The attributes I focus on where autism does qualify rather splendidly are that secret societies are also generally presumed: a) to have a public face or image which serves to camouflage and divert attention from the full extent of its activities and effects in the world; and b), to have actual effects in the world, with responsibility for those effects being hidden from public knowledge either by being attributed to other causes, or by never being recognized as having been “caused” in the first place.

A third attribute might be that there is an intention on the part of secret society members to remain hidden in their existence or their activities. Here too autism qualifies, in more ways than one though not of course for the usual reasons, and only in part. The argument I’m making then is that autism functions as a secret society, an argument which is quite apart from the question of how many and which people have intended this arrangement.

In terms of a public face or image which serves to hide autism’s true nature then, one need look no further than the world’s worst public relations firm, the well-funded autism “advocacy” organization Autism Speaks, which this past year managed to roll up every negative stereotype about autism into one ad campaign based on a public service video spot titled I Am Autism. While depicting autism itself as a capable, sinister force intent on the destruction of families, the campaign managed to portray autistic people as helpless, ineffectual objects, wholly incapable of any discernible positive effect on the world. On the other hand, from the Bilderberg Group to Abraham Vereide’s evangelical mafia “Family”, no secret organization could wish for better public relations cover to throw investigators off the scent of their true capabilities.

When it comes to documenting actual effects of the presence of autistic people in the world, what can best be done in this space is to direct attention once again to the work of Professor Michael Fitzgerald, who makes the argument and presents the evidence that autistic achievers have been here all along, responsible for an untold amount of human achievement over the centuries. Author Tyler Cowen is also illuminating on this subject, explaining here how our attention to autistic capabilities and accomplishments can be diverted simply because of the pervasive selection bias:

Often outsiders don’t see the cognitive strengths along the autism spectrum because they focus excessively on what is highly or easily visible. Autism in the modern world is often about “diagnosis” and “treatment,” and that creates a selection bias. Medical professionals control the familiar definitions of autism and they meet those people or parents who come to them for help. It’s no surprise that these people and their doctors are focused on life problems. At the same time, many of the autistics with relatively high social status don’t want to affiliate with the concept or, more frequently, they are genuinely unaware that they might qualify as autistic in some manner.

Some of my own previous essays at making autism’s actual effects in the world recognizable can be found here, here, and here. Getting over that selection bias is the hard part; once one learns what the possibilities are, what becomes pervasive is the sense that autistic achievement and contribution to civilization have been prevalent throughout history, that what Cowen calls “the autistic cognitive style” has always been with us, and that in fact our history would be unimaginably different without it. If you’re looking for an example of an  authoritative,  name-brand observer who has made this leap past the selection bias and reported back from the other side, one can do no better than Dr. Hans Asperger as relayed by Uta Frith in her book Autism: Explaining the Enigma:

The term “autistic intelligence” was coined by Asperger. He believed that autistic intelligence had distinct qualities and was the opposite of conventional learning and worldly wise cunning. Indeed he thought of it as a vital ingredient in all great creations in art and science.

As for the collaboration of autistic people in the effort to keep attention away from this insight, the last sentence from the paragraph quoted above bears repeating: “… many of the autistics with relatively high social status don’t want to affiliate with the concept or, more frequently, they are genuinely unaware that they might qualify as autistic in some manner.” Keep in mind that “autistics with relatively high social status,” as well as those who simply live workaday middle class lives all unawares of their affiliation constitute a presumed majority of those who possess an autistic cognitive style, and are no less autistic for not being diagnosable according to DSM-IV criteria—said criteria measuring various sorts of societal and social impairment rather than autism per se.

And then there are those autistic people beloved of groups like Autism Speaks such as blogger Jonathan Mitchell, who goes out of his way to “undiagnose” prominent presumed autistics such as Thomas Jefferson, Bill Gates, and Albert Einstein by offering alternative explanations for behavior consistent with autism—the stated motivation for this undiagnosing being that undue expectations are imposed on the majority of autistic people when such examples of high achievement are held up for public inspection.

So there it is. As autistic people we may as yet lack the ability to recognize one another—or ourselves, for that matter—as members of a secret society or even as being autistic in the first place. We may lack the intention to hide our full and true nature and the extent of our contribution, though we work to do so daily. In doing so though, we maintain a public face—with an ample assist from so-called “autism advocacy” groups—which serves to hide who we are and what difference we make. And that difference, that actual effect we have on the world, is profound, pervasive, and rooted in a cognitive style which may well extend back into our prehistory as a species of bipedal apes.

And virtually no one is aware that this is going on.

Autism is the largest, oldest secret society in the history of mankind, so secret in fact that members—as yet—hardly know how to recognize one another.

on 01/1/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. This is a great summary of the reason so many people have such a negative view of autism. that simply by trying hard to fit in and succeed most higher-functioning autistic people rule themselves out of being able to get a diagnosis! Simon Baron-Cohen, in his book The Essential Difference, describes a mathematician who is clearly autistic, then says he’s not really autistic because he is essentially a ” success”! Imagine what a scandal it would be if any other disability was defined on what someone is able to acheive in life, eg. cerebral palsy.

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