Autism and the Enlightenment: Sleeping Dogs And Sleeping Giants

I don’t expect that Shift Journal is unique in pursuing this line of thought, but it strikes me that three contributors have now seen fit to comment on the relationship of autistics and “belief.”  Whether it be by engaging in superstitious or magical thought (Andrew Lehman), or by “attribut[ing] intentionality and meaning, even where there is none” (Lili Marlene, originally here), otherwise known as teleological thinking (Gwen McKay, earlier this week), the consensus seems to be that for all our well-documented tendency to take metaphor literally, autistics are unlikely to “believe,” at least not as an innate tendency.  I can certainly attest that as an embedded autistic in the Methodist family into which I was adopted, I was mystified from an early age by the religious expectations and incentives placed upon me.

Not surprisingly then, the folkloric notion that autistics are Children of Lilith—descended from Adam’s first wife and thus not subject to that sense of personal shortcoming and guilt that came of being ejected from the Garden—is one I’ve always found charming.  Not that Lilith hasn’t been thoroughly demonized over the centuries by those (Michelangelo included) who are wedded to the notion that Adam’s first wife be damned, everyone has a little Original Sin in them.  Over those centuries though, autistics have mostly remained either marginalized or invisible enough that how they were perceived or what they “meant” didn’t much matter, at least not to non-autistics.

“Over the centuries” is a time scale that gets considered in relation to autism more on this site than at any other place I’m aware of.  Some of my first entries here suggested that autism may be a force that drives cultural evolution, with my thinking along those lines extending back no more than 40,000 years or so.  My colleague Andrew Lehman in turn has described autism as an evolutionary condition, an expression of a socio-biological feedback loop or pendulum swing which plays out over many more thousands, even millions of years.  Here, he depicts the current position of autism in that progression as if it were tracing the course of a roller-coaster:

Perhaps 1,000 generations later, we’ve hit bottom. The roller coaster is starting again up hill. Our future is filled with child-like creators as the autistic begin a much delayed return.

If this is so, with evolutionary time like geologic time moving so slowly as to make a single moment out of a fistful of adjacent centuries, we might look slightly backwards in time as well, to see what evidence there might be that this roller coaster has already started up hill.  What comes to my mind immediately is the Enlightenment, the second blow in the one-two punch (the Renaissance being the first) that put an end to the Dark Ages—and which was made possible by precisely the rejection of teleological thinking that is characteristic of autistics.  Even back in the Renaissance, we have Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man setting the stage, “[holding] forth the possibilities for a comprehensive new order of knowledge relying on human understanding without reference to divine revelation.”

In our lifetimes we have seen those who are excited by all things scientific characterized as geeks and nerds—the same terms which we apply to many of our various autistic obsessions and perseverations.  It is not so outrageous, I suggest, that we ask whether the Enlightenment (and the Renaissance) might not be credited to the much delayed return of autism as described above.

Leaving aside for now the child-like creators such as Shakespeare and Mozart, or those heavenly skeptics Copernicus and Galileo, look at the thinkers:  Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Jefferson, Newton, Spinoza, Voltaire. They were among the first to insist on looking beyond “because the Lord hath made it so” as sufficient explanation for the world around us.  I realize I’m expanding on the somewhat more narrow matter of teleological thinking, but even Jefferson—autistic, autistic Jefferson—found it necessary to take a razor blade to the Bible and create his own version of the Gospels, one with all the “woo” removed.  And for that matter, some of the values attributed to that proto-hippie Jesus (mercy, for instance, along with gentleness and the aversion to throwing a first stone) might be seen as early re-appearances of an autistic mindset (and yes, hippiedom too may well have been, especially at the outset, an autistic creation).

So.  Ironically enough then, when I was first learning about Autism Speaks (less than a year ago), I made some inquiries about whether there appeared to be any Christian affiliation or backing to that organization—not because I suspected them of mercy or gentleness, but because I wondered whether they were “on to” the cross-purposes at which autism and Christendom seem to be.  Arguably this is a sleeping dog I’d best let lie, and not write about at least in public.  It’s not as if autistics don’t have enough to deal with as it is.

I’d rather though that we—or the generations that follow us—not be blindsided by that dog, should it awaken years on down the road from today.  I’m certainly not sounding any call to the barricades but the fact is, I think, that if the percentage of diagnosed autistics continues to grow for whatever reason, or perhaps simply if the neurodiversity movement grows beyond a certain point, sooner or later our numbers will be cast as a threat to the faithful. When that happens—and again, this is nothing I necessarily expect in my lifetime—the forces that may be arrayed against us have the potential to make Autism Speaks look like a clique of third-graders with a playground grudge.

I realize that there are faithful among the autistic, and again, we seem to be good enough at factionalism that we don’t need yet another reason for disagreement.  It’s worth remembering that the Enlightenment thinkers, as men of their times, were by and large professing believers themselves, one way or another.  What I would hope might come of my bringing all this up is that we would begin to get a sense of what our lineage may be, as autistic people alive today in the Year of Our L— … well, in the year 42010, as poet Gary Snyder once put it, “reckoning roughly from the earliest cave paintings.”

Consider at any rate that we—autistics—may well be able to count a majority of Enlightenment thinkers as having had an autistic cognitive style themselves.  It may have been us, people more like us than any others alive today, who pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages—all while the Church gritted its teeth and dug in its heels. By the time “diagnosis” finally supplanted “heresy” as a more efficient means of discrediting those who might effectively question the tenets of religious thought, the “damage” we know as the Enlightenment was done.

That feat, that act of a sleeping giant awakened after centuries and more of stony sleep is where I end up anyway, when I think about non-teleological thinkers. Who else would it have been, insisting as we do on an evidence-based reality when it comes to bio-med and vaccines today, who else would it have been but us back then who went charging off with ten-thousand fresh new geeky, nerdy obsessions, all in search of the evidence-based reality that now forms the baseline against which much of the world still kicks, screams, plots, and schemes.

This may be who we are.  This may be among the things we have done, only to let the credit slip away over a century or two of redefinitions, reframings, and diagnoses.  We may have gone back to sleep, we Children of Lilith, but not so deeply this time, I don’t think.  We—or our children’s children’s children—shall see.

on 06/11/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    Mark, I haven’t come across the Children of Lilith notion before. Do you have a link to anything that discusses where it came from?

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Gwen, I could’ve sworn it came from Uta Frith, but a Google Books search didn’t turn it up last night, and I’ve been away from my copies of her books since it occurred to me to write about it. I will have a look this weekend and post here what I find.


    My best guess now is that it was something I must have read online ten or eleven years ago around the time I was reading Frith (including her book Autism in History). It was a survey of ways autism had been viewed over the last few hundred years, mostly in northern Europe. There was also a dry, non-romanticized accounting of how autistic children may have given rise to myths of changeling children, replaced in their cribs with fairy children, who in turn were sometimes said to be descendants of Adam’s first wife Lilith.

    Having mentioned Lilith’s name in the opening paragraph, I’m kind of appalled to find what a uniform picture there is of her on the web as being nothing but a demon through and through. My reference point for her is much more of a feminist reading of the Lilith story, one I’ve picked up here and there over the years, but one in which she simply proved to be an unmanageable handful for Adam and Yahweh, and so was banished from the garden and written out of history to make way for the more compliant Eve. It’s easy enough from that perspective to see why she’d wind up demonized over the years by the rabbis and church fathers; my reference was solely to her as the sort of independent thinker and actor whom I’m pleased to count as an ancestress.

    ———-later still————-

    Then again, maybe it was just me:

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