Shift Journal at One Year

Imagine, just as an exercise, that beyond the one percent of the population diagnosable with autism, there is another four percent whose cognitive style is describable under the less rigorous category of the Broad Autism Phenotype, or BAPa total of five percent for whom an autistic experience of the world is the norm.  Again just as an exercise, imagine the weight that norm would carry if the total autistic population were ten percent (roughly that of gays and lesbians).  Imagine it again at twenty percent, and then forty—still a minority, but a sizable one, and one that can begin to rival the remaining sixty percent as “the” defining neurology for the population.  Imagine it at fifty, and then sixty—at what point might the diagnosed autistics mysteriously become more “able,” living in a world where the social and environmental standards were increasingly defined by their own phenotype?  Imagine the world they’d be living in were their numbers to combine with the BAP population for a total of seventy percent, or eighty.  “Normal,” at this point, would be represented by the Broad Autism Phenotype.  And given that we began with a ratio of one autistic for every four representatives of the BAP, would that ratio still hold in a population of eighty percent BAP, or ninety-five?  Or might “autistics” simply be integrated seamlessly into a population which would regard autism as fish regard water?

Now imagine this progression extending not only into the future, but also in the opposite direction, spread over evolutionary time, over millions of years and thousands of generations.  Out of autism we may have come, and into autism we may be returning. This is the vision, in part and in my own words, of the man who launched this website a year ago now, Andrew Lehman.

April of this year saw two watershed events in Andrew’s life.  One was the publication of his book, Evolution, Autism, and Social Change, which pulled together the ideas he had been working out for years at Neoteny and elsewhere into an elegantly coherent whole.  The other event was an urgent, pre-emptive operation to head off the threat of a brain aneurysm which had been a closely surveilled, mostly quiet companion for some time.  While the surgery was successful, it has left Andrew with higher priorities and more pressing challenges than participating in online discussion.

The five entries with which Andrew launched Shift are gathered here; parts of these posts and others here made their way in some form into his book.  While I was invited to be the only other ground floor contributor besides Andrew, I’d like to recognize that his intention for Shift was that it be a commons for contributors, a place where many and conflicting viewpoints could be sorted through by readers.  For all that Andrew has a longtime and diverse following at Neoteny, we were both outsiders to the online autism community; I at least had little idea what a thoroughly polarized battlefield it was, or what we must have looked like wandering out onto this scarred, cratered landscape, earnestly soliciting contributors.

By March of this year, I had taken stock of what I felt was and was not already being done well in online autism discussion, and posted a handful of entries outlining where I believed Shift Journal could fill in the gaps.  Andrew responded by suggesting that I insert my name as Editor and Publisher; I took his suggestion (unnecessarily hi-falutin’ as this title still seems), thus concluding an eight-month dance I refer to as the Velvet Shanghai—eight months, apparently, being how long it took Andrew to see me convince myself that this site was as much my child as his, and that I actually had time to both manage and contribute to it.

While time constraints continue to be an issue, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Andrew Lehman for placing this project in my hands.  Some years ago, somewhere on one of his blogs, he noted that seeing possibilities (such as this one, I presume) and laying the conditions for them to come into being was something for which he seemed to have a talent.  It is a privilege to have been included in such a process.  Thank you, Andrew.

Readers who browse the site by category headings know that some of these categories describe areas which contain few entries, while others are overflowing.  Though it might seem more practical in the short term to modify them, for now these category headings are markers of unfulfilled potential, of attention yet to be paid.

It is not a small thing to absorb or even to entertain the implications of the idea that we live in cyclical time, that out of autism we may have come, and into autism we may be returning.  In the entry which to my mind serves as a keynote for this site, Andrew wrote that “Autism … rights represent the third wave of genetic justice,” following as it does on the movements for civil rights, and for women’s and gay’s rights.  Much of the discussion here recently has centered on this struggle; one of my observations in March was that Shift Journal could serve as a center of gravity for the reflective task of self-definition that underlies such movements.

So this is where a good deal of energy and interested contributors are coming from today; tomorrow or the decade or later after, here or elsewhere, we may see similar energy focused in other areas.  Shift Journal is a big-picture endeavor; we are surveying a large territory, it’s a project not to be wrapped up or even comprehended in the space of a single year.  In this sense Shift is not even so much about the content already available here as the entries yet to come.  Watch this space—or better yet, send along a submission to help shape it.

Back to this notion of returning to autism, I want to direct attention to the ouroboros, the tail-swallowing snake up there in Shift’s masthead.  I’ve never discussed the figure-eight aspect with Andrew; that may or may not simply be artistic license, but the ouroboros itself refers to (among other things) cyclical time.  In the West, we tend to view time as something irrevocable, marching on, in a single unwavering direction.  Rightly or wrongly, we interpret even the tenets of evolutionary theory to imply only progress, so that no one—not even the most staunchly regressive conservative—wishes to go backwards in evolutionary terms.

The concept of evolutionary time entertained here is, again, cyclical rather than linear.  A return to autism—while prevalent biases and preconceptions may say otherwise—is no more a regression or backwards turn than is the return of clock hands to the same positions every twelve hours.  If your sensibilities insist on a vision of progress, imagine a spiral, circling into and plumbing the depths of mysteries.  Given our limited lifespans in the face of evolutionary time, all this remains metaphor in any case.  Even Andrew’s offering of a new evolutionary theory will likely need generations in order for its measure to be taken in scientific terms.

In the meantime, that theory—and this website along with it—provides a framework in which the legitimacy of autistic experience is a given.  We can now set about seeing what we might build on that framework, while also learning to recognize the staggering extent, historically and in everyday life, of what has already been created out of autistic experience.  There’s plenty more as well, as I’ve said, to tuck into—and there’s always an open call for contributors—but even if we don’t get to it all again this year, those tasks alone should be enough to keep us busy.

on 09/3/10 in Evolution, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. KWombles says:

    Lovely piece, Mark, with lots of things to chew on and ponder. You asked me some time ago what I’d write if I weren’t on the battlelines, and I am confident that your question and Shift allowed me the chance to step back and look at that in greater depth and alter my path back towards more contemplative things. Yes, I’m still there in what remains a battlefield, but I fight it differently. Thank you for that (oh, and when you’ve a chance, will you change the link for my blog; I’ve renamed the url).

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thank you, K (“Promoting contemplative reverie since 2009” ;-)). Sidebar link is now updated; am also in the midst of a slow, soft relaunch here which should include the appearance of that button for your autism blogs directory.

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