The Intersection of Autism and Politics (not where you think it is)

“If we were a voting block, we could run the country.”

That’s the phrase I kept coming back to eleven or twelve years ago now, when the full extent of autism’s unbroken spectrum first came into view for me.  It’s a conveniently vague way to refer to the actual number of those in the population who might occupy some or another place on the broader autistic spectrum.  The only requirement after all for being kingmaker in an election is to hold a single deciding vote; at the same time, the line where a small number of ”swing voters” swells into being a minority that must be reckoned with is as variable and unclear as is the line between autistics and non-autistics.  What I want to get at here though is something both more subtle and more sweeping than merely suggesting that autistics comprise somewhere between one and forty-nine percent of the population.

I’ve written recently that the Politics category at Shift is here for a reason, and that it bears watching at least in the long term.  The larger background against which I’m learning to view autism seems to suggest that electoral politics is not so removed from the personal or social politics that are frequently discussed here.  In fact there are a number of pieces posted under Society which may well better belong under Politics.  All of which of course still begs the question of where the intersection is between autism and electoral politics.

For starters, I can suggest that if mankind is undergoing a long-term shift in its dominant social structure and defining phenotype of the sort described on this site and elsewhere by Andrew Lehman, then we should only expect the tension between the rising and receding phenotypes to express itself in electoral politics, much as we can expect it to do so in personal, office, or playground politics.  The time scale here however is one that spans generations, and just as one cannot point to a particular weather event and claim that it was “caused by” a shifting climate, it’s difficult to point to particular political differences and claim they are anything more than “consistent with” a model of paradigm shift from one dominant phenotype to another.

Bullying for instance, especially of gays and autistics is presently receiving renewed scrutiny, but without comprehensive, long-term statistics on the amounts, types, and targets of bullying reported and unreported, publicized and unpublicized, it’s hard to say what’s actually happening.  As an example though of where the rubber meets the road between a resurgent matriarchal social structure and a patriarchal one which is past its peak, we might do worse than to consider bullying.

The prediction I’d offer is that one would find very little bullying in a stable patriarchal society that is not undergoing a shift away from domination by high-testosterone males.  Everyone from childhood onward would simply know and accept their place, with little call for vigilante enforcement on the part of insecure youngsters and anxious, power-hoarding adults.  Individuals who bully may well be acting out a collective anxiety that comes of the sense that the world for which they are best suited is slipping away from the lineages that produced them, and to which their own offspring likely do or will belong.

In reviewing entries for last week’s A Year Ago at Shift Journal, I ran across one of Andrew Lehman’s which seemed to pivot around a single sentence that speaks directly to electoral politics of the past forty years or so; it’s set off in my added italics in the middle of the second paragraph below.

Perhaps no single feature of a human being so informs both our evolution and our children’s lives more than the testosterone and estrogen levels of the mother while the child is in the womb.  Baron-Cohen understands the influence of testosterone but hasn’t assimilated the repercussions.  This feature is one of the major physiological intersections informing the directions we evolve.  High testosterone mothers birth low testosterone males and high testosterone females.  Low testosterone females create high testosterone males and low testosterone females.  Mother’s blood suggests and prescribes social structure, evolutionary trajectories and individual human skill/challenge constellations, simultaneously.

Very few myths are shared by aboriginal tribes on six continents.  One central belief is that a woman’s blood possesses more power, more potency than all other magic.  No single issue motivates social conservatives more than the compulsion to control a woman’s womb. In the roadmap of human experience, this issue is where the mythic and manifestly real intersect.

No one of course makes better practical use of this issue—however unconscious that use may be—than those who represent social conservatives in government.  During eight years of complete and near-complete control of all three branches over the past decade, conservative leaders made no serious effort to repeal Roe v. Wade, thus preserving what may in fact be the single most effective perennial issue available to them for motivating their base.  Even with that said, the point stands in regard to social conservative voters, a group I would suggest is made up largely of high-testosterone males, low-testosterone females, others who for various reasons find comfort and accommodation in that hormonal conjunctio … and relatively few autistics.

In other words, for all we like to believe that William Ross Wallace got it right when he suggested that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” the actual power in the long term may lie not so much in the hand as in the womb and in the choice of who will and will not become a father.  This is not to question the stated motives of conservatives for opposing abortion, but rather to suggest that genetic self-interest may run at such a deep level here that it operates unconsciously, appearing for all the world to be a matter of universal, self-evident truth.

Consider that one notable anti-abortion position is that women must bear the children of rapists.  Consider further what you think the likelihood is that an “aggressive, hierarchical, right-handed” male will—whether by means of rape or marriage—sire a “random-handed, cooperative, neotenous” son.  Multiply that choice of who will and will not become a father billions of times over, and you are looking at the potent magic of a body politic in which autistics have a place and can thrive … or one where, eh, not so much.

I wound up writing about this for today because I had made a promise that the Politics category was a space to watch, and because I ran across that sentence which served neatly to draw a cross between autism and politics, not to mention between “the mythic and manifestly real.”  I don’t know that it’s the best introduction that might be made, but I remain convinced there’s a lot of unexplored territory here.  If you’re hungry for more—in quantity, scope and nuance—I suggest diving into Andrew Lehman’s work, again, here at Shift as well as at Neoteny and in his book, Autism, Evolution, and Social Change.

One caveat I’d like to make is that for all of what might be taken for happy-talk about some Shining New Day for an autism-friendly matriarchal social structure, I think it’s a real possibility that what many of us alive today may be in for—or for that matter our children’s children, or theirs in turn—is ugliness and suffering on a scale that could well surpass that of World War II Europe.  Patriarchy that’s been around for a dozen or so millennia doesn’t necessarily go down without a fight, and from where I sit, it appears the bullies who’ve risen to power just now, at least here in the United States, are riding herd on a lot of collective anxiety.

This sort of change, as I said, is a multi-generational affair, and that “multi-“ may well refer to dozens or hundreds of generations.  I’m personally not so much in the business of promoting hope as I am of trying to see and present a Big Picture.  In that picture, I’m a short-term pessimist, and a long-term optimist.

Who knows though.  The actual future is likely to be more of a hodge-podge, and maybe things are better than they look to me.  Stay tuned.

on 10/22/10 in featured, Politics | 6 Comments | Read More

Comments (6)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    A bit of a paradox there — although bullying always has been a means of enforcing conformity to a rigid social structure, there might indeed have been less of it in societies where everyone knew their place, as you suggest.

    There is certainly a huge amount of anxiety in today’s society, but I wouldn’t go as far as to attribute all bullying to insecurity and anxiety. Some of it seems to be instinctive dominance behavior, just like you’d find with animals. When the target doesn’t respond in a socially scripted way, that’s when the anxiety kicks in and the bullying escalates.

    And to be more of an optimist about the short term, we already have had massive social changes in recent years with amazingly little violence, which bodes well for that state of affairs to continue.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    All well said, especially “When the target doesn’t respond in a socially scripted way, that’s when the anxiety kicks in and the bullying escalates.” To whatever extent this is what’s happening, a changed social structure whose effects include a legitimized autism isn’t just a failure to follow the social script, it’s a major re-write.

    I hope you’re right that social changes can continue without violence — though I’d point out that the US and the UK in particular have been externalizing a staggering amount of violence for nearly a decade now, all while “the people” have either cheered or remained silent — responding in precisely the socially scripted way.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Perhaps it’s the way I read this, but you seem to be basing much of this post off the assumption that autism is a combination of low-testosterone males and high-testosterone females. And also that this may represent a transition in human evolution.

    Maybe it’s that I’m a fairly new reader here (or, perhaps, that I tend to be almost as skeptical of scientific claims as I am of non-scientific claims), but I’m curious as to the source behind these ideas.

  4. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Good question, Stephanie. At times I feel I’m being repetitious in referencing the source behind these ideas, but then when I leave it off, questions like yours may arise. Or actually, I did reference the source, but I can elaborate:

    The working assumption here is that autistic children are more likely to be born to couples with that hormonal combination. More generally, babies born to such couples are theorized to more typically carry neotenous traits — such as autism.

    The source for these ideas is a twelve-year course of restless, driven work, links to which I recently collected here, culminating in a book published this last April, Autism, Evolution, and Social Change. The author of the book is Andrew Lehman, who founded Shift Journal. For a look back at Shift’s first year, see here.

    I approach Andrew’s ideas in a sort of thought experiment, writing as-if they were given facts, first because I find them plausible enough, and second because I find their implications salutary and intriguing. They provide an excellent framework for the consideration of autism as a legitimate way to be in the world, which is a bedrock for me, regardless.

    Time will only tell how scientifically useful these ideas are; it’s worth pointing out that Simon Baron-Cohen has corresponded with Andrew, and offered encouragement. However I see no point in waiting out the decades or centuries it often takes for ideas to be accepted in the scientific community, especially for outsider ideas in this age of insider professionalism. I’m happy to promote Andrew’s work by treating it as provisionally sound, and perhaps help it get the attention it deserves.

  5. Stephanie says:


    I did get that Lehman was the source of the conclusions (though, it didn’t click in my mind that he was the same person who founded Shift Journal-which puts the title in a new perspective for me).

    Your second to last paragraph was the one that answered my question, though. Where you state you’re writing with the assumption of Lehman’s hypothesis/theory as fact. (Therefore, acknowledging that there was not significantly more evidence in favor of that theory than the links suggest.)

    I guess I find the idea off-putting on two fronts. The assumption that, as a voting block, autistics would be liberal; and the implication that autistics who don’t fit the testosterone profile you assume to be accurate are not “really autistic.” Neither of which is stated, of course, but it can easily be read into what you wrote.

    Personally, I would hope if we were to get beyond our patriarchal social structure, we would find something new instead of reverting to a social structure that only seems to work on a small scale. When assuming human evolution and social evolution theory, matriarchal cultures have not been strong enough to survive in the face of patriarchal cultures-so why would we “progress” by trying something that’s already failed?

    You said: ” The actual future is likely to be more of a hodge-podge…” If it’s progress, it would almost have to be. Taking what we’ve learned about what’s been tried to come up with something new and better that combines advantages and shores up disadvantages-that, to me, is progress.

  6. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Stephanie —

    Neither assumption was taken or intended, and your first objection is precisely the reason I mentioned that this post might not be the best introduction. In regard to your second objection, I think further reading of Andrew’s work should put it to rest. His contentions in any case are about the parents of some autistics, not about the hormonal profiles of autistics.

    As for progress, Andrew is explicit in various places that he views time as cyclical (see the ouroboros in the masthead) rather than linear. Some people are fans of winter, some are fans of summer; each will view the “progression” from one into the other through their own set of biases.

    I agree that matriarchal societies have significant and clearly demonstrated vulnerabilities when faced with direct assault from patriarchal ones. On the other hand, they prevailed as the dominant social structure for far longer than have our recent patriarchies — and the argument that we need to return to smaller scales of social organization in order to live sustainably has been in play for many years.

    Andrew does not use the term “hive mind,” but my sense is that any “shift” is one that would be undertaken on that level — it would drive our politics, rather than the other way around. In other words, I’m not being prescriptive here; I’m being descriptive of what may be happening beneath the level and reach of political will or organization.

    In this context, sensible as it may otherwise be to hope or suggest that we “[take] what we’ve learned about what’s been tried to come up with something new and better,” here it’s beside the point. Again — even though it’s politics that’s under discussion — advocacy in any direction is not what’s being discussed. At least, not any more than if I were to say, “I’m really looking forward to snowmobile season.”

    And maybe that’s a discussion we need to have, one about the relative merits for autistics of patriarchal vs. matriarchal social structures … vs. something new and better. The picture I was trying to paint here though is one that originates one frame of reference away from where you appear to be writing from.

    Because I do however agree with you about the the relative strengths of matriarchies and patriarchies in direct, short-term competition, I do worry about a volatile transition phase. Hence my pessimism above.

    For what it’s worth, I toyed with the idea of making reference to Aristopanes’ play Lysistrata in this post, because of its theme of women withholding sex from their husbands in an effort to put an end to endless war. I passed because I only know the play by reputation, and didn’t have time to get up to speed. Here though is the final line of Wikipedia’s summary:

    ” … after a bit of humorous dialogue between drunken dinner guests, the celebrants all return to the stage for a final round of songs, the men and women dancing together.”

    Which for its day apparently passed for “something new and better.” Funny though how we’re still in the midst of endless war, eh? Again, for all that I have my biases like everyone else, I don’t know what the answers are. I’m just trying to paint a picture of what may be happening deep underneath our feet, so to speak, regardless of anyone’s hopes or intentions in any direction.

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