The Autistic Cohort as a Distributed System

A few weeks ago I proposed that what the autistic cohort and the Wikileaks file-sharing drama had in common was that opposition to both came from centralized systems of power which in turn mistake autism and file-sharing to be centralized systems as well.  That file-sharing occurs over a distributed system rather than a centralized one seems an obvious enough point, but it’s a point that’s lost on many in the thick of the Wikileaks battle; there are amusing, instructive, and depressing examples of the absurdities committed there which I still plan to get to.  That autism may be best imagined as a distributed system might not be so obvious, so right now I want to set out three ways in which this seems to be the case.  I don’t expect to propose any startlingly original insights just today, but once we have a better working idea of what it means to say that autism works in the world as a distributed system, I do think there are a number of new perspectives that become available.

Right at the heart of even the most literal, conservative view of autism, one which hews most strictly to the medical model with its tight focus on pathology and disability, we find that there are multiple recognized causes for autism.

Even in regard to the “pure” autism spectrum disorders which make up the vast majority of cases, there is no one gene recognized as the carrier or cause; there are several.  And with syndromic autism the list of causes, even leaving aside perennial favorites gluten and vaccines, is both long and quite specific.  In other words – and common as this knowledge may be, it is still not yet common enough to have penetrated our language and our imaginations – there is no fountainhead of autism, no single founding story or event.  Its very origins are multiple and diverse, and yet we commonly speak of and imagine it as one thing, and at that existing only in the here and now, or even only in childhood.

As Dr. James Copland puts it, “Asking ‘What causes ASD?’ is like asking ‘What causes fever?’”  Note that we have no foundations, no fund-raising, no research projects dedicated to curing or ending fever in our lifetimes.  The absurdity there is self-evident since every parent knows fever is a “single thing” only in the most superficial sense.  In fact if fever has a central cause, it would be the role it plays in the immune defense system.  While it’s not where I’m headed here, Andrew Lehman has written of autistics’ role as part of humankind’s self-regulating system, as canaries in the coal mine.  Where I am headed is that autism is no single thing but rather a distributed system, brought into being by many, perhaps mostly overlooked “parts,” the effects of which accompany us into adulthood as we breed, bleed, and feed into the rest of the cohort and the rest of society as the generations roll by – all with consequences we have only begun to imagine.

That’s one view that yields a picture of a distributed system, looking at what goes into or causes autism, or “where it comes from,” and in that last paragraph we moved from “inbound” autism, from what brings autism on to “outbound” autism, or those effects that the autistic cohort has on human society.  This is territory I’ve been visiting from the beginning here, maybe most directly in Autism as a Secret Society.  There are two aspects to this example.  One extends back into cultural history and evolutionary time, with the autistic cohort being viewed and valued differently according to the needs, challenges, and demographics of each place and age.  The other amounts to a single-moment snapshot of the broad cohort, a spectrum which encompasses those who are most challenged by syndromic autism as well as those who live and die with no one ever suspecting how the course of their lives had them swerving onto and off of the autistic rez the whole time.  This snapshot would include most of those whom today we typically segregate into the conceptual silos of geek, nerd, and introvert.

My premise all along – as reflected in the sidebar as well as many earlier entries – has been that autism is far-reaching in its social implications, and that its full presence and impact remain hidden in plain sight, unrecognized and uncredited.  I mean this in both of the senses I’ve just described, in terms of the role autism may have played in cultural innovation throughout history, pre-history, and evolutionary time, and also in terms of the present-day spectrum and contemporary culture.  Scratch an innovator in any field, I am suggesting, and underneath you are likely to find elements of autism such as tenacity of interest, or obsession; an inbuilt immunity to group-think; an ability to keep intimate track of the details while or perhaps by losing oneself in them; a failure to “know one’s place” in relation to commonly accepted authority; a perennially fresh eye applied to situations where “we’ve always done it this way.”

This too is autism, acting in the world as a distributed system, coming at society from many different angles and in many places, no more susceptible to the magic bullet of a cure than is creativity itself.  To insist on imagining it only as pathology or disability is to defame autism along with those who exhibit it.  Not every autistic is an innovator, obviously – any more than every genetic variation in any species confers an adaptive advantage.  But this may be how we move forward culturally; I’m certainly willing to argue that autism is one of the ways by which we progress and innovate as a species.  And again, the model here is not that of revelation from on high, of autism as some pure, central source from which New Ways are handed down to mankind.  And perhaps this is why we fail to see it for what it is.  Autism’s gift, again, is for a facility with the details; it meets with, treats with, and has truck with the devil in those details.  Its contributions comes from the bottom up, here and there, bubbling to the surface, sprouting through the cracks.

Then there is a third way in which I expect to refer to the autistic cohort as a distributed system in coming entries. This is to do with the sense in which we seem to have roused ourselves from stony sleep and brought ourselves to life as a self-aware community by creating the internet arguably in our own image.  I made mention of this back in December, and wrote about it as part of the email which landed me at Shift Journal; that section wound up as a post here.  The internet itself is of course an example par excellence of a distributed system, purposely created without a “head” so as to be all the more resilient and immune to decapitation.

I want to bring things full circle and finish up quickly here with a sidestep into whimsy.  You are likely familiar with the phrase “about as easy as herding cats.”  You may be familiar with the internet meme “all cats are autistic,” or the book All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome.  Consider that the challenges the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon have experienced – in trying to corral the leaked diplomatic cables, the people who’ve shared and read them, and the capabilities of the infrastructure that made it all possible – are challenges which can be aptly described as “about as easy as herding cats.”

Consider that these things may all be related.

related:  Which War Are We In: Good vs. Evil, or The One vs. The Many?

related:  Did the Autistic Cohort Beget Wikileaks?

related:  What’s So Funny About Wikileaks and Autism?

on 01/21/11 in featured, Internet | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Stephanie says:

    An interesting introduction. I look forward to reading more about your conclusions.

    On a side note, I’ve never gotten the “herding cats” description. Who would want to herd cats? Why would you want to herd cats? I mean, every time I hear the phrase, it strikes me that the “cats” aren’t the problem; the “herders” are tackling whatever they think the problem is in an inappropriate way.

    (That, of course, goes for the federal government’s response to Wikileaks as well.)

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks, and good catch, Stephanie. I’ll credit you when I use that. :-)

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