This Too Is Autism

I’m usually content to allow Gwen McKay’s light touch and considerable gift for understatement work their magic on their own but her most recent post titled Fault Lines touched a nerve for me, and I want to amplify a bit of what I feel is implicit in Gwen’s essay.

At some point over the last five or six years while wading through the daily swamp of pundits and political bloggers I ran across an eloquent description of what was proposed as a strong, even pervasive sub-current in American life, one summed up in part as “a vague uneasiness” regarding the cascading lack of accountability in public life.  For all that I’ve always been a bookmark packrat I’m sure I didn’t keep this one.  At the time I could never have imagined having a need to document this fact.  For some, such as that writer, the uneasiness has typically been a good deal sharper; for them though, as one catastrophe after another has come and gone without any real consequence to the responsible parties there was and is “outrage fatigue,” leading to a sort of numbness not all that distinguishable from “a vague uneasiness.”

I want to come back in a bit and give that uneasiness another name; first though I’d like to contrast a couple of personal recollections.

I remember hearing president Bush’s remarks in 2006 on the passing of former president Gerald Ford, and observing to my companion that no one owed a greater debt to Ford than George W. Bush.  My reasoning being that Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon, thus setting the precedent that punches were to be pulled in America when it came to punishing high crimes.  While claiming to be putting an end to “our long national nightmare,” what Ford actually did was ensure that nightmare’s longterm viability.  Everyone will have their own list of catastrophes-without-consequence (for those responsible) which we have endured since, but for me at least, that pardon is where began “the breakdown of accountability in today’s society and in the political sphere” referred to by Gwen.

Eight years prior to Ford’s passing, I remember catching a video clip of one of the Beardstown Ladies just as their investment club’s turn in the spotlight had come to an end.  Wikipedia reminds us that these small-town Illinois women had

… achieved fame for their stock market acumen, claiming investment returns of more than 23.4% per year from their inception through 1994. They received considerable attention in national media outlets, and authored a best-selling book, The Beardstown Ladies’ Common-Sense Investment Guide, following it up with four more books.

As it eventually came to light though, the Beardstown Ladies were bad at math and were in fact unintentional frauds, having achieved little more than average returns on their investments.  And so here was the shocking spectacle of this woman apologizing before the camera, taking responsibility for her unintended actions with a riveting humility and gravity of tone that is simply never seen on glowing screens, even in skilled portrayals by highly paid actors or highly placed officials.  I happen to have roots in the general area of Beardstown; I recognized everything from this woman’s dialect to the posture of her shoulders to the painful directness of her gaze.  She might as well have been one of my aunts – and while it was harrowing to watch, I have seldom been more proud of those roots than at that moment.

If she is at all representative of the other Beardstown Ladies, I expect they too participate in that sense of vague uneasiness I’m speaking of here.  I expect in fact that they would score with the autistics in the study Gwen referred to earlier this week.

And I’ll go one step further.  This vague uneasiness, this pervasive sub-current of unease in American life, this too is autism.  This too is to be laid at autism’s feet, this impulse to honesty and discomfort with justice undone, not only in the identifiably impaired but in the general population as the spectrum fans out and loses itself in and amongst our neighbors, friends and co-workers.  This is what’s good about autism, this is among much else what is to be proud of about autism.  To deny this and segregate autism’s positives from its negatives, to deny the identical presence of autism’s positive traits in the rest of society is to rob and impoverish the diagnosed, stealing from the poor to give to the rich, unafflicted, and undeserving.

Yea, though the souls of all the world’s Sunday School teachers and Scoutmasters cry out in horror at the thought, our collective conscience may not be best embodied in – for instance – that genial, slyly named insect Jiminy Cricket; that “still small voice” may not actually be something so forthrightly or reliably transmissible by example, instruction, and religious culture.  Our collective, national conscience in America as elsewhere may instead be carried from generation to generation on the backs of those who populate the neighborhood in and around the Broad Autism Phenotype.

This has in part and in so many words been the argument of William Stillman, since long before this site took shape. It is implicit in the work of Andrew Lehman, who contacted Stillman to arrange for some of his essays to appear here early on.  Tyler Cowen tends to focus on other strengths of autism, but consistently suggests that those strengths are similarly under-recognized in their depth, their usefulness, and in the reach of their distribution across the population.  It has been my stance as well that autism is pervasive in society, that it is responsible for much that goes credited elsewhere, and that this world would be unimaginably different without it.  What I am suggesting is exactly as audacious as it may sound:  that the active presence of the autistic spectrum as a whole may be necessary to maintain the moral and ethical well-being of the human species.

All this said, I’m aware enough that what I’m making here is more a claim than an argument.  Fine.  Let it stand or fall on its own.  Hearing such an extreme claim though, perhaps others may make less extreme claims and better-supported arguments in the space that’s been brought into view here.  In order to see the possibilities, there first of all has to be a window positioned to look out onto where those possibilities exist.

For too long, autistics have allowed others to define what autism looks like, what it does, what it essentially is.  For too long, and too often with just as little evidence as I have presented here, non-autistics have decided where the windows are that look out onto autism.  Changing, improving that view means moving those windows, broadening them, allowing for a wider perspective and asserting perhaps at first with no supporting data whatsoever that what then comes into view, too, is autism.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

related:  Fault Lines

related:  What’s Fair Is Fair

related:  Are Autistics More Honest? If So, What Then?

related:  If Not Us, Then Who?

on 02/4/11 in Autism, featured | 15 Comments | Read More

Comments (15)


  1. Mark, I think you’re painting with much too broad a brush here. I’ve been in plenty of situations with other autistics in which I’ve practically stood up on a chair, yelling “Don’t you see the wrong being done here? Why am I the only person who gets it?” only to be met with “Wow, what’s got her going? She’s kind of intense.”

    There’s a spectrum in our community, just as in any other. I tend to be at the “wouldn’t know outrage fatigue if it hit me in the face” end, and I know people well to the other side of the neurological spectrum who are like me in that way. Other autistics can rationalize things that appal me, while speaking out loudly against other injustices. And some appear to have absolutely no interest in engaging ethical questions in any way, shape, or form.

    I realize that we’re talking phenotypes here, but this feels much too collectively self-congratulatory to me. I feel the same way when I hear Temple Grandin say that the human race would never have evolved past the stone age if there were no autism in the gene pool. Isn’t there another way to bring us into the light of dignity and respect without making these kinds of claims?

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Fair enough Rachel — if I’m idealizing autisitics, perhaps it is to some extent in reaction to them being demonized, and yes there are better strategies than becoming a mirror image of one’s detractors. I don’t deny contrary experiences such as yours; I’ve had them myself, and walked away fuming about them. (“These of all people should know better!”)

    It may be that being self-aware as autistics makes autistics as vulnerable to certain pitfalls as does any other sort of identity politics — and what I’m talking about above operates mostly apart fom any awareness of autism per se.

    What is it that you find so implausible about Grandin’s claim that “the human race would never have evolved past the stone age if there were no autism in the gene pool”? I’ve been entertaining that idea for years, and don’t believe I’ve ever known that she shared it.

    Of course there are other ways to bring us into the light of dignity and respect, but if credit and recognition for the sort of things Temple speaks of are our due, why not lay claim to them as well? Why not make our own damn light?

  3. What I find implausible about Temple Grandin’s claim is that human cultural development is extremely complex and a number of factors have driven it. If autism weren’t in the gene pool, who is to say that all the other factors wouldn’t have gotten us past the stone age? Perhaps with only those factors, human beings would have evolved completely different strategies to get to the same place-or to an equally interesting but different place.

    It’s fine to lay claim to the strengths of autism. That is clearly our due. But it can be done without recourse to saying that the human race couldn’t have evolved without us, morally or otherwise. Who knows what all the other possible paths of human development might have looked like? The possibilities are infinite.

    The tendency to idealize autistics, though understandable, is fraught with danger, mainly because we autistics tend to be so trusting, and our autistic fellow travellers are bound to disappoint from time to time, just like anyone else. We’re clearly not the cold robotic people the stereotypes imply we are, but neither are we all highly evolved moral beings. Even if autism did, in fact, give us some sort of moral edge, there is still the whole question of whether we would choose to act in accordance with it. There’s nothing about being autistic that says that a person will always make good choices. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t, just like other people.

  4. Mark Stairwalt says:

    I’ll be happy to argue (or concede) the points in your first two paragraphs — as soon as the idea that autism had to do at all with In The Beginning makes it into general consciousness. For me anyway, first things first.

    I’ll concede to your third paragraph right now. In fact, the first thing I thought of when I read the article on the study Gwen refers to was lambert at Corrente, who’s been arguing for years against the way a majority of voters have only worsened their “unease” with the choices they’ve made.

    In particular, I thought of an argument he made twice back on December 2nd (, an argument which could have come straight out of the MIT study cited by Gwen, with its claim that “people with autism may perceive morality differently … because they focus more on the outcomes of situations.”

    The line lambert liked so much he used it twice was, “At some point, the best test of intention is outcome. As Aristotle says: ‘We are what we repeatedly do.'”

    So no, I agree, we do not always act in accordance with our best instincts.

  5. Stephanie says:

    I have to agree with Rachel, here. Some autistics seem especially atuned to moral and ethical issues; and their frankness makes those qualities stand out. However, being atuned to moral and ethical issues is not an autistic thing; meaning there are people outside even the broad definition of autism espoused here that are atuned to these issues and there are those within the broad definition of autism that are not.

    If anything, I would say that frankness-the willingness to call them like we see them-versus the integrity to act on what we believe is the key differentiation. People who simply do the right thing, regardless of personal consequences, are no less moral or no less ethical (depending on the issue/situation) than those of us who stand up and say before everyone “That’s just wrong!” As much as I believe in advocacy, and as much as I just cannot resist being one of those who stand and say “That’s just wrong,” sometimes the quiet people who live by example are more successful at influencing others to do the same. Neither way is right or wrong. Neither way is more or less moral. They are just different.

    Moral and ethical behavior are more about personal character than pheno- or neurological type.

  6. Mark Stairwalt says:

    As I intended to make clear in the closing, I’m aiming high here, raising an idea up the flag pole to see who salutes. Clearly, y’all are having none of it.

    My stance all along has been that we can’t speak so precisely about who is and is not on the spectrum or of the phenotype — and that we therefore have the option to entertain notions such as the one I’ve just outlined. It will always be possible to define the spectrum so narrowly that none of what I’ve proposed makes any sense. I believe it is also possible to define it such that there is some sense in it — and the question of how we define the boundaries of the spectrum or phenotype is very much what this site is about.

    There seems to be an assumption that I’m speaking in black and white terms — a straw man that’s pretty easy to knock down — when all I am arguing is that there may well be a statistically significant difference in the functioning of moral compasses across and off the spectrum. Anecdotally, honesty among autistics is a well-known characteristic, familiar in and out of the autistic community. Why dismiss out of hand that this might actually be having an effect on the world at large?

    And while yes, autistics are known for their frankness, why not assume there are just as many or more autistics who in fact are quiet people who live by example. This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say we can’t speak so confidently about who does and does not participate in the phenotype. Again, we will always be able to define things narrowly enough to support a narrow view. I’m more interested in exploring how broad a view can be supported.

    (Also, granted that the competing influences are many and on the whole more determinative, and that the relationships are complicated and messy, but why on earth, especially at the paler reaches of the spectrum where impairment and disability are not primary issues, would pheno- and neurological type not inform and influence personal character to a statistically significant degree? I think that question is perhaps as germane as it is taboo.)

    I realize I’m raising the spectre of a lot of discredited science having to do with identifying criminal “types” from their physiognomy. This gets me at least into a whole other question of whether autism is to be regarded as reducible to neurology, or more as a different and perhaps resurgent type of consciousness — or simply a neurologically driven perspective on the world that is slightly but significantly more resistant to groupthink. Another day for that one, I think.

  7. Stephanie says:


    I am all for entertaining a broader definition of autism and for considering what that means for society. Personally, I believe there is utility in a definition of autism that is similar to the diagnosable definition, which accounts for specific and non-specific needs for accommodation-a definition which would exclude me, for example, but include my children. I also believe there is utility in a definition that accounts for those of us who have autistic attributes, but either are more able to adapt or are less pronounced in those attributes-a definition that would include me. I believe there is room for that kind of distinction, and that there is social value in that kind of distinction.

    I also believe there is value in exploring the different ways to define those two categories (and possibly create even more categories if the utility for them exists) and to consider the impact such definitions would have on society and the societal implications of our existence.

    But, I also see a very real danger in attributing any positive or negative quality to a sub-set of the human population (and the original post did seem to be doing that). The danger I see is that it creates prejudice in the minds of anyone who latches onto that idea and plants a seed of prejudice in the minds of anyone who considers it.

    Each human quality can create its own sub-sets of humanity. Different categories of human qualities will overlap. But no one quality defines the set of another quality. Prejudice assumes that one quality, say race or neurotype or gender or whatever, will define the sets of certain other qualities, say intelligence or compassion or honesty or obedience to the law. The assumption is faulty.

    It was not my intention to create a straw man of your post; it did seem you were suggesting a near absolute-a tendency with very little variance. It seemed you were attributing a complex set of qualities, i.e. moral and ethical behavior, to another complex set of qualities, i.e. autistic traits.

    (A point of craft: While many essayists and journalists advocate removing moderating words and phrases-like “seems,” “tends,” and “may”-because it makes a piece “stronger,” it also makes a piece false. More moderating words would have communicated more clearly that you were suggesting a tendency worthy of consideration, versus stating something you considered a formed hypothesis or a fact.)

    “And while yes, autistics are known for their frankness, why not assume there are just as many or more autistics who in fact are quiet people who live by example.”

    I was thinking of specific examples, which I did not include because I do not expect you know the people. While I do not assume there could not be autistics who live quietly by example, the people I was thinking of would be outside of any definition of autism that I would agree with; they are socially skilled, typically-inclined thinkers who navigate our society relying on internal intuition instead of external interpretation. They also adhere to very high moral and ethical standards.

    “Also, granted that the competing influences are many and on the whole more determinative, and that the relationships are complicated and messy, but why on earth, especially at the paler reaches of the spectrum where impairment and disability are not primary issues, would pheno- and neurological type not inform and influence personal character to a statistically significant degree?”

    In my opinion: Influence, yes. Determine, no. Statistical significance? Perhaps, but probably not. I believe that personal character is determine by a myriad, perhaps uncountable, array of factors-some predetermined, some determined by experience-that I suspect would make it unquantifiable without some seriously questionable assumptions. And that is for a single individual. How would one multiply that by an entire population?

    Maybe we will someday be advanced enough in human understanding and mathematics to create a viable statistical model. But we’re not now.

    Of course, you can make those questionable assumptions. As a society, and specifically in the field of statistics, it’s done all the time. But then we’re back to the issue of prejudice.

  8. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Stephanie, I’m starting to see the outlines of a larger question here that I’m thinking I’ll post about on Friday — in the meantime, here are some responses to points I probably won’t be addressing then.

    I plead no contest to using intentionally provocative hyperbole. Maybe a bad habit, but it sparked this conversation, which is I think a useful one to be having. And actually not so much a habit, as I have many times gone back and inserted qualifiers into strongly worded sentences in previous posts, though I take your point that failing to do so can lead to confusion.

    Two questions about prejudice. One, what do you make of the widely-circulated anecdotal impression that honesty and a strong sense of justice are standout traits among at least certain autistics? Is all of it explainable by frankness rather than by character? Two, what of the widely-circulated anecdotal impression that autistics excel to a statistically significant degree in say, the fields of science and technology? Can one have an aptitude for honesty and justice in the same way one can for science and technology? Why should one be controversial and not the other?

    This kind of reminds me of the comic who dramatically announces he has identified the primary difference between males and females, and it is … the genitals. God forbid that we identify other differences — though I have suffered the acquaintance of women who actually felt this way, because they had had enough of anti-female prejudice.

    I’ve long felt, actually, that if there is an existing analog for the differences between autistics and non-autistics, it is the gender spectrum — and that as the world discovers autism, it is just asking Professor Henry Higgins’ question, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” all over again.

  9. Stephanie says:

    “Two questions about prejudice.”

    I’ll answer the questions first, then relate it back to prejudice.

    “One, what do you make of the widely-circulated anecdotal impression that honesty and a strong sense of justice are standout traits among at least certain autistics?”

    I would agree, from an anecdotal impression, that there are certain autistics that are both honest and have a strong sense of justice. Personally, those traits are some I tend to identify with and I’ve seen enough autistics, both diagnosable and not, that lead me to believe its a tendency among this sub-set of humanity.

    “Is all of it explainable by frankness rather than by character?”

    I believe, perhaps the impression is due to frankness, to some significant but incomplete degree. For example, one of the reasons why I tended, at least in my business classes, to be known for both honesty and a strong sense of justice is because I was very frank about it. While a significant, but minority, portion of my classmates would agree with my points (which tended to require a higher standard of ethics than is legally and socially required from businesses), it was frequently if not almost always me who brought it up first.

    Thus, I would conclude, at least from my own experience, that it isn’t so much that I’m more honest or more justice than that other minority of students, but that I am less likely to be aware of or concerned with the social risk I’m taking by speaking up.

    “Two, what of the widely-circulated anecdotal impression that autistics excel to a statistically significant degree in say, the fields of science and technology?”

    Personally, I think that has less to do with aptitude and more do with comfort-zone. Science and technology, versus say business or the arts, tends to require fewer social skills for success. (And by social skills, I mean those typically recognized and valued by the general population.) Therefore, those who gravitate towards science and technology are more likely to succeed than those who gravitate towards areas that require more social skills. I’ve met autistics who want to be teachers, writers, artists, business owners, ect. They struggle with their areas of expertise no less or more than those interested in science or technology, but they struggle more because of the “extra” skills that are required to succeed in those fields.

    But, that may be a personal bias. As one who does not excel in science, and as the mother of three boys who do not yet show any science excellence, I tend to gravitate towards those with interests that I can follow better.

    “Can one have an aptitude for honesty and justice in the same way one can for science and technology?”

    No. Honesty and justice are belief-based. You believe honesty is important, so you speak honestly. Or, they are awareness based, you are either unaware or unresponsive to social pressures to lie or modify or keep silent, so you speak honestly. Science and technology are skill-based. You learn the science or technology; it makes sense to you; you apply what you’ve learned and think up more.

    “Why should one be controversial and not the other?”

    In relation to prejudice, I think both are controversial. Those who are good at science and technology should be encouraged to pursue it; and their pursuits thereof should be accommodated appropriately. Those who are good at teaching or business or the arts should also be encouraged to pursue their interests; and their pursuits thereof should be accommodated appropriately. To focus on science and technology at the exclusion of other interests is to narrow the field of possibility, which tends to happen when one sub-set of humanity is known for something else.

    A comparison: Asians are good at science and technology. That girl in marketing is Asian. Therefore, she should help me with my computer problem, because she’s good at science and technology.

    Statistics can tell us what is generally true of a population, but they tell us nothing about individuals. Yet, in our society, we tend to apply what is generally true of a population to individuals. It’s faulty reasoning and an abuse of statistics. It is prejudice.

    The same can be said of identifying characteristics of women. It is potentially useful to do so; but information of this nature is misused in our society. The harm done by the misuse seems greater (at least, to those who are harmed) than the useful benefits of doing so.

    If we, as a society, were socially mature enough to treat individuals as such, and leave statistics to analyzing tendencies among groups, then we’d have less abuse of statistics, and less prejudice.

  10. Mark, please keep raising those ideas up the flagpole. Even when I disagree, I get plenty of good, nourishing food for thought. and some great discussion emerges.

  11. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thank you Rachel. Nutrition is what we aim for, ennit? I remember that’s how Gary Snyder pointed me to Wendell Berry’s work (which I ended up devouring) saying something like, “There’s a writer whose works don’t have a lot of glamour, but they’re very nutritious.” I tell ya, we work hard to keep the glamour quotient down to a reasonable level around here too.

    Stephanie, thanks for all your time and attention here. I’m planning to respond in Friday’s post, so please stay tuned.

  12. Stephanie says:

    I look forward to it, and I also echo Rachel’s comment. Keep up the good work. Progress isn’t made solely through agreement, but also the many ways disagreement and new ideas make us all think just a little bit differently.

  13. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks Stephanie. Hoping we can pick up the thread from today’s post.

  14. Isabel says:

    Autism notes shift journal posT

    I appreciate this conversation and what Mark seems to be trying to get at all the time (not just in this post, but in generally trying to tease out the autistic elements in humanity in general, and in the value of those elements). I also appreciate Rachel and Stephanie’s calls for restraint and more nuanced statements. I’m not as able to find so many words in response as you all have, but I felt I wanted to jump in any way!

    This question of the importance of justice for autistic people, it is interesting to me how many times i saw justice mentioned in relation to autism when i first started reading and researching autism. It’s a pretty widespread observation that I’ve seen autistic people make about them/ourselves as well as non-autistic people make about autistic people. I kept seeing it over and over and over again. And I could definitely identify with it! So Mark, I think you’re on to something important. The question “Can one have an aptitude for honesty and justice in the same way one can for science and technology?” is one I’m carrying around with me. But I don’t have an answer for you - yet! Still thinking.

    As to “the widely-circulated anecdotal impression that autistics excel to a statistically significant degree in say, the fields of science and technology?” and Stephanie’s response, I think it can’t just be explained as these being areas that don’t require social skills. There are certain kinds of thinking and focus involved in science and technology, and a lot of the mental characteristics of autism lend themselves to that. True, not all autistic people are good at these areas, Stephanie, as you point out. I was very good at these things as a child and continue to be good to some extent in my 40s. Thinking back to my childhood and to my current strengths in techie things, i didn’t go to math and science and techy stuff to escape having to be social. I went and go to those things for the pure pleasure of those things. The pure pleasure of thinking.

  15. Stephanie says:


    My comment had less to do with aptitude and more to do with success. It is my opinion that people with autism are noted for success in these fields to such a degree because the social skills are less of an impediment. You certainly need social skills in these fields, but less so than arts or business where you’re selling to people.

    The aptitude is something separate from success. You can be good at something and not be a recognized success.

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