Asperger’s Syndrome hasn’t been a diagnosis in the USA since 2013. There were a lot of good reasons to merge it in with the broader label of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but the main one was that the distinction just turned out not to mean much. There is huge variety among autistic people, but we don’t fit neatly into discrete categories like ‘classically autistic’ and ‘Asperger’s’; whether we develop language later than most has little bearing on our later lives, and our abilities and support needs can vary dramatically across our lifespans.
I don’t think the term ‘Asperger’s’ should always be seen as a red flag; outside of the USA, people were still being officially labelled with Asperger’s as recently as 2022, and historically, many in the autistic community made it a significant part of their identities. Still, one of the reasons most autistic people aren’t comfortable with the term is because it is now generally thought that Hans Asperger had Nazi leanings, and was involved in a number of disabled children being sent to their deaths. He did help to save others—the ‘little professors’ he was famously rather taken with. He saw these children as having a place in society, for all their oddity. They might be weird and disabled, but they still had something valuable to contribute to the capitalist economy!
It would be one thing if this way of thinking went out with the Nazis, but that is not how it’s gone. Espousing eugenics did rather go out of fashion after the Nazis were defeated, but the basic idea never really went away: many people who know better than to say so out loud still believe that society would be improved if some genetic variations were prevented. If we could stop certain kinds of people from being born.
This brings us to the other reason the term Asperger’s has problematic connotations: the ideology that came to be known as ‘Aspie supremacy.’
Autistic people in modern societies have always been bullied, persecuted and discriminated against—whether or not people know we’re autistic. We are seen as weird, uncooperative and sometimes slow. Social exclusion and isolation are common. Many autistic people end up with chronically low self-esteem.
In that context, it is understandable that some autistic kids will cling to the things they are good at, and decide that these are the most important things—not the nonsense that the other kids waste their time on. At school I was fiercely proud of my academic abilities, and I am embarrassed to say that I believed my intelligence made me better than the bullies who made my school life hell: teachers and children alike. I came from an intellectual and frankly rather odd family; it was a comfort to me to be able to tell myself that while the bullies were obviously right about me being a weirdo, I could out-think most of them easily.
I believe this is a common experience for kids growing up with the kind of autism that used to get labelled ‘high-functioning autism’ or ‘Asperger’s Syndrome.’ We are treated like dirt, and it drives us to grasp at whatever we can to make us feel okay about ourselves. Logical thinking, feats of memory, ‘splinter skills.’ There may be worse coping strategies, but there are deep problems with this one. For one thing, it is often fragile. You meet people who are at least as book-smart as you, but who seem to have ‘normal’ social skills, for example; or it finally dawns on you that extraordinary skill with solving Rubik’s cubes is just not enough to get you through life. Or maybe you spend $44 billion buying a social media platform in the name of free speech, only to find that you’re no good at running a social media platform, and people keep using it to make fun of you, so free speech doesn’t seem like a good idea at all any more.
Valuing people for their skills can mean overlooking their inherent value as a person—someone who has every right to exist regardless of their abilities. The other side of this is that over-valuing certain abilities means looking down on people who don’t share them.
Aspie supremacy is the ideology that follows from taking this to an extreme: ‘aspies’ have extraordinary powers which not only make their existence worthwhile, but make them better than other people. This is one counter to the eugenic position that autism should be prevented, but it is a flawed one. As Simon Baron-Cohen once memorably asked, “what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism? Would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians, for example?”
Baron-Cohen’s extremely problematic suggested resolution to this problem is to do eugenics carefully. With a more sophisticated understanding of the surprisingly complex genetics of autism, perhaps we can make informed decisions about which specific types of autistic people ought to be expunged from the gene pool? Perhaps we can even promote the passing on of good autism genes? Is that perhaps what Elon Musk was going for when he fathered at least ten children?
Francis Galton, pioneer of eugenics and intelligence testing—himself a deeply odd man — was obsessed with the idea of genius. Intensely proud to be a cousin of Charles Darwin, he charted the family lines of those he saw as great men, hoping to demonstrate that genius could be inherited. A faith in great men is a thread running through ‘tech bro’ ideology. Forget governments getting things done, democratic control just means plebs holding things back, right? Move fast, break things! So what if subways already exist, and technotopian dreams get in the way of solutions like trains, which actually work? Wouldn’t it be more EXCITING if you could drive your own car into long, tight tunnels where you can’t turn around, or drive your car ONTO a train in a giant vacuum tube? If only venture capitalists were allowed to make all the major decisions, what a world this could be!
The concept of neurodiversity offers a subtle and much more comprehensive counter-argument to eugenics. It is not just because some autistic people are brilliant that autism should not be eliminated: it is because diversity is inherently valuable, and so are people. All people. When someone is unable to participate in society, it is a sign that society is doing something wrong, and we all miss out as a result. Diverse perspectives allow better decision-making. Putting too much power in the hands of a few people means overlooking problems that would be obvious to someone not blinded by privilege. Assuming that some people are poor because they were born with poor genes means ignoring everything else about the system that might be keeping them in poverty.
Autistic people do not represent ‘the next step in evolution’ for humankind: that is categorically not how evolution works. It’s more like a tree than a ladder; more like a mycelium than either. Evolution proceeds by constant branching and recombining. Species and ecosystems thrive on variety—we aren’t on a trajectory from less advanced to more advanced; we’re all just finding different ways of solving the many problems of survival, in an endlessly endlessly complex world.
Valuing diversity is diametrically opposed to ideas of supremacy, and it should not be a huge surprise that people who espouse ideas along the lines of aspie supremacy often turn out to believe, for example, that white people are superior to other races. Again, many of them know better than to come right out and say so out loud.
Feeling superior is one potentially effective, but deeply flawed strategy for coping with feeling devalued, especially for children perceived as intelligent—and those whose race, gender and wealth make this easier.
Ideally we would all get much better at preventing bullying, ensure that children and professionals understand neurodiversity, and foster a sense of Weird Pride in those who are at risk of becoming outcasts. In a much more general sense, we need people to understand the value of diversity, the many things about people that are worthy of appreciation and respect, and the importance of recognising problems that are outwith our own experience. Relatedly, we need to be wary of people presenting their views as if they were objective—especially ourselves, and especially people in positions of power. Nobody is truly objective, but autistic people can sometimes be excessively confident in their own rationality.
Everybody in the world is flawed, and autistic people are no more or less flawed than the rest of you.
This piece is adapted from a longer article on Elon Musk’s Autistic Anti-Patterns.