From technology to fandom culture, one can see the fingerprints of a distinct group of people all over our contemporary world.
More often than not when someone hears the word ‘autism’ nothing positive comes up. Despite being a known condition for more than 70 years, most people don’t know much about it and if they do, it’s probably not a good picture. Especially now, with the ongoing cultural war of vaccines versus autism (despite the medical establishment repeatedly debunking the myth that vaccines are an environmental cause), ASD is usually feared and linked to dependency and inadequacy. With the rise in deaths from preventable illnesses such as measles and mumps in the UK every year, the message seems to be that a lot of parents would rather have a dead kid than an autistic one.
But what if I were to tell you that autistic people fundamentally shaped the world we live in?
What if I were to tell you that autism also comes with incredible strengths and that those strengths changed our world?
And this is not about the autistic savant, the stereotype that some autistics are geniuses in disguise (I’m looking at you, Sheldon Cooper). I’m talking about real autistic people with their own autistic strengths and weaknesses.
The most revolutionary gifts from autistic people are in science and technology. Though some see an interest in STEM as a stereotype, it is undoubtedly true that a significant amount of autistic people will dedicate their lives to it. This is partly to do with the fact that some common autistic strengths are organisation skills, a great memory, pattern recognition, and an obsessiveness logic and certain topics. Though these traits may be the source of isolation, they do shape great researchers and inventors. In his book ‘Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity’, Steven Silberman highlights the efforts of autistic people in physics, chemistry, zoology, the radio, creating the first computer, and computer code (to name some). Silberman dedicated a chapter to ‘the princes of the air’, teenage wireless radio operators who used Morse code to communicate with others after struggling with people in real life. Interestingly, Britain recruited a lot of them to intercept coded messages by the Nazis, thus predicting the movement of German and Italian forces! Seeing as our world is completely immersed in the digital age, it’d be hard to picture our society today without inventions made by autistic people (or a world where the Axis powers won).
The modern networked world began as a way for autistic people to socialise on their own terms, seeing as many internet developers fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. In fact, Silicon Valley is sometimes regarded as fertile ground for autism as either workers or their children show some autistic traits. For people who struggle with communication (or can’t speak at all), the digital world became a space where they could communicate with their thoughts rather than verbal and social skills. This was a powerful incentive for the development of the internet. We often hear the negative effects of social media: it’s distracting, addictive, it isolates people. But what we don’t hear is the benefits it brings to disabled people, specifically autistic people. It’s the golden ticket to getting close to others when you struggle in social settings.
Another area pioneered by autistic people is fandoms and science fiction. It started with Hugo Gernsback and the world’s first science fiction magazine. Gernsback is often called the father of science fiction that paved the way for works such as Star Trek and Marvel because it dealt with space and superpowers. The genre is traced back to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, but our contemporary understanding of science fiction comes from Gernsback. He established the first fandom in the modern sense during the 1930s with a fanzine that attracted multiple science fiction fans across the United States. Looking back to a time where a diagnosis was impossible, we can recognise the autistic traits in many participants, including Gernsback. Fast forward to today with Comic-Con conventions seeing thousands of visitors a year, University societies dedicated to hobbies like gaming, and the emergence of ‘stan’ fandoms on twitter, we can see the evolution of what started as a space for autistic people to enjoy interests that were unconventional at the time.
This need for an autistic friendly space has revolutionised public gatherings as we know it. In queer or disability events, but also becoming increasingly popular in education centres, is the quiet room. It’s usually a spare room with dimmed lights and silence for autistic people but now serves anyone who needs a minute alone. Further, the use of tags in events to communicate whether you desire to be approached or not began by autistic people for autistic events. Even the modern-day ‘neurodiverse’ movement, advocating for the rights of people with conditions such as dyslexia, ADHD, OCD, and others, begun because autistic people wanted to assert their existence at a time when autism was seen as a death sentence.
The time has come to appreciate the efforts of autistic people outside disability awareness month or autistic awareness day. It’s time for the world to embrace the strengths that come with autism, to recognise the benefits we have been reaping, and to embrace an otherwise hidden group of people. With current rhetoric discussing the eradication of autism in genetics, one thing is for sure, and Silberman worded it best: “the efforts to eradicate autism from the gene pool could put humankind’s future at risk by purging the same qualities that have advanced culture, science, and technological innovation for millennia.”