Employing an epistemology of situated knowledges, I analyze Aspie (from: Asperger's) supremacy. This ideology consists of an interplay between anti-autistic ableism, and the frame of the Aspie subject as superior, both to other autistics and to non-autistics. This superiority is defined in terms of whiteness, masculinity and economic worthiness. I link this ideology to recent research into the collaboration of Hans Asperger with a Nazi program that involved the killing of disabled individuals. I also discuss contemporary (media) manifestations of Aspie supremacy. Furthermore, I draw a parallel between this ideology and a Lyotardian postmodernism. This type of postmodernism has been criticized for its inability to justify itself on its own terms. Through analyzing Aspie supremacy, I work through this paradox, as it relates to posthumanism.
Introduction: Aspie Supremacy and Anti-Autistic Ableism
Recent publications on Hans Asperger's involvement with National Socialism (Czech, Sheffer) have effected radical change in public perception of the pediatrician. Asperger—perhaps best known in relation to the eponymous syndrome that was posthumously named after him—is now considered a willing cog in a deadly Nazi machine. This image stands in direct contrast to the previously accepted narrative that Asperger actively opposed Nazi policies and did everything in his power to save the lives of the disabled children under his care. Incontrovertible evidence to the contrary comes notably late, especially considering longstanding suspicions among disabled people, and the fact that documents in line with those suspicions have been uncovered before; widely cited, for instance, is a 1938 speech in which Asperger agreed with the new Reich, arguing that, since das Volk is more important than the individual, physicians must take "full responsibility" in the area of promoting "genetic health" (Erbgesunde).
The questions then arise as to why the image of Asperger as an active opponent of Nazism persisted for decades, and how it came into being in the first place. It has been argued that this narrative was fully based on conjecture; furthermore, language barriers have been suggested, and fear of reputational damage due to Asperger's popularity (Donvan). In this paper, I do not go into external or incidental factors. Instead, I argue that Asperger's (covertly) violent actions have been obscured by the same ideology that underlay them: a normalization of functioning labels of autism and a subsequent disregard to the cruel hierarchy they entail.
Disabled activists have described this hierarchy as a product of Aspie supremacy. In this ideology, a particular type of "high-functioning" autistic individual is ascribed superiority, both over other autistic people and over non-autistic people. Important to my argument is the idea that this ideology does not stand in contradiction with anti-autistic ableism, but rather that they are two sides of the same coin. This paper is not limited to an analysis of how both functioned in relation to Asperger's actions under the Nazi regime, although I use it as an entry point here. Instead, I will approach Aspie supremacy as a broad and influential concept, still affecting discourses on autism today.
I have divided this paper into two sections. The supposed superiority of the Aspie subject only comes into play in the second, with the first focusing on ableism against the autistic subject, as examined by Melanie Yergeau. I explore both the autistic and the Aspie subject through their ambivalent relationship to the concept of the human.
Over the last one or two decades, Aspie supremacy has emerged as a relatively well-known concept among English-writing, autistic people. The ideology predates the coinage of the phrase. Aspie supremacy is criticized – and defended – on blogs, fora and social media. Two resources that have been vital to my understanding of the ideology are the blog Ballastexistenz, written by Mel Baggs, 1 and the Twitterfeed of user @EbThen.
Academically, very little has been written on Aspie supremacy. When it is mentioned by name, it is confused with something reminiscent of autistic supremacy. This conflation diverts attention from the systemic privilege intertwined with Aspie supremacy, and from the systemic oppression associated with being autistic. In order to avoid this trap, I will not delve into Aspie supremacy until the second section of this paper, while devoting the first to exploring the position of the autistic in relation to humanist humanity.
Apart from writings explicitly related to Aspie supremacy, this paper is mainly built on work done in the field of critical disability studies, and on posthumanist theory. The two are regularly conjoined. Disabled people are, for instance, theorized as necessitating the posthuman turn, and vice versa, posthumanism is used to position disability among other forms of difference (Goodley et al.).
The idea of post-posthumanism has been introduced, and, since I will argue that the posthuman turn does not solve all problems related to autistic and Aspie humanhood, this concept may seem relevant to my paper. However, literature on post-posthumanism typically relates to subjects I will not discuss, like the ethics of cyborgism and permanent use of technology (Haraway; Bredenoord et al.).
Broader reflections have been written on the afterlife of postmodernism and the impossibility of postmodernism justifying itself on its own terms (Tarnas 402). Through looking at Aspie supremacy, I want to work through this paradox as it relates to posthumanism.
As already clear from the above sentence and its two subordinate clauses, this might turn out to be a confusing endeavor—one I, paradoxically, feel is needed for transparency as to the way my argument concerning Aspie supremacy is built up. In the early stages of developing this argument, I realized that many analytical and critical moves I made were closely informed by the work of Richard J. Bernstein, and by other critiques of a particular type of relativist postmodernism. I have chosen to embrace this parallel, despite the risks involved in sidetracking to a broad and intangible movement that has, arguably, been discussed to death. I consider these risks worth taking. In terms of focus, the critiques of postmodernism are secondary, interrupting the general flow of my argument; in terms of developing said argument, however, they have been foundational.
I employ a qualitative analysis of diverse objects, ranging from medical texts, to promotional material for the organization Autism Speaks, to media examples such as Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Since many of these objects are incredibly rich, I do not purport that I can provide full analytical coverage for any of them. Instead, I will try to pinpoint and investigate the specific aspects of these objects that are directly related to Aspie supremacy. Throughout this paper, I use a standpoint epistemology.
Standpoint Reflection: #ActuallyAutistic
I am autistic and I am writing on autism. At first glance, there are no contradictions here. Write what you know and stay in your lane. And yet I feel compelled to get defensive.
Respected texts on autism are not usually authored by autistic people. Even the word itself does not belong to us. The hashtag #autism mainly serves as a meeting point for non-autistic people interested in discussing us; we in turn have migrated to #actuallyautistic. There is a snarky, colloquial quality to the latter, which does not bode well for our academic credibility. Moreover, some of us have taken to using "autisticness" instead of "autism", rejecting decades of enforcement by dictionary, law and science, in favor of the eternal question: is that even grammatically correct? I should mention that, as a student, I failed my academic writing test with flying colors.
So, in writing this paper, I feel a pressure to establish myself as a trustworthy source. Scientific evidence exists, I want to tell you, for autistic adults as critical autism experts (Gillespie-Lynch et al.). Best of all, the research in question was conducted by non-autistic adults, the critical autism experts. The reliance on non-autistics in my autistic claim to knowledge invokes Audre Lorde's famous remark that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" (112). Perhaps, entering non-autistic, positivist academia through a back door is not my best approach. Instead, I will write from a position ontologically indistinct from the subjects I am writing about. Autism discourse and I are co-constituted.
1: De/humanization and Cripping the Symbolic
A Dutch guidebook for general practitioners defines autism as "a disorder in being human" ("een stoornis in het menselijk zijn"; Delfos, "Een Patiënt met Autisme", cover). I have been thinking about the phrase for quite a while. Two interpretations arise. Either, as was my initial conclusion, I am not fully human; or, on second thought, I inescapably am. "Being human" can only be the location for my neurotype or disability, if it does, in fact, apply to me. I do not think I can have a disorder in being a lyrebird. Autism, then, has not replaced my humanity, but dreadfully obscured it. I am emphatically human, and yet, I am dehumanized.
This section focuses on the way non-autistic conceptualizations of autism, as well as actually autistic thought, produce a strained relationship between the autistic subject and humanist humanity, through, respectively, de/humanization and posthumanist crip tactics. I draw a parallel between cripping and queering, and I briefly touch upon the shared roots of Applied Behavioral Analysis and gay conversion therapy. Furthermore, this section deals with a critique of logocentrism and the way in which autistic cripping exposes the "symbolic" (after Lacan) as a limited, meaning-making tool that produces the "human" as an ontologically distinct subject. As a crip alternative to this tool, I put forward Catherine Malabou's concept of plasticity and Karen Barad's concept of intra-activity.
1.1 Autism Speaks: Voicelessness and the Symbolic
In 2006, the Sundance Film Festival selected the documentary Autism Everyday, commissioned by US-based organization Autism Speaks, for screening at its festival. The film largely consists of interviews with non-autistic (allistic) parents of autistic children. An infamous scene depicts a mother who, in front of her autistic daughter, reveals to the camera that she "sat in the car for about fifteen minutes and actually contemplated putting [her child] in the car and driving off the George Washington Bridge" (00:06:14-00:06:21). She then explains that her other, allistic child is the only reason she chose not to. The mother in question is Autism Speaks' then-executive vice president Alison Tepper Singer.
In 2009, a video titled I am Autism is released, as part of an advertising campaign for the same organization. This commercial puts forward a narrative that may clarify the reasoning behind Tepper Singer's deliberation (although encouraging understanding of this reasoning is not my aim). The narrative is familiar from the wider discourse surrounding autism. It simultaneously constructs autism as a personal flaw and as an alien entity, strictly separated from the human "affected" by the condition.
The majority of the I am Autism advertisement consists of amateur footage of autistic children and young adults, accompanied by an ominous voiceover that introduces itself as "autism." "I know where you live," autism says, "And guess what? I live there too. I hover around all of you." (0:00:18-0:00:23). The commercial is directed at parents; autism promises to be "visible in your children, but if I can help it, I am invisible to you, until it's too late" (0:00:11-0:00:16). Autism is positioned as the secular equivalent to the demon in Roman Catholic faith. The possessed child, then, becomes a mouthpiece for, or an agent of autism.
The horror that ensues spreads throughout the (nuclear) family. In the words of Autism Speaks founder Suzanne Wright, "These families are not living. They are existing … in anticipation of the child's next move" (qtd. in Willingham). Note the implications of the word "move." Wright's autism family not only fears for the child, it fears the child. Once the human host (for full dramatic effect, almost invariably a white child) has fallen prey to the monster, they have become the monster. When Tepper Singer talks about driving her daughter off the George Washington Bridge, she is not actually contemplating killing her kid, she simply seeks to kill The Autism.
The mood of the I am Autism commercial is set by menacing music and slow-motion, desaturated, sometimes handheld shots, courtesy of Alfonso Cuarón, Academy Award-winning director and father of an autistic son. Cuarón has not only endowed the advertisement with his trademark cinematography, but also with some of the corresponding imagery. Among the director's best-known works are the third installment of the Harry Potter movie series (a film where the figure of the dementor, much like the figure of autism, roams free to suck out children's souls) and the dystopian thriller Children of Men.
The childless world of the latter is metonymically described as a "world without children's voices." A similar parallel between voicelessness and lifelessness is drawn in the Autism Speaks commercial. Autism first plots to "acquire yet another language" by taking away the affected children's voices (0:00:33) and then to "rob you [i.e.: the allistic parent] of your [autistic] children" (0:01:27). As Melanie Yergeau asserts, the conjuring of associations with death is a persistent part of autism discourse, "from parent memoirs such as I Wish My Kids Had Cancer to zombie-themed autism fundraising walks" (73). The idea of "voicelessness" presents itself as a convenient vehicle to get from autism to (living) death. Voicelessness, here, refers not primarily to literal variations of mutism, 2 but rather to a wide set of epistemic beliefs, intertwined with logocentrism. In using the term logocentrism, I intend to invoke Derrida's critique thereof. Derrida holds that logocentrism emerges as the misguided, Allegory-of-the-Cave-inspired belief that the tool of logic enables mankind to excavate 3 the original, transcendental truth (1822). The centering of logic inevitably entails the centering of spoken language, as opposed to other forms of expression that are deemed less intelligible, less direct, less rational, less distinctly human. Hence, mute individuals are deemed illogical—an adjective with a highly normative value. Vice versa, individuals inscribed as illogical or unintelligible (to the (neuro)typical audience, that is) are deemed voiceless. To be a voiceless autistic person does not entail an incapability of using language, but rather, an all-encompassing credibility gap. Are autistic people, after all, expressing themselves, or merely their symptoms? Are they themselves expressing, or is autism? To have one's voice stolen by autism is to be incapacitated epistemically. When autism speaks, autistic people do not. 4
Autism parents do. The phrase "autism parent" is used as a self-descriptor by many allistic parents of autistic children, or, as Yergeau describes them, "nonautistic stakeholders authorized as autism somethings" (2). In the second half of the I am Autism commercial, autism somethings (parents, but also teachers, therapists, scientists) address the entity that is robbing them of their children: "Autism is naïve. You are alone. We are a community of warriors. We have a voice" (0:02:57-0:03:02). I am, somewhat cynically and probably very autistically, reminded of symmetry laws in physics. Autistic individual minus x amount of voice equals autism individual plus x amount of voice.
Voices here are only reserved for native speakers of a particular kind of symbolic language. This language assumes and creates a normative, human subject, one who both comprehends and is comprehensible to other humans. The faith that is put in a shared, normative language, as a tool to fathom oneself and other people, is used to firmly ground the human in ontological reality. This mechanism is consistent with what Karen Barad refers to as "representationalism" (806): the asymmetrical conviction that, even when we do not have access to what is represented—what is symbolized by language—we do have access to its unwavering representation—a shared, symbolic language. Representationalism, while steeped in hyperbolic doubt, is intertwined with an essentialist humanism. If the symbolic connects all humans to a network of intelligibility, the subjects who fall outside of this network must not be fully human. 5
Among those excluded from the symbolic are autistic individuals. This restriction is permanent. Even when autistic subjects behave in such a way that they do not fit the diagnostic criteria anymore (known as the Optimal Outcome), they are seen as too residually autistic to "earn back" their voice (Yergeau 44). As in Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, the autistic individual can take an infinite number of steps towards allism, but never reach it (45). Still, they are expected to keep on walking. In an apparent paradox, the autistic subject is simultaneously barred from the symbolic order, and demanded to try and slip back in. Within the autism community, it is, for instance, deemed invaluable that autistic children are taught the proper, symbolic way of play. As Yergeau relays, "a therapist may discourage an autistic child from spinning the wheels of a toy car, instead redirecting the child to make his car go vroom" (53). Per extra illustration, a 2014 report on behavioral interventions in autistic children argues that "play skills" 6 are crucial, since "peers and teachers may be hesitant to comment or interact with a child that is mouthing a toy cow, but may interact if the child is moving the cow around a toy barn" (Lang et al. 861).
Autistic people are molded and modified, trained to proficiency in the symbolic. Yet despite the best efforts of autism interventionists, the flexibility of the autistic subject may in fact be more of a plasticity, following Catherine Malabou (Yergeau 129). Malabou reminds us that the plasticity of the brain does not just entail a passive malleability, but also a disobedience, a capacity to resist, to actively give shape in return, and to destroy (5). The next part of this section will focus on the autistic capacity to mess with the symbolic and the neuronormative.
1.2 Resistance: Cripping the Symbolic
Slavoj Žižek once wrote that "radical" or "pure" autism brings about the "total destruction of the symbolic universe" (75). I cannot deny a feeling of pride at his trust in my apocalyptic abilities. I also cannot ignore the troubling allistic habit of reducing autism to a metaphorical concept. 7 In defense of Žižek, it is clear that a friction exists between autism and the symbolic construction of reality. Perhaps, rather than destroying it, (some) autistics crip the symbolic. Before illustrating how, I will dive into the concept of cripping and its political significance.
Crip theory to the disabled community is what queer theory is to the LGBTIA+ community. Particularly when it comes to autism, queer and crip communities are observably intertwined, as are societal responses to both groups. Consider, for example, The Feminine Boy Project and The Young Autism Project, two research and therapy programs that ran concurrently at the UCLA in the seventies. Both projects were financed by the United States government and run by Ole Ivaar Lovaas. The main difference between the two of them were the subjects, respectively gender nonconforming and autistic children. To achieve the goal of making them indistinguishable from their peers, aversive interventions such as electric shocks were used. 8 The Feminine Boy Project paved the way for further gay conversion therapy in the future, but, as public opinion shifted, Lovaas distanced himself from the program. He doubled down on The Young Autism Project, which paved the way for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). In the US, ABA is now recognized as the gold standard for autism treatment (Yergeau, 99-104).
ABA and similar interventionist programs aimed at autistics never lost their anti-queer roots; social skills-training is still used to enforce gender roles in autistic subjects (Bumiller 978). The framing of gender nonconformity as an (undesirable) symptom of autism is facilitated by the significant over-representation of queer, trans, and otherwise gender variant individuals among autistics (Dewinter, De Graaf and Begeer). Partly because of this overlap, some autistic people refer to themselves as "neuroqueer" (Yergeau 18). Others prefer the broader term "crip."
"Crip" is derived from "cripple." While the term might evoke mental images of physically disabled, mentally abled individuals, reinforcing Cartesian dualism, it is precisely these kinds of binaries that (current) crip theory crips. As much as crip is an identity, it is a verb. To crip is to engage in "critical examinations of compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory able-mindedness" (Kafer 16). And to reclaim this slur is to refuse to downplay or sanitize disability in order to gain abled acceptance.
The clash between crip politics and respectability politics is nowhere more apparent than in the debate surrounding, respectively, identity-first language (IFL) 9 and person-first language (PFL). 10 Autism Speaks argues that person-first language conveys that "Every Human [sic] being IS a person first, not a diagnosis" ("April Pew Card"). Proponents of PFL typically include medical professionals and academic authors; a 2017 analysis of scholarly writing shows that the vast majority of abstracts use PFL to refer to people with disabilities (Gernsbacher 861). Proponents of identity-first language argue that PFL "stems from the idea that disability is something you should want to have separated from you, like a rotten tooth that needs to be pulled out" (Liebowitz). The mentioned analysis certainly seems to support this theory, given that it shows that the more stigmatized a disability is, the more often PFL is used, and that, notably, the abstracts that use PFL when referring to disabled individuals, typically use IFL when referring to their non-disabled peers (Gernsbacher).
It should be noted that a broad brush cannot do justice to the full assortment of differences covered by the disability umbrella. For example, individuals with learning disabilities often use PFL, as exemplified by the People First self-advocacy movement (Walmsley and The Central England People First History Project Team 35). Autistic individuals, however, do typically prefer IFL (Gillespie-Lynch et al.), and, while I have, in the above paragraphs, written about the cripping of humanism as related to non-specified disability, my interests lie in autistic cripping. I will now give an example thereof.
In 2007, multiply-disabled writer Mel Baggs posted a video on YouTube, called In My Language. Baggs is nonspeaking and autistic. In the first part of the video, sie interacts with hir surroundings, humming and hand-flapping and sniffing and stroking. In other words, sie stims. 11 In the second part of the video, Baggs offers a translation, using voice technology and subtitles. Sie immediately undercuts the (abled) audience's expectations:
Many people have assumed that when I talk about [the previous part of the video being in Baggs' native language] that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message within it designed for the human mind to interpret. But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings. In this part of the video [Baggs moves hir fingers under running tap water] the water doesn't symbolize anything. I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me. (Baggs 0:03:19-0:03:59.)
Baggs' account of mutually interacting with the water—as it contrasts with a one-sided, human interpretation of water-as-a-symbol—calls to mind what Karen Barad calls "intra-action." According to Barad, entities, such as Baggs and the water, are mutually and inextricably constituted through their intra-action (815). The notion of intra-activity, then, is a practice of pulling the human down from his (pronoun intended) symbolic pedestal, through insisting that his agency is, always and forevermore, co-constituted with that of the entity he intends to objectify, study and interpret.
Admittedly, my imagery here (of tearing down statues) does tie in perfectly with Žižek's warning that the autpocalypse (courtesy of Yergeau 19) is coming. Yet I am not speaking of some sort of Marxist revolution. Specifically, I am not expecting, as Žižek is, that autism will rip off a false, symbolic consciousness and provide the autistic (or anyone, for that matter) with a glimpse into the Lacanian Real (Žižek 75). The Real, in all of its noumenal, infinite, absolute glory, has rightly been dismissed as unknowable. Instead of stepping over the Cartesian division by claiming access to what is represented (Res extensa! The Realm of Forms! Das Ding an sich!), I want to follow Barad in working through the division by also questioning our access to its representations (806). When an autistic person smells a book rather than reading it (as Baggs does in In My Language), they are not casting off their false consciousness and ascending to the realm of the Real; they are simply intra-acting with the physicality of the book. Still, in the same way awareness of the Real brings about immense anxiety, allistic onlookers are disturbed by autistic, intra-active behavior. When Baggs insists that hir video does not have a "symbolic message within it designed for the human mind to interpret," sie exposes the way the human subject is produced as an ontological entity that interprets symbolic messages, through its access to symbolic code. This circular reasoning is reminiscent of Descartes' ontological argument: if a benevolent God existed, He would not deceive Descartes, so clear and distinct notions would in fact be true; Descartes had a clear and distinct notion of a benevolent God.
Apparently, ontological uncertainty is met with reluctance or even fear. This "Cartesian anxiety", as Richard J. Bernstein calls it, profoundly affects modern, Western philosophy (18). As a result, much of Western thought centralizes a "grand and seductive Either/Or", oscillating between objectivism and relativism: "Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos" (18). When the latter option is endorsed, a Lyotard type of postmodernism comes into play. Anything Goes, is the motto, which, paradoxically, is quite an absolute statement. Moral principles do not, in fact, "go." Good versus bad is just another metanarrative, obliterated by "the metanarrative to end all metanarratives" (Hay 247).
Injustice might be deconstructed, within this type of postmodernism, but deconstruction is not a synonym for subversion. Spivak has argued that "[i]f one wanted to found a political project on deconstruction, it would be something like wishy-washy pluralism on the one hand, or a kind of irresponsible hedonism on the other" (104). Moreover, the place that postmodernist theory holds within academia is predicated on maleness, whiteness and other exclusionary norms (Ahmed 2). Kyriarchy abides, as if it were a security blanket against Bernstein's forces of darkness.
In the following section, I will draw a parallel between this paradoxical, relativist form of postmodernism and an ideology called Aspie supremacy. Aspie supremacists reject crip strategies. Instead, they respond to the de/humanizing drive behind autism discourse (as present in the promotional material for Autism Speaks that I have discussed) by squeezing a particular type of (white, male) autistic subject into the center of humanist normativity. Their kyriarchical security blanket is, as they would assure you, purely metaphorical: Aspies do not require stim objects.
2: Aspie Supremacy and the Conception of Asperger's
Medical journal Molecular Autism made waves this year, when it published an uncharacteristically history-focused article, called "Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and 'race hygiene' in Nazi-era Vienna" (Herwig Czech). Before it was published, common knowledge held that Hans Asperger opposed Nazi policies, and saved the lives of the children under his care, by emphasizing their more acceptable and even useful qualities. Czech writes that the main purpose of his paper is to reevaluate that narrative. He relays proof that Asperger actively cooperated with Aktion T4, a eugenics program enacted to kill disabled individuals. The study was quickly picked up by news outlets. At the time of writing, most Google search results for "Hans Asperger" are devoted to its results and to the ensuing think pieces.
Czech's paper is received as revelatory, but when I first read the news reports on it, I remembered having come across most of the information before. I wondered if I were mistaken, downloaded my Twitter archive and found myself in 2017, making conversation about how the doctor green-lighted some of his patients to be killed. I saw that other disabled people had quickly made me aware of these facts after I had received my autism diagnosis. I felt relieved that the knowledge was now spreading to non-disabled communities, and frustrated at how long it had taken.
Although, I understood why. I could never provide any peer-reviewed sources. There was a blog post by autistic writer and lecturer Stuart Neilson, detailing how Asperger agreed with the new Reich, arguing that, since das Volk is more important than the individual, physicians must take "full responsibility" in the area of promoting "genetic health" (Erbgesunde). The quotes are taken from Asperger's Das psychisch abnorme Kind, a 1938 lecture that was subsequently published as an article. The article was temporarily available on LibGen, but has since been taken down. It is notoriously hard to locate, 12 except for those who have the means to visit the Vienna State Archives.
Czech did have those means, and put them to use, publishing his findings in an open-access journal. He also collected direct proof that Asperger referred some of his patients to the Spiegelgrund "euthanasia" institution. It seems like a straightforward story: disabled people spoke about Asperger's collaboration on the basis of hearsay; Czech verified it and published a paper on it. Yet Czech was hardly the first one to review documents archived by the Austrian state. Das psychisch abnorme Kind may be inaccessible online, but it has been widely cited, in pop-science handbooks (Delfos, "Wondering"; Attwood 6) and prestigious journals alike (Chown 2265; Dekkers et al.). Still, the narrative persisted that Asperger "wanted to save the children at his clinic from being murdered" and "was clearly an opponent of Nazism" (Attwood 10).
Between tales of Asperger's heroism and those of his collaboration, a dichotomy ensues. On one side stands the majority of research, on the other Czech's paper and some other, recent publications that got less media traction. 13 At stake in the debate is Asperger's morality. The first group of researchers and commenters argue that Asperger saved children by emphasizing their usefulness, ergo, he was a good person. The second group argues that he killed the children he considered irredeemable, ergo, he was a bad person. In this section, I hope to break this dichotomy, by exploring how those two statements are not mutually exclusive, save for their attached moral judgment. I am not particularly interested in Hans Asperger's personal morals—I do not want to obscure the banality of his actions by replacing his hero persona with that of a villain—but I am interested in the underlying ideology that made him decide which children were to be saved, and which were to be sent off to Spiegelgrund. What is more, I am interested in the way this ideology lives on. I will explore the latter through two media examples: BBC's Sherlock and Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project.
2.1 The Utilitarian Argument of "Functioning"
My personal convictions regarding Asperger's role in Aktion T4 can only marginally be related to Das psychisch abnorme Kind, or even to proof of his Spiegelgrund referrals. Instead, I was convinced by some of the publications that are now viewed as examples of the false hero narrative. In 2015, Steve Silberman, who served as a reviewer for Czech's paper, published NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. In this book, intended for the general public, he writes that Asperger convinced his superiors of the value of his patients by suggesting to them that "his little professors would make superior code breakers for the Reich" (138). While Silberman intends this example as a show of Asperger's good faith, his cunning use of Nazi ideals to save autistic lives, he inadvertently highlights a disregarded demographic; if autism was forgiven in potential cryptographers due to their usefulness to the Reich, what happened to the children who did not fit the "little professor" box?
This unspoken question tends to haunt publications on the doctor. The New York Times wrote that, while Asperger was once viewed as "a hero [who emphasized] the special talents of his 'high-functioning' patients in order to save their lives," new proof (Czech's study) has "left that narrative in tatters" (Szalai). However, the only thing Czech's paper directly contradicts in the first statement is the anti-Nazi, heroic purpose behind Asperger's actions, not the actions themselves. "High-functioning" children, or "little professors," may indeed have been saved (if failing to recommend murder is a form of saving). As Czech relays, the utilitarian argument of "functioning" was quite customary in the ideological context of National Socialism.
In that respect, little has changed. Functioning labels are still used to classify autistic people, flattening the spectrum in "autism spectrum disorder" to a linear construct used to rank autistic individuals by their economic (un)worthiness (Yergeau 50). Individuals perceived as "high-functioning" are often referred to as "Aspies," or as "having Asperger's." In theory, the key diagnostic feature of high-functioning autism is that there is no delay in general cognitive development, whereas, in Asperger's, on top of that, no delay in language development is displayed (The ICD-10 Classification; American Psychiatric Association). In practice, high-functioning autism is indistinguishable from Asperger's (Barahona-Corrêa and Filipe). The Asperger's diagnosis, though removed from the DSM-5 in 2013, remains well-known. It also remains within the ICD-10. Yergeau argues that functioning and severity labels enable allistics to claim autistic demi-rhetoricity: to classify autistic persons as simultaneously too high-functioning (to receive support services, to make claims about autism) and too low-functioning (to not be a burden to others, to be a credible rhetor) (51).
Granting all of this, I want to stress that demi-rhetorical logics do not take away from the dissimilarity in experiences with regards to functioning and severity labels, among autistic people. Although these labels might, at times, for specific purposes, such as rejecting a social assistance request, be ascribed seemingly interchangeably, an autistic person who is usually perceived as high-functioning, or as having Asperger's, is treated differently from one who is usually perceived as low-functioning, or as "simply" autistic. In Nazi-era Austria, this difference was one of life and death, of inferiority and, at least with regards to code-breaking, superiority.
2.2 Sherlock Holmes and White Masculinity
Incidentally, Asperger's insistence that his high-functioning autistic patients would have a penchant for cryptography quite aptly characterizes the position Aspies (are thought to) hold regarding the symbolic code mentioned in the first section. Where the autistic intra-acts with non-human phenomena as equals, blowing up representationalism from beneath, the Aspie rises above. He may not be properly plugged into the symbolic network (and is therefore attributed inhuman, robotic qualities), but he acknowledges it, observing the occurring interactions from a bird's-eye-view. Even without ticking all symbolic boxes of humanhood, he corresponds exceptionally well with human (white, male) normativity.
The titular consulting detective from BBC's Sherlock is an example of someone represented in this way. He is casually—canonically, but unofficially—diagnosed with Asperger's, by writers and characters in the series (Poore 192). Sherlock is in the habit of delivering long monologues in which he decodes the interactions of non-Aspie people, with each other and with objects, deducing them down to tidbits of underlying, often practical information. He does so with a signature lack of kindness, common in Aspie-coded characters. It has been theorized that this supposedly neuro-atypical quality is part of a ploy by the creators of Sherlock to "have it both ways: to preserve the idea of brilliance and rationality as coming most naturally to a white man, while at the same time giving the character psychological quirks in order to mask or impede the privilege into which he was born" (186). I would add that a distinction needs to be made between psychological disadvantages that do impede privilege, and inconsiderate or harmful behavior reconstructed as the quirks of a misunderstood man.
The latter frame is especially popular when the man in question is (lay-)diagnosed with Asperger's, since this condition is posited to be the result of having an "Extreme Male Brain." Sherlock Holmes has been conceived as a possessor of said brain (186). The EMB theory was popularized in the '00's by Simon Baron-Cohen, the acting editor in chief of Molecular Autism. It is based on two premises. Firstly, female brains are hardwired for empathy, and male brains for understanding and building systems. Secondly, autistic people have an extremely weak empathizing ability (also known as mindblindness) and an extremely strong systemizing ability. Therefore, autistics have an Extreme Male Brain. Note, for a moment, the incongruence between this theory (at least when it is applied to male autistics) and the idea that autistic people are deficient in terms of gender conformity, as mentioned in the first section. I will later clarify how these two paradoxical approaches to autism can coexist without conflicting.
A precursor to the EMB theory was coined by Hans Asperger, who considered the "autistic personality [to be] an extreme variant of male intelligence" (qtd. in Baron-Cohen 233). Technically, Asperger's phrasing is inclusive of autistic people in general. He does not explicitly state that his theory only pertains to the ones whose diagnosis would later carry his name. In practice, it is unlikely that Asperger's claim of male intelligence was meant to include the patients he referred to Spiegelgrund, the ones he diagnosed with autism, but also with "intellectual retardation" and a "disturbed personality," exemplified by their stims ("stereotypical movements"; qtd. in Czech). In a similar vein, Baron-Cohen discusses the EMB theory as pertaining to all autistic individuals, regardless of functioning label (and even regardless of sex 14). In practice, a lot of the studies Baron-Cohen uses are accidentally limited to people seen as high-functioning. For example, he writes that autism spectrum conditions affect males far more often than females, and subsequently supports his claim by insisting that "in people diagnosed with high-functioning autism or AS [Asperger's Syndrome], the sex ratio is at least ten males to every female" (emphasis mine; 215).
Review of other studies has shown that, the lower the autistic subjects are thought to function, the more evenly the diagnosis is spread among sexes. On average, (cisgender) men are approximately four times as likely to receive an ASD [autistic spectrum disorder] diagnosis as (cisgender) women. In individuals with intellectual disability, this number drops to 1.7 (Werling and Geschwind).
Race has been shown to play a similar role, although fewer studies are available. Autism prevalence is thought to be highest among white people, and lower among Hispanic, black and Asian people (Tek and Landa). However, co-occurring intellectual disabilities and language delays are reported more often in non-white autistics (Becerra et al.).
The diagnostic disparities could be explained as the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, given that the "proto-typical Aspergian persona [is] masculine, upper/middle-class and white" (Heilker). In addition, we should take into account "masking," a survival strategy employed by non-white and/or non-male autistic people, who are not awarded the same lenience as white men when it comes to atypical behavior. Possibly, professionals are more likely to unmask individuals with intellectual disabilities than those without. Masking in women is fairly well-explored, as are the associated negative consequences for health and well-being (Bargiela et al.). The intersection of autism and race, unfortunately, "is a site of thorough erasure" (qtd. in Saxe, 158). However, it seems probable that autistic people of color, too, are strongly pressured into masking, if only due to the staggering rates of violence (i.e. police brutality) they endure, particularly if they are black (Adewale; Guan and Li).
Sherlock Holmes is one of many Aspie-coded characters whose behavior is only tolerated because he is a white man. As an article in the Huffington Post puts it, "[w]hat would happen if an African-American detective walked into a crime scene and talked to the police officers the way Holmes does? … White men, in general, can get away with being jerks" (qtd. in Poore, 188). Again, I do want to note the distinction between behaving like a high-functioning jerk, as Sherlock does, and behaving like a common autistic. Even white people do not always get away with the latter: in September 2017, an Arizona police officer detained a white, autistic 14-year old, after becoming suspicious of his movements. Body cam footage captures the boy explaining that he is stimming, before being slammed to the ground (Perry). Sherlock, of course, does not stim. Like other Aspie-coded characters, 15 he is not portrayed as someone with a divergent neurotype, but as the extreme version of an entitled, allistic, white man. In line with this representation, Baron-Cohen does not waste a word on traits like stimming, sound sensitivity or diverging use of vocal tone, but he does explicitly include physical abuse, murder and rape as natural consequences of the male brain (37-40).
In this manner, Asperger's is produced as something entirely different from autism. It is this disparity that allows the EMB theory, as it relates to Aspie men, to coexist with social skills programs meant to instill gender role stereotypes in autistic men perceived to be too feminine. When Baron-Cohen asserts that society at present is "biased toward accepting the extreme female brain and stigmatiz[ing] the extreme male brain," he is mainly referring to the oppression of masculine men in a feminized society—not to ableism, or even to prejudices against butch women (288). The criticism in this argument is not directed at discrimination, but at "reverse discrimination," a tool used to sustain an oppressive status quo, through the denial of non-reverse discrimination and through the subsequent argument that challenging oppression is actually oppressive. Baron-Cohen follows this script. Referring to the joke that "[w]omen are from Venus, men are dumb," he writes that "this sort of sexist abuse of men by women is astonishing, and would never be tolerated if the subject of the joke was a woman, or was black, Jewish, or gay" (14). Later on, he argues that attributing the gender gap in STEM disciplines to sexism is itself sexist (111). He further claims that advantages of the male brain include superiority in the field of power and politics (189), general "expertise" and "being the best at something" (192), and leadership (196). The patriarchal superiority of men is naturalized and reinforced, and the Aspie, with his Extreme Male Brain, stands at the top of this pecking order.
2.3 Don Tillman, Social Darwinism and the Grand and Seductive Either/Or
Disabled activists describe this line of thinking as a product of Aspie supremacy. In short, this ideology is based upon the belief that people with Asperger's are superior to other autistics as well as to non-autistics (EbThen). The conversation surrounding Aspie supremacy primarily takes place in informal, easily accessible, online environments: i.e. on social media, in blog posts, in content hosted by Wikia, and in forum threads. Proponents of the ideology are less likely to use the term "supremacy," although I would argue some content evokes this classification in ways that are hard to deny. 16
The term Aspie supremacy has been used once or twice in peer-reviewed publications, but the only one I was able to locate describes Aspie supremacy as a discourse in which "autism is seen not as problem to be fixed or a deficit or to be overcome, but rather as a marked improvement over normal neurology" (Heilker). This definition upholds the habit of ignoring the role perceived functioning plays in determining where autistic subjects are placed on a continuum ranging from inferiority to superiority. It is this habit, in my opinion, that was more vital than anything else in sustaining the savior narrative surrounding Hans Asperger. Moreover, flattening Aspie supremacy to something reminiscent of autistic supremacy does not do justice to the power and privilege behind the movement.
Race, like gender and sex, factors into this power. Aspies are not only seen as superiorly male, but as superiorly white. Usually, race is mentioned less overtly than sex, but—in this I agree with Heilker—Aspie supremacist discourse "aligns uncomfortably well with commonplace tropes of white superiority." Heilker quotes a self-confessed Aspie supremacist who "looks down at primate politics." He then remarks that "it is difficult not to hear strong, disturbing echoes of white racist discourses purporting that African-Americans were sub-human and that Aryans were a master race." These echoes can, of course, be traced back to the Second World War (and further), when Asperger characterized his high-functioning patients by their "finely boned features," of "almost aristocratic appearance" (qtd. in Barahona-Corrêa and Filipe). The descriptions invoke craniometry, which is unsurprising given that it was Asperger's professional "responsibility" to maintain "race hygiene" (Czech).
In present-day neo-Nazi circles, Aspies are overtly associated with whiteness. In a forum discussion on who will be allowed to reside in "the white ethnostate," for example, members argue that "[a]ll aspies will be welcome as honorary whites" (Rodriguez, par. 3, page 1), since "Aspies are white deep inside" (Long, par. 13, page 6).
The notion of Aspie whiteness, along with the history of utilitarian arguments for Aspie survival, indicate a kinship between Aspie supremacy and Social Darwinism. Furthermore, there are those who explicitly "describe [Asperger's] as the next and better phase of human evolution" (Heilker). 17
The theme of evolution is pivotal to The Rosie Project, a bestselling novel centered on genetics professor Don Tillman. Notwithstanding a running gag that boils down to his inability to recognize his own Asperger's (self-directed mindblindness, am I right?), Tillman is portrayed as an Aspie supremacist. One of the first scenes in the book involves a talk to autism parents and their children, eventuating in the children chanting "Aspies rule" in chorus (Simsion 3). To inspire this self-confidence, Tillman had responded to an autism professional's condescending comment by accentuating the advantages of the "rational detachment" associated with Asperger's, through a parable that involved baby killing.
Tillman's own rational detachment results in his refusal and/or inability to understand why he is a bachelor. He muses:
I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing. (1)
The search for a woman who is rational enough to want to breed with Tillman is the book's main storyline. I suspect that most readers would easily recognize the sexism and entitlement in Tillman's line of thought, were it not for his get-out-of-jail-free card: Aspie boys will be Aspie boys. Additionally, his characterization as quirky and atypical creates the possibility for readers to agree with him without implicating themselves, and, perhaps more importantly, without fearing the ramifications of his beliefs: even if the reader believes that Tillman is right, they might reassure themselves with the belief that social conventions will prevent allistic men from behaving accordingly. Autistic directness (read: Aspie rudeness) becomes a means through which the allistic can temporarily experience exhilarating "honesty" (read: bigotry). In consequence, The Rosie Project was not received as a thematically dark story centered on a misogynist, but as an "endearing romantic comedy" which teaches us to embrace "the differently abled" (Martelli).
Under the guise of embracing atypicality, male entitlement is reinforced. To rewrite Bernstein's "grand and seductive Either/Or" (18) for this particular case: "Either there is a fixed foundation for our knowledge, not to be threatened by unsolicited stimming, 18 or we cannot escape moral relativism, as embodied by our permissiveness in the face of Aspie bigotry." I would argue these are two sides of the same coin. Moral relativism is employed as a means through which objectivist normativity—the foundation for our knowledge—is preserved.
A similar mechanism applies to a type of postmodernism that is defined by its limitlessness. Sara Ahmed writes: "Such an unbounded postmodernism has a hegemonic function—it is a way of bringing differential and contradictory phenomena back to a single reference point or meaning" (6). This reference point, of course, is steeped in whiteness, despite, or rather, due to the postmodernist claim to speak "for all of us" (5). Postmodernism has correspondingly been criticized for dismantling (oppressed) identity without considering its function as political grounding for activism, while simultaneously appropriating the experience of "otherness" (bell hooks 2480-2481). In a like manner, The Rosie Project calls upon its readers to decenter the neurotypical and to forgo moral objectivism, while simultaneously keeping the forces of darkness at bay by defining neurodivergence as the extreme of objective, white masculinity.
Tillman's job as a genetics professor is no coincidence. The abovementioned mechanism aligns well with the double role Darwinism has played when it comes to (post)humanism: first in decentering the human (no longer a divinely ordained crown of creation), then in re-centering a particular type of human (through Social Darwinism and eugenics). Aspie supremacy functions similarly.
Aspies, like (other) autistics, are dehumanized, but dehumanization is not necessarily degradation with regard to human norms. Comparisons between electronic devices and men with Asperger's flourish as a trope, but the robotic occupies a decidedly higher status than the possessed or the zombified. By way of illustration, Baron-Cohen praises a self-described "Binary Boy," whose savant brain supposedly works just like a computer, for his "extraordinary type of mind" (215). He then dwells upon the logical qualities of computers (218). Logic, otherwise attributed to possessors of the male brain (101), is thus ascribed to a non-human object, rendering it metonymically masculine. Apparently, humanhood is not a prerequisite for gender normativity.
Ultimately, Aspie supremacy does, in a way, decenter the human (by positioning the Aspie as someone decoding human interactions from a robotically objective point of view), but it, too, re-centers white masculinity. Rosi Braidotti identified one of the problems of humanism as pertaining to the so-called Universal Man, who is, in fact, "implicitly assumed to be masculine, white, urbanized, speaking a standard language, heterosexually inscribed in a reproductive unit and a full citizen of a recognized polity" (65). It is tempting to believe this problem will be solved when the cyborgs arrive. Unfortunately, Aspie supremacy shows that human normativity is not obliterated by paying lip service to posthumanism.
Coda: A Rose by Any Other Name
In the wake of Czech's paper, the director of the Dutch NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies called for a name change of Asperger's syndrome (NPORadio1). It has been done before, he argued, in relation to other conditions discovered by Nazi doctors. I felt weary and wary, listening to the radio broadcast.
I generally support stripping the names of things linked to historical atrocities, and when an acquaintance of mine referred to himself as an Aspie, I sent him a long, meddlesome text message. Language matters, and a rose by any other name would not have driven Juliet to suicide. However, underlying issues need to be addressed. The NIOD director spoke out in support of renaming Asperger's, but also raised a telling counter-argument: the term has positive connotations, more so than autism. That, of course, is exactly the problem.
Besides, Hans Asperger is but one figure in the system that is Aspie supremacy. The cooperation between Czech, Baron-Cohen and Silberman serves as a painful reminder of this fact. I am hesitant to expect more than superficial change to come from a paper finalized under the approving eye of both an editor-in-chief famous for conceptualizing Asperger's as extreme male intelligence, and a reviewer who uncritically applauded Asperger for his utilitarian argument.
Hans Asperger's personal reputation has suffered a blow these last few months, but Aspie supremacy, as it relies on functioning labels and white masculinity, remains intact. The ideology is not contingent upon any specific terminology. The DSM-5 merged Asperger's with autism—and then divided autism into levels of severity. (When the autpocalypse hits, we all level up.)
I suspect I am formally a level 1 autistic. I am white, "intellectually gifted" (if I did not have to submit this paper for review I would use a dozen more scare quotes), and I suffer gum withdrawal from excessive teeth grinding (the only imperceptible stim I could come up with as a child). When I was diagnosed, my psychiatrist went out of her way to make sure I knew I was Not Like Other Autistics.
But I am.
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Baggs' 2010 article "Aspie Supremacy can kill" is especially relevant.
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As present in some autistic individuals.
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Ex ("out") + cavo, from: cavus ("cave").
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At this point, it might be evident to the reader that my argument has been influenced by Spivak's work on the connection between logocentrism and epistemic injustice. However, I emphatically do not intend to equate (all) autistic individuals with her post-colonial subaltern, especially not given the painful relationship between whiteness and the autism diagnosis.
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Kant, sure as he was of the impermeability of the world in-itself, believed in a shared, human Anschauung. Kant was also a scientific racist (Mills).
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I.e. neurotypical play behaviors.
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See also: anti-sex work sociologist Kathleen Barry's conviction that structural sadism spawns a cultural "autism" (218), or Dutch Minister Wiebes' claim that political actions should not be rushed, since "decisiveness is good, autism is not" (Tiernego).
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In autism treatment, they still are, although the FDA proposed a ban in 2016 (Food and Drug Administration).
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I.e. "disabled people".
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I.e. "people with disabilities", "people suffering from disabilities", "people living with disabilities", "people touched by disabilities".
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Stims are behaviors that provide sensory stimuli, common in developmentally disabled individuals, and especially in those who are autistic. The term usually refers to repetitive movements, but can be broadened to include, for instance, the use of compression gear and weighted blankets.
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One exasperated person turned to Reddit: "Can't even find a paywalled link of it. I don't care if it's in German or English." (hook54321a)
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Most notably, Edith Sheffer's book Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.
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In fact, he provides a disclaimer in which he states that, although most females have the female brain, and most males the male one, some females have a male brain, and some males a female. To claim otherwise, he concedes, would be sexist (11).
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Think: Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory; multiple characters played by Jesse Eisenberg; multiple characters played by Benedict Cumberbatch and/or written by Steven Moffat.
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Some examples can be found on the Wikia page devoted to "the state of Aspergia", an Aspie-ruled "to-be technocracy". According to the homepage, possible means to achieve Aspergia include "[c]ommencing a crusade of Aspies in order to forcibly claim a patch of land to plant the Aspergian flag on" ("Aspergia Wiki | Home"). The first image in the gallery of the page depicts a tall, thin, white man with a neckbeard, surrounded by representations of grinding gears and electrons orbiting an atom. He is captioned "Asperger". Next to him stands a short, brown, fat man, captioned "neurotypical".
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Heilker actually uses the word "autism", but the people posting in the forum thread he references specifically discuss Asperger's ("Why is aspie separatism/supremacy controversial?").
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I refer back to my discussion of Mel Bagg's In My Language video, located near the end of section 1, where I argue that autistic intra-active behavior, such as visible stimming, can result in Cartesian anxiety. This anxiety, in turn, inspires the "grand and seductive Either/Or".
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