Double Rainbow: Deconstructing "The Geek Syndrome"

Eleven years ago, an article in Wired magazine helped establish the reputation of Asperger's as "the geek syndrome." As the condition has become more prominent in the popular imagination, it has acquired a close association with computer technology. One could write a whole book on the relationship between Asperger's and the cultural fascination with and fear of technology, but here I just want to begin to question and deconstruct that relationship.

In the now famous Wired piece, Steve Silberman looks at rising rates of autism spectrum diagnoses in Silicon Valley and actually posits a genetic relationship between technological aptitude and autism. The idea that Asperger's is synonymous with technological skill is reinforced over and over again in popular representations. Lisbeth Salander is an impossibly gifted hacker. In Adam, the title character is a skilled electrical engineer with a keen interest in astronomy. Almost every time a character with Asperger's or autism is portrayed as a savant (which is relatively often), his or her skills are math-related. Raymond Babbitt rapidly thinks in algorithms. The kid in Mercury Rising is phenomenal at code-breaking. Kazan from Cube, the male lead of Mozart and the Whale, and the protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are mathematical savants. 

Asperger's has also come to be associated with "geek culture," and it isn't difficult to see why. The archetypal "geek" is also portrayed as possessing great technical skill, specifically with computers. Geeks are also portrayed as awkward and socially immature—hallmark traits of Asperger syndrome—and geekdom is pretty much synonymous with obsessive fandom. The fandoms most closely associated with "geek culture" are those of major science-fiction franchises, like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. As I have remarked upon in previous posts, people on the autism spectrum are often constructed as "otherworldly" or otherwise inhuman. We are often symbolically associated with aliens, à la Temple Grandin's "anthropologist on Mars" analogy. 

We are also often constructed as robotic. That is, we are somehow fundamentally like the machines with which we (are perceived to) have such a close relationship. In Constructing Autism: Unravelling the "Truth" and Understanding the Social, Madjia Holmer Nadesan takes a close look at this construction of Asperger's and "high-functioning" autism. 

Nadesan makes note of the fact that the diagnostic boundaries of autism have been expanding over the past few decades. For example, fifty years ago I would not have been autistic. That is not to say that I wouldn't have possessed exactly the same cognitive and behavioral traits that "make" me autistic in a contemporary setting. It's just that "autism" as a concept is a culturally and historically specific phenomenon, and someone who is on the "high functioning" end of the spectrum today may not have fit the diagnostic and cultural understanding of autism at another time. 

The diagnostic paradigm has changed because the culture has changed, and one major way in which American culture has changed in recent decades is the explosion of new technologies. Nadesan asserts that "classic" autism is "a disorder of the early twentieth century, while the high-functioning variants of autism...are fundamentally disorders of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century." In other words, certain conditions could not have been conceived prior to those historical moments because they are enmeshed in particular historical and cultural contexts. 

Of the phenomenon of these "high-functioning variants" of autism, which include Asperger syndrome, Nadesan writes

The history of "high-functioning" forms of autism must further be understood in the contexts of new standards for parenting that emerged mid-twentieth century and new economic and social conditions surrounding the purported "information revolution" that began in the 1960s. As I will argue, the public's fascination with autism, particularly its high-functioning forms, stems in large part from the idea that people with autism are technologically gifted and are particularly adept with computer technology. 

Further on in the book, Nadesan elaborates on this relationship between Asperger's and technology:

The cognitive research on autistic intelligence establishes linkages across gender, technical facility, and autism, and, in so doing, constructs an image of high-functioning people with autism as possessing an alien form of intelligence that is simultaneously seductive and threatening...

 

Frighteningly, representations of autism invoking computational models of "autistic intelligence" draw upon, and exacerbate, social anxieties surrounding technology as a force unto itself, devoid of concern about the human condition. Films such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) imagine totalitarian control by artificial intelligence, but in these instances technology represents an externalization of human praxis in form of produced and self-replicating machines, whereas in the case of Asperger's syndrome the threat of technical domination rests internally within the human population. 

So the underlying cultural fear is that we're cyborgs quietly mounting an insidious invasion. Like stealthy Borg. As Nadesan concedes, this extrapolation "may seem wild" at first, but it really doesn't exaggerate the nature of society's anxiety about technology, particularly as it concerns computers and artificial intelligence. Mainstream news media regularly gives voice to fears about robots stealing jobs and the purported detrimental effects of social media. And it isn't a stretch to interpret the hysteria surrounding the purported "autism epidemic" as, in part, a fear of being over-run by a new generation that seems to relate to the world in wholly unfamiliar ways. 

Nadesan also brings up and discusses gender. Certainly in popular culture, math, science, technology, and all the trappings of geekdom are overwhelmingly gendered as "masculine." Simon Baron-Cohen's theory of autism as possession of an "extreme male brain" is predicated on the assumption that there is a fundmental, "hard-wired" difference between the "male brain" and the "female brain." This difference is presumed to manifest in ways that you can predict even if you've never encountered Baron-Cohen's hypothesis: The "male brain" is rational and analytical, while the "female brain" is emotional and empathetic. Given this web of cultural assumptions and associations connecting gender, technology, and autism, I am extremely skeptical of the idea that the apparent 10-to-1 incidence of autism in males versus females reflects any kind of physical reality. The same cultural paradigm that hinders girls and women in the fields of math and science may well be responsible for a severe "underdiagnosis" of autism in that same subset of the population. 

Ultimately, my concern about the pervasive construction of people with Asperger's as robotic and alien derives from the ways that this construction impacts real people's lived experiences. We're not aliens, but we certainly are alienated by a culture that refuses to accept that we live, love, and relate to world and to our communities as human beings. 

 

Related: The Tech Industry's Asperger Problem: Affliction or Insult?  (I had to come back and add this Gawker link as soon as I found it)

Previously: Asperger's and Girls part 2, Asperger's and Girls

 

Comments

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Geek Syndrome author responds

Hey, Caroline. I wrote "The Geek Syndrome" back in 2001. I agree with most of what you say, which is why I have taken a couple of years off from journalism to write a book about autism and neurodiversity, in which autistic intelligence is understood as deeply human, with many self-advocates speaking for themselves. You're right: the stereotype of autistic people as alien and robotic is one of the most familiar tropes of the demeaning of the autistic mind.

But there are a couple of things to keep in mind. 2001 was a long time ago in the evolution of media coverage of autism. My own coverage has gotten much more subtle and committed offering platforms for self-advocates to describe autism from the inside. See for instance my interview with ASAN founder Ari Ne'eman, in his first major interview after his White House appointment:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/10/exclusive-ari-neeman-qa/all/1

Or this, a review of my favorite spectrum-related book of 2011, "Thinking Person's Guide to Autism":

http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2011/12/19/book-of-the-year-thinking-p...

And the other thing to remember is no neurotypical named the biggest website for autistic people Wrong Planet. It was named by its autistic founder, Alex Plank. The feeling of being born on the wrong planet is not purely NT stereotyping; it's a frequent trope when autistic people talk among themselves (or to me for my book.) I like it, actually -- it's a very direct way of getting across the feeling of being in a constructed sensory world that was built for NTs.

Also, to summarize my article as being a shallow slam of autistic people as robots is not quite accurate. This is the last part of the piece. It's more nuanced than that, I feel.

"It seems that for success in science and art," Asperger wrote, "a dash of autism is essential."

For all we know, the first tools on earth might have been developed by a loner sitting at the back of the cave, chipping at thousands of rocks to find the one that made the sharpest spear, while the neurotypicals chattered away in the firelight. Perhaps certain arcane systems of logic, mathematics, music, and stories - particularly remote and fantastic ones - have been passed down from phenotype to phenotype, in parallel with the DNA that helped shape minds which would know exactly what to do with these strange and elegant creations.

Hanging on the wall of Bryna Siegel's clinic in San Francisco is a painting of a Victorian house at night, by Jessy Park, an autistic woman whose mother, Clara Claiborne Park, wrote one of the first accounts of raising a child with autism, The Siege. Now 40, Jessy still lives at home. In her recent book, Exiting Nirvana, Clara writes of having come to a profound sense of peace with all the ways that Jessy is.

Jessy sent Siegel a letter with her painting, in flowing handwriting and words that are - there is no other way to say it - marvelously autistic. "The lunar eclipse with 92% cover is below Cassiopeia. In the upper right-hand corner is Aurora Borealis. There are three sets of six-color pastel rainbow on the shingles, seven-color bright rainbow on the clapboards next to the drain pipe, six-color paler pastel rainbow around the circular window, six-color darker pastel rainbow on the rosette ..."

But the words aren't the thing. Jessy's painting is the thing. Our world, but not our world. A house under the night sky shining in all the colors of the spectrum.

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But that said, I basically agree with your comments about the dehumanization of autistic intelligence as a problem in media; I'm working full-time these days to help correct that, including some statements I made in "The Geek Syndrome."

Thank you for your response

I wanted to use your 2001 article as a springboard for addressing the issues I dealt with in my post because it was and is so widely-read, and because it remains influential with regard to a popular understanding of "high-functioning" autism.

Thank you for pointing out how your own understanding of autism has evolved since you wrote that piece.

Thank you, Caroline, and keep

Thank you, Caroline, and keep up the great work!

Pop culture

Thanks for these articles.Being LGBT and aspie means pretty much double closeted... Speaking about characters in tv shows. I think that Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife might be an Aspie.No, Im quite sure of that. What do you think?