There's not much doubt that autism, along with Asperger Syndrome, is finally becoming accepted as a normal part of the human fabric. Even if some people still see autism as a condition that needs to be "treated," it's increasingly obvious that people on the autism spectrum are finding ways to succeed in our neurotypical-based society.
Not only that, but autistic people are changing the nature of our society as well — in many ways, for the better.
The image above was drawn by Stephen Wilshire, a British architectural artist who has been diagnosed with autism. He is known for his ability to draw a detailed landscape from memory after just seeing it once.
To better understand how it is that autism has come to impact so significantly on mainstream culture, we spoke to two experts on the matter, Steve Silberman and Andrea Kuszewski. Silberman is a longtime contributing editor at Wired and is currently at work on his upcoming book, Neurotribes: Thinking Smarter About People Who Think Differently. And Kuszewski is a consultant and behavioral therapist for children who are on the autism spectrum, and an expert in finding alternative learning strategies for gifted kids. We also talked to other people whose lives have been touched by autism.
Through our conversations with Silberman and Kuszewski, it became clear that autism has played a significant role in crafting much of what we consider to be modern culture — from the music and books we read, to the technological devices we all take for granted. The acceptance of radically different ways of thinking, it turns out, can be seen as an integral part of a rich and diverse overarching culture.
Not the way it used to be
Today, talk of autism is normal, and most of us are familiar with it. But as recently as two to three decades ago, kids on the spectrum were mercilessly teased as being nerds or geeks. While many today wear those labels as points of pride, it was certainly not the case back then — they were used as put-downs, a way of calling out kids who had a hard time socializing — and who at the same time exhibited a kind of smartness that caused them to be alienated from the "normal" kids.
A major turning point in this story came with the release of Rain Man in 1988 — a movie that did as much harm as good. On the one hand, Rain Man spread misconceptions, but on the other hand, it made many people aware of autism for the first time. While painting an overly severe depiction of the condition, Rain Man served as a catalyst for a huge shift in the mainstream understanding of autism.
In fact, as Silberman tells io9, most pediatricians hadn't even heard of autism prior to the film's release. It was once seen as a rather arcane disease that didn't deserve mention in most textbooks — but one that was thought to be related to childhood schizophrenia.
"After Rain Man, we started to realize that autism is common," said Silberman, "and that society was going to have to deal with it — that we were going to have to accept these other kinds of humans."
More than two decades later, the socio-cultural landscape surrounding autism has shifted. The rising acceptance of neurodiversity has represented a seminal cultural adjustment in the early parts of the 21st century.
Indeed, as Kuszewski tells io9, we're now starting to notice it almost everywhere — and at the same time, there's less of a stigma surrounding it. "If anything," she says, "it's slightly trendy to have Asperger's."
And with nearly 1 in 88 people diagnosed today, it's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Silberman quotes Jonathan Lethem, describing it as the "defining room tone of our time."
Moreover, there may actually be many more who go undiagnosed. "It's very important to remember that people who get diagnosed are a minority in a very broad field of people who are kind of only talked about jokingly," he says. "There may be broad autism phenotypes — people who have traits — but would probably not earn or seek a diagnosis." Many of these people, notes Silberman, could use the support. "This is not some kind of yuppie flu," he adds.
The autistic aesthetic
The signs of autism's reach are beginning to been seen virtually everywhere. People on the spectrum are driving the creation of alternative forms of expression, new businesses and institutions, and cutting-edge technologies. "And not only do they make these things comfortable for themselves," noted Silberman, "they're useful for all of us."
Silberman is right. A quick roster of known or suspected autistic artists who have made an impact in arts and culture includes such seminal figures as Stanley Kubrick, Andy Warhol, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Satoshi Tajiri (creator of Pokémon) and many others. Their contributions have become an indelible part of the zeitgeist.
They're also making an impact in tech media, or what Silberman refers to as the geek landscape. Geek entertainment sites such as Wired and BoingBoing "are built for neurotypicals, but serve the aesthetic of autistic people as well."
Indeed, it's hardly a secret to admit that autistic kids and adults are drawn to technology — science fiction in particular — and fascinatingly, it has almost always been that way. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the fixation on rocket ships and flying to the Moon that convinced pediatricians that there was something deeply wrong with these kids — that their unworldly and impractical obsessions were signs of a deep psychological malaise.
"But fast forward to today and what do we find, but that we're actually doing it," noted Silberman.
There's no understating the importance of the autistic aesthetic to the rise and popularity of science fiction and similar genres. The elaborate, technically accurate science fiction universe is an autistic playground.
Autistic people are also changing the way in which existing art and culture is appreciated. A prime example are the so-called sensory friendly showings of movies and Broadway shows. These are special showings in which the sound is turned down, the lights are up, and children are free to walk around (which must also be a welcome relief for people with ADHD). These shows are incredibly popular and often sell out — a possible indication that neurotypicals are also keen to take advantage.
The Rise of Maker Culture
One area in which autistic people are making an impact is maker culture. "Many on the spectrum love to take apart and then rebuild or change or hack mechanical devices," said Silberman. It's resulted in a convergence of geeks and the popularization of tech culture.
A good example of this is John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's. Robison is fascinated by both computers and mechanical devices. Once a guitar technician for Kiss, he now runs a very high-end body shop for sports cars.
"What you see is that kids with autism and Aspergers love this culture," said Silberman, "it totally plays to their strengths."
Kuszewski agrees. She recently relocated her office to the Bay Area to work on an education program based on a hacker space model — and she's getting considerable interest. When working with clients, she has found that they're "really hyper" into one specific niche area, including such things as resistors, trains, math, stats, probabilities, and virtually anything technical. "They have these really deep interests," she noted, "and they geek out over it and it's like their whole world."
And the sentiment is infectious. "I started to respect the people that were totally into something obscure and technical and completely proud of it, said Kuszewski, "I admired how they were so willing to put their obsessive nerdiness on display." Working with these kids, she started to find it hard not get excited about even the most arcane things. "You get so thrilled over such tiny little things."
One young man who certainly qualifies for this camp is 15 year-old Joey Hudy, a talented young man with ADD, ADHD and Asperger's. Struggling at school and finding it hard to make friends, Hudy credits maker culture with changing his life.
"I now have a career that I like," he tells io9, "I am inspired by a lot of other people — and now I only make." He tells us about how lonely he was a year ago, without any goals or friends. Since discovering the maker movement, he has become more self-confident and happy. "I found the place where I belong," he says, "All my maker friends are like family."
And since getting involved in maker culture, Joey hasn't done badly at all. He recently returned from the White House, where he got to show off his Marshmallow Cannon to President Obama. He also has his very own maker kit on the market. And he's subsequently developed talents for programming, soldering, building, and designing.
We ask Hudy what people who don't have autism can learn from maker culture. "Same thing that I have: Everything," he says.
Hudy, like so many kids his age, is finding a way to adapt to a neurotypical world, and in the process, is helping to change the overarching cultural landscape.
Indeed, as Kuszewski tells us, kids like Hudy didn't have a way to meet others like them. "Now, with the internet, you're able to form these clubs and groups with people to share online," she said. Realizing that you're not alone and don't have to hide is confidence building. And what's more, it's not just an "autistic thing" — the ability to share highly technical information, and to not feel embarrassed or ashamed about it, is starting to be accepted by the larger population.
And these subcultures are trickling into the mainstream. Take Burlington, Ontario's McKay family, for example. In a family of six athletic overachievers (mom and dad included), parents Justine and Jason struggled to accommodate their 10-year-old son Nathan, who had very little interest in sports. After coming to the realization that Nathan enjoyed tinkering with gadgets and electronic devices, they enrolled him in a robotics program. Unsure at first about what they were doing, his parents quickly realized that there didn't need to be a stigma attached to "nerdy" things.
"Ebots provided Nathan with an environment where he was part of the group, a group that shared a passion for robotics," Justine tells io9. She also started to notice positive changes in Nathan as well, such as a genuine excitement for class and a newfound confidence. "This makes being smart cool," she says, "It gave Nathan a place to be himself and be comfortable about it."
Thoughtful communication at a distance
For a group of people who supposedly suffer from a "social communications disorder," autistics like Joey Hudy have shown a great desire to be social and share in their achievements with others — at least when they're given the right tools.
Silberman observes that mobile devices, tablets, and texting have largely become assistive technologies for non-neurotypical people — even though they're not limited in application to a specific niche at all. These are cheap, general-use devices that are perfectly well suited for both autistics and neurotypical people. And best of all, they allow people with autism to consider their thoughts before they speak.
"And given that neurotypicals use these devices in pretty much the same way, you end up with a culture that's very much amenable to how autistics prefer to work," said Silberman, "and you've largely got a culture much like the one we see now."
But perhaps nowhere is the influence of people on the autism spectrum felt more widely than in the tech sector. "So many startups and businesses are based around" these people, notes Kuszewski.
According to Gawker's Ryan Tate, notable entrepreneurs on the spectrum include Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Craigslist's Craig Newmark, and Bittorrent's Bram Cohen. And as Tate points out, autistic characteristics such as obsessiveness, impaired social interaction, and clumsiness can be beneficial in the tech sector. It's quite possible that these "impairments" are likely behind their success.