January 20, 2023 - 6:15pm

Speaking at the Oxford Union earlier this week, the American venture capitalist and one-time Trump donor Peter Thiel disparagingly referred to the environmentalist movement as “Greta [Thunberg] and the autistic children’s crusade”. There were then cheers when one audience member clapped back that “I’ve met Greta and she’s actually quite lovely”. Thiel’s remark, coming soon after similar comments from Julia Hartley-Brewer, reflects a trend of using ‘autistic’ as a pejorative term. Within this, too, lies the assumption that there is some kind of connection between radical or progressive politics — in this case environmental activism — and autistic spectrum conditions.   

It is certainly true that there is an increasing number of high-profile autistic environmentalist, socialist or LGBT activists, including Thunberg herself and the naturalist and poet Dara McAnulty. Likewise, there is an established link between trans and non-binary identities and autism.

Anyone who has ever been part of a socialist or Left-wing activist group will also have noticed a disproportionately high number of people exhibiting traits typically associated with autistic spectrum conditions, compared to the general population. The historian Lawrence Black mentions in one of his books a Labour party report from 1958 which says that many of their activists are ‘unusually earnest young men and women’ who ‘lack the necessary social skills’ for the successful organisation of fundraising and community events. 

This association filters through to the wider public. As recounted in her book Beyond the Red Wall, when the pollster Deborah Mattinson asked a focus group what the Labour Party would be like if they were a guest at a party, she was told that it was likely to be a man who would ‘spend ages sorting through the CDs to avoid talking to the other guests’, and that he would be ‘a bit socially awkward, listening politely but not really taking it in’. 

Despite this, there is little firm evidence that autism correlates with Left-wing politics, while a disproportionately high number of Right-wing extremists have been diagnosed with autism.

Some of these are famous cases, such as Jacob Chansley, the self-described ‘QAnon shaman’, one of several rioters who stormed the US Congress on 6 January 2021 to receive lesser sentences due to an autism diagnosis. But most of them we never hear about: there is a ‘staggeringly high’ number of autistic people referred to the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme, mostly associated with far-Right groups such as National Action. 

Clearly, people with autism can be found across the political spectrum. Yet since the condition is usually less tangible and definitive than a physical disability or skin colour — and more nebulous like sexuality or gender identity — it is difficult to ‘police’ and say exactly who should or should not qualify. This means it can easily be adopted as an ‘identitarian’ issue, whereby Thiel and Hartley-Brewer might use it to disparage their ideological enemies, #ActuallyAutistic activists can claim that it is their autism that makes them Left-wing.

In reality, as with class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, we should focus on the specific material factors affecting people’s lives, rather than trying to impose a consistent politico-cultural ‘identity’ onto entire groups. The diversity of support for national populist movements around the world in recent years has shown us that you can’t judge someone’s politics from their basic characteristics, and neither should you make similar assumptions based on their autism.

David Swift is a historian and author. His latest book The Identity Myth is out now.