by David Swift
Friday, 20
January 2023
Debate
18:15

Autism: the latest front in the culture wars

Activists across the political spectrum have weaponised the identity
by David Swift
Police officers detain Greta Thunberg in Germany earlier this week. Credit: Getty.

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.


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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.

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David McKee
David McKee
17 days ago

I happen to be autistic (properly diagnosed and everything). It’s nothing to be proud of, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. My reason for saying so is to make it clear that I don’t have to guess what the autistic mind is like, I experience it 24/7.
First of all, well done the Oxford Union for inviting a controversialist like Thiel to speak. From the OU writeup, he gave them their money’s worth.
There is a strong streak of social justice in the autistic makeup. We bridle at life’s injustices. At the same time, we tend to be naive about how the world works. That’s because we tend not to interact much with other people, especially when growing up. This makes us easy prey for the environmentalist/Islamist/communist/antiracist/fascist/nationalist/etc who thinks he’s found a shortcut to building the New Jerusalem. So I am not surprised we are overrepresented in extremist organisations.
Thirdly, autism can be used as an excuse for bad behaviour and human selfishness. Autists tend to be loners, and hard put to hold down a job, let alone rise through the ranks. If Elon Musk, a successful manager of a large company, is autistic, then I’m Widow Twankey. So why did Musk suggest it on live TV? It’s likely that it was “a poor attempt at laundering his image as a heartless billionaire more concerned with cryptocurrency and rocket ships than the lives of others.” (https://slate.com/culture/2021/05/elon-musk-aspergers-snl-autism-spectrum.html) It’s only too easy for someone to blame (undiagnosed) autism for his boorishness. Autists are no more excused tactlessness or poor manners than anyone else.
Finally, autists find it difficult to fit in with social groups. We search around for groups that are not too fussy about their members, and political parties are an obvious choice. It may be (and I am flying a flag here), that we latch onto sexual minorities for the same reason, and also to find a sexual partner who is rather more willing to overlook our social inadequacies than a heterosexual boy- or girlfriend.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
17 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

‘nothing to be proud of, nothing to be ashamed of’
Yes! I’d add that it’s possible to take pride in how you, personally, handled a situation or your own accomplishments. Ultimately, it’s your life and not everything can be simplified down to a diagnosis.
I’m an Aspie and your comments really spoke to me. Thank you.

AL Crowe
AL Crowe
17 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

I don’t think it is fair to say that all autistic people are x, y or z, or that we have particular tendencies, but I do agree with you that there needs to be less of a perpetual victim narrative about autism, because whilst we are used by politicians and journalists as mere tools to further their agendas, those of us who are high functioning know right from wrong, we know what is good behaviour and bad behaviour, we aren’t less responsible for our choices because we have an ASD label.

I’ve met plenty of others on the spectrum who really don’t care for social justice or politics, and I’ve met some who are absolutely obsessed with them, I think it is more the intensity of interest that many of us can exert that comes in to play when the so called special interest of an autistic individual happens to be overtly political. This is what we see with Thunberg for example, but that focus can just as easily turn to the workings of a computer, architecture, gardening, etc, and leave little to no room for political or social justice concerns.

David McKee
David McKee
17 days ago
Reply to  AL Crowe

I agree, Mr. Crowe. In a necessarily short submission, I had to generalise, but without (I hope) overgeneralising. It is impossible to say categorically that “all autists are…”, because autism affects each of us in a way that is unique to the individual.
The medical scientists have not helped, by lumping a huge variation of conditions together and calling it autism. It’s like lumping Covid and the common cold together, and calling it ‘coronaviral infections.’ There is much that we still do not understand about autism.

Douglas H
Douglas H
16 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

Thanks, David. Really interesting comment.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
15 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

I think ‘on the spectrum’ is maybe a better phrase?

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
15 days ago

Why?

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
15 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

This article might, so far, be the stupidest I’ve ever read. How did we get to a place where a person, repeat, “A” person, has to be categorized and labeled as a member of a group? What happened to self? Are we not selves any more? I know, am related to and have taught autistic individuals, from childhood on. NO two are alike. Some will succeed, some will survive, some will fail and some will be able to function brilliantly. It’s tough, make no mistake, but to use them in any way, for any reason is grotesque. Enough already. This stuff has to stop. Like assigning terrorist tendencies to the military. Autistics are not political, social or psychological fodder. Just
let people be, For God’s Sake and ours.

Last edited 15 days ago by [email protected]
John Murray
John Murray
17 days ago

My guess is that autism creates a tendency to lean into fairly rigid understandings of the world, which can be found from a left wing or right wing point of view. I don’t know if anybody has tried, but I’d hypothesize that if you looked at the distribution of autistic people politically you’d find a great proportion of autistic folk at the extremes of the spectrum at either end, and less in the fuzzy middle.

Dave Mil
Dave Mil
17 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

This is not to imply any link between mental ability and autism spectrum conditions, but I think the essence of your hypothesis is nicely encapsulated in the following context:
“In parallel, super-efficient individuals develop a value system based on absolutes. Their idealistic mode of thinking is scarcely compatible with the implicit social niceties governing relations between normo-thinkers and they are easy prey for manipulators.”
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7481973/

Last edited 17 days ago by Dave Mil
AL Crowe
AL Crowe
17 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

The major issue with trying to say anything about anyone with autism, is that the autistic spectrum in reality encompasses individuals with such vastly different issues that they really have entirely different conditions.

I have asperger syndrome, supposedly the same kind of autism that Greta Thunberg has, yet I have very little in common with her in terms of interests or specific symptoms. I have spent more than 15 years as a so called autism advocate, and have been an admin in some of the larger online forums on and off during that time.

I have found that autistic individuals are as varied as any other part of the populace in terms of abilities, political beliefs, and interests, which means that it is really only a small number of us who have particular political causes as our so called special interests who seem to be noted when it comes to politics, giving the impression that we are somehow more prone to political extremes, when a whole lot of us have very little to say about politics.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
17 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

Plausible conjecture.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
18 days ago

Does everyone have to have some kind of victim label? Thiel was making a joke. Thunberg is an international celebrity. It’s part of the deal for celebrities. I know Thiel has been called a lot of awful names too.

j watson
j watson
17 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think Thunberg shown a toughness, whether we agree with her or not, that means she’ll be unbothered by Thiel. His reference to autism says more about him than her. She’ll be dealing with far worse every day. And as she showed with Tate she’s quite capable of handling herself.

Last edited 17 days ago by j watson
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
17 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I no fan of Thunberg, but her take down of Tate was epic. It was perfect.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
15 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Yes. We are all willing victims of these types of articles, which are much ado about nothing.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
17 days ago

I have Asperger’s (diagnosed at 22 yrs old). Bit of an oddball, being a female like Greta (most Aspies are male). Life isn’t always easy but I’m trying my best. It’s difficult being right-wing and conservative, because on one hand, the therapists and doctors who cover autism are very progressive. However, some right-wing spaces talk about autistic men, but not autistic women. This doesn’t offend or even upset me. It’s really just my insecurities, at the end of the day. Gosh, socializing is really an uphill battle!
I sometimes make a joke about autism uniting Stormfront and Tumblr. Offensive, I know, but autism lives in surprising places.

AL Crowe
AL Crowe
17 days ago

The idea that we are mostly male is incorrect, and in recent years a lot of research has focussed on why those who are female and autistic were less likely to be diagnosed. The actual distribution between males and females is steadily balancing out at this point, with huge numbers of adult women getting late diagnoses in the last decade. I was diagnosed at 21, and whilst the average age of diagnosis for women is still higher than that for men, girls are now getting diagnosed much earlier than they used to be.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
15 days ago
Reply to  AL Crowe

Aren’t we all getting diagnosed much earlier, and more frequently, than we used to be? And isn’t that point in a pharmaceutical industrial complex?

Laura Kelly
Laura Kelly
13 days ago
Reply to  AL Crowe

I wasn’t diagnosed until my 40’s and I had to bring my mom to the appointments! This was over 20 years ago. I’m glad things are changing–life is, well, confusing for autistic women. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out why we’re so different while the boys just forge ahead with the Ancient Greek or the train schedules or whatnot.

Last edited 13 days ago by Laura Kelly
Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
18 days ago

Intellectual disabilities, neurodivergence, etc. have become caught up (like everything else) in the Culture Wars. Blue corner: right-wingers, speaking up for those with Down Syndrome. Red corner: left-wingers, speaking up for those with Autism.

Ash Bishop
Ash Bishop
18 days ago

Someone needs to speak up for them outside of either wing of the culture war. Never forget that GP’s were asking both Down syndrome and autistic children to sign DNR orders during the pandemic to “save the NHS”. Another foul and overlooked outcome of our lockdown response. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/12/26/children-learning-disabilities-offered-do-not-resuscitate-orders/

Last edited 18 days ago by Ash Bishop
Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
18 days ago
Reply to  Ash Bishop

Despicable. Eugenics by the back door.

AL Crowe
AL Crowe
17 days ago

To be truthful, neither side of politics gives a damn about the individuals who have autism, we are quite simply a political tool to be picked up and discarded as and when it is convenient.

The left chose us as their preferred guinea pigs in recent years, they’ve inflicted linguistic engineering on us, transitioned autistic teens rather than properly supported them through puberty, and now they have shoved us under the patronising umbrella of neurodiversity so that they can appropriate ever more kinds of disability for their political battles.

The right only care for how we can be used against the left to be perfectly honest, they don’t view us as individuals with the same value as anyone else any more than the left does, neither side has any real answers for actual issues that make a tangible difference to our life outcomes. In the 13 years since the Autism Act was introduced, there has been no improvement whatsoever in employment prospects, only around 1 in 5 of those of us who are high functioning (a term the progressive left want to do away with because they think it is wrong to differentiate between someone like me, who lives independently, is highly educated and well able to communicate my needs, and someone who cannot walk, talk, or feed themselves) ever have a stable job.

Most of us, even the highly educated, will move from job to job, and have doors shut in our faces, with well meaning people deciding that we won’t cope, that we can’t do x, y and z, all based on the nonsense spewed by politicians and a medical community that has an understanding of autism that is often 20-30 years out of date.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
17 days ago
Reply to  AL Crowe

To be truthful, neither side of politics gives a damn about the individuals who have autism, we are quite simply a political tool to be picked up and discarded as and when it is convenient.

I think this is right, and it is a damning indictment of culture and politics in the Western world right now.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
15 days ago
Reply to  AL Crowe

…”neither side has any real answers for actual issues that make a tangible difference to our life outcomes.”
Best line ever. And why we each need to live our lives and ignore all the BS thrown at us.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago

The left wing autistic types are more visible simply because the left uses the language of victimization and practices political victimization to sway voters. It’s identity politics 101. Take a group, any group, identify them as a minority, find some anecdotal tragedies to generate sympathy, muddy the waters with fuzzy cherry picked statistics, then demonize anyone that dares to disagree as a heartless, racist, sexist, or whatever-ist bigot. It works for autism as well as anything else. People on the left listen to ‘minorities’ and other victim groups out of their nonsensical notion of ‘social justice’, so anyone who wants to get left wingers to listen goes out of the way to point out which of the many victim groups to which they belong as a perverse way of establishing credibility with their peers. The right doesn’t pander to that sort of nonsense to the same extent. Mental illness is, on the right, more often considered a good reason not to listen to somebody’s ideas, and it certainly isn’t a reason to take that somebody more seriously. So, if people on the right want attention they have to actually do something worthy of attention, and shooting up a school or blowing up a building is the low hanging fruit on the attention grabbing tree, hence the number of disturbed right wing loonies committing crimes.

AL Crowe
AL Crowe
17 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

As I’ve said in another comment, the left has latched on to autism for their linguistic and social engineering experiments in recent years, which has actually made things worse with many of those on the spectrum.

For example, they decided that saying autistic person was somehow wrong, so demanded that everyone say person with autism instead, and claimed that would lead to better understanding and better life prospects for those on the spectrum, in reality, it just started what is still an ongoing battle between different individuals on the spectrum, split down the middle in terms of their personal preferences for how to refer to themselves and their condition, who believe that those who prefer the alternative are victimising them.

It’s become nearly as bad as the whole MMR flame wars that anyone like me who moderates large ASD forums are constantly having to manage. Adding to this is also the trans issue, with as many being vehemently against transitioning teens on the spectrum as there are those determined to transition anyone who has the slightest anxiety about puberty, biology and sex. These are all things that were minor concerns until political interventions occurred.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
17 days ago
Reply to  AL Crowe

Your comments in this thread are terrific. I particularly enjoy your depiction of autism without the usual polemics found in contemporary culture.
We do not live to fit into neat political boxes, usually archived but rolled out when an ideological point is made.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
17 days ago
Reply to  AL Crowe

I was unaware of most of this. Thanks for educating me. Can’t say I’m surprised though. Politicizing an issue usually makes things worse rather than better. Politiicians and media do it for votes and for profits, not out of genuine concern for the people. Getting people angry at each other is, after all, a great way to distract them while you rob them blind.

j watson
j watson
17 days ago

Autism is a spectrum from mild to v acute and highly disabled needing lifetime care. We are still in the neuroscience foothills of understanding. I think an article referring to it should reference this, or how the ICD international classification has developed and evolved overtime as the science and understanding has developed. The general theme about stop chucking it around willy-nilly in an ignorant uninformed way totally concur with. Those who do just show themselves up.

AL Crowe
AL Crowe
17 days ago
Reply to  j watson

It would not be hard for the writer of this article, or others like it, to simply talk to the many openly autistic individuals who are on the internet, actual autism advocates, etc, but as per usual, autism is simply a theme for people to latch onto to promote their own political ideas with little understanding of the topic.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
16 days ago

This is all becoming terribly boring now. There is no “war” This is not a “front”. We are talking about a small group of sad, angry leftist inadequates who constantly profess to be deeply offended, as a form of attention-seeking.

More and more, I find myself saying to people that I simply don’t care. In this country we need to say more often that we don’t give a damn for peoples “hurt feelings”.

Let them pout, unnoticed

Douglas H
Douglas H
16 days ago

For once, a nuanced, balanced and unemotional discussion thread on UnHerd. No disrespect to the article’s author, but the comments are more enlightening than the original article.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
15 days ago

Can it be said that the traits of autism, like so many other well-known conditions these days, are easily adopted and perhaps even used cynically by individuals desiring attention? If so, could one surmise that some progressives are displaying autism in order to gain sympathy for their causes?

Peter Stephenson
Peter Stephenson
15 days ago

I think I have a good feeling for some aspects of autism, as there is life-determining autism in my immediate family. Perhaps I should say it is life-limiting autism but I don’t see my child in that way at all. That said, part of what people informally call “the spectrum” involves an attachment to a limiting, literal form of awareness. This is not merely expressed through accuracy in use of words. It also manifests as a focus upon things in a fixed way, as if metaphor and romantic irony – the finger pointing to what cannot be expressed – are both out of the question. These tendencies are similar to, and possibly implicitly found within, an inner life dominated by connections between ideas which are characterised by what people nowadays call “reason”, or by purely definitional meanings which are brought together as if they are beads on a string. The left, to make a bit of a jump, takes a political and social stance which promulgates a programme for long term improvements based upon strenuously thought out plans derived from fixed judgements. Conservatives, on the other hand, and I mean the real ones and not economic liberals, have no irrefragable point of departure, and they take part in no crusades. They are empiricists who see themselves as embedded within a web of life which unfolds in response to choice on one hand and some mix of destiny and chance on the other. Their position cannot be referred to any kind of foundationalism, as the liberal approach seems to be, with its attempt to perfect humanity through the exertion of human faculties. As social and bureaucratic life becomes more about checking and avoiding uncontrollable change, the body politic begins to suffer from a kind of autism, and not in some kind of neutral way but in a deleterious way. Obsessive checking is a kind of life limitation. Individuals and societies are both prone to it. It is an excess of intellectualism which cannot experience or acknowledge the being within ourselves as it goes about its implicit and inexpressible acts of being, but is attached to the results of being and its explicit products, as if explicated thoughts were more precious than thinking. Lefties are intellectuals. Conservatives are happier for not labouring under the impression that there is some foundational truth from which irrefragable conclusions can be drawn, in order to tidy up the messy business of life.

Last edited 15 days ago by Peter Stephenson