Neurodiversity vs Aspie Supremacy: The Differences

[Image Description: a multicoloured drawing of a brain]

Neurodiversity and Aspie Supremacy are two different ideologies in the discussion of how to view autism (and, in the case of the former, other neurodivergent conditions). Their fundamental principles conflict with each other, and thus it is impossible to genuinely support both ideologies; though supporters of one may claim to support the other as a way to gain legitimacy for their views. Here, I will describe both ideologies and their differences, as a way of countering claims that they overlap.

The neurodiversity paradigm is a way of viewing conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and others as natural variations of the human brain, rather than ‘diseases’ to be cured. Neurodiversity applies not only to autism, but other conditions also, however I will focus on autism here as Aspie Supremacy is an autism-specific ideology. Supporters of neurodiversity believe all brain types are valid and deserving of rights and respect, including the neurotypical majority.

Aspie Supremacy is an ideology that claims those with Asperger’s Syndrome or ‘high-functioning autism’ are superior to those with other brain types, or in some cases are the next stage in human evolution. They tend to view neurotypical people and autistic people with higher support needs or non-speaking autistic people as ‘lesser’ or less intelligent. Aspie Supremacists tend to place emphasis on IQ as a marker of worthiness. Think Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory & his claims of being ‘more evolved’.

One of the fundamental principles of neurodiversity is that everyone is equal and deserves equal rights regardless of the structure of their brains. One of the fundamental principles of Aspie supremacy is that some people’s brains are naturally ‘better’ than others. These two statements cannot both be believed by the same person. Due to the connotations associated with the term ‘supremacy’, however, Aspie supremacists will often claim to be supporters of neurodiversity to make their views sound more palatable.

Allegations that neurodiversity advocates “hate neurotypicals” are widespread, but are not true. Jokes about the majority are not ‘hatred’ and are jokes. There is no systematic discrimination against neurotypicals, they are the privileged group when compared with neurodivergent people. Thus, jokes are not indicative of hatred, and are not meant seriously. There are, however, some (but not even all) Aspie supremacists who do look down on neurotypical people, which is likely where the allegation comes from.

The term “Asperger’s Syndrome” itself is contentions within the neurodiversity movement. The term no longer exists within the DSM-5, and will not be in the ICD-11. It is seen as an outdated diagnostic term for autism without a speech delay, and prior to the changing of the diagnostic criteria, there was evidence to show that it was dependent on the clinician if one would be diagnosed with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism. There are also the allegations that Hans Asperger, who the diagnosis was named after, was a Nazi collaborator, thus the term is extremely controversial among neurodiversity-supporting groups.

Aspie Supremacists do not support autistic people with higher support needs, non-speaking autistic people, or autistic people with co-occurring learning or intellectual disabilities. This is another criticism levelled at neurodiversity advocates, which better applies to the Aspie supremacist group. While Aspie supremacists view IQ as indicative of worth, supporters of neurodiversity are often against the notion of IQ, as it measures only a very limited definition of ‘intelligence’. Neurodiversity also includes, and advocates for the rights of, people who would not be deemed ‘high-functioning’ by society.

These are not the only two ideologies in the realm of autism politics. There are also the ‘neurorealists’, aka the ‘Autistic Dark Web’ (self-styled) who are a group of autistic individuals online who support a cure for autism; the ‘curebies’, a term for those who support a biomedical cure for autism; the behaviourists, who support ABA and other behaviourist therapies to ‘correct’ autistic behaviours. That’s not to mention the anti-vaxxers, institutionalists who want to just lock us up, and other assorted pseudoscience peddlers.

Autism politics is a confusing realm that, once stumbled into, it is hard to find your way out. There are many different factions, ideologies and beliefs – and that’s not even touching on the internal infighting that is natural in all politics. Neurodiversity and Aspie Supremacy are only two strands of this complicated picture. Yet, they are often confused with each other or conflated in a way that is damaging for supporters of neurodiversity, and so it is important to point out their differences, so we can move forward and create a neurodiverse society that values all neurotypes.

Glossary

ABA: Applied Behaviour Analysis, controversial therapy that has been likened to torture and conversion therapy
Asperger’s Syndrome: former diagnostic term for autism without a speech delay
Aspie: short for Asperger’s Syndrome, used by those diagnosed with the condition
Autistic Dark Web: internet-based group of cure-supporting autistic people
Curebie: term for supporters of a cure for autism
DSM-5: Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition: a US-based collection of diagnostic criteria for mental conditions.
High-Functioning: autistic people with less support needs; functioning labels are disliked by the autistic community
ICD-11: The eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases, still being rolled out to replace the ICD-10.
Neurodivergent: people with minority brain types; with brain conditions
Neurodiverse: an adjective to describe a group of people with multiple brain types
Neurodiversity: a worldview that says there are many natural varying brain types
Neurotype: term for all types of brain, both neurotypical and neurodivergent.
Neurotypical: a person with the majority brain type, with no brain conditions
Neurorealist: a supporter of an ideology that claims some brain types are less desirable than others.

Self-Doubt, Autistic Masking & Vulnerability to Gaslighting

[Image Description: a white child with short dark hair balancing along a wooden beam surrounded by grass.]

Autistic children whose autism is identified early are taught to ‘mask’ their autism, hide it and act neurotypical. Subjecting a child to ABA is one way to do this, but there are many more less overtly torturous ways to encourage an autistic kid to hide their true self. This can be exhausting, and often fails, which is where much of the myth of functioning labels comes in – non-autistics believe that those who do not mask well are “lower functioning”. Autistic people who learn to mask early are often missed and not diagnosed.

Masking has consequences. Exhaustion, burnout, poor mental health… prolonged masking usually leads to all of these. Lack of diagnosis of autistic people who are good at masking from a young age is another. And a third is increased self-doubt; a lack of clarity about who one really is. This in itself has a third item in the chain of cause and effect: it increases the vulnerability of the person in question to gaslighting. After all, if you’re taught everything about you is wrong, such messages seep through more easily later.

In high school, I put a lot of effort into masking. I wasn’t very good at it, you can see that by the fact I managed to actually be diagnosed as a child. Yet I desperately tried, using a variety of techniques because I believed that was the only way I’d ever be accepted in society, and that was the only way I could survive. I bought teen magazines and tried to transform myself into a stereotype that didn’t fit. And when I failed, I’d construct yet another fake me from various sources.

By the time I left school, I had no idea who I really was. I could switch between four or five separate versions of me depending on where I was and who I was with, but I couldn’t tell which of these was genuine – or even if any of them were. I had to try desperately to rediscover who I was, and this led to a lot of intense soul-searching. I don’t think I ever found out who I was before I chose to mask heavily. I’m a different person now, disconnected in the middle by falsehoods.

A lack of knowledge of who one is also leads to doubting every word that comes out of one’s mouth (or, indeed, is typed). Every statement I made would be analysed, indeed over-analysed, until I no longer had faith in my own beliefs. Gaslighting, attempting to sow the seeds of doubt in someone’s mind until they can no longer trust their own judgement, only adds to this problem. I basically gaslight myself automatically as a result of years of being told my natural self is wrong and broken.

It makes it hard to engage in debate, especially online, given how often gaslighting is employed as a technique in online debates. It makes it hard to have close relationships, because I was vulnerable to it, and now I’m so scared of it that I just assume everyone may be trying to gaslight me, and I cannot believe a word anyone says. I am no longer emotionally capable of trusting anyone fully. I don’t know if I’ll ever regain the ability. Masking has led to permanent psychological scars.

This is why autism acceptance is needed, not just autism awareness. I am trying to trust myself again, and trust in what I believe and see with my own eyes. Trying to find the right balance between trusting myself and examining new evidence is hard, almost impossible. I’m still trying. Encouraging masking encourages self-doubt, and causes a vulnerability to gaslighting we have seen online. Autistic people who have gone through this chain of cause and effect may be more likely to be radicalised by dangerous groups online, especially when these groups praise them in ways those in their lives may not have done.

Masking can be dangerous, for more reasons than one. By encouraging autistic people to mask at all times, and at any cost, society is creating a population of autistic people who have poor mental health and are more likely to join extremist groups. This is a more likely explanation for some far-right shooters in the US having an autism diagnosis. Not autistic people being naturally violent, or lacking empathy. But autistic people are taught to doubt ourselves, and this can lead down a very dangerous path, when someone else decides to place their ideas where our own convictions have failed.

What is ABA, and why should it be banned?

[Image Description: a red “no” symbol over the letters ABA made out of puzzle pieces.]

CW: ABA, torture, conversion therapy.

There is a popular ‘therapy’ for autism called Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). It is despised by the autistic community and by all who support the neurodiversity paradigm. It was invented by a horrible man called Ivar Lovaas, and hundreds of autistic people across the globe are sadly subjected to it on a daily basis. ABA has traumatised many autistic people since its invention, yet most people do not know what it is.

Ivar Lovaas is often called the father of ABA, and lauded by Board Certified Behaviour Analysts (BCBAs) for his work in developing behaviour analysis. What BCBAs would rather you didn’t mention, however, is that Lovaas is also the father of gay conversion therapy; and that both ‘therapies’ are developed upon the exact same principles. He was involved in the “feminine boy project” in the 70s, at the same time as he was developing ABA.

ABA is designed to change the behaviour of autistic people through a system of rewards and punishments which discourage the behaviour the therapist deems undesirable and encourage behaviour they wish to see. This includes discouraging autistic people from stimming, a way we self-regulate our emotions, and encouraging extensive eye contact in order to gain rewards or escape punishment.

The behaviours deemed desirable are not those which are objectively helpful to the person being subjected to the therapy. They are the behaviours which society deems acceptable, even if they hurt the autistic person. ABA is not about helping autistic people, it is about encouraging those who are different to conform to societal expectations. In other words, it is about converting someone from behaving autistic to behaving neurotypical.

There have been studies suggesting that autistic people subjected to ABA can develop PTSD as a result of their treatment. Instead of improving the quality of life for the autistic person subjected to the therapy, instead it can traumatise them for life. There is a post on tumblr which is what finally helped me understand just how horrendous this is. Applied Behaviour Analysis is torture; to the point where I once wrote fiction involving a torture regime which used solely techniques I’d discovered in articles about ABA.

Autistic people have been speaking out against ABA for years, so the BCBAs and the ABA lobby are getting clever. They’re rebranding ABA as a number of other therapies, such as Positive Behaviour Support (PBS). But PBS (which is recommended by the NHS) and these other therapies are based on the same principles, and have the same goals. They are not about helping autistic people, but about making us more palatable to the neurotypical eye.

Applied Behaviour Analysis is autistic conversion therapy, in the simplest terms. It is a trauma-inducing, torturous so-called therapy that harms autistic people in the name of enforcing conformity. ABA is flawed in both its aims and its execution, and can’t be reformed. It must be banned, just as conversion therapy needs to be banned, to protect the autistic community and to embrace neurodiversity.

On Harmful Autism Professionals in the Public Sphere

Image Description: photographs of Tony Attwood and Simon Baron Cohen behind gold text reading “nothing about us without us”.

There are many professionals in the field of autism whose work is actively harmful to autistic people. This includes ABA therapists and those researching a cure, but thankfully most of these people never make it into the media or the public sphere of influence. Unfortunately, a few rare autism researchers have gained fame on the backs of harmful, inaccurate theories around autism, its causes and whether it should be “cured”.

In this, I will focus on two men whose theories on autism have caused untold damage to autistic people across the globe. These are: Simon Baron-Cohen and Tony Attwood. The damage each of these men has done has been different, but they have both caused harm to my community, and are still respected figures in the field of psychology. In light of attempts by Baron-Cohen to gain support among autistic people, it is especially important that the harm he has done is addressed.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen is a British psychologist based at the University of Cambridge. His main field of study is autism, and throughout his career he has devised a number of theories relating to autism and published books on these. These theories include the mind-blindness theory and the empathising-systemising theory (known also as the extreme male brain theory or foetal sex steroid theory). He has published a number of books on autism, including Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind; and The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain and this year, The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention.

The mind-blindness theory argues that autistic people have no theory of mind, which means that autistic people are incapable of empathy or of understanding that other people have different thoughts and beliefs to them. There are countless examples which show that this is most certainly not true of all autistic people, however due to Baron-Cohen, this has become a commonly held belief. This is hugely damaging, as it presents autistic people as unfeeling monsters and can cause people to be wary of us.

Aside from the damage the extreme male brain theory has caused to autistic people, including furthering the beliefs that cause women and girls to be underdiagnosed and diagnosed much later than male peers; this theory is also greatly harmful to all. It reinforces gendered stereotypes that men are unfeeling and logical, and that women are emotional and lack systemic thought. It is also a harmful theory to trans people, especially non-binary people who fit into neither category.

Baron-Cohen has in recent years appeared to change his views, and has begun advocating the neurodiversity paradigm in some situations. This is, on the surface, a welcome change, however digging deeper, there are signs this may not be an entirely accurate representation of his present views and research. His recent book appears to be a different take on autism from his past publications, but are they really all in the past?

He continues to promote his older books which contain damaging, debunked theories of autism, extending the harm he is doing to the autistic community for longer. You can see this on his website and in his twitter bio. His research into the extreme male brain theory has continued, and he intends to present about it on a webinar four days in the future from the time of writing. These are not the acts of someone who no longer believes old theories.

Tony Attwood

Tony Attwood is based at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia and specialises in Asperger’s Syndrome. He is best-known for a number of books on Asperger’s Syndrome including The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome which was my own father’s go-to guide for responding to my behaviour when I was a young teen. He faced backlash from the autistic and trans communities in June 2020 for calling for an inquiry into the alleged “overrepresentation” of autistic teens in gender identity clinic.

The titles of Attwood’s books do not clearly demonstrate how they cause harm, but the harm is nonetheless there. Firstly, take the use of the term Asperger’s Syndrome. This was for years a separate diagnosis to autism, though new diagnostic manuals such as the DSM-V and ICD-11 have merged the diagnoses into Autism Spectrum Disorder. Asperger’s is considered to be synonyms with high-functioning. Functioning labels are harmful to autistic people, though this goes beyond the scope here.

Attwood continues to use the term Asperger’s despite the harm of functioning labels, and despite the knowledge that Hans Asperger was a Nazi collaborator which has led to many people, even those whose diagnosis was Asperger’s Syndrome, preferring to refrain from using the name. The continued use of this term in research despite the decision not to include it as a separate diagnosis in new manuals continues to spread the belief that Asperger’s is separate from autism even though research has indicated otherwise.

Attwood has also come under criticism for being sexist as well as transphobic. In his book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, he states that autistic boys may feel that only female people accept them and thus this may lead to gender-identity problems. He also believes that autistic girls prefer to be friends with boys as boys are less complicated and more logical than girls. These two claims alongside his anti-trans calls for investigating the link between autism and being trans are proof of his views on gender.

Dishonourable mention: Andrew Wakefield

Andrew Wakefield was the doctor who first published the alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He is not a main feature in this because he has been discredited by the mainstream, however he deserves a mention as his harm is ongoing in some circles thanks to the spreading anti-vaccination movement, which has led to a decrease in the uptake of vaccines in several countries.

His harm is twofold: one, children of anti-vax parents are now not protected from various dangerous diseases and have reduced herd immunity (in the proper meaning of the word) for those who are unable to get the vaccine for health reasons. Two, it has the implication that autism is a fate worse than dying of a deadly disease. I do not need to state why that is a harmful implication to autistic people.

Reducing their harm

Unfortunately, as long as people continue to spread damaging theories about autism, harm will be done to autistic people. Harm-reduction is therefore important, and there are a number of things that can be done here. Firstly, attempting to reduce the spread of the harmful theories: if you own a bookstore and happen to be reading this, please don’t stock the harmful books listed here. Second, continue to debunk the theories so that those who read the initial theory can find a counterargument. Third, try and change the minds of those spreading the theories.

Simon Baron-Cohen has been trying to gain support in the autistic community; make it clear to him that this support will not be forthcoming without apologies, retractions and a promise to stop spreading harmful theories further. Tony Attwood is a bit of a lost cause in my opinion, so don’t give him a platform. Andrew Wakefield is still on a mission to destroy public health, so fighting back against the anti-vaccination movement and preventing it from spreading further is the only option.

Autistic people will not be safe until there is a shift in public opinion towards autism acceptance and away from the rhetoric that we are broken and need to be cured and fixed. The autistic rights movement will continue to fight until ABA is banned, until we are no longer often locked in institutions, until people do not seek to rid the world of us. We exist, we deserve to exist, and people need to accept that.