rehabilitated agencement / autistic reactionism
The increase in autism diagnoses coupled with the remaining ambiguity over the condition’s etiology has left the field vulnerable to misinformation, flawed and/or fraudulent studies and conspiracy theories. The most notorious of these is the theory that autism is linked to the use of the MMR vaccine. Despite current scientific research indicating a genetic link to autism, the discrediting of the original study, and Andrew Wakefield’s license being revoked, the theory persists in the public eye due to vocal parent groups, physicians and scientists along with unsubstantiated media reports and even litigation sponsored by some advocacy groups. Prominent celebrities and autism charities, including the Autism Research Institute, Defeat Autism Now!, Cure Autism Now, Autism Speaks and SafeMinds have also received criticism for taking supportive or equivocal stances towards the theory, with some suffering resignations from opposing staff members as a result (Mnookin).
It is also apparent that the vaccine theory has benefitted from the increasing scale of the world-wide web. Misinformation benefits from the ability to form social circles on any topic with accompanying selective media habits that best serve their worldview. “Selective exposure to content is the primary driver of content diffusion and generates the formation of homogeneous clusters, i.e., ‘echo chambers’. Indeed, homogeneity appears to be the primary driver for the diffusion of contents and each echo chamber has its own cascade dynamics” (Del Vacario et al). A study of online misinformation networks found that fact-checking becomes less prominent towards the core of the network, falling commensurately with increasingly dense connections between users.
Anti-vaccination support on the internet is reliant on scientific-sounding arguments and the endorsement of certified physicians and celebrities. The community is most prominent on YouTube, although it is difficult to analyse reception as some videos opt to disable likes, dislikes and comments. A content analysis of nearly 500 anti-vaccine websites found that persuasiveness was based on manipulating parents’ latitude of acceptance on theories related to an understudied condition, and on inoculation theory, which attempts to ensure loyalty by immediately discrediting the counter-position (usually with weakened or inaccurate depictions of the opposing side’s position), thus “inoculating” the audience from opposing arguments.
Like Autism Speaks, it is apparent that search engine optimisation is a common tactic used by anti-vaccine activists. For example, Star Trek actor William Shatner used the preponderance of anti-vaccine propaganda on the first few pages of search results as rationale for his support of Autism Speaks.
Anti-vaccine websites are mostly independent, though some have been given titles like National Vaccine Information Centerand National Autism Association that give the impression of being governmental or authoritative. Along with reproducing anti-vaccine claims, these websites promote other spurious treatments, including expensive supplements and so-called “magic stones”, as well as an Amazon Smile program. The movement also includes medical professionals who claim to be concerned over vaccines’ safety, including the Oregon-based paediatrician Dr. Paul Thomas, an author of anti-vaccine literature and a YouTube personality who posts regular recordings from his clinic along with a playlist of vaccine scaremongering.
Anti-vaccination also receives support from the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his site Info Wars: “Many historians say the lead poisoning of the citizens of Rome exacerbated its downfall. Today, vaccines are strongly contributing to the same sort of downfall of modern civilisation”. The movement relies on emotional language related to the pathology of autism in order to make an impact, for example referring to the rise in autism diagnoses as an “epidemic”. Although there is no evidence to support the existence of an epidemic of autism as defined by the medical field, the term has been echoed by Info Wars, SafeMinds, actor Jim Carrey, U.S. Presidential Candidate Jill Stein and U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration is criticised (among other things) for its ambivalence and hostility towards the disabled. Vaccine misinformation has already been linked to a decrease in vaccinations in the United States, and a measles outbreak in Europe reported in August 2018.
Kerri Rivera, a prominent proponent of MMS and author of Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism, says: “Almost all of the people with autism have high levels of pathogens; virus, bacteria, parasites and heavy metals. Chlorine dioxide kills pathogens and helps the body to detoxify itself. It is considered safe at doses we use for weight.” She adds: “There are over 225 people who no longer have autism after using it.” The Guardian
Emerging as an after-shock following years of the vaccine conspiracy theory, websites advertising and selling dangerous “cures” for autism rose to enough prominence to garner mainstream coverage and political responses. Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) gained word-of-mouth recognition in online support groups for parents of autistic children, leading to alarming reports of vulnerable, well-meaning parents force- feeding industrial-strength bleach to their children. Such treatments typically tout the common occurrence of gut problems in autistic people, thought to be the result of regulatory issues but blamed in these instances on ‘poisoning’.
Where vaccine theory proposes an opt-out argument (that’s no less dangerous), the sellers of fake cures encourage and directly profit from active harm towards a minority group, profiting off online misinformation techniques even when the information is easily debunked. The use of bleach as the central object in this case also presents an unsettling parallel with the “Bleach Drinking” meme, most popular on 4chan and similar sites in 2016, the same year the bleach treatment advertisements were first reported and weaponised autism made significant inroads in the reactionary far-right.
Other controversial cures of negligible worth include chelation and lupron (which involve the use of drugs intended for vastly different conditions like prostate cancer and fibroids), vibroacoustic therapy (the use of particular frequencies to calm or motivate children), holding therapy (wherein the autistic patient is held down forcibly to ensure eye contact) and Facilitated Communication (FC) or “supported typing”. FC involves a facilitator touching a disabled person’s arm to encourage the use of a keyboard. Introduced in the late 20th century, it was almost immediately discredited after a series of controversies involving facilitator misconduct. The animal-rights group PETA have also claimed a link between cow’s milk and autism and have advocated for a vegan diet in its stead, prompting immediate backlash.
“Although the deficits of a man with AS become painfully clear in time, they often present as normal in the beginning of a relationship. Men with Asperger’s may not disclose their disorder to you. Some purposely try to hide it. They are unable to understand that it will cause significant problems for you and for the relationship, so they see no reason to tell you. There are many classes, coaching programs and websites that offer training to help them act like a neurotypical (NT, or “normal”) man. Many study the words and behavior of NT people around them, and copy it. They learn exactly what they should do and say in a romantic relationship, since none of it comes naturally to them. It’s an act, one they feel they must put on to win you. No one can keep up an act forever.”“HOW TO SPOT ASPERGER’S SYNDROME.” Heartless Aspergers, 9 Feb. 2016
A considerable amount of autistic children rely on prompts provided by adults to stay on-task, complete activities and effectively transition between different activities at home and school. Prompt dependency is thought to continue into adulthood, potentially affecting intimate relationships. Under a media studies perspective, prompt dependency overlaps with theories of mediated sense perception, particularly McLuhan’s conception of televisual images as “tactile promptings” that elicit reaction from viewers.
Mindblindness and theory of mind are two of the most common frameworks used to understand living as an autistic person. It has supplanted previous problematic metaphors for the autistic experience, including the perception of autists as alien or people whose “real” selves are trapped by autism. Theory of mind is the process by which an individual interprets the actions of another by ascribing unto them the same thought processes. Mindblindness was coined in the early 1990s by Simon Baron-Cohen to describe what he described as the central cognitive deficit of autism: the inability to attribute and interpret mental states in others.
The mindblindness metaphor has been criticised for misappropriating philosophical thought in a psychopathology context, its misleading take on reciprocity in conversation, and for encouraging a rhetoric of scientific tragedy where autistic people are explained and mourned simultaneously by the projections of their observers. Furthermore, the term mindblindness itself has been criticised for its negative connotations, and its role in the misperception the condition is linked to a lack of empathy.
Perception of the autistic individual as unmotivated or incapable of responding to prompts in a romantic relationship is used a scapegoat for websites that argue autistic men are incapable of love and are to be avoided. Mindblindness is used as the primary source on “The Truth About Aspergers”, one of a loose network of website encouraging the separation of autistic men from their partners and children. Baron-Cohen is not personally involved in the spread of this misinformation and is a supporter of neurodiversity despite ambivalence towards his work by autistic activists.
These websites are targeted towards romantic partners of autistic men, typically with voluminous misinformation alleging that autistic partners are inherently untrustworthy. The site’s blogroll includes links to several other sites alleging links between autism and domestic violence, murder and sexual abuse, although in some cases the linked pages directly contradict the site’s agenda.The negativity of these sites often goes so over-the-top that it resembles trolling more than misinformation: Asperger Partner’s “tips for NT spouses” include “Realise: it does not get better” amid claims that leaving said partner is the only logical option. The comment section of an article on the same issue repeats similar stories in an almost copy-and-paste manner, along with attacks on commenters who critique the article and claim to be autistic.
The disturbing implications of this viewpoint — seemingly relegated to a few small social groups online — can be seen in the autism-parent memoir To Siri, With Love and the admission by the author that she’s considered securing medical power of attorney over her autistic son so he can be involuntarily sterilised. Furthermore, Newman’s book was decried as ‘neurodiversity lite’ — the use of language typically associated with the autistic community in work that contradicts its core concepts, arguably allowing powerful groups to ‘effectively disguise ableist stereotypes and harmful practices for audiences that aren’t aware of or attuned to them’.
The Autistic Dark Web
Some of neurodiversity’s most active opponents claim an autism diagnosis themselves — and use many of the same tools. The Autism Wikia site categorises these individuals alongside prominent anti-vaccine activists and Autism Speaks under “Autistic Enemies”, highlighting the high emotional stakes in the debate as well as the charge made against the neurodiversity movement of intolerance towards those who do not wish to celebrate their autism.
The most prominent of these figures is Jonathan Mitchell, an American blogger who writes on the negative consequences autism has had on his life, career and romantic relationships. Mitchell’s colleagues include Oliver Canby, who has kept a relatively low profile since his last blog post in 2015 outside of sending death threats to various neurodiversity supporters. Canby’s entry into the neurodiversity debate was inspired by the rants of John Best Jr., a conspiracy theorist and author of the blogs Autism Fraud and Hating Autism which claims that the condition was concocted by the government to enforce civilian compliance. Canby and Best’s conduct received heavily detailed responses from the sites “Lock Oliver Canby Up” and “John Best Jr: Jackass” which reproduce the hateful messages that Canby has since deleted.
Over the course of May and June 2018, the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter increased its rate of activity. Autistics who disagree with neurodiversity in turn co-opted the hashtag to debate others. Spurred by the moment, the #AutisticDarkWeb was formed as a ‘safe space’ for pro-cure autistics. As the name suggests, the board’s opposition to identity politics and ‘victimhood’ and promotion of personal responsibility is influenced by the #IntellectualDarkWeb, a collection of self-styled academic renegades whose ranks include Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. The Autistic Dark Web is made up of autistics who advocate for a cure, and protest against the perceived demonisation of parents and medical professionals. The Twitter page Autistics Against Hate (@AutisticsH) was started the month of this thesis’ completion as an extension of the Autistic Dark Web. The feed consists of retweets of autistic people promoting neurodiversity, with the goal (stated in the bio) to “expose hatred against parents, doctors, scientists, neurotypicals & internal dissidents”.
The AutisticDarkWeb has already received support from the charity Treating Autism, who regularly retweet and reply to accounts who claim to have founded the counter-movement. The charity has also retweeted parents accusing neurodiversity proponents of faking their autism. The #ActuallyAutistic hashtag has not been overwhelmed (many opting to not feed the trolls), however there is concern raised over the DarkWeb’s use of intimidation tactics, dog-whistling retweets, and appeals to outside organisations.
Aesthetic Nervousness was coined by Ato Quayson to describe literary presentations of disability, drawing from postcolonial literary theory. Quayson argues that popular representations of disability reflect society’s “subliminal fear and moral panic” in encounters between the disabled and non-disabled. Disabled characters serve to remind the temporarily non-disabled of the capriciousness of their own health and to trigger an affective response in turn. The text then explains that this tension is revealed through a series of aesthetic crises that undermine the humanity of the disabled.
In an article lamenting the ease with which YouTube algorithms and generative animation can be exploited, the artist James Bridle declared his discomfort with the (at-times horrifying) videos masquerading as safe children’s entertainment, using accessible video platforms to “systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale”. Autistic people, much more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, are themselves the targets of algorithmic fuzziness that play into the hands of misinformation campaigns — most notably the multifaceted anti-vaccine movement, which catastrophises the autistic mind and body for pseudoscience, and the promotion of dangerous “cures” among the online parent groups that are typically lionised by mainstream media.
Mindblindness is considered to be the key issue in criminal cases involving offenders with autism, either informing the views of prosecutors or instrumentalised by the defence as mistake in fact, failure of proof or diminished capacity. A 2007 study from a religious perspective took this to a logical end of sorts by considering mindblindness as a central characteristic of evil. Just as the alt-right’s co-optation of ‘weaponised autism’ can arguably be understood as an attempt to re-affirm negative attitudes towards autism, the #AutisticDarkWeb represents an internal schism in autistic identity, one that disregards the neurodiversity paradigm, adapting tactics from troll culture and the alt-right to sanctify the medical model and redefine autism as an ideological struggle over supposed hegemonies of pathology and difference.
Further, as McGuire & Michalko point out, under Foucault’s conception of knowledge and power dynamics rendering autism inscrutable creates a feedback loop where the basis of autism’s unknowability implies that only non-autistic professionals can hope to demonstrate its nuances. This engenders a power relation where the researcher’s actions “have nothing to do with desiring to have the mystery of autism in our collective life; instead, the only interest in these pieces is to remove autism, mysterious or not, from collective and individual life”. Such stereotypes can influence even relatively innocuous assessments that misappropriate autism as a metaphor, such as a 2011 paper that described the unusual writing style of Gertrude Stein as “an autistic ethos of modernism”, where autism is described merely as the presence of overwhelming solipsism or Simon Reynolds’ repeated characterisation of 90s rave culture as autistic, his rationale not being much more than the fact that the music was pretty weird.
As a disorganised niche within a niche, it is doubtful that the characters covered in this section will reach the public prominence of the Jordan Petersons and Info Wars of the world. However, they are worth assessing in the context of #ActuallyAutistic’s habilitated agencement — as autistic identity reformulates the boundaries of their impairment through digital media, resistance from critics are liable to increase.
To each of the movements covered in this section, “autistic pride” is a clear oxymoron. To John Best Jr., autism is a diversionary tactic of the deep state poisoning the nation’s children. To the pushers of bleach treatment, it is a creation of Big Pharma that can be magicked away with miracle cures. To the Cassandra Syndrome network, autistic pride is the erasure of misery imposed upon innocent neurotypicals by the inherently ‘mindblind’. To the Autistic Dark Web, it’s a delusional practice encouraged by postmodern victimhood.
To such groups, a return to prosthetic agencies is seemingly not enough, suggesting a desire for a possible rehabilitated agency where market influence and individualism is contingent on a certain level of social acceptability. In other words, their version of the clearest path for autistic agency is to remove autism from the equation entirely.
For most of autism’s history, people diagnosed with the condition were “sites for the operations of institutional practices and bodies of knowledge […] seeking to know and act upon the purported ‘essence’ of autism”. The phenomenological embodiment of the autistic experience is under-analysed, and past concessions to the internet’s accessibility to autistic children rarely amounted to much more than lip- service. In this series I set out to illustrate how the new media ecology has catalysed and served the ongoing debate on autistic identity, autonomy and expression. The primary representations of autism — as political identity, medical tragedy, social farce, moral crisis — are unavoidably intertwined with and shaped by longstanding association with digital media.
The resultant struggle over a thick web of online networks is over the definition of ASD itself — not just in a semantic sense but in practical ideologies that critique the orthodoxy of the medical model and of prominent charities like Autism Speaks. For the nonverbal, blogging and video platforms have afforded them the opportunity to finally speak for themselves, and have since offered a wealth of content directly critiquing the societal expectations that they class as a form of oppression. It is an emerging civil rights (possibly counter-cultural) movement that sees technology as a potential liberator, not unlike the utopianism of early internet culture or the political malfeasance of troll culture and “meme magic”.
In contrast to those examples, however, I have illustrated that the theories formed around the autism phenomenon are complimented or paralleled by aspects of the new media ecology. Dysprosody is echoed in the unusual language mannerisms of meme culture, almost all modern entertainment platforms allow users to easily satisfy echolalia and perseverating (to say nothing of its capabilities to assist the ‘special interests’ so closely connected with autistic identity), while media’s tactile promptings serve as an effective corrective to prompt-dependency deficits or a need for predictable routine. As Tarnoff and Weigel argue, even the pathologisation of compulsive media use and Silicon Valley overreach unnecessarily undermines a reality for many whose autism adversely affects everyday life: “Many people rely on the internet for solace and solidarity, especially those who feel marginalised. The kid with autism may stare at his screen when surrounded by people, because it lets him tolerate being surrounded by people. For him, constant use of technology may not be destructive at all, but in fact life-saving”.
One of the alt-right’s commonly cited characteristics is their claim of “weaponised autism” — a statement that has gone relatively unremarked even in thorough examinations of Neo-reactionary populists and identitarians. The argument that the alt-right is racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic is fairly regarded as a given — while their deep relationship with ableism is rarely acknowledged beyond the surface level. Weaponised autism posits that the traits of ASD holds potential for intense and impressive feats of data-gathering while simultaneously indulging in demeaning stereotypes. My best guess for the relative lack of insight is a combination of the dialectic foothold of the medical model and an unwillingness to take the alt-right seriously.
However ill-fit for cultural penetration, the cultural stereotype of the oblivious autistic remains most prominent in meme culture and the parents of ‘severely’ autistic parents, who oppose the autistic identity incorporating people who can and will speak for themselves and defend their own prosthetic and habilitated agencements. As autistic dissidents increasingly appropriate the language of reactionary politics and academics describe the politics of ASD as aggressively hallucinatory and divisive (“Autism politics is faculty politics on PCP”, so says John Pitney, Jr.), an inclusive framework to assess the ongoing consolidation of agencement and mediation of autistic identity into the future will become all the more relevant.
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