A topic I’ve been seeing a lot recently in the Autism community is what is being derogatorily called “Aspie Supremacy”. This perspective suggests that autism is evolutionarily superior to allism in general and Neurotypicality specifically. It appears to be called “Aspie Supremacy” because it centers Autistics with low support needs (who have historically been called “high functioning” or “Aspie”).
This appears to related to a friction between those of us with low support needs (such as myself) and those of us with high support needs. When our support needs are low, we may see our disability primarily in social terms: We may have some objective limitations, but most of our discomfort is from the way that a society and world designed for Neurotypicals stigmatizes and marginalizes us.
People with higher support needs seem more likely to see their disability in medical terms, at least in part. And because those of us with lower needs are more able to communicate, we tend to dominate the first-person community narrative, leading caregivers such as parents struggling to support higher needs loved ones to feel like we’re taking over the narrative and rendering their loved ones invisible.
At the same time, though, the social narrative around Autism has been driven by allistic voices, especially neurotypical ones, for decades. And that narrative has centered Autistics who need more support.
In an ideal world, the narrative would be fully balanced, including all Autistic voices as well as those of truly allied allistic loved ones. But, as in so many conversations, the pendulum of focus swings, and at the moment, the swing is in the direction of compensating for decades of stigma by those of us most capable of speaking to our experience holding, and admittedly hogging, the microphone.
One common trait of a long-silenced marginalized group being given the chance to speak for themselves is a tendency to proclaim their identity, which has been treated as inferior, as being superior. My youth saw the end of left-handedness being stigmatized, and with that came tongue-in-cheek books and posters and such proclaiming the inherent superiority of left-handedness.
As a 54-year-old who is pansexual, transgender, Autistic, and lefthanded, I have seen a lot of destigmatizing and empowering of each of those aspects of my identity over my lifetime, to varying degrees. In my youth, all of those but lefthandedness were heavily stigmatized; I suppressed the rest, unpeeling my onion only as an adult, and even that unpeeling has been in fits, starts, and retreats.
I have also seen people proclaiming each of pansexuality, gender nonconformity, and autism to be inherently superior to more culturally traditionally normative identities, as the next step in human evolution, even as superpowers.
I am certainly empathetic to the aspect of this attitude that comes from empowering a marginalized identity. After years, even decades, of being oppressed and being treated as “broken,” it is natural to want to declare oneself as superior, not inferior.
My own healing has involved a good deal of retconning my trauma, of looking back and realizing how ways in which I was mistreated in the past were due not to me being “broken” but to my brain being wired differently. My wandering eye sometimes settling on male bodies wasn’t a perversion, it was a result of my healthy, but culturally “different”, sexuality. My preferences for clothing and accoutrements generally deemed “feminine” wasn’t a perversion, it was a result of my healthy, but culturally “different”, gender.
Likewise, most of my “tantrums” were meltdowns; most of my emotional stoicism in the face of trauma wasn’t a coping mechanism learned from living in an emotionally violent household, it was shutting down in situations where meltdowns weren’t safe.
I’m still untangling when I was acting, and when I act, from trauma, and when I was acting, and when I act, as an Autistic. This untangling, this retcon, this realization that I spent a good portion of my life believing things about myself that weren’t true (that I was deeply depressed, that I have unmanageable social anxiety, and so on), comes with a certain frustration and resentment.
That frustration and resentment could easily translate to a sense of superiority: I’m not worse than all the people who put me down, I’m better than them.
That’s a natural subjective emotional response to the feeling of liberty that comes with realizing that a brain long seen as broken isn’t broken, just different.
The reality for many Autistics is that they do have high support needs. I don’t feel that “broken” is the right word, but it’s likewise true that no amount of social change towards better accommodation would entirely mitigate the effects of autism.
Even in my case, if I’m honest, there are ways in which my autism gets in the way of my happiness, social stigma aside. Yes, social stigma against autism impacts me personally more than my objective restrictions, but I do have those restrictions.
I cannot see the evolutionary advantage of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which leads me to worry constantly about what I’m saying. Even as I’m writing this, a voice is telling me that I’m going to hurt my fellow Autistics. A voice is telling me that I’m not really autistic anyway (this is called Imposter Syndrome (which my RSD reminds me is an evolved meaning, and the original use of “Imposter Syndrome” meant something adjacent to this but different)).
I cannot see the evolutionary advantage of Sensory Processing Disorder, which leads me to struggle eating around other people because of my concerns about a strong misophonic reaction, or because of my reactions to certain smells (especially coffee). I can see an evolutionary advantage of a higher sensory sensitivity: More attenuated hearing and smelling, for instance, is useful for detecting threats. But SPD goes beyond that, to the point of misinterpreting harmless stimuli and making it unpleasant, even unbearable.
I cannot see the evolutionary advantage of my AuDHD traits: My impulsiveness, my difficulty staying focused. As a child, I wanted to be a writer. I struggle with this because I can’t stay on a single project long enough to finish a polished novel. Special interest? In the zone? Sure. I have five or six November Novels, including one I didn’t even write during November. And they’re GREAT first drafts, but… after I’m done, I set them aside and don’t go back to them.
And my RSD tells me that they’re terrible and nobody’s interested in reading them.
And my Autistic perfection tells me that they’ll never be good enough for me, even if other people think they’re great.
These are not superpowers. They’re handicaps. They keep me from doing what I want to do.
It is awesome that some Autistics are finding our own voices, including those of us who are called “noncommunicative” because they’re mute, but who can use technology to communicate. It is awesome that we are moving beyond stigmas and standing on our own.
But that doesn’t mean we’re more evolved. There is an evolutionary advantage to neurodiversity, but that includes some people being allistic, too.
And that certainly doesn’t mean we have a superpower.
We are different. Different is okay. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s different.
Some of us need more accommodations and supports than others. That’s okay, too.