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Techsploitation Glamorous Disease

By Annalee Newitz

DO YOU LIKE to celebrate Christmas? Do television commercials fill you with desire for the products advertised? Do you wear gender-appropriate clothing and hairstyles? Do you think everyone should have a job, get married and have children? Have you ever laughed at someone for acting "weird"?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might just be a neurotypical. This term, coined by autistic and Asperger's activists in the neurodiversity movement, is being used more and more to describe the sort of person whose fixation on "normal" mental activity is tantamount to discrimination. As diagnoses of Asperger's and autism skyrocket, especially among the most driven members of the scientific and arts communities, the idea that people whose minds work atypically are suffering from a terrible disease is starting to ring false. That's why the nonneurotypicals are rebelling.

At the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical, a parody site that has lived since 1998 at http://isnt.autistics.org, a pissed-off autistic writes about the spreading problem of normal personality, which is "a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority and obsession with conformity."

On Wikipedia, you can find lists of famous people who have Asperger's, including Steven Spielberg and electronic-music pioneer Gary Numan. For anyone familiar with minority politics, it should be no surprise that there are also lists of people who might be nonneurotypical because they exhibit autistic traits. Bill Gates usually tops such lists. It reminds me of similar lists on queer-rights websites, in which activists try to figure out which famous people from history (or the present) might have been gay.

When BitTorrent programmer Bram Cohen came out last year as having Asperger's syndrome, it was like a 1960s rock star saying he'd done LSD. His altered mental state became part of his allure, part of what inspires him to think creatively. Among the geekagensia these days, you just aren't glamorous unless you can lay claim to being a little obsessive-compulsive sometimes, or at least unable to engage in ordinary social interactions.

In another era, nonneurotypicals would probably have been called eccentrics. An eccentric is notoriously weird but still lovable and socially usefulóNikola Tesla, who invented AC power and only ate food whose volume he had calculated before consuming itówould certainly have been one such eccentric. Modernist poet Wallace Stevens, who wrote by dictating poems to his secretary at Hartford Insurance, would have been another. The novels of Charles Dickens are full of such characters. They're weird but certainly not diseased, and they even have an honored place in their communities.

Clearly, the neurodiversity movement is aiming at a similar kind of acceptance for autistics and Aspies. As someone who could hardly be accused of neurotypicality myself, I can't say this isn't a worthy goal. But there's an important difference between celebrating eccentricity and glamorizing Asperger's.

Eccentricity describes a behavior, while Asperger's is an identity. The nonneurotypicals may have taken the pathologizing sting out the names for their conditions, but they're still rallying around the words that doctors came up with to label them freaks. Even this strategy isn't a bad one. I love it when epithets like "queer" become badges of pride; even better is when a term like "hysterical," spawned by a sexist medical community hellbent on suppressing women's sexuality, gradually got converted into a slang term for something that's hilariously funny.

But I must admit to a bit of a squicky feeling when people seek to define their entire identities in terms of one particular thing, whether that's Asperger's or femininity or being an alcoholic. I'm especially leery when that particular thing, in this case Asperger's, becomes a kind of personality chic.

The glamour of being nonneurotypical elides the very real issues people face when they suffer from full-blown neurological trauma. It also, in some sense, deprives people of the ability to take credit for their own behavior. Cohen's considerable talent with the Python language becomes not a spectacular behavior but merely an outgrowth of being an Aspie. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd rather act eccentric than be nonneurotypical. The former lets me take responsibility for my weirdness, and the latter lets other people define me by it.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who refuses to eat chocolate-covered garlic.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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