Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Asperger Syndrome, Nerds and the Why Label? Debate

Here is something I e-mailed the author of a book I read recently called Nerds:

"I liked much of what you said in your book, but one thing I didn't like is your description of Asperger Syndrome.
Firstly, why the focus on 'functional impairment'? That is not an inherent characteristic of anyone. By that definition, an AS-acting person who had no friends and was bullied severely in elementary school but is now a well-accepted engineering student has ceased to have Asperger Syndrome, despite the fact that the exact same traits their classmates hated are all still present. They haven't changed - their situation has.
I am certainly against viewing the characteristics of 'mild autism' or Asperger Syndrome as pathological, but I don't think the best way to do that is to just think of them as nerds instead of autistic. Sure, that might bring people like me more acceptance, but what about the wonderful people I know who are much closer to the stereotype of 'retard' than 'nerd'? What about people like Amanda Baggs ( ) a wonderful autistic woman who types to communicate and has frequently been referred to as retarded? I'm not willing to leave them behind in my quest for acceptance.
And besides, being called a nerd never gave me the key to understanding myself. Being called autistic has. Though scientists don't really understand autism very well, there's more actual attempt to understand them than nerds. Nerds are known to have trouble interacting with others, but the question 'why?' isn't really asked. According to science, autistic people can't read the nonverbal signals (according to autistics, because we have different ones). If I'm a nerd, there's no help for me. I have to navigate it all on my own. If I'm autistic, I can find out why I have trouble with certain things and what might be able to help me. Of course, I'd much rather pick the third option - understanding the unique needs of the unique and wonderful group of people I happen to belong to and meeting our needs without stigmatizing us - I'm fighting for that very thing.
I hope you can agree with that goal. And I don't want it just for people like me, but for those who fit so poorly into our society's expectations that it seems obvious to virtually everyone that they're incapable."

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Blogger Edward Ott said...

I have met people with Asperger syndrome who were more social than those people i knew labled nerds.
when dealing with people i always remember the words of my grandfather."boy most people are idiots" so when treated badly by someone just remember that. It is how i get through most days.

9:04 AM  
Blogger stevethehydra said...

I identify as "autistic" and as "nerd" :)

To me nerdiness has nothing to do with social life or lack thereof, it has to do with interests and knowledge. A nerd, to me, is someone who has a strong interest in and/or a lot of knowledge about things that most people consider obscure or irrelevant to everyday existence - whether that's nature/science, a genre of fiction, computers, politics, disability issues, or all the above.

It also refers to an attitude to knowledge - the desire to "collect" facts and to feel pride in the amount you know about something, despite the prevailing anti-intellectual culture telling you to feel shame about it. Of course, people on certain parts of the neurodiversity spectrum tend to be more predisposed towards this attitude than others, which is where i think the aspie/nerd correlation comes from (also the fact that "mainstream" youth culture in English-speaking countries is so anti-intellectual and anti-knowledge that nerds are socially stigmatised regardless of neurology, so the "nerd community" is a place where those who are socially stigmatised as disabled people or other minorities can often find acceptance).

While i'm not into that many of the stereotypically nerdy things (computer games, roleplaying/board games, techy stuff), i have friends who are and who probably have numerically greater social circles through that kind of "nerdy" stuff than most non-nerds do through "mainstream" forms of socialising...

9:49 AM  
Blogger macskadĂ©k said...

Yes, it woud be important not to be stigmatized. For one thing, I don't even understand why it's so necessary to condemn difference of any kind. What's the point in considering women/lgbt/neurodiverse/whatever even if they can give a unique perspective on things and generrally just be good-intentioned people?!

And, as shiva, I identify as both nerd and autistic. I'm a nerd beacuse I love to learn, and I'm autistic because I'm born with a brain like this. The two are not the same. But Revenge of the Nerds is much like a film about the neurodiversity movement. "And tonight those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Because we're smart? Because we look different? Well, we're not. I'm a nerd, and... I'm pretty proud of it. Hi, Gilbert. I'm a nerd, too. I just found that out tonight. We have news for the beautiful people. There's a lot more of us than there are of you. I know there's alumni here tonight. When you went to Adams, you might have been called a spaz, or a dork, or a geek. Any of you that have ever felt...stepped on, left out, picked on, put down, whether you think you're a nerd or not, why don't you come and join us? Come on."

11:06 AM  
Blogger SusanB said...

You two sicken me. I am a proud Aspergian, who lived in Jefferson County, Colorado for the past 7 years, where the Aspergian people have been blamed for Columbine. There have been Aspie lynchings since 2000, of which I was nearly a victim of and managed to escape. If you identify yourself as autistic, you're telling people that you are trash. I know because I was victimized by the Jeffco Public school system for identifying as autistic. I was denied an education for it. Calling yourself autistic is like a black person calling themselves a n*****, the ones that do end up as unemployed drug addicts. If you identify yourself as trash, then maybe you really are trash.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Anne Corwin said...

To me nerdiness has nothing to do with social life or lack thereof, it has to do with interests and knowledge.

Yeah, that's how I see it as well. Most of the friends I have now are "nerds" in some way or another, but they aren't all autistic. Nerd is sort of a personality style as opposed to a neurological configuration, IMO.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Ettina -- could you get in touch with me about the possibility of republishing this post at Shift Journal? (

Thanks --

Mark Stairwalt

11:21 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

SusanB - how is identifying as Asperger's any different?

The word 'autistic' literally means 'focused on yourself'. Which I am. Not in the way commonly described as 'selfish', but more in the sense of not being very socially oriented - NTs seem to fix on any social input and pay tremendous attention on it, whereas I have both social and non-social interests, and can often be just fine by myself.

In *no* way does autistic mean you're trash. Any word can be used that way, doesn't mean it *has* to be. (Retard used to be the progressive term, instead of idiot and imbecile.)

11:04 AM  

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