The Universal Boogieman: Autism, Pseudoscience, and Why They Go Together

It has been a while since I last wrote an article pertaining to autism and life on the spectrum. I prefer to not reduce my class of people to their conditions and nothing more. Yet, in a pandemic of increasing conspiracy theories one Aspie experience becomes creepingly obtrusive. That is being the universal boogieman. Most famously with vaccines but also with each crackpot iota of pseudoscience from herbs to homeopathy. The great query of our position as the horror movie nightmare of Gwyneth Paltrow’s flock begs is why us? Why not diabetes? Why not bipolar? Us. Well, as a social scientist, it is one of my charges to learn the answer to questions like that. The first three things that come to mind are ignorance and uncanniness and the more primal anxieties. Bipolar and diabetes are fairly straightforward while autism is much less clearly defined. The spectrum is so wide, it probably is a term that will become obsolete when the varied causes are found and it is finally concluded that it isn’t a single condition but multiple. A single case has defined traits and there are a few general categories but there is no detailed, standard, definition.

Myths and quackery arise frequently from the instinctive attempt to compensate for lacking knowledge and since neither the cause nor the condition are strictly known scientifically that gives way to a flood of magical thinking. This is called a “god of the gaps”, where the lack of real data is the casm in which imagination can flourish. Furthermore, it is novel, only entering the public sphere during the Clinton Administration. New things are prone to be felt as strange. A mystic aura around our condition invited the quacks who drink the blood of anything they smell as material. Autism, the ill-defined, novel, condition, had all of the qualities the quacks needed for a perfect marketing tool. 

The next factor is the uncanny nature of the higher end of the spectrum. It is the psychological effect known as the “uncanny valley”. There is something inherently both fascinating and frightening about the almost human. It both had sex appeal and the appeal of a horror movie. There is a race of emotionless nerds who lack human empathy and can be hyper-geniuses. That stereotype rhymes closely with the origin stories of many a supervillain To the average soccer mom worried about chemicals and vaccines, that probably sounds somewhat close to a horde of zombies. Would you rather let your child die of measles or grow up to be an evil genius or a zombie? Barring the bat-shit insanity of the question, any reasonable parent would reconsider anything before their child became one of those things. 

Yet, many foremost associate the spectrum with the low end. For them, the fear is more clear. No one wants an intellectual disability.  Becoming literally retarded is undoubtedly a huge fear and a fear that can overcome emotion. To them, a vaccine may be a lobotomy. Lots of people would rather face the gallows than a lobotomy scalpel. It means losing one’s personality, one’s pleasure, everything fromn sex to concerts to novels are forever beyond the reach. The possibility of that fear is stronger than the possibility of most other things. People are more afraid of losing their selves than their lives. The sheer intensity of the horror of that idea is enough to drive people into dangerous irrationality. 

We became the universal boogieman due to a perfect storm of factors from ignorance to fear. One hopes, as science improves and the reasons for the ignorance and fear are abated that we will no longer be the the subject of so much unhealthy fixation. Yet, the lessons from us having to live through this should be heeded because future boogiemen will come after us and the people scared of them may harm people like the anti-vaxxers do now. We need to learn from the social science and inoculate ourselves, to the degree possible, against the social viruses that kill and injure their either stupid victims or victims reliant on stupid people.

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