Can Neurodiversity Defeat Doublethink?

Masha Gessen suggests there was a connection between Asperger’s and social activism in the Soviet era.

The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at the R20 Austrian World Summit, in Vienna, on May 28, 2019.
The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at the R20 Austrian World Summit, in Vienna, on May 28. (Lisi Niesner / Reuters)

Steve Silberman, the author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, once observed that many people with autism “have been ignored and shunted to the margins of society, and condemned as weird, insane, or worse.” But the idea that they have valuable insights “not in spite of their autism but because of it is gaining ground as part of a global movement to honor neurodiversity.”

Last year, the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg stood on the steps of her country’s Parliament to urge radical action on climate change. Her unusually blunt, unsparing statements quickly attracted a mass following. She argues her Asperger’s was vital to that success—that if she wasn’t “so strange,” as she once described herself to an interviewer, she “would have been stuck in this social game everyone else seems so infatuated with,” instead of telling hard truths about how much people in rich countries will need to give up to significantly cut carbon emissions.

The Russian American journalist Masha Gessen goes further. A keen observer of politics in Russia, where she was a leading queer-rights activist, and a student of its history, she believes that neurodiversity may have been an under-appreciated factor among Soviet-era dissidents.

“The dissident movement definitely had a direct connection to the sciences,” she told a small audience yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “My theory is that a lot of people in the sciences were what we now call ‘on the spectrum.’” And for that reason, they found it unusually difficult to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time. Gessen related her conversation with Thunberg on the subject:

“She can’t abide the irrational behavior that surrounds her. If climate change is such a crisis then, why are we not acting like it’s a crisis? Those things cannot live together in her head … The Soviet Union demanded doublethink of all its citizens. The condition of being integrated into society was doublethink. If you simply can’t do doublethink, if your brain explodes, then it is less discomfiting for you to become a dissident than to exist within a society. For most people, it’s more comfortable to do whatever you’re required to do. If it requires doublethink, it requires doublethink. But if you just can’t do doublethink, then you become a dissident.”

Last year, The Wall Street Journal published an article on a company called Daivergent that “provides autistic contractors to clients seeking high accuracy and speed on tasks including data entry and online research.” It added, “People on the spectrum often struggle with job interviews and navigating the social aspects of work.”

Listening to Gessen talk about Thunberg and theorize about Soviet dissidents made me wonder whether, in addition to tasks like data entry and online research, Americans should recognize another comparative advantage for those who don’t play what Thunberg calls “this social game”: the unusual degree to which they bluntly tell the truth just as they see it.

More truth telling might mean calls for radical reduction of carbon emissions—or it might mean James Damore opining on why Google hasn’t reached gender parity in engineering. (Articles in The Guardian and Quillette argue that whatever else one thinks about the Damore controversy, it cannot be fully understood without knowing about his autism and his failure to discern what upsets others.)

Regardless of viewpoint, earnest, outspoken dissenters are an asset for society.

“In communities of living things, diversity and difference means strength and resilience,” Silberman wrote. “Great minds, in other words, don’t always think alike.”