A study announcing that the autism rate among children has risen to 1 in 40, higher than the 1 in 58 previously estimated by the CDC, is making headlines. Despite the fact that the study authors themselves admitted they were not surprised (a South Korean study put the number at 1 in 38), we’re seeing the usual uptick in “crisis” rhetoric, along with the usual new spate of bizarre woo-based memes.
Since leaving activism several months ago, I’ve scarcely kept up with autism news and I’ve commented on autism-related subjects even less. This one, however, stands out to me because of its parallels with a Quora A2A I received a few days ago: “Have you ever shared a bathroom with a transwoman [sic] and what happened?”
The answer to this question is, of course, “I have been in a public bathroom with a trans person before and so have you, and neither of us probably realized it at the time.” Trans people make up 0.6 to 1 percent of the U.S. population, after all. That’s about two million people. Evenly divided by state (which the population overall is not, so neither are trans people), that’s 40,000 trans people per state, or an entire Big Ten university.
The response to the Chicken Littles scurrying in response to the study results is the same: “Autistic people have always made up about 2.5 percent of the population, you just didn’t realize it before now.” That’s about 8 million autistic people, or about 160,000 per state – a midsize metropolitan area.
Natural redheads, incidentally, also make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Have you met more than one natural redhead in your life? Statistically, you’ve met that many autistic people as well.
Of course, this answer seems to placate no one. In fact, it most often appears to entrench the speaker further in their anxiety that Things Are Getting Worse All The Time.
Granted, “things have actually been as bad as you think for a while now” isn’t exactly comfort food. For someone whose anxiety is driven by a sense of lost control, “it’s been out of control” doesn’t help and can actually make the anxiety worse.
And questions like “why are all the kids turning autistic?!” or “are there trans people in our bathrooms?!” are very much about a sense of lost control. Autistic people and trans people are seen as threats because of their status as Other. When more of those scary Others start to pop up, many people experience a sense of disturbance to their internal order, their sense of how things should be: Men are men, women are women, everyone communicates in a certain way, and all is right with the world.
Reminders that the world has never actually been that way aren’t great. In fact, they’re kinda horrible.
Of course, not everyone reacts to new information in this fashion. Research indicates that our brains can be structured in ways that correlate with our willingness to embrace difference (and with our political views). The concept of fixed vs. growth mindset explores similar differences from another angle.
For the less-fixed types, “Autistic/trans folks have always been in your life” actually can be comforting. Oh, the world isn’t changing at all; it’s always been like this, and I’ve done just fine so far. For those more comfortable with embracing ambiguity and difference, this statement may even be delivered with an edge of annoyance: We’re here, we’re (neuro)queer, please get used to it so we can stop teaching 101-level classes about how we do in fact exist.
But how do we get past the Chickens Little, for whom “hey, we’ve always been here” is a reason to avoid the 101 classroom instead of entering it? I don’t know. I just know that a lot of our modern anxieties aren’t as diverse as we think.