Ableism, Autism, and Transhumanist Ethics

Levi Hord


A few days ago, an Autistic transgender man named Kayden Clark was shot by police during a mental health crisis. Besides leaving both the disability- and trans-rights communities in a state of grief, Kayden’s murder has reminded us that both ableism and transphobia permeate our society on the deepest levels. Though I usually focus on queer oppression, I want to talk today about some different issues: ableism, autism, and the transhumanist struggle.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of ableism because you encounter it every day when you use buildings that are meant for those with uncompromised mobility, when you hear the words “crazy”, “insane”, or “retarded” nonchalantly used to describe the weather, or when you attend or work for an institution forwarding an definition of success that obviously is not meant to be accessibly achieved by everybody (yes, University, I’m looking at you).  But, in case you didn’t know it means, here’s the scoop: ableism is the social assumption that people with physical, developmental, or psychiatric disabilities are worth less than those without. Ableism is also the very real the set of principles, practices, standards, and treatment that makes these ideas permanent fixtures in society through making our world based around a notion of “normal” that excludes everyone but the able-bodied and neurotypical (the website “Disabled Feminist” is a good resource to check out if you have questions.) It’s important to understand, as we see through Kayden’s case and many others, that ableism can be deadly. Individuals aren’t only murdered, assaulted, neglected or abused on an individual basis, but the community has also endured a painful history of forced sterilization and eugenics.

“Eugenics?” you may ask. “Wasn’t that what the Nazis did?” Well, yes. But we may be doing it too.

When you google “autism”, the first non-ad result that comes up is the homepage for Autism Speaks, an organization that claims to be a world leader in “research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism” while also advocating for the needs of Autistic individuals and their families. However, many Autistic folks (and their allies) claim that Autism Speaks hasn’t been advocating for them at all… it has been advocating for their erasure.

Autism Speaks is one of the many organizations that is funding research into prenatal testing for autism spectrum disorders, with the hopes of being able to terminate or not even begin pregnancies in which the child is ‘at risk’ for developing autism. But what message is this sending to Autistic people? The problem with this organization (and countless others like it) is that it forwards the rhetoric that the lives of Autistic people are tragedies (all the time, no exceptions), that they are not worth living, and that it would be better for them and for their families if they had never been born. If you want to know more, and see what Autistic people are actually saying, you can find anti-Autism Speaks rants here and here.

So, why is this important? It is arguable that life would be easier if you didn’t have to live with any impairment, and it isn’t like we’d actually be ending the lives of people with autism or any other disorder, we would just be ceasing to create them. This isn’t exactly a superfluous “designer baby” approach, this is an improvement for standard of living. Is this apparent erasure of suffering still problematic? Would we think about it the same way if we could eliminate bad eyesight, or cancer? I argue that we wouldn’t, for the simple reason that things like autism (and any variation that effects cognitive or psychological processes) become identity-based rather than an impairment that you can detach from your personality. Sure, things like physical impairments change your outlook on life or your philosophy, but cognitive and psychological differences are your outlook on life, they are how you see the world.

Philosophical explorations of this sort bring us to transhumanism: the idea that we can and should transform the human condition for the better by augmenting it with technology (which can encompass everything from prosthetics to implants to prenatal testing). While elevating our experiences beyond our natural abilities may seem like a great thing, there are some criticisms of transhumanism that we can forward, including the fact that it doesn’t respect diversity (those with augmentation will always be superior to those without), it is based on a neo-liberal capitalist agenda (only those with money will be able to achieve transhuman status), and it puts forward an even more homogeneous and problematic conception of what ability should look like. It also flies in the face of what the disability rights movement has been trying to accomplish for years – the acceptance of all people, no matter their abilities or how they choose to live with them.

Philosopher Michael Sandel talks about the ethics of transhumanism, something that he thinks our society hasn’t fully thought through. Though he doesn’t talk specifically about autism or other cognitive disorders, he does make the case that eliminating variation erases specialness, and the opportunity for things to develop as they will, which can be a fulfilling experience. He describes transhumanism as a type of privatised, free-market eugenics, calling to mind the morally reprehensible practices of old which our country is still reconciling. So yes, there are benefits to the transhumanist approach, but I challenge anyone to make a case for it that isn’t tainted by the ethical issues of eugenics that we still haven’t fully acknowledged or dealt with.

To wrap up this post, I want to return to autism and consider a specific case. In class we discussed whether or not we should measure the accomplishments of differently-abled people against able-bodied people, and whether we should also include those with assistive technology in the same “races”. I think it’s particularly important extension to consider how this would work in our education system. Some argue that it would be beneficial to have separate accommodation for autistic children in primary schools, and that we should cater to the way their brains work and not try to assimilate them to a neurotypical definition of success. However, how would this play out when students from the “accommodation” schools decided that they wanted to move onto post-secondary institutions? Would we continue with the “separate races” dialogue, or would the inherent stigma against people that come from these institutions be too much of a barrier? If so, how would we bridge the gap and be able to include neuroatypical people in a system that isn’t built for the way that they think? Another line of questioning: should we forget about accommodation altogether and create some sort of technology that allows autistic people to think in the “normal” way? Or, returning to the transhumanists, should we just get rid of the problem?

No matter how Autistic folks are interacting with the world around them, I believe our place at this moment in time is not to pass judgement on that or try to regulate it based on the tenets of a philosophy. How Autistic people would like to participate in these races should be entirely up to them. Besides, I do believe that there are some ethical considerations and history lessons that we need to internalize before we decide to meddle with fate or create “normal” in our image once again.



Learn more about disability politics in Eli Clare’s wonderful exploration of ableism and experience

See the transhumanist/disability rights activist debate play out in Fixed

Check out the Autism Self-Advocacy Network for more resources and information

Many thanks to my partner for their personal input on issues of autism and education.



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