Why is Everyone Online Autistic Now?
on slow processing and what's behind the fear of autism trending
This question, why is everyone online autistic now, has been tugging at my brain lately. Mostly people ask it as a way to be like, look at this weird internet trend people are doing for attention, which I find flippant and lacking in compassion. (Even if someone was crying for help, wouldn’t you be curious about what they needed?)
Rebuttals often reference increased visibility and acceptance, which is certainly a part of it, but I am a bit more interested in why people ask this question rather than what the practical answer is. I do have one of those, though — I think there’s a bit of selection bias happening here.
I stumbled across this video of an off-grid TikTok influencer defending herself against a commenter who thought she shouldn’t have identified as an introvert, because “no introvert voluntarily goes on camera.” She responds:
“When I’m on camera, it’s just me and my phone. Ain’t nobody else around. So this has become easier for me.”
Of course, not all autistics are introverts, and not all introverts are autistic. These are just different ways of conceptualizing certain clusters of personality traits, but what I think they have in common is a need for more time and space to process. Socializing is a very in-the-moment experience that requires you to process a lot of things at once, and if you’re a slow processor, that can be really hard.
I am a slow processor — it’s why I prefer to write, why I don’t enjoy doing anything live, and why I like posting on social media. I think it makes sense that a lot of internet power users would be slow processors, because posting, commenting, tweeting, video editing — they all give you a lot of time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it.
You can re-shoot a TikTok video over and over again until you get it exactly right, and you can draft a hundred comments before you post one. You probably see autistic or otherwise introverted people posting a lot online because the internet is a good place for slow processors.
There’s this theory that autism is defined by bottom-up thinking, which means, instead of seeing the big picture and filtering out the extra stuff, autistic people take in all the details at once and need more time to parse through and make sense of them. This is a slow process, and it means you’re probably somewhat socially awkward or at least, have to use a lot of energy to socialize and become easily overwhelmed.
If the internet is a comfortable place for slow processors to express themselves, that’s probably why a lot of power users vibe with autism as an identity, and why, historically, the internet has been an incubator for Autistic community since the 1990’s. (Contrary to this claim in Buzzfeed, autistic people did have ways to connect before TikTok!)
You also have to consider that the amount of power users who create content on an app is always a small percent of the overall user base. On TikTok, it’s 29%. On Twitter, 90% of tweets are posted by less than 10% of users. What you see trending is determined by a small group of people, and you have to wonder what attracts those users to posting so much.
It could be that they’re slow processors, or that they’re high-energy ideators, both groups you could pathologize as autistic or ADHD. But my point is, there’s an aspect of selection bias here that isn’t being considered.
Is social media a categorization machine that slots users into a niche so they can better capitalize on their content? Yes. Do we live in an increasingly diagnostic culture in which all manner of human suffering is currently being pathologized as individualistic brain disorders, with possibly dire consequences for political consciousness and solidarity? Absolutely.
But does that mean there’s no merit to a person’s self-identification and we should write it all off as some kind of superficial, self-serving trend? I don’t think so. A lot of things can be true at once, and I think there is political potential in disability.
The main reason I’ve seen people hand-wringing over autism as an internet trend is the idea that people are getting attention they don’t deserve — and there’s that word, the one that crops up all the time in a world defined by scarcity.
Since attention is now a commodity online, taking it when you don’t deserve it is bad. You’re stealing limited resources from “legitimately disabled” and “deserving” people. Health Communism, possibly my favorite book I read last year, spends a lot of time breaking down this deserving/non-deserving binary, and now I’ve started to see this shit everywhere:
Since the early days of the English Poor Laws, the apparatus of the law has been used to sort the surplus population into increasingly marginal, verifiable categories. These distinctions, and the construction of the worker/surplus binary, became seen as necessarily contingent on clearly delineating who deserved to be a non-worker. Some typologies of surplus were constructed as “deserving,” in particular those whose impairment could not be identified as an individual moral or genetic failing. All others were treated as waste, which under the myth of fiscal burden reproduces the idea that nonworking or nontraditionally productive people are a strain on the productive/working/taxpaying community who are understood as the real sovereign citizens. The worker is told to beware of the degenerate influence of the surplus population and to root out those who would fraudulently claim state or private benefits as surplus; we are deputized by the state to surveil and judge others’ worthiness for aid. [emphasis mine]
If autism is trending online, my main critique is not “these people could be lying to get resources they don’t deserve,” it’s the fact that identity groups are very easily co-opted by capitalism for profit and distraction. Identifying with autism is a helpful way to make sense of your experiences and find other people who’ve had similar ones, but a DSM diagnosis does not a political consciousness make.
This is why you get autistic people online with professional diagnoses mad at the self-diagnosed set, and why the mothers of kids with what they call “profound autism” are always railing against the neurodiversity movement. It’s a fight for resources, a rejection that there could be any common ground between people with varying levels of need because they believe the lie that there simply isn’t enough to go around.
Health Communism argues that we have to reject this deserving/nondeserving framing, and recognize the potential for solidarity in the fact that we all live under a system that requires our illness to function:
We are each of us ripped and maimed, strangled and buried by capital, in one way or another. That entire industries exist in plain sight to see us along this vast process of endlessly iterative life chances, to then subject us to extraction when we are surplus and no longer of use, and to eke out slivers of profit from our eventual deaths, is capital’s greatest sleight of hand. We are all surplus.
Sluggish is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This part “recognize the potential for solidarity in the fact that we all live under a system that requires our illness to function” really resonated with me. Racism, ableism, hatred of unhoused and poor people - the way that our system persists is by pitting people who are treated as less than against each other. If we are busy arguing about who deserves more, there’s no energy left to work on dismantling systems that hurt all of us.
I believe the idea that there "isn't enough to go around" is perpetuated by the tendency of activists to normalize the most palatable members of a marginalized group, then pat themselves on the back and think they've solved the problem, throwing everyone else under the bus.
I have personal experience of the impacts of this, not in regards to autism, but in regards to an incurable, under-researched chronic disease I have. Said disease is quite common, but highly variable in functional impact, much like autism. 99% of advocacy fails to raise awareness of the 25% of patients for which it is life threatening. The consequences are absolutely devastating. People are dying every day in horrific suffering and nobody is even aware it's happening unless they're already a part of that terminally ill community.
In terms of advocacy, there really ISN'T enough of it to go around, and the most stigmatized members of a community are the ones who lose out.
If every autistic person advocated for the needs of "profoundly autistic" people as well as their own - what a different world it would be. But most people simply don't have the energy or motivation to advocate for needs they perceive as unrelated to their own.