Illustration by Isabel Ríos

Words’ Worlds: Representation of Autism in Malcolm Gladwell’s Writing

Pervasive myths surrounding autism, spread by authors like Malcolm Gladwell, worsen bigoted stereotypes. But Neurotribes manages to paint a comprehensive picture that promotes neurodivergent acceptance.

Mar 28, 2021

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Sia’s film Music, and how its representation of non-verbal autism both on screen and behind the scenes was harmful. It would be easy to write Sia off as a pretentious egotist who cared more about her artistic vision than the people she claimed to represent, but unfortunately, she is not the first public figure to spread misinformation about autism. However, by portraying the spread of inaccurate information as the fault of uninformed individuals, we gloss over the academic and scientific sources that lend credence to those harmful myths. So, this edition of Words’ Worlds will be a bit different — rather than directly comparing two books, I will be introducing good and bad attempts at explaining autism to an unknowledgeable audience.
You have probably heard of Gladwell’s books, which explore broad psychosocial questions such as why our instincts are more reliable than we may think. This particular question is the subject of his second book, Blink.
The last chapter of the book begins with an account of the murder of Amadou Diallo. In 1999, four white policemen shot Diallo — a Guinean immigrant who could barely speak any English — 19 times because he was “acting suspiciously” by reaching into his pocket. This anecdote sets up the question of why snap judgements — shown throughout the book to be incredibly accurate in some instances — can go disastrously wrong. Gladwell’s answer? “Temporary autism.”
“[Autistic people] have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, such as gestures and facial expressions or putting themselves inside someone else’s head or drawing understanding from anything other than the literal meaning of words,” states Gladwell. According to him, this means that autistic people often come to conclusions about social situations that are “completely and catastrophically wrong,” and therefore, autism could be a temporary state of mind that “otherwise normal people” could fall into during stressful situations.
I hope I don’t need to explain what is so reprehensible about comparing an autistic person making a social faux pas to four policemen shooting an unarmed person of color to death. In addition, the idea that autistic people cannot empathize with others is a pervasive myth which misunderstands how autistic people indicate empathy. While autistic people tend to struggle with understanding people’s perspectives on a logical level, they often have a greater capacity for raw emotional empathy than neurotypical people. Besides, empathy is a two-way street, so how is it fair to expect autistic people to show empathy toward people who don’t reciprocate?
In 2015, 10 years after Blink was published, Gladwell wrote an article for the New Yorker called Thresholds Of Violence, which attempts to explain why school shootings become “socially contagious.” The discussion is framed around the foiled shooting attempt by John LaDue, a teenager with no prior history of mental illness, abuse, psychopathy or any other typical characteristics of school shooters.
In the last third of the article, a shocking discovery is revealed: LaDue was autistic. Gladwell proceeds to invoke the term “counterfeit deviance” — a term used for intellectual disabilities rather than autism — to describe the supposed phenomenon of autistic people being more likely to commit crimes than neurotypical people. When claiming that autistic people are more likely to “stumble into” criminal acts due to their obsessive nature, he cites one non-peer-reviewed paper from 2009 in which the author analyzes one case of an autistic person accessing child pornography and specifically states in his analysis that “Aspergers syndrome is not associated with sexual perversion.” The fact that autistic people are much more likely to be victimized and sexually abused than neurotypical people makes the erroneous link between autism and criminality particularly abhorrent. I find it difficult to understand why a journalist of Gladwell’s caliber and notoriety has skewed and fabricated data just to make autistic people seem as dangerous as possible, but maybe my poor autistic brain is incapable of empathizing with him.
“Thresholds Of Violence” becomes more inexcusable after learning it was published in the same year as Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes. This book took over five years to write and clocks in at over eight hundred pages, but the length feels earned as it has value even for people who may know about the neurodivergent experience. For example, many people have heard of Hans Aspergers, but did you know that he collaborated with the Nazis? Did you know that another German psychologist named Leo Kanner plagiarized his work and developed a theory that children become autistic because they have cold and frigid parents? Did you know that the film Rain Man was a significant turning point for autism acceptance in the U.S.? What started as an article about “the geek syndrome” hitting Silicon Valley became a compassionate, heartbreaking and hopeful piece of journalism that gave a voice to people with autism and their loved ones.
Neurotribes is one of the few books that I would recommend everybody to read. My parents told me they never found a description of autism that “looked like me” until they read this book, and unfortunately that’s due to the entrenched narrative machine churning out stereotypes of socially crippled and potentially violent loners.
Fortunately, Gladwell’s 2015 article received plenty of backlash that Blink never did, which reflects an increasing understanding that stigmatizing neurodivergent people is unacceptable. All the same, discrimination is still alive and well. It’s difficult to describe how it felt to learn that there are millions of people in the world who believe that people like me should not exist — something that unfortunately many students can relate to for various reasons. Neurotribes is a book that needs to exist, and I hope that in the future, the voices of neurodivergent people will be louder than those who seek to silence them.
Oscar Bray is Staff Writer and Staff Illustrator. Email him at
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