Free Range Aspergian vs. Aspergian

Possible Trigger Warning: Discussion of societal prejudices, factory farming, incarceration.

Be Different: Adventures of a Free Range Aspergian

Original title and cover
of John Robison’s book

The Free Range Meme & the Asperger’s Community

This post continues a discussion from a post I made to ThAutcast’s Facebook page. Originally the post title was “What does ‘Free Range Aspergian’ mean to you?” which got a couple of interesting replies and is a worthwhile topic in its own right, but my headline didn’t match the topic.  What I really want to know is this:

If someone claims to be a Free Range Aspergian, what quality, exactly, does that disambiguate and where does that leave plain, ordinary Aspergians?

I rather suspect it is merely a one-way meme in which the term Aspergian is being irreversibly converted to the term Free Range Aspergian because the latter is embraced as positive and there is nothing to disambiguate the two terms.  Or, more correctly, there is a disambiguation but it boils down to whether an individual has been exposed to the phrase beyond their personal adoption threshold.  Some may embrace the quirky, whimsical nature of the term and enthusiastically self-nominate, others may join out of a reluctance to be in the apparently less special but undefined group that are “merely” Aspergian.

So I ask, what does “Aspergian” mean as compared to “Free Range Aspergian”?

“Free Range X” != “X”

The term was part of the original title of the John Elder Robison book Be Different: Adventures of a Free Range Aspergian.  He may have used it previously, but I believe the book title is what popularized it.  I thought it was quirky and funny and typical of John’s humor which I greatly enjoy. However, the term “free range,” which is more commonly associated with livestock, fell into common usage when that was no longer the default method of raising livestock and a retronym was needed to disambiguate. The alternative is confinement, which needs no qualifier because factory farms are so widely used as to be the assumed default.

I still think “Free Range Aspergian” is quirky and funny and captures the whimsical side of the Asperger’s community. But the existence of a qualifier implies a difference from the term with out the qualifier. I just wonder what the alternative condition implied by that qualifier is supposed to be.

Not so free-range?

Not so free-range?

Are you “free range”…

  • After aging out of compulsory education?
  • If you are not actually incarcerated?
  • If you are single? (Possible duplicate there, sorry.)
  • If you have access to transportation?
  • If you are allowed to cross the street alone?
  • If you have inherited, or otherwise come into possession with out purchasing, a massive tract of grazing land? (Think about it…)
  • If you have not been compelled by a judge to wear a GPS locator?
  • If you are not forced to wear a kid-leash in the mall? (And if so, must you have once worn one to be eligible to use the term?)
  • If you spend a lot of time outdoors?

Is one of these right? How many did I miss?

What’s wrong with it anyway?

In researching links for this article, I discovered that the original book title has been updated to drop the Free Range reference.  Somehow I don’t think this will be the end of the meme, but it makes you wonder what happened there.  The Asperger’s community has obviously embraced the phrase, but the publisher would not arbitrarily change the title and redesign the cover on a whim.  Those things cost money which publishers do not spend unless they believe they will make it back.  They must have believed that the previous cover was in some way discouraging sales.

Be Different - new cover

The new cover and title
of John Robison’s book

If that is true, it lends credence to my underlying concern.  The phrase as originally published was a Free Range Aspergian, not the Free Range Aspergian.  Had he written “the,” the term would have been associated with John specifically.  To then make the claim about one’s self would be seen as unoriginal at best.  But John is all about advocacy for the community and not the  kind of guy to identify himself as “the” something-or-other, especially on something so visible as the title of his own book.  I don’t know him personally but that’s my impression of him and one consistent with the high regard in which he is held as an advocate, expert and teacher.

For whatever reason, the eventual title was “a” and not “the.”  Intentionally or otherwise, John created a community.  However, it is a community of exclusion which is something we Aspergians usually criticize others for.  The term as embraced by the community is overwhelmingly positive and I don’t want to discourage anything positive in our community.  However, if you accept the premise that “Free Range Aspergian” is positive, then the degree to which it is positive also defines the degree to which plain old “Aspergian” is less so.  After all, if it wasn’t somehow better, why choose to identify as such?

We have defined a subset within our own community that is somehow better than the larger community.  But the basis on which it is better isn’t crisply defined.  That’s an intentional understatement to illustrate a range.  A crisp definition would be ideal.  A generally accepted definition would be great.  An indistinct definition would be marginally useful.  Unfortunately, it’s not defined at all.

Tales of autism and spaghetti sauce

The result is that the entire community is slowly morphing into something else.  We don’t know what exactly.  We only know it’s better than what it was before.  The inertia in the movement is fueled by comedy, whimsy and humor (all makings of a very good meme) that pull people willingly into the group.  But it is also fueled by a desire to not be labeled as something having less intrinsic worth than the new group, and thus pushes some people in reluctantly.  The negative aspect isn’t terribly obvious so long as the Free Range Aspergians are a very small subset.

Bowl of spaghetti

Photo courtesy Lynn Gardner, Flickr

I am, as far as I know, the first person to publicly stand up and say “hey, we should think about this a bit” and it isn’t obvious (yet?) that people may have issues with this trend.  But let us suppose for the sake of argument that Free Range objectors do exist.  Would they in fact posses less intrinsic worth than someone who identifies as Free Range?  My gut instinct says our community would strongly reject that idea on principle.  Yet here we are embracing a distinction in which there’s the normal Aspergian and a premium version.  Lacking a definition, the label is purely cosmetic.  It is like putting the word “Garlic” in front of the words “Spaghetti Sauce” without changing the recipe, simply because doing so sells more sauce.  It is a distinction without a difference.  Some might wish to abstain from the Free Range group on the basis that adopting a label for purely cosmetic purposes feels like selling out.  Like playing music out of a desire to become a rock star rather than becoming a rock star out of a passion for playing music.

As the proportion of the community who identify as Free Range increases, the exclusionary status of the holdouts becomes increasingly apparent.  In the supermarket, they see that only the generic store brand still bears the unadorned moniker “spaghetti sauce.”  In the broadcast and social media they see the the Free Range community held up to special focus.  Who are they?  How are they different?  The answer of course is that they embrace the positive aspects of Aspergers more.  Otherwise there would be no distinction worth reporting nor of claiming.

All this is conjecture, and I can imagine some people objecting that such hypothetical individuals are simply  too sensitive and should just get over it.  Putting aside that this is the same argument used by people who call us names to exclude us from their social group, consider that we have been trained for generations, by the best psychologists money can buy, to attribute inherent value in names with qualifiers.  The first company to change the label of their sauce earned a premium and market share on a distinction without a difference.  This forced everyone else to follow suit until now everything you see market is sold as premium.

Of course, saturation destroys the exclusivity claims of premium products, requiring some way to justify the price differential.  Generic products are strategically positioned on the shelf and formulated specifically for that reason.  Premium branding may have started as a distinction without a difference, but in its present incarnation the generic stuff is deliberately made less tasty (usually by reducing salt and fat which, ironically, makes it healthier) to prove that the premium stuff actually is better.  What was once premium has now become the baseline and what was once the baseline is now sub-standard or defective.

New And Improved

Ever heard of something new and unimproved?

Commodity goods compete purely on price.  Anyone who wants to make a decent profit can only compete as a premium product.  The way we identify the premium product is by using a qualifier.  Garlic sauce is better than plain sauce, even though the original plain sauce was garlic sauce.  Meat sauce is better than garlic sauce because it has an expensive ingredient.  But then again vegetarian sauce is better (and often more expensive) than meat sauce specifically because it lacks that same ingredient, and in spite of the fact that it, once again, is the original sauce.

Adding a qualifier to “Aspergian” created a premium brand, whether we intended it or not.  It is a fun meme and casts our differences in a positive light, all of which I heartily approve.  However, it indulges in the very culture of exclusion that has marked the history of autistics over the years.  The thing that is so wrong about distinguishing populations against which to discriminate based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or autism, is the thing that is equally wrong about distinguishing populations to celebrate on those same criteria. Because holding people down is bad, we assume lifting them up is good, not realizing that either action separates them.  If we make the same mistakes in building our own social structures as the people we hope to reach with our message of inclusion, what will we be able to teach them once we have their attention?


Qualifiers bestow value.  We are hard-wired to make that association, which is why marketers can exploit it so effectively to their advantage.  We are hard-wired to desire human interaction, something else marketers exploit effectively.  Combining those two things can result in popular viral memes with significant potential for damage.  The Asperger’s community, who advocate against arbitrary exclusion and instead actively promote inclusion, compassion and basic human respect, might unintentionally create a culture of labeling and exclusion within their own community.  Worse, we might do this based on distinctions that are purely cosmetic.  That is an outcome I’m sure nobody intends but which seems possible given our current trajectory.  How could we prevent that outcome?

Fan club

No, not *that* kind of fan club!
Photo courtesy Ping Foo, Flickr

Simple answer: Start a John Robison fan club with that name.

Which is an idea that I suspect would horrify John.  However, it would provide a positive, artificial distinction absent of a negative connotation.  Someone who is “merely” Aspergian simply isn’t a particularly devoted fan, and that’s OK.  They may not even realize that “Aspergian” itself also traces back to John.  When asked about the qualifier, the answer provides a crisp, non-judgmental distinction, and a foot in the door if you wish to raise awareness:  “Oh, that’s what Aspergians who happen to be John Elder Robison fans call themselves.  Have you read any of his books?”

That’s one possibility.  I don’t think John would like it but the idea may grow on him in the absence of a better alternative.  I’m sure he has had similar discussions with his publisher when the book cover and title were updated and thus is not unaware of at least some potential for negative impact.  Do you hate the idea?  Like the idea?  Do you think I’m wrong in my analysis?

In my line of work as an IT Security specialist, I see many cases where companies – many of whom are your trusted vendors – have no security and are completely unaware of that fact.  Other times I work with companies who have no security and it is a conscious decision.  Either company is exposed to bad outcomes but the one who does so deliberately has at least considered risk/cost/benefit first and limit their risk.  It is the companies who fail to consider the risk at all who are exposed to catastrophic losses.  I’m not saying my analysis in this post is correct, only that it is a discussion worth having.  If in fact there is risk, we should accept it deliberately rather than stumbling into it.  What do you think?

A (much) shorter version of this post appeared on the ThAutcast Facebook page.  I’m not sure if it was removed or locked due to downvotes.  I can still see it but cannot respond or update it.  However, one of the reasons the ThAutcast page is so good is the moderation and curation that Landon provides.  If he believed it was off topic and removed it, than I support his decision 100%.  If it was downvoted out of existence then I’m sorry to have offended anyone, but I thought it was an important discussion to have.

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4 Responses to Free Range Aspergian vs. Aspergian

  1. John Elder Robison says:

    One thing puzzles me – your comment about something going viral? What something is that? I googled the phrase “free range aspergian” just now and the references were all to my book.

    • T.Rob says:

      All 169,000 of them? So yeah, drilling down into the Google results, the vast majority are for your book. Surprisingly, eliminating the Jangle Online site drops a ton more thanks to a single poster using the phrase as a handle (and who, according to his profile coined it, though he’s 49 in the UK and apparently not you). A bunch more are from “Tatooed Free Range Aspergian” on a few other forums. Drilling down some more, most entries disappear and yeah there is scant empirical evidence in Google of a meme here.

      I first started thinking of it as viral when two separate people in face-to-face conversations self-identified as Free Range within a couple of weeks of each other. One was at a gastric bypass support group in Charlotte, NC and the other was at a seminar I taught in Amsterdam. On hearing this, I immediately asked these people about their use of the label and origin. The guy in Amsterdam has all your books and is envious that I live “near” you and must have many opportunities to attend your appearances. (Relatively close I suppose, since he’s 6 time zones away and I’m in Charlotte. It isn’t like we’d bump into each other pumping gas.) The person in Charlotte had never heard of you, but adopted the term from someone else. Both people gave similar reasons about using he term because it celebrates the best qualities of Asperger’s and invites further conversations such as the ones we had over it. The proximity of the events, that they were spontaneous utterances “in the wild”, that both people were a bit evangelical about it, and that the second person’s adoption of the term from at least two degrees of separation from the book suggested to me something memetic might be at work.

      More recently, I saw multiple people identified as such introduced on a forum on the same day, and while researching charities stumbled across someone else here in NC also a member of the group. It was the synchronicity of all those things that prompted me to write the post. I didn’t research whether the phrase had gone viral to the extent I assumed it had because the question I’m asking about community is valid in its own right and more effective if considered earlier.

      As more background, the idea I’ve been toying with lately is the nature of communities. The thing we don’t like is when we are singled out for being different and excluded from the community. I wondered what social structure would replace the one we have. Obviously, the answer is a bigger community but based on what? Negative communities, those of of exclusion, exploit a difference to dehumanize another person or group. Is it valid to combat this with a similar community that lifts the target group rather than suppresses it? I came to the conclusion the answer is no. It is like how merchants aren’t allowed to charge more to use a credit card so instead they raise the base price and give a discount for cash. Having a community that elevates one group is simply the inverse of having a community that suppresses a group. The net effect is to divide the two groups.

      So if the answer isn’t to lift up the suppressed group, then it must be to create what I call “the big ‘us'” – a group that rallies around compassion and basic human dignity. The Not In Our Town and Not In Our Schools programs are having success with this approach. The idea is simply that the larger social group (a town or a school in the examples so far)collectively decides that it no longer accepts a culture that dehumanizes people, bullies them or commits violence against them. Negative events are seen to threaten the entire community because instead of happening to “them,” these events are now perceived as being directed at “us.” This is the only model that makes sense to me. In the inclusive society we’d like to build, discrimination, prejudice, bullying and violence *would* be seen as a threat to everyone, not just the victims. That’s a much different social model than we have now and I think we get there by reexamining how we build community. I may be wrong but I believe that it requires greatly reducing or eliminating communities that a) are built around arbitrary, non-functional criteria, and b) assign a +/- differential in intrinsic worth.

      Into the midst of pondering all these things dropped a few new Free Range Aspergians. The group fit the criteria I had identified. a) Arbitrary, non-functional distinction. b) Everyone I asked cited the positive aspects of self-identifying with the group. (i.e. Free Range Aspie > Aspie) So I asked myself, if we actually get the attention of the NT world, what will we tell teach them? What exactly will we ask them to do differently? To build communities the same way as before but with better, happier criteria? Or, if we really expect to change the world, do we consider whether the community structure everyone uses today is part of the problem and how we might change it? If Free Range has gone viral, the discussion is perhaps a bit more pressing. But if not and we do in fact want to try something different, earlier is better and this is a good time to have that dialog.

  2. Thank you for your analysis of “free range Aspergian,” which is far more comprehensive than anything I every did when coining the term.

    Originally I envisioned it to mean the same thing I took it to mean in the farm world – an Aspergian who grew up free of cages, which to me meant schools, colleges, jails, and all the other places that try and mold us individuals into whatever standard form society wants or expects.

    I never had any negative connotation in mind, and I’d be surprised if anyone took the above explanation to mean “better than” any other way of being. I actually thought it was an expression of pride in that I grew up free of schools, conventional education, regular jobs, etc . . . and I still did OK. So to me it exemplified the power of being different and out of the box, or out of the cage, as it were. It all seemed to work together as title and subtitle.

    As to why Random House changed the cover . . . the sad truth is, the book did not come anywhere near living up to its sales potential here in the United States. We could debate the reasons for that – I think it never took off because there was no mass market publicity – but when that happens the publishers often take another stab at success by redesigning the paperback.

    The original yellow cover design with trains and translated “free range Aspergian” continues in use in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and elsewhere. The only place it changed was here.

    I was quite fond of the trains and logo on the original cover, both of which were my own creation. If you look back on my blog in early 2011 you’ll see a post where Alex Plank and I took the cover shot of my own trains in my living room, and “Adventures of a Free Range Aspergian” seemed like a catchy and nice subtitle.

    I never made a decision to remove either but I did agree the book hadn’t taken off and so I acceded to the wishes of Random House Marketing. I can positively assure you there was no hidden message in the removal of the subtitle – it was just a play for a different audience on behalf of the marketers.

    Best wishes
    John Elder Robison

    • T.Rob says:

      Thanks, John!

      I especially appreciate the back story of the changes to the title and cover. When I drafted this, I dug up the blog post where you talk about designing the cover and the history of the trains used in the photo and linked back to it. Great story, by the way. After reading the books, it is fascinating to get a glimpse of the production side of things. Same comment applies to the post you made about the Audible recording sessions.

      I don’t imagine the Free Range fad as potentially “catastrophic” like the security situations I mentioned, but do think there’s a potential we might do our own community some harm. It’s an unfortunate part of the broader social structure to identify as “us” and “them” and use arbitrary distinctions to identify who “they” are. Sometimes “they” are a different race or religion. Sometimes “they” are Aspergians. In our quest for inclusiveness, we are asking simply to not be “them.” We are saying that, in all the ways that matter as thinking, caring, feeling human beings, we are just like you.

      It is in that context that I worry about the outcome of our own community creating an artificial “us” and “them” amongst ourselves. On the one hand, it’s fun. It must be or it would not have gone viral. On the other. it’s a (currently) benign implementation of the same type of social structure we don’t like when others impose it on us. My instinct says it’s not the +/- nature of the group so much as the degree to which it is divides people. I’m not so worried about people in our community using it badly as I am about NT media who have a hard enough time with us as it is making it divisive in spite of our best efforts.

      As an IT Security guy, my business is in identifying risk in complex systems. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard to be tuned this way as it leads me to find vulnerabilities in lots of places other than computer systems. Social systems are not my normal domain so I don’t have a handle on the probability of a negative event or an order of magnitude estimate of impact. In IT security, usually the probability is very, very low but the potential impact is catastrophic. (Classic Black Swan event.) In the social model I’ve constructed, all I know is the probability is higher and the impact lower than I usually deal with but not to what degree. Time will tell.

      Thanks for taking the time and the thoughtful responses.
      — T.Rob

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