(Over the next couple of months, I will be hosting a series of guest posts on the social study of autism. In this second post of the series, it’s great to have Matt Willis. Matt has recently completed an honour’s degree in social anthropology at La Trobe University in Australia. His research, which was based on a careful reading of prior research and literature, focused on autism and the anthropological perspective.)
I’m going to be writing about the unbalanced construction of autism, drawing primarily on theory of mind as an example. My aim is to get people thinking about how cognitive theories, such as theory of mind, are constructed and applied by neurotypical people to autistic people, or those labelled as autistic. How does this affect the validity of the theories? Who has the power in the decisions to use and how to apply these theories?
Before I dive into that though, I want to establish a precedent to my point: intelligence tests. Anthropologists and psychologists, among others, are generally critical of the practise of applying intelligence tests developed in one culture to people in another. Psychologist Patricia Greenfield considered ability tests “cultural genres” in that their construction is determined by particular cultural symbols and normalised practices. Taking one cultural genre and trying to superimpose it on a different culture is like trying to fit a square block into a circular hole—it’s not going to work! Robert Sternberg outlines a bunch of great reasons as to why this is the case, including different cultural evaluations of what ‘smart’ means, the familiarity of assessment materials and delivery, children might develop skills that serve them better in their environments than other environments, and people from different cultures might simply think about things quite differently (see reference list at the end of the post if you’re interested in reading more).
Now, these tests don’t necessarily have much traction within the cultural genres in which they are constructed either (if you even accept the notion of “cultural genres”), but that’s another can of worms. The question is: what does any of this have to do with autism (aside from the fact that autistic people likely frequently have to take such tests and are then erroneously labelled as this or that)? Consider once more the idea of constructing an aptitude test based on a particular cultural genre and attempting to use this test to explain the abilities of a group of people from a different cultural genre. Who is constructing this test? Why have they done so? Why are they applying it in the context of a different cultural genre? In other words, where is the power and how is it being used?
Theory of mind (the theory that typical minds have an ability to perceive states of mind in other people, such as intentions, knowledge, and desires) is frequently said to be impaired in autistic people. But why? Consider this: neurotypical children commonly fail theory of mind tests. In most of these instances, attempts are made to find alternative explanations and discover other instances in which the kind of empathy associated with theory of mind is present. Yet people who are labelled as, or in the process of being labelled as, autistic generally don’t receive the same scrutiny. It’s more a case of ‘Alright, there you, there’s the evidence!’
Damien Milton, an autistic person himself, as well as a doctoral social researcher at Birmingham University, has written a great critique of theory of mind, entitled On the Ontological Status of Autism: the ‘Double Empathy Problem’. In this article, Milton points out that many autistic people are made to feel uncomfortable or threatened during theory of mind tests because of the way the test is administered. This highlights, fairly strongly, the fact that tests like theory of mind are designed and implemented by neurotypical people, based on what they believe is appropriate methodology. Now, I’m certainly not trying to suggest that autism is equivalent to a culture, although different movements surrounding autism may constitute cultures. Even so, I think theory of mind is potentially another kind of invasive aptitude test, constructed by one group of actors and imposed upon a separate group of actors.
This is not to say that a degree of absence in theory of mind might not be observed in an autistic person. I have an autistic friend who has readily admitted that it is somewhat the case for him. But that “somewhat” is important. Ben has already written about the diversity of autism. We all know that autism is not homogenous, that autistic people are as different from one another as are neurotypical people from each other. You cannot apply one, totalising theory to a diverse group of people. Nor can you ignore the fact that absences of theory of mind may very well manifest to some degree in many neurotypical people.
In Milton’s article, his main point is that the neurotypical researchers who investigate the presence of theory of mind have a distinct position of power in deciding whether their fellow communicator is perceiving states of mind, or empathy. Indeed, neurotypical people in general hold this power. The kind of empathy under question is determined by neurotypical people, based on what they believe is normal behaviour. Under this model, a neurotypical person’s empathy is difficult for an autistic individual to grasp. Yet, as Milton argues, it is equally true that an autistic person’s empathy is difficult for a neurotypical person to grasp. Communication works both ways, and the rules of communication should not be determined by only one actor’s ideas of what is normal and what is not.
So what can we say about theory of mind after all this? That it is constructed by neurotypical people, assumes that neurotypical cognizance (if there is such a thing at all) is free from an absence of theory of mind, assumes that autistic people universally display a degree of an absence of theory of mind, yet does not seem to engage in communication with autistic people on level ground. Therefore, the foundation upon which the notion that autistic people have a deficit in theory of mind is built, is not as solid as many people assume.
What this all means for me is this: people need to stop generalising cognitive normalcy and start considering that many people communicate, think, and feel in different ‘non-typical’ ways. These ways are not invalid and are not representative of entire categorisations of people. Put another way: neurodiversity deserves all the momentum it can get.
Milton, Damien 2012, ‘On the ontological status of autism: the “double empathy problem”’, Disability & Society, vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 883-887.
Greendfield, Patricia 1997 ‘You can’t take it with you: why ability assessments don’t cross cultures’, American Psychologist, vol. 52, no. 10, pp. 1115-1124, < http://www.ecdgroup.com/download/sa1yctii.pdf>
Sternberg, Robert J. 2008, ‘Culture, instruction, and assessment’, in J Elliot and E Grigorenko (eds.), Western Psychological and Educational Theory in Diverse Contexts, Routledge, Oxon, pp. 5-22.