Academic Articles

An Anthropological Perspective on Autism

Belek, 2019. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 26 (3), 231-241

Abstract: Autism spectrum conditions represent a broad range of behavioral, cognitive, and neurological atypicalities. As both a social and a medical category,
autism is dynamic and unstable, and, although its usefulness is rarely contested, its ontological status is frequently under debate. Scholars who write about autism face the challenge of accepting the category as valuable without reifying it as one that corresponds unambiguously with a uniformly atypical brain structure. An approach to autism is, therefore, needed that acknowledges both its biological and social components and that embraces the inevitable contingency and mutability of knowledge about the condition. Drawing primarily on literature from anthropology, I argue that autism can be said to act in the world only insofar as it affords us a template, a system of meanings and significations with which to classify bodies, make sense of events and allow for an increasingly nuanced understanding of diverse behaviors, tendencies and motivations. Thus, the category of autism emerges from the shared experiences of those labeled autistic, but is wholly irreducible to them. A significant implication of this approach is a view of autism and autistic people as two conceptually distinct entities.

Articulating Sensory Sensitivity: From Bodies with Autism to Autistic Bodies

Belek, 2019. Medical anthropology 38 (1), 30-43

Abstract: Drawing on ethnographic evidence from several communities of autistic adults in the UK, I explore the crucial role of the body and the senses in the enactment of autistic subjectivities. Following their initiation into autismrelated social groups, members begin using such concepts as triggers, overload, shutdown, and meltdown to refer to their bodily experiences of distress. They then face the task of investing these ambiguous concepts with meaning, through nurturing an increased awareness to their body’s relationship with its material surrounding. This cultivation of sensitivity ultimately culminates in the transformation of their bodies into what might be termed autistic bodies.

Autism and the Proficiency of Social Ineptitude: Probing the Rules of “Appropriate” Behavior

Belek, 2018. Ethos 46 (2), 161-179

Abstract: Autistic people typically struggle to abide by social conventions: a constituent element of their social exclusion. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork within a group of autistic university students in England, I show that although participants would continuously work to uncover the underlying principles of social etiquette, they
nevertheless remained unsuccessful in putting their acquired knowledge into practice. Consequently, they turned to subtly shaping their social environments in attempts to redefine the terms under which the appropriateness of their actions is evaluated. I conclude by suggesting that social ineptitude consists of contemplative craft and is a meaningful component of all social interaction.

I Feel, Therefore I Matter: Emotional Rhetoric and Autism Self-Advocacy

Belek, 2017. Anthropology Now 9 (2), 57-69

Abstract: What is at stake when autistic people’s collective understandings of autism are rejected by powerful, non-autistic actors? And what role does a language of emotion play in this online battleground over representation? In this article I argue that in the context of autism self-advocacy, emotion claims constitute a political instrument whose purpose it is to restructure the power imbalance between autistic self-advocates and those who purport to speak on their behalf. Additionally, I suggest that in frequently claiming that the discourse produced about them by non-autistic advocates is hateful and fear mongering, as it is often described, members of online autistic communities articulate their position within a broader socio-political landscape; pointing to their exclusion, discrimination and marginalisation. I go on to argue that the language of emotions allows autistic self-advocates to hold on to a sense of individuality in the face of an essentialising discourse, but at the same time claim unity in the face of allegations of multiplicity. Into the rich tapestry of the online world and the many affordances it provides, then, autistic people employ a rich rhetoric of emotions to weave their preferences, tendencies, vulnerabilities and desires. The result is the collective – and highly political – designing of alternative understandings of autism. Ultimately, this article demonstrates how the many ambiguities associated with autism serve as ‘fabrics of potentialities’; spaces for innovation, agency, new connections and new ways of being in the world.

Managing an autistic heart

Belek, 2015. Anthropology in Action 22 (3), 7-13

Abstract: Autism spectrum conditions represent a broad category of behavioural, cognitive and neurological atypicalities. The difficulties experienced by people on the autism spectrum with regards to their emotional awareness, regulation, expression and interpretation are often mentioned in literature – and regarded by autistic people themselves – as salient features of the condition. The primary aim of my research is to help deepen our understanding of these difficulties, in order to gain a subtler appreciation of what ‘being autistic’ actually means. An ethnographic focus on emotional experiences in autism promises to introduce a new, unique pathway toward a clearer understanding of a condition too often thought to be unintelligible. In this article, I argue that insofar as autistic people may experience difficulties in discerning, managing or communicating their emotions, these difficulties mainly stand to reflect and allude to their unique positions within a complex network of connections: social, cultural and neurological.