Autism spectrum research and disability language alternatives

Bryce Huebner, a superstarpostdoctoralphilosophygraduate currently working in Marc Hauser’s lab at Harvard, recently sent me the following query. Bryce is writing up descriptions of research on autism / autism spectrum disorder and theory of mind (ToM), research that explores differences between experimental subject populations (you know, controlled studies and all that), often different populations of children. He writes:

I am really struggling with the sort of language to use in discussing some of the developmental data on mental state ascriptions. Here’s my problem. I want to try to avoid ableist language in discussing ToM. But I’m not sure how to discuss the similar capacities that emerge for both ‘normally developing’ children and ‘developmentally disabled’ children in contrasting these capacities with the lack of one sort of ToM that we see in children with autism spectrum disorder. Do you have any suggestions about how to avoid the use of terms like ‘developmentally disabled’ in this case?

My short answer was that while there are patches here and there, ableist language in both the scientific literature on autism / autism spectrum disorder and much everyday thinking on autism is permeated with words and phrases that are stigmatized, and that there’s likely no global solution that doesn’t create other problems, and (b) I would blog this, with permission, at What Sorts, since the collective intelligence housed here is much greater than could ever be housed in my pea-sized brain.

For “developmentally disabled populations”, once could talk about the specific diagnoses or characteristics of those lumped together under that heading. But does that solve any problem? Is this a lump in the carpet that is pushed down in one place only to annoyingly appear elsewhere?

So, solutions, suggestions, reflections on the problem? Or is it not even a problem to begin with? While there has been some discussion on the blog about ableist language (such as on ableist slurs and a useful link to CBC’s Disability Matters), some of you might have more to offer, either in general or specifically on ASD, developmental disability, mental retardation, etc..


8 thoughts on “Autism spectrum research and disability language alternatives

  1. Spirit,
    This brief comment is really intended to generate discussion of the query. I say “generate discussion of the query” rather “provide one solution or answer to the query,” because I think the subject matter from which the query derives *itself* requires examination. I commend Bryce Huebner for making an effort to change the discourse of cognitive science/theory of mind which is remarkably (and I will go on to suggest, “inherently”) ableist, “othering,” stigmatizing, and so on. As someone whose thinking on these matters has been heavily influenced by Foucault, however, I am inclined to think that the language of the discourse is in large part constitutive of the reality it is purported to merely represent. The willingness to reform the language of cognitive science, theory of mind, or whatever one wishes to call it, furthermore, should be regarded as only one part of the solution to ridding philosophy and related fields of a burgeoning problem, namely, their increasing participation in biopolitical and disciplinary practices and discourses of normalization and pathologization.

    In order to resist this troubling trajectory (on which, I would argue, cognitive science is at the forefront), therefore, one should in addition foster a willingness to change the very questions which the subdiscipline asks, that is (to use a badly-worn phrase), “to change the subject,” to turn the gaze back upon cognitive science itself and ask of it (in this context anyway): what motivates it to distinguish kinds of people and then go looking for justification (“evidence”) of that artifactual distinction?; what motivates a research agenda that needs to find a way to describe/prescribe/distinguish capacities that are in fact similar (to use Huebner’ own term) for two artifactually differentiated groups of children?; what motivates it to describe/ prescribe one group as “normal” and the other group as “lack[ing]”? As Cangeuilhem, Hacking, Foucault and others have shown us, there is no such thing as a norm, notion of normality, or recognition of the normal which stands apart from, or independent of, a socially constituted discourse from which it derives its very meaning and significance. To put it plainly, there is no definition of “the normal“ that does not rely upon a definition or set of definitions of the abnormal, the different, the subnormal, lack, deficiency, odd, the aberrant, the anomalous, and so on. In short, while investigations into autism and “autistic children” are purportedly aimed at understanding the “situated cognition” of these kids, I would argue that in fact they are actually, really, surreptitiously, and tendentiously designed to further define and refine Normality by “discovering” (through value-neutral and objective inquiry, of course) the characteristics of its other(s).

  2. Ok, so we take a step back and ask questions of larger-scale enterprises. Fine. But what do we say to Lenin’s question–what is to be done?–when asked of how one improves discourse about ASD and disability when simply describing what it is that people are doing in their studies, what findings they are reporting, what implications this has for treatment, parental uptake, etc.?

    Does the advice to “turn the gaze back upon cognitive science itself” preclude constructive interventions within the dominant discourse, or is there more that can be done? Does the shift from “autism” to “autism spectrum disorder” count as a positive move here, or just subterfuge? Are we reduced just to introducing “scare quotes” every time we want to talk about what has been going on in this part of developmental psychology? If so, that would be kinda sad.

  3. Spirit,
    Are you looking for engaged and potentially edifying consideration of this topic, or a quick fix, that is, the right words to pass on to Huebner? The former seems invited by remarks in your initial post, but the latter seems to be the overriding concern expressed in your response to my comment.

  4. OK, here is a response to your request for a quick fix: “disabled children,” where this is understood to be a socio-political designation which situates them in a group with others who have been signified as abnormal, deviant, lacking, and so on.

  5. I think “neurotypical” is a reasonable quick fix; I’m a bit less clear about “neurodivergent”. But let me raise a more general issue. The normativity in cognitive science is arguably not really about what is typical; at least arguably, it’s a medical normativity that is tied to a notion of functioning well in a specific way. Consider, then, vision science, which is largely a branch of cognitive neuroscience; I would have thought that typical vision is very likely to count as impaired, just as polution could give most of a population impaired lungs or impaired kidneys. Perhaps just about everyone in the world over 40 has ‘bad teeth.’

    The semantics of the (wrong-labelled) normatizing remarks in cognitive neuroscience are probably those of the recently discussed generics, and the similar Aristotelian categoricals that underly much in virtue ethics.

    Of course, a remark about semantics is not going to tell you about how statements get used politically. One might indeed argue that the whole of medicine is about the coersive practices, and I’m not disputing that point. Rather, I’m situating cognitive science in a different matrix.

    Further, within cognitive neuroscience itself, of course, the privilege often goes to the diagnosable. Perhaps there are fields where the brilliant innovators pride themselves on being what we call “normal,” but I have yet to meet one in a science – or indeed in academia – who would be happy with that thought. That might be thought to be an unfortunate appropriate of disability discourse, or it might be that brilliant innovators do often have genuine differences.

  6. Clarification: by “putting cognitive neuroscience in a different matrix” I mean situating its normativity within medical discourse.

    In fact, if anyone is interested, I have a paper on this coming out in the Oct. 08 Phil Psych (“What Should a Theory of Vision look like?”). It strikes me as odd that there’s been little attention to the normativity of cognitive science outside of contexts like the one this blog creates.

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