Tag Archives: Autism

Reviewing Re-Thinking Autism

Re-Thinking Autism contains, to my knowledge, the most sustained attack upon the diagnosis of autism found within a single book. The editors claim it is the first book in the field of critical autism studies. It contains 17 different papers which are grouped into three areas, namely ‘What is autism’, ‘Deconstructing autism’ and ‘Challenging Practice’. The editors see critical autism studies as focusing on two questions. Firstly, is the diagnosis of autism valid and secondly, is it useful. Most articles are very critical of the diagnosis of autism. Since I felt I benefited immensely from being diagnosed with autism I was probably always going to have reservations. However, in the spirit of engaging with the critical autism studies movement, I will suggest that the book did not address some important questions and issues which would significantly help any attempted challenge to autism.

In relation to validity, multiple articles criticised the scientific foundations of autism. Some give an useful overview of the very heterogeneous causal underpinnings of autism. Whilst this is a very relevant point when assessing autism I feel the consequences were insufficiently explored. There were relatively few details about why the causal heterogeneity makes autism deeply flawed and in need of replacement. Some articles contain statements that autism is not a biological entity or a scientific entity but these are usually asserted rather than argued for. I think these claims face some challenges. Firstly, virtually all psychiatric diagnoses are causally heterogeneous. Therefore, I feel that critical autism studies scholars need either explain why autism need replacing whilst other diagnoses do not or need explicitly endorse a whole rejection of DSM type psychiatric diagnoses (perhaps in favour of person centred approaches). A few articles do seem closer to the latter approach though there are few explicit statements. Additionally, there is little discussion about why causal heterogeneity is problematic and why it makes something not a biological or scientific entity. There was also little mention of other important factors when assessing a scientific theory (such as simplicity, tractability or coherence). These are admittedly deeply philosophical questions which are debated by philosopher of psychiatry (and I was pleased to see a few articles reference philosophers of psychiatry) but I feel these are the sorts of questions which critical autism studies needs engage in. Perhaps the arguments which critical autism studies employ are fully defensible but they currently need more development.

In relation to usefulness, some articles question whether it is helpful to give people a label and other articles question whether it helps in educational settings or support settings. Some of these authors making these arguments have a wide range of experience and expertise. Consequently, I felt they had a viewpoint that was at minimum worth hearing. That said, there was very little input from people diagnosed with autism (only one author was described as being autistic). Very few of the reasons why I find being diagnosed so useful were mentioned. Of course, being autistic does not make me automatically correct on this issue. Perhaps my positive feelings about how useful being diagnosed was are based upon flawed reasoning. Despite this, it would have been good if the book engaged in reasons why some autistic people find being diagnosed so useful even if only to then challenge those reasons.

I feel the biggest problem was a lack of alternatives being outlined. If autism is deeply flawed then what should replace it? Even some vague suggestions (i.e. split it up, add subtypes, merge it with other diagnoses) would have been helpful if I am to assess whether an alternative to autism would be preferable. Additionally, outlining alternatives would give an easier route to challenge autism. There would be no need to argue autism is deeply flawed, rather, there would instead be the easier task of arguing that autism can be useful but an alternative diagnosis is even more useful.

It is worth nothing that the articles are quite diverse and so the degree to which these criticisms are applicable to any given article will vary significantly. Additionally, I felt around a quarter of the articles were pretty good (these were usually the ones which critically analysed autism rather than wished to replace the diagnosis).

To conclude, I felt many articles avoided important questions which are relevant for assessing scientific concepts. I would like to see the critical autism movement engage more with philosophy of science and philosophy of psychiatry. Also, it would be more helpful if criticisms of autism were also accompanied by actual concrete suggestions for alternatives to autism. Despite this, I am glad I bought it and read it. If you want a single book which contains multiple different criticisms of autism then this is the book to go for. I suspect I cite multiple articles from this volume (admittedly, mainly to criticise).

Reviewing Peter Hobson’s The Cradle of Thought

Peter Hobson’s The Cradle of Thought is a philosophically and scientifically informed discussion of how thought develops in early life. Hobson’s main argument is that “interpersonal engagement contributes to the development of the mind – and [that] disordered interpersonal relations affect development of thinking” (p.143). He discusses many scientific studies which show how the level and nature of interpersonal relationships can impact the capacity for thought, suggesting deficient interpersonal relationships can lead to impoverished thinking.

Hobson highlights this through discussing individuals who are often not as capable of interpersonal interactions as most humans. He primarily discusses autism in detail, suggesting the usual thinking of autistic individuals (such as theory of mind differences) arise from lack of normal social and emotional interactions in early life. He heavily emphasizes that autism has a genetic component which results in biological differences (rejecting notions of poor mothering causing autism which some psychoanalysis used to believe) but argues the abnormal thinking itself is not primarily just due to biological difference. Rather, the biological differences result in difficultly interacting normally socially and emotionally, and this abnormal social and emotional experience results in abnormal thinking.

One might ask, why not just say the biological differences are responsible for both the abnormal interactions and for the abnormal thinking? Hobson uses a novel strategy to answer this question, primarily by looking at other types of individuals who also can face difficulties interacting normally. He considers individuals who are blind from birth and individuals who had very little social or emotional interaction in early life when raised in Romanian orphanges. These individuals often could not relate to other people in early life in the same way as most children. He then shows that these individuals sometimes develop some symptoms of autism, at substantially higher probabilities than would occur at random. Autistic individuals have biologically abnormal minds, blind individuals lack sight and Romanian orphans presumably have no major biological differences, yet all can exhibit some similar behaviour we associate with autism. Therefore, Hobson argues, some autistic behaviour is not directly the product of the biologically abnormal mind, but the biologically abnormal mind sets up abnormal interpersonal relationships and those interpersonal relationships result in symptoms associated with autism. Hobson also provides some evidence from how mothers with boarderline personality disorder interact with their children and how chimpanzees lack some parts of human socialising, suggesting both these cases can contribute to less than fully developed thinking.

Even though considered a developmental disorder, there is often a suggestion within scientific literature that the psychological development purely follow biological developments, rather than biological development resulting in psychological developments which then result in further psychological developments. I think a simple biological leading to psychological approach often present in modern science is far too simplistic, but I am unsure whether I think Hobson is correct or if I prefer a middle ground between Hobson and that modern science picture. Reguardless, the book is highly recommended for raising some important questions, presenting a solid evidence basis (often from very diverse sources which are not usually discussed in the context of autism) and for being highly accessible, being effectively popular philosophy and popular science.