Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Autism as anything but social

According to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, social deficits remain core to autistic spectrum disorders. But that hasn't stopped several distinct parties from acting otherwise.

First there are autism parents. While many of us freely acknowledge our children's social limitations, many find these limitations hard to accept. "What a horrible thing to say about a child," I once heard a parent say during a radio interview, "that he or she lacks empathy." There must be something else at fault: sensory overload; anxiety; faulty but fixable wiring. In other words, there must be a normal child in there somewhere.

Which brings us to the next party: the popular media. Its infatuation with autism miracle cure tales is unrelenting: here, some sort of magic bullet (most recently, Pok√©mon Go) unlocks the normal child inside the child who "has autism." Or, if not the normal child inside, then the child who, once liberated and/or truly appreciated for what he or she is, turns out to be "very social," or, as a movie critic recently wrote of the protagonist of the documentary Life, Animated, a "born leader."

While most contemporary autism research finds social deficits to be central to autism, some try to argue that these deficits are merely byproducts of other, more fixable issues. This paper, for example, claims that abnormalities in eye contact and gestures are the result of motor difficulties, and that poor performance on perspective-taking tests are the result of language delays. But even when you disentangle motor tasks and linguistic tasks from social tasks, children on the autistic spectrum do poorly on tests of social reciprocity and perspective taking.

Moving from psychology and neurology to philosophy and disability studies, one does find the occasional attempt to argue against core Theory of Mind deficits in autism. Here the argument involves claiming that the whole notion of a normal or defective Theory of Mind assumes a certain faulty, out-of-date "Cartesian dualism"--i.e., the existence of a mind that is separate from the body/brain. In fact, neither the various Theory of Mind experiments, nor their various conclusions, depend on any such assumption.

But the most bizarre embodiment of the notion that social skills aren't a core deficit of autism, in my experience, is the occasional person who claims to be autistic because they have sensory issues. These are people who show typical levels of social reciprocity and social sensitivity in their conversational interactions (for example during their interview on Fresh Air), but who say they probably have (or could be diagnosed as having) an autistic spectrum disorder because of those sensory issues.

Now, I'm someone who regularly removes labels from my shirts, and who regularly covers her ears when ambulances go by, and who can't stand bananas because the texture is so tremendously disturbing--but I'd hesitate to diagnose myself as being anywhere on the autistic spectrum. At least for those particular reasons.

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