Accepted paper:

De-reifying autism: a social science perspective on a social / neurological condition


Ben Belek

Paper short abstract:

Anthropologists studying autism face the challenge of discussing it in a way that acknowledges both its biological and socio-cultural components. What are the conditions for – and implications of – anthropologists working to redefine a category of difference produced and shaped by other disciplines?

Paper long abstract:

Autism spectrum conditions represent a broad category of behavioural, cognitive and neurological atypicalities. While it is now generally accepted that autism has a strong genetic basis, which possibly interacts with environmental factors to induce the condition during early stages of foetal development, it has been suggested that purely biological / neurological processes are inherently unsatisfactory in fully accounting for the phenomenon termed autism. Indeed other factors, such as policy and legislation, self-advocacy, the school system, media representation, medical research, stigma and public conception, to name a few examples, inevitably and significantly act in conjunction with biological processes to shape, in meaningful ways, the manners in which autism is construed, diagnosed, studied and - crucially - performed, lived and experienced. Social scientists writing about autism thus face the challenge of accepting it as a useful and valid category but without reifying the label as one that corresponds unambiguously with a uniformly atypical brain structure. A new definition of autism is therefore needed, one that acknowledges its biological and socio-cultural components, and that embraces the inevitable contingency of knowledge about autism. Following 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork with autistic adults in the UK, I argue that autism would be best viewed as the abstracted collection of traits - sensitivities, preferences, tendencies and strengths - shared in various ways and to varying degrees by those who are deemed autistic. The question then arises: what are the conditions for - and implications of - anthropologists working to redefine a category of difference originally produced and continuously shaped by other disciplines?

panel P06
Symbiotic anthropologies: new disciplinary relationships in an age of austerity