Autism: The Very Idea

In Jami L. Anderson & Simon Cushing (eds.), The Philosophy of Autism. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 17-45 (2013)
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If each of the subtypes of autism is defined simply as constituted by a set of symptoms, then the criteria for its observation are straightforward, although, of course, some of those symptoms themselves might be hard to observe definitively. Compare with telling whether or not someone is bleeding: while it might be hard to tell if someone is bleeding internally, we know what it takes to find out, and when we have the right access and instruments we can settle the issue. But matters are not so simple for the autism subtypes. For one thing, how do we settle which symptoms to group together under one heading? One key difference between “autism disorder” and “Asperger’s disorder” is that the former exhibit language delays (sometimes extreme), whereas the latter do not. But is that a sign of genuinely distinct conditions or is that an artifact of the distinct groups of subjects that Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger worked with? And in general, although there are certainly types of behavior that are taken to be indicative of autism, none by itself is taken by diagnosticians to be either necessary or sufficient for a definitive diagnosis for any of the autism subtypes. What is the diagnostician to do? This is not merely an academic issue, as many parents can attest. Are we in a situation, then, that each practitioner has his or her own “pet” signs that are the “real keys” to the diagnosis? That would suggest that the term “autistic” might meet the fate of the outdated term “neurotic,” which turned out to be a pseudo-scientific term for an inexact clumping together of unrelated phenomena. The assumption amongst specialists seems to be that we will reach the point with "autism" that we have with "water": there will be a root essence to autism whose presence or absence settles a diagnosis. If that is to be the case, however, we have to settle the level of application of the concept. Does the term apply to people who exhibit particular behaviors? Or is it possible to exhibit “autistic” behaviors without actually being autistic, because autism is instead a particular feature of the mind (as, for example, in Baron-Cohen’s “impaired theory of mind module” theory, discussed below) which usually but not necessarily has behavioral effects? Or is autism located instead in the brain, perhaps in damage to key areas, which in turn would typically have an effect on modules of the mind? Or perhaps autism is located in genetics or biology, so that some people with damage to the brain caused by accidents so that they exhibit autistic symptoms would not actually be autistic. Conversely, supposing one had an “autistic brain” but showed none of (or not a sufficient number of) the symptoms, would one not be autistic? The assumption is that the genotypes and phenotypes will line up neatly, but if they do not, what happens to the concept “autistic?” (There is an analogy in the philosophy of sex and gender: androgen insensitive individuals tend to self-identify as female and have outward female traits, but have XY chromosomes—should we go with chromosomes or self-identity in assigning sex category?) Finally, the implications for these complications for diagnosis and categorization, with the attendant social and medical implications is discussed. The typical assumption of the medical profession is that autism cannot be “cured.” That assumes that autism is not simply the symptoms. However, at the same time, the tests used to diagnose ASDs work simply from the symptoms (for example, Baron-Cohen’s Sally/Anne test, which ASD children of a certain age almost all fail, but which practically no ASD adult fails). This implies an inherent confusion over the status of the concept. I conclude that attempts to make sense of some true or accurate summary of what it is to be autistic (such as one would find in the DSM) are almost certainly misguided and will vanish into history along with “neurotic.” But as with racial terms, which are similarly shifting and perverse, the term has already passed into the public sphere and will have a lasting and dangerous influence beyond its short scientific shelf-life.
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