Embodying Autistic Cognition: Towards Reconceiving Certain 'Autism-Related' Behavioral Atypicalities as Functional

In Jami L. Anderson & Simon Cushing (eds.), The Philosophy of Autism. Rowman & Littlefield (2013)
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Abstract
Some researchers and autistic activists have recently suggested that because some ‘autism-related’ behavioural atypicalities have a function or purpose they may be desirable rather than undesirable. Examples of such behavioural atypicalities include hand-flapping, repeatedly ordering objects (e.g., toys) in rows, and profoundly restricted routines. A common view, as represented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV-TR (APA, 2000), is that many of these behaviours lack adaptive function or purpose, interfere with learning, and constitute the non-social behavioural dysfunctions of those disorders making up the Autism Spectrum. As the DSM IV-TR continues to be the reference source of choice for professionals working with individuals with psychiatric difficulties, its characterization of the Autism Spectrum holds significant sway. We will suggest Extended Mind and Enactive Cognition Theories, which theorize that mind (or cognition) is embodied and environmentally embedded, as coherent conceptual and theoretical spaces within which to investigate the possibility that certain repetitive behaviours exhibited by autistics possess functions or purposes that make them desirable. As lenses through which to re-examine ‘autism-related’ behavioral atypicalities, these theories not only open up explanatory possibilities underdeveloped in the research literature, but also cohere with how some autistics describe their own experience. Our position navigates a middle way between the view of autism as understood in terms of impairment, deficit and dysfunction and one that seeks to de-pathologize the Spectrum. In so doing we seek to contribute to a continuing dialogue between researchers, clinicians and self- or parent advocates.
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