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Toward a Phenomenological Account of Embodied Subjectivity in Autism

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Abstract

Sensorimotor research is currently challenging the dominant understanding of autism as a deficit in the cognitive ability to ‘mindread’. This marks an emerging shift in autism research from a focus on the structure and processes of the mind to a focus on autistic behavior as grounded in the body. Contemporary researchers in sensorimotor differences in autism call for a reconciliation between the scientific understanding of autism and the first-person experience of autistic individuals. I argue that fulfilling this ambition requires a phenomenological understanding of the body as it presents itself in ordinary experience, namely as the subject of experience rather than a physical object. On this basis, I investigate how the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty can be employed as a frame of understanding for bodily experience in autism. Through a phenomenological analysis of Tito Mukhopadhyay’s autobiographical work, How can I talk if my lips don’t move (2009), I illustrate the relevance and potential of phenomenological philosophy in autism research, arguing that this approach enables a deeper understanding of bodily and subjective experiences related to autism.

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Notes

  1. E.g. the theory of mind deficit hypothesis, weak central coherence theory and executive functioning theory.

  2. Research has traditionally depicted repetitive, stereotyped or self-stimulatory behaviors in autism from a behaviorist perspective as something to be eliminated or treated (Boyd, McDonough, and Bodfish 2012). However, recent research emphasizes the productive and positive value of these behaviors as ways of managing a chaotic and overwhelming environment (Sinha et al. 2014; Davidson 2010), as sources of pleasure, social engagement between autistics or even as cultural and artistic expression (Bakan 2014; Nolan and McBride 2015; Conn 2015).

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Boldsen, S. Toward a Phenomenological Account of Embodied Subjectivity in Autism. Cult Med Psychiatry 42, 893–913 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-018-9590-y

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