The contrast between third- and first-personal accounts of the experiences of autistic persons has much to teach us about epistemic injustice and epistemic agency. This paper argues that bringing about greater epistemic justice for autistic people requires developing a relational account of epistemic agency. We begin by systematically identifying the many types of epistemic injustice autistic people face, specifically with regard to general assumptions regarding autistic people’s sociability or lack thereof, and by locating the source of these epistemic injustices in neuronormativity and neurotypical ignorance. We then argue that this systematic identification pushes us to construe epistemic agency as resulting from a fundamentally relational and dynamic process between an individual, others around them, and their social, cultural, or institutional environment, rather than as a fixed and inherent property of individuals. Finally, we show how our relational account of epistemic agency allows us to introduce the novel concepts of epistemic disablement and epistemic enablement. We argue that these two concepts allow us to more accurately track the mechanisms that undermine or facilitate epistemic agency, and thereby to better understand how epistemic injustice arises and to design more effective interventions to foster greater epistemic justice for autistic people.
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We use the terms “autistic person” or “autistic individual” as per the identity-first language preferred by many autistic self-advocates, who view autism as an identity, in contrast to the person-first language of “person with autism” or “person who has autism,” which views autism as a problem or a disease. For more on this debate, see: https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/
For more on these and other vignettes, see Jaswal and Akhtar 2019.
See, e.g., the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network: https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/
We include these specific testimonies as they concern the sociability of autistic people, which is our focus here. It should be noted that this focus need not entail the view that sociability is definitional of humanity or that a lack of social motivation is by definition problematic, nor does it imply that all autistic persons have the same social experiences or universally share a common desire for social interactions (Fletcher-Watson and Crompton 2019). Rather, our concern is to do (epistemic) justice to the claims many autistic persons do voice regarding their misrepresentation as fundamentally asocial beings and their perception of this misrepresentation as problematic.
See also José Medina’s (2013) notion of “meta-ignorance” (a form of active ignorance), which refers to one’s ignorance of one’s own ignorance, similarly to what Mills describes above.
Although, for expository and stylistic reasons, we speak of the affordance landscape of an organism, affordance landscapes are usually defined relative to a population. As Gallagher reminds us, the term refers to “the total ensemble of available affordances for a population relative to a form of life” (Gallagher 2018, p. 721). Individual organisms carve themselves an “affordance space” into that landscape depending on their physical or cognitive skills or the part of the environment to which they are exposed. Depending on the present bodily and mental states of an individual organism and the context, we can speak of the “field of affordances,” which refers to a subset of affordances in the affordance space that are actively soliciting it.
For instance, Heyes (2016) argues that “overimitation,” a capacity that for many is crucial in the process of “cultural ratcheting” (i.e., the process through which cultural artifacts and practices are built by piling up modifications or improvements over time) is not a biological given, but something that is constructed through interactions between adults and infants.
Takao et al. (2018) show for instance that individuals raised in Japan are more sensitive to contextual information and do not use gaze-cueing when context shows that the direction of a gaze is non-predictive, whereas individuals raised in the United States tend to follow gaze direction whether or not it is predictive.
See the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (known as ICIDH, 1980), published by the World Health Organization.
Versions of the interactionist model have been proposed by the WHO in its International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (known as ICF, 2001) and, in the US, by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its Enabling America (Brandt and Pope 1997).
Indeed, one type of interactionist model is called the “Disablement Process Model” (Verbrugge and Jette 1994).
It transforms what is sometimes called the person’s “affordance space” (see note 8).
One might wonder whether some individuals may be unable to skillfully navigate any mental institutions, thereby pointing to potential limits of the interactionist model proposed here. We believe that, given adequate enabling conditions in the environment as well as some degree of responsiveness from the individual, even individuals with severe or profound intellectual disabilities (who may not be autistic, and vice versa) can partake in mental institutions: see, e.g., Catala 2020, illustrating with Kittay 1999. See also Carlson’s (2010, p. 178) notion of the spectrum of certainty, which acknowledges the epistemic obstacles that arise when attempting to assess the lived experience of non-verbal, intellectually disabled persons while simultaneously emphasizing that some people (e.g., close family members or caregivers) might be better positioned to do so than others (e.g., clinicians or philosophers). We thank an anonymous reviewer for inviting us to clarify these points.
Like their social sensitivity, a sensitivity that expresses itself in phenomena like compensatory strategies used to hide autistic features (see Levingston et al. 2019); or their sensory or motor differences, that until recently have not been considered as a feature of autism (Donnellan et al. 2013).
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This research was undertaken, in part, thanks to funding from the Canada Research Chairs program. This research was also supported by two grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
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This article belongs to the topical collection on Epistemological Issues in Neurodivergence and Atypical Cognition, edited by Alejandro Vázquez-del-Mercado Hernández and Claudia Lorena García-Aguilar.
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Catala, A., Faucher, L. & Poirier, P. Autism, epistemic injustice, and epistemic disablement: a relational account of epistemic agency. Synthese 199, 9013–9039 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03192-7
- Epistemic agency
- Epistemic (dis)affordance
- Epistemic disablement
- Epistemic enablement
- Epistemic (in)justice
- Neurotypical ignorance
- Relational agency