, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 611–633 | Cite as

Failing, hacking, passing: Autism, entanglement, and the ethics of transformation

  • Gregory HollinEmail author
Original Article


One of the most notable recent changes in autism science is the belief that autism is a heterogeneous condition with no singular essence. I argue that this notion of ‘autistic heterogeneity’ can be conceived as an ‘agential cut’ and traced to uncertainty work conducted by cognitive psychologists during the early 1990s. Researchers at this time overcame uncertainty in scientific theory by locating it within autism itself: epistemological uncertainty was interwoven with ontological indeterminacy and autism became heterogeneous and chance like, a condition determined by indeterminacy. This paper considers not only the conceptual significance of this move but also the impact upon forms of subjectivity. This analysis is undertaken by integrating the agential realism of Karen Barad with the historical ontology of Michel Foucault. I argue that these two approaches are, firstly, concerned with ontologies of emergence and, secondly, foreground the inherently ethical nature of change. As such these theories can be used to articulate an ‘ethics of transformation’. I argue that the agential cut which brought about autistic heterogeneity is potentially problematic within an ethics of transformation, limiting the possibility of future change in subjectivity by imagining difference and resistance as properties of autism rather than the individual.


Karen Barad Michel Foucault autism uncertainty ethics of transformation cognitive psychology 



I would like to thank Eva Giraud and Alison Pilnick for reading earlier drafts of this article as well as the peer reviewers for their extensive engagement with this piece This research was supported by a Mildred Blaxter Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness and an Institutional Strategic Support Fund Fellowship from the University of Leeds and The Wellcome Trust.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Sociology and Social PolicyUniversity of LeedsLeedsUK

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