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.
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The term ‘aleatoric’ is taken here from the work of Ian Hacking (e.g. Hacking, 1975). To refer to an object as aleatoric is to suggest that it is, by nature of its ontology, chance like. Following both Hacking (1995, p. 234) and Barad (2007, pp. 115, 265), I use the word uncertainty to denote an epistemological claim of the sort ‘I am not sure what has really happened’, whereas indeterminacy refers to a hard, ontological claim about the aleatoric state of the world. As will become apparent, in the current empirical example at least, the policing of this boundary is problematic.
As will be discussed at greater length in subsequent sections, there are strong affinities here between the work of Barad and Michel Foucault. Foucault referred favourably to "historical nominalism" or "historical ontology" (Davidson, 2001, p. 36; see also Lemke, 2011, pp. 41–42) and this term has been taken up by several of his interlocutors, most notably Ian Hacking (e.g. Hacking, 2007, p. 295; Madsen et al, 2013, p. 48). As Hacking says, “there is hardly a grain of so-called relativism” (Hacking, 2002, p. 23) in this approach and as Paul Veyne notes “there is no more relativism as soon as one has stopped opposing truth to time” (Veyne et al, 1993, p. 3). While Foucault and Barad understand history differently, what their approaches have in common is the centralisation of movement and becoming in ontological investigation. Where Barad departs from, or at least extends upon, these approaches is by incorporating non-humans and inanimate matter into her analyses (although see, Lemke, 2015).
While it is useful for present purposes, Barad may not endorse the metaphor of a ‘hinge’ which is suggestive of a ‘past’ on one side and a ‘future’ on the other. While Barad explicitly endorses genealogy as a methodology (Barad, 2007, p. 390), she also states that “the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ are iteratively reworked and enfolded through the iterative practices of spacetimemattering” (Barad, 2007, p. 315). Barad also states that “To the extent that Foucault presumes the presence of the past, or more generally the givenness of space and time, genealogy has been stopped short in its tracks” (Barad, 2007, p. 474). Attempts to take Foucault’s historical ontology to Barad have struggled to integrate her understanding of history as successfully as they have reworked her understanding of agency (e.g. Lemke, 2015, p. 16). This is not necessarily so, however, as Ian Hacking’s notion of “an indeterminacy in the past” (Hacking, 1995, pp. 234–257) seems to demonstrate. Like Hacking, it is not the intention that the ‘historical ontology’ proposed in this article places a firm boundary between past and present. For a fuller discussion of Hacking’s concept see Fuller (2002), Gustafsson (2010), Hacking (2003), Roth (2002), and Sharrock and Leudar (2002).
Perhaps the most famous tests of metarepresentation ability are false belief tasks such as the ‘Sally-Anne Test’, developed by Wimmer and Perner in 1983 and deployed to examine theory of mind in autism shortly after (Baron-Cohen et al, 1985). The findings from false belief tasks were so striking that, for many, this theory of autism became known as the ‘theory of mind’ account of autism. At least in its initial articulation, however, this nomenclature is misleading. As this section has made clear, theory of mind impairments were articulated as a symptom of deeper cognitive impairment to a decoupling mechanism. This inability to decouple representations from each other – a deficit in forming metarepresentations – also explains poor metaphor use and a lack of pretend play. For further information on metarepresentations and the manner in which false belief tasks are underpinned by Alan Leslie’s hypothesis see Hollin (2014, pp. 104–107).
The relationship between autism and Asperger’s syndrome has been, and continues to be, disputed and contested (Singh, 2011). Research undertaken at the CDU frequently notes (e.g. Happé, 1991; Happé, 1994b; Frith et al, 1994) that sampled individuals meet criteria for “Autistic Disorder”, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III – Revised (DSM III-R; American Psychiatric Association, 1987). DSM III-R makes no mention of Asperger’s syndrome and Bowler draws his definition of Asperger’s syndrome from a 1981 paper by Lorna Wing. Wing recommends the label of Asperger’s on pragmatic grounds, believing it more acceptable to some parents (1981: 124), while also arguing that autism and Asperger’s most likely “have in common impairment of certain aspects of brain function”. Bowler, likewise, is formally agnostic on the separability of autism and Asperger’s although he does note that the notion of an ‘autistic continuum’ advanced in Wing’s paper: “…implies that people with Asperger’s syndrome and people with classic autism as described by Kanner (1943) represent sub-sets of a larger population of people with social impairment” (Bowler, 1992, p. 878). Bowler, at the very least, is demonstrably prepared to test hypotheses of autism by utilising a sample consisting of those diagnosed with Asperger’s.
This discussion also makes clear that, while important, the emerging discussion of an ‘autism spectrum’ is not immediately related to the issue of cognitive heterogeneity and is broadly consistent with the ‘X-shaped’ disorder previously detailed by Frith (see above). Both Wing (1981, p. 124) and DSM III-R (American Psychiatric Association, 1987, pp. 33–34) argue that there are diverse causes for these conditions and diverse behavioural consequences with unity found between these two points.
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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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Hollin, G. Failing, hacking, passing: Autism, entanglement, and the ethics of transformation. BioSocieties 12, 611–633 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0054-3
- Karen Barad
- Michel Foucault
- ethics of transformation
- cognitive psychology