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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    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).

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    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).

  5. 5.

    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.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association (1987) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Third EditionRevised. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

    Google Scholar 

  2. American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Baron-Cohen, S. (1989) The autistic child’s theory of mind: A case of specific developmental delay. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 30(2): 285–297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie A.M. and Frith, U. (1985) Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition 21(1): 37–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bertoglio, K. and Hendren, R.L. (2009) New developments in autism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 32(1): 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bishop, D.V.M. (2008) Forty years on: Uta Frith’s contribution to research on autism and dyslexia, 1966-2006. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 61(1): 16–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bowler, D.M. (1992) “Theory of mind” in Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 33(5): 877–893.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Callon, M. and Rabeharisoa, V. (2004) Gino’s lesson on humanity: Genetics, mutual entanglements and the sociologist’s role. Economy and Society 33(1): 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Chamak, B. (2008) Autism and social movements: French parents’ associations and international autistic individuals’ organisations. Sociology of Health and Illness 30(1): 76–96.

  11. Charman, T. et al (2011) Defining the cognitive phenotype of autism. Brain Research 1380(1943): 10–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Collins, H. (1975) The seven sexes: A study in the sociology of a phenomenon or the replication of experiments in physics. Sociology 9: 205–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Davidson, J. (2001) Dover, Foucault and Greek homosexuality: Penetration and the truth of sex. Past and Present 170: 3–51.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Evans, B. (2013) How autism became autism: The radical transformation of a central concept of child development in Britain. History of the Human Sciences 26(3): 3–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Evans, B. (2014) The foundations of autism: The law concerning psychotic, schizophrenic, and autistic children in the 1950s and 1960s Britain. Bulletin of Medical History 88: 253–286.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Eyal, G. et al (2010) The Autism Matrix: The Social Origins of the Autism Epidemic. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Feinstein, A. (2010) A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers. Chichester: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Fitzgerald, D. (2014) The trouble with brain imaging: Hope, uncertainty and ambivalence in the neuroscience of autism. BioSocieties 9: 241–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Foucault, M. (1977) Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In: D.F. Bouchard (ed.) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interveiws Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 139–164.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Penguin Books.

  21. Foucault, M. (1994) Interview with Michel Foucault. In: J.D. Faubion (ed.) Power: Essential Works of Foucault 19541984 Volume 3. London: Penguin, pp. 239–297.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Foucault, M. (2003) The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Freeman, B.J. (1977) The syndrome of autism: The problem of diagnosis in research. Journal of Pediatric Psychology 2(4): 142–145.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Frith, U. (1989) Autism: Explaining the Enigma, 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Frith, U. and Happé, F. (1994a) Autism: Beyond “theory of mind”. Cognition 50(1–3): 115–132.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Frith, U. and Happé, F. (1994b) Language and communication in autistic disorders. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences 346(1315): 97–104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Frith, U., Morton, J. and Leslie, A.M. (1991) The cognitive basis of a biological disorder: Autism. Trends in Neurosciences 14(10): 433–438.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Frith, U., Happé, F. and Siddons, F. (1994) Autism and theory of mind in everyday life. Social Development 3(2): 108–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Fuggle, S., Lanci, Y. and Tazzioli, M. (2015) Foucault and the History of Our Present. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Fujimura, J.H. (1987) Constructing “do-able” problems in cancer research: Articulating alignment. Social Studies of Science 17(2): 257–293.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Fuller, S. (2002) Making up the past: a response to Sharrock and Leudar. History of the Human Sciences 15(4): 115–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Geschwind, D.H. and Levitt, P. (2007) Autism spectrum disorders: Developmental disconnection syndromes. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 17(1): 103–11.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Goodwin, C. (1994) Professional Vision. American Anthropologist 96(3): 606–633.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Gustafsson, M. (2010) Seeing the Facts and Saying What You Like: Retroactive Redescription and Indeterminacy in the Past. Journal of the Philosophy of History 4(3): 296–327.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Hacking, I. (1975) The Emergence of Probability: A Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference. London: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Hacking, I. (1995) Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Hacking, I. (2002a) Historical Ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Hacking, I. (2002b) Mad Travelers: Reflections on the on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Hacking, I. (2003) Indeterminacy in the past: On the recent discussion of chapter 17 of Rewriting the Soul. History of the Human Sciences 16(2): 117–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Hacking, I. (2007) Kinds of people: Moving targets. Proceedings of the British Academy, 151: 285–318.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Hahamy, A., Behrmann, M. and Malach, R. (2015) The idiosyncratic brain: Distortion of spontaneous connectivity patterns in autism spectrum disorder. Nature Neuroscience 18(2): 302–309.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Happé, F.G. (1991) Theory of Mind and Communication in Autism. London: University College, London.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Happé, F.G. (1993) Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory. Cognition 48(2): 101–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Happé, F.G. (1994a) An advanced test of theory of mind: understanding of story characters’ thoughts and feelings by able autistic, mentally handicapped, and normal children and adults. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 24(2): 129–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Happé, F.G. (1994b) Annotation: Current psychological theories of autism: The “theory of mind” account and rival theories. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 35(2): 215–229.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Happé, F.G. (1994c) Wechsler IQ profile and theory of mind in autism: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 35(8): 1461–1471.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Happé, F., Ronald, A. and Plomin, R. (2006) Time to give up on a single explanation for autism. Nature Neuroscience 9(10): 1218–1220.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Hoffman, E., Myerberg, N.R. and Morawski, J.G. (2015) Acting otherwise: Resistance, agency, and subjectivities in Milgram’s studies of obedience. Theory & Psychology 25(5): 670–689.

  49. Hollin, G.J. (2013) Social Order and Disorder in Autism. University of Nottingham.

  50. Hollin, G.J. (2014) Constructing a social subject: Autism and human sociality in the 1980s. History of the Human Sciences 27(4): 98–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Hollin, G. (2017) Autistic heterogeneity: Linking uncertainties and indeterminacies. Science as Culture 26: 209–231.

  52. Hollin, G.J. and Pearce, W. (2015) Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports. Nature Climate Change 5: 753–756.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Jasanoff, S. (2004) Ordering knowledge, ordering society. In: S. Jasanoff (ed.) State of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. New York: Routledge, p. 317.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Kanner, L. (1943) Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child 2: 217–250.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Koopman, C. (2013) The formation and self-transformation of the subject in Foucault’s ethics. In: C. Falzon, T. O’Leary and J. Sawicki (eds.) A Companion to Foucault. Chichester, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 526–543.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Lemke, T. (2011) Critique and experience in Foucault. Theory, Culture & Society, 28(4): 26–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Lemke, T. (2015) New materialisms: Foucault and the “Government of Things.” Theory, Culture & Society 32(4): 3–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Leslie, A.M. (1987) Pretense and representation: The origins of “Theory of Mind.” Psychological Review 94(4): 412–426.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Madsen, O.J., Servan, J. and Oyen, S.A. (2013) “I am a philosopher of the particular case”: An interview with the 2009 Holberg prizewinner Ian Hacking. History of the Human Sciences 26(3): 32–51.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Mellor, F. (2010) Negotiating uncertainty: asteroids, risk and the media. Public Understanding of Science 19(1): 16–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Miller, J. (1993) The Passion of Michel Foucault. London: Harper Collins.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Mol, A. (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Moore, M.J. (2014) On the Spectrum: Autistics, Functioning, and Care. University of California Santa Cruz.

  65. Moreira, T., May, C. and Bond, J. (2009) Regulatory objectivity in action: Mild Cognitive Impairment and the collective production of uncertainty. Social Studies of Science 39(5): 665–690.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Navon, D. (2011) Genomic designation: How genetics can delineate new, phenotypically diffuse medical categories. Social Studies of Science 41(2): 203–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Navon, D. and Eyal, G. (2014) The trading zone of autism genetics: Examining the intersection of genomic and psychiatric classification. BioSocieties (March 2011): 1–24.

  68. O’Connor, N. (1975) Medical Research Council Developmental Psychology Unit. Psychological Medicine 5(1): 101.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. O’Neil, S. (2008) The meaning of autism: Beyond disorder. Disability & Society 23(7): 787–799.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Ortega, F. (2009) The cerebral subject and the challenge of neurodiversity. BioSocieties 4(4): 425–445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Ozonoff, S., Pennington, B.F. and Rogers, S.J. (1991) Executive function deficits in high-functioning autistic individuals: Relationship to theory of mind. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 32(7): 1081–1105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Pickersgill, M. (2011) Ordering disorder: Knowledge production and uncertainty in neuroscience research. Science as Culture 20(1): 71–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Pickersgill, M. (2014) The endurance of uncertainty: Antisociality and ontological anarchy in British psychiatry, 1950-2010. Science in Context 27(1): 143–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Pinch, T.J. (1981) The sun-set: The presentation of certainty in scientific life. Social Studies of Science 11(1): 131–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Rapley, M. (2004) The Social Construction of Intellectual Disability. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Roth, P.A. (2002) Ways of pastmaking. History of the Human Sciences 15(4): 125–143.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Shackley, S. and Wynne, B. (1996) Representing uncertainty in global climate change science and policy: Boundary-ordering devices and authority. Science, Technology & Human Values 21(3): 275–302.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Sharrock, W. and Leudar, I. (2002) Indeterminacy in the past? History of the Human Sciences 15(3): 95–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Silverman, C. (2012) Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  80. Singh, J.S. (2011) The vanishing diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder. In: P. McGann and D. J. Hutson (eds.) Sociology of Diagnosis. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing, p. 410.

    Google Scholar 

  81. Singh, J.S. (2016) Multiple Autisms: Spectrums of Advocacy and Genomic Science. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  82. Snowling, M.J., Bishop, D.V.M. and Blakemore, S.-J. (2008) Editorial. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 61(1): 13–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. Star, S.L. (1985) Scientific work and uncertainty. Social Studies of Science 15(3): 391–427.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. Star, S.L. (1989) Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific Certainty. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  85. Verhoeff, B. (2012) What is this thing called autism? A critical analysis of the tenacious search for autism’s essence. BioSocieties 7(4): 410–432.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  86. Verhoeff, B. (2013) Autism in flux: A history of the concept from Leo Kanner to DSM-5. History of Psychiatry 24(4): 442–458.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  87. Verhoeff, B. (2014) Stabilizing autism: A Fleckian account of the rise of a neurodevelopmental spectrum disorder. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

  88. Veyne, P., Porter, C. and Davidson, A.I. (1993) The Final Foucault and his ethics. Critical Inquiry 20(1): 1–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  89. Webster, A.J. and Eriksson, L. (2008) Standardising the unknown: Practicable pluripotency as doable futures. Science as Culture 17(1): 57–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  90. Wimmer, H. and Perner, J. (1983) Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition 13: 103–128.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  91. Wing, L. (1981) Asperger’s syndrome: A clinical account. Psychological Medicine 11(July 2009): 115–129.

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gregory Hollin.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Karen Barad
  • Michel Foucault
  • autism
  • uncertainty
  • ethics of transformation
  • cognitive psychology