‘Wired up differently’: Autism, adolescence and the politics of neurological identities

Abstract

With the rapid rise in neuroscience research in the last two decades, neuroscientific claims have travelled far beyond the laboratory and increasingly, ‘facts’ about the brain have entered the popular imagination. As cognitive neuroscience steps up its focus on neurological distinctions between different ‘kinds of people’, researchers in the social sciences and humanities have begun to investigate the role of neurological vocabulary in the constitution of identities. In this article, we explore the terrain of ‘neurological identities’ through a comparative analysis of identity issues among individuals diagnosed with autism, and among adolescents – two categories of people who constitute important objects of study in current work in cognitive neuroscience and psychiatry. In particular, we explore the social conditions that render neuroscience a language palatable to autistic self-advocates and controversial to adolescents. Through these case studies, we demonstrate the heterogeneity of the role of the brain in projects of identity formation, and the many possible meanings conferred by the notion of ‘being wired up differently’.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The use of the term ‘anthropological figure’ when related to the ‘cerebral subject’ does not intend to rehabilitate some form of anthropological philosophy and draw on a notion of essence, or universal and ahistorical human nature. Rather, it designates the processes of individuation and subjectivation in certain socio-historical contexts, and does not exclude the cohabitation of different anthropological figures: cerebral selves, psychological selves, chemical selves and others. In this sense, the cerebral subject as an anthropological figure of our contemporary biomedicalized societies constitutes a radicalization of modern western forms of constitution of naturalized and singularized individuals, as have been analysed among others by Louis Dumont (1986), Foucault (1978, 1985, 1986), Charles Taylor (1989), Norbert Elias (1978, 1982), Alan McFarlane (1992).

  2. 2.

    The metaphor of ‘being wired up differently’ has been extensively used by science journalists, health services and is commonly heard among people to whom such versions of neuroscientific theories pertain. The term has travelled widely from research publications about ‘atypical connectivity’ in autistic brains and adolescent brains (two, among many, exemplary groups) and can be found in print newspapers and magazines, media websites, and increasingly in the blogosphere.

  3. 3.

    To what extent the proliferation of new research programmes about brain bases of kinds of people is a result of, or a response to, the increasing presence of neuroscientific claims in popular culture remains to be explored.

  4. 4.

    Findings from brain imaging studies about both teenagers and autistic individuals have frequently led to media reports about both groups having ‘different brains’. Neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg in an interview about thrill-seeking adolescents in the New York Times in December 2009 for example discusses the legal implications of teenagers being ‘different’ from adults in terms of the brain (www.nytimes.com/2009/12/01/science/01conv.html?_r=3&em;). Similarly the BBC reported on neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore's research, discussing how adolescents use their brains differently from adults in thinking about intentions (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5327550.stm). Autistic people, too, are reported to have ‘different brains’, for example, in a BBC article that conveyed findings of ‘flawed’ connectivity in the certain regions (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6037836.stm) and in a health information website interview with autism researcher Nancy Minshew, which discusses the ‘atypical’ and ‘unique’ organization of cells in autistic brains (http://autism.about.com/od/causesofautism/a/AutismBrain.htm).

  5. 5.

    This story was widely reported, for example, in a BBC Science story entitled ‘ “People-person” brain area found’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8055296.stm).

  6. 6.

    Research from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience has come together in the last two decades to form social neuroscience, which typically uses fMRI to demonstrate areas of the brain that function together to enable humans to predict other people's actions on the basis of their beliefs and desires (‘theory of mind’), and understand other people's goals, intentions and emotions (Frith and Frith, 2010).

  7. 7.

    Several popular science books and parenting manuals have been published recently providing biological explanations of parents’ observations about their children, and neuroscientifically evidenced ways to effectively teach the developing teenage brain, such as Barbara Strauch's manual Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids (2003), Usha Goswami's book Cognitive Development and the Learning Brain (2008), and Evelyn Crone's Dutch bestseller Het puberende brein (The Pubertal Brain) (2008). We have been tracing public portrayals and debates around these themes in the United Kingdom, United States and Brazil, which range from popular books to television documentaries and short films to chat show discussions and museum exhibitions.

  8. 8.

    Research on the adolescent brain, and the developing adolescent brain itself, are often referred to as a ‘work in progress’. See for example the Frontline (PBS) article on the adolescent brain (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/work/onereason.html), Sheryl Feinstein's parenting manual, Parenting the Teen Brain: Understanding a Work in Progress (2009), and a recent Royal Society science exhibition (www.summerscience.org.uk/09/exhibit/the-teenage-brain-a-work-in-progress). The slogan of ‘work in progress’ refers at once to the ongoing maturation of the brain as well as the promise of new answers in ongoing investigations.

  9. 9.

    The literature about patient groups and health movements is enormous and increasing. For a recent overview see Epstein (2008).

  10. 10.

    Paul Rabinow coined the term ‘biosociality’ to analyse the socio-cultural and political implications of genetics and particularly of the Human Genome Project (Rabinow, 1996). The term has been widely used in recent years to describe different forms of identity constitution and social practices that have genetics as a reference (Gibbon and Novas, 2008). We use the term to stress different process of biological and somatic subjectivation and forms of sociality that are present in our contemporary biomedical societies, including neurological identities and socialities.

  11. 11.

    In his recent work on human kinds and autism, and autism activism and autobiography (2006, 2007, 2009a, 2009b, 2010a, 2010b), Hacking refers to autism as a ‘kind of people’, which has historically been medicalized, normalized and administered in an anti-essentialist way, and as a way to experience oneself and interact with others. The label of autism or Asperger Syndrome affects the persons so labelled and their families and caretakers, and can potentially modify their behaviour. The label has undergone transformations because of changing biomedical theories. The looping effect includes not only scientific and diagnostic methods, but also advocacy groups and generic notions of autism in movies, TV programmes, novels and blogs. Thus Hacking insists that recent autism activism and the publication of personal testimonies in the internet and of autistic autobiographies can produce the looping effect of deconstructing the trope of the alien common in popular culture to refer to the reciprocal relation between autistic people and the neurotypical universe. Autobiographies, blogs and other resources help both autistic people to infer from neurotypical behaviour and ‘neurotypical’ people to infer from autistic behaviour.

  12. 12.

    Data pertaining to autistic people were gathered from published qualitative research dealing with autism in cyberspace, writings by autistic people, as well as personal blogs of people diagnosed and several discussion lists on the internet drawing directly on the topics of autistic identity and neurodiversity, mainly in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

  13. 13.

    There is, however, not a straightforward story about cerebralization of autism among self-advocates. On the one hand, parent and professional associations such as Cure Autism Now involved in funding biomedical research into causes, prevention and treatment for autism also draw on neurological and genetic explanations and reject psychodynamic explanations of the condition (Nadesan, 2005; Silverman, 2008a, 2008b). On the other hand not all autistic adults favour neurodiversity and its anti-cure rhetoric (Ortega, 2009).

  14. 14.

    ‘Snippet’ from Jane Meyerding's website, http://mjane.zolaweb.com/snipframe.html.

  15. 15.

    Thus autistic identity politics constitute the opposite trend to Hacking's reflections on autism. While the former draws on neurology to justify and naturalize differences among autistics and between autistics and neurotypicals, Hacking's ‘narrative’ approach draws on self-testimonies and autobiographies to establish a bridge between autistic and neurotypical population (and to dismantle the ‘alien’ trope used by both autistics and neurotypicals to refer to each other) and stress the radical heterogeneity within the autistic population.

  16. 16.

    Data pertaining to adolescents were gathered from a mixed-method study involving questionnaires and a focus group discussion from participants at a secondary grammar school for girls in London, UK. The questionnaire, consisting of 18 items, comprised of both multiple-choice and open-ended questions, and was administered to 85 female pupils aged between 13 and 14 . Eight pupils aged 14 took part in the focus group. To stimulate discussion about the portrait of adolescence in society, and the neuroscience of adolescence, we showed three short video clips, which in three different ways portrayed adolescent behaviour deemed to be ‘typical’ (Choudhury et al, under review).

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Ortega, F., Choudhury, S. ‘Wired up differently’: Autism, adolescence and the politics of neurological identities. Subjectivity 4, 323–345 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/sub.2011.9

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Keywords

  • identity
  • cerebral subject
  • neuroscience
  • autism
  • adolescence
  • neurodiversity