BY ROBERT ROURKE
“Are my feelings to be trusted? Can someone without a body have feelings? Can someone without a body be subject to abuse? Can someone who lacks a theory of mind accurately narrate the lives and actions and abuses of others? Can she narrate her own life? Where is the body in theory of mind?”
(Melanie Yergeau 2013 “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorise Theory of Mind”)
My PhD research on the sensory experiences of adults with autism, investigates relationships to “favourites”: favourite activities, people and objects. What are the processes through which habitual favourites are formed? How do individuals create and follow a habitual means of engagement? What subjective, material and atmospheric/affective dynamics contribute to the formation and development of a favourite?
I use autoethnographic methods to bring into focus the issues of a researcher with Aspergers Syndrome writing autoethnographic narratives and the methodological questions and challenges autism presents to autoethnographic writing. I have been trying to embody and work with the feminist literature on reflexivity and standpoint theory including Donna Haraway’s influential piece on “Situated Knowledges” (1988). Situated knowledge for Haraway recognises that we as researchers can never produce knowledge that is unmarked by subjective experience and our located entanglements with the human and non-human. Such distant and disembodied knowledge is what Haraway parodied as the “God Trick”.
One such form of the “God Trick” in relation to autism concerns the understanding and application of the concept Theory of Mind (ToM). Baron-Cohen, a central psychologist in this area of research, describes ToM as “being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action… having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds” (Baron-Cohen 2001: 174). My concerns with this branch of autistic theory, research and practice arose when reading the autoethnographic method literature. Autoethnography, with its focus on the self, is seen as too narcissistic and lacking in depth or valid reference points to describe the phenomena under study. Also present in this literature is the critique that this method did not provide enough distance between the topic and subject. These accounts are seen as not applying the “correct” form of research objectivity, thus defiling the God’s Eye view of rigour and quality.
This charge, as Holt (2003) has noted, is often levied at autoethnographic works as a reaction to the unease it can engender within scholarly review processes. Without recourse to traditional criteria of quality such as validity, trustworthiness, lack of bias and reliability, Holt found that many reviewers laid the charge of narcissism without adequately engaging with the topic at hand and the ways in which reflexivity was handled. This may come from a bias and hostility towards the divergent forms through which autoethnography is produced such as through poetry or disjointed narrative. This threatens the sanctity of academic, non-disabled ways of writing, presenting a normative academic persona that privileges a neurotypical, or “normal” cognitive functioning.
I found this troubling because the etymology of the term autism is itself derived from the Greek autos or self and ismos, the action or state of “morbid self-absorption” (Online Etymology Dictionary). The charge of narcissism within autoethnography is more likely going to be laid down without readers thinking about the ways in which an able-bodied subjectivity is being assumed and imposed, let alone the specific detail of the autoethnographic account in question. The risk is a doubly misunderstood or reductive interpretation of autism that threatens to remove any traces or connections to anything outside of an autistic self-reference. Poetry, disjointed narrative and other forms of expressive writing may be more akin to autistic empirical experiences, but are side-lined for rational, concise arguments when considered academically.
Discounting the emphasis on individual self-mastery and the differential cognitive access humans have to their own and others mental states, the problems for those with autism go further than this. Melanie Yergeau, an autistic academic of rhetoric, has written on the link between what she terms “autieethnography” and what the theorists of ToM have argued to be characteristic of autistic sociality (2013). Yergeau finds that ToM theorists discount autieethnography as highly suspect and therefore deprive autistic people of recognition. Baron-Cohen notes that ToM is a core characteristic that makes us human. Yergeau shows us that for people with autism, this attitude to ToM is reflected in degrees of erasure for people with autism trying to document their experiences. With ToM researchers like Happe (1991), who argue that because autistic people can only talk about their own self-contained experiences, they are unable to express themselves in “non-autistic” means. Thus the “God Trick”: in order to be human, you need a ToM, if people with autism do not conform to a ToM, they cannot be human and thus it is impossible for them to conduct valid autoethnographies.
What is problematic is that the emplaced — meaning the spatial, temporal and material location of subjects — are often erased when ToM ideas are taken without critical examination. Yergeau’s account of her forced hospitalisation during a ‘meltdown’ meant that the psychiatrists and nurses informed her that her confused, frightened and at times self-determined words and gestures was “just the autism talking”. Leading her to reflect that the gurney she was tied to was more “material than her” to these care professionals. ToM strips away the embodied, gestural and material diversity of cognition and intersubjective interaction.
These examples also go to show that neurotypical people claim to know more about autistic ToM than people with autism. Yet, they posit this as being so different to their own embodied and cognitive form of ToM that they cannot possibly show an understanding of the mental states, desires, beliefs and intentions of those with autism.
In other words, I, as a PhD student with Aspergers Syndrome, cannot write autie-ethnographies because, as Baggs notes “Autistics are not expected to write autobiographies. We are expected to write textbooks, which happen to be about ourselves” (Baggs 2003). So I should stick to formulating statistically based structural, functional, rational models of social life, which fit better with my pattern sensitive cognitive style, rather than conducting qualitative, research that is based on nuanced social interaction. However, my aim in using autoethnographic methods is to show that these conceptions of autoethnography and autistic sociality are misguided and can be usefully combined to enhance our understanding of both.
If we were to take a more open ended approach to cognition, beyond individualist and human centred understanding, we can find how a supposedly “universal” human ToM is contingent and emergent upon highly local and specific interactions. Dawn Prince-Hughes, an autistic primate anthropologist, who conducted a zoological ethnography with gorillas (Prince-Hughes 2004), forces us to think more critically about how theorists of ToM conceptualise autistic sociality. Not only did she through her observations, learn and integrate into her habits and means of actions, the social customs and behaviours of the gorilla group to interact with them on their own terms. She further recognised that gorilla behaviour is not too dissimilar to human interaction. Allowing her to transfer what she had learnt from them to successfully interact with people. This example highlights the ways in which the sources of learning about intersubjective engagement for those with autism are often not typically recognised as conventional human developmental learning. Instead, animals, plants and the natural world often allow development of capacities such as empathy, beliefs and preferences. People with autism then become “human” through the non-human in many cases.
In my autoethnographic writing, I will be trying to develop an embodied and affective sense of autism. I will be attuned to the many sensoryscapes that inhabited my fieldwork, from the impact sound had on me and my participants and club members, to the use of bodily movement and gesture to convey meaning and recall and augment written field notes. I also call into question the biases and assumptions within academic work and relationships that reduce autistic means of self-expression. In this way, I believe that auto/autie-ethnography is a vital feminist method that and can enrich our understandings of the sensory worlds of autism.
Baggs, A. (2003), “The Validity of Autistic Opinions”, Autistics.org, Available at: http://archive.autistics.org/library/autopin.html, accessed on: 26th May 2016.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2001), “Theory of Mind in Normal Development and Autism”, Prisme, 34, 174-183.
Happe, F. (1991), “The Autobiographical Writings of Three Asperger Syndrome Adults: Problems of Interpretation and Implications for Theory” In Autism and Asperger Syndrome, Frith, U. (Ed) 207-242, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Haraway, D. (1988), “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and The Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.
Holt, N. L. (2003). Representation, Legitimation and Autoethnography: An Autoethnographic Writing Story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(1). Retrieved June 8th, 2016, from http://www.ualberta.ca/~iiqm/backissues/2_1final/html/holt.html.
Online Etymology Dictionary (2016) “Autism”, Online Webpage, Last Accessed: 15/06/16, Found at: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=autism
Prince-Hughes, D. (2004), Songs of The Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, New York, Harmony Books.
Yergeau, M. (2013), “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorise Theory of Mind”, Disability Studies Quarterly, 33(4), Online Journal Article, Accessed 7/04/16 Found at: http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3876/3405.