The Discourse on Autism

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Gary Mullen


autism, Foucault, Hacking


The notion that autism is fundamentally a neurobiological impairment that can be treated, cured or overcome through strategies that enable successful social adaptation is becoming imbedded in popular narratives of autism, such as the life story of Temple Grandin as recounted by Oliver Sacks. This notion compromises the autonomy and flourishing of autistic persons by placing the adaptive burden largely upon autistic persons rather than institutions.  Drawing on the work of Ian Hacking and Michel Foucault, I argue that we should give this popular conception an axial shift and consider the ways in which our contemporary institutions, practices and assumptions about normality are implicated in the creation of autism as a diagnostic category and the confinement of autistic persons within the inflexible norms of extant educational and public welfare practices. Understanding the social and cultural contingency of autism permits a more experimental approach toward institutions that can accommodate and be shaped by the diversity of modes of mental processing, communication and socialization that autism presents.

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