The diagnostic criteria for autism cover a broad and diverse umbrella of people, and they obscure the Autistic lived experience of toxic cultural norms that are ultimately detrimental for all people. The inappropriate pathologisation that results from the hypernormative medical lens gets in the way of providing Autistic people with optimal support throughout the lifespan.
In my experience Autistic people of all stripes seem to share two broad characteristics:
- Divergent sensory profiles – unique profiles of hyper- and hypo-sensitivity across various senses, and corresponding differences in cognitive processing.
- A reduced capacity for cognitive dissonance, resulting in an inability to successfully maintain hidden agendas in the social domain over any significant periods. In a competitive environment some may try, but this is not an Autistic strength. When an Autistic person disagrees with you or is angry with you, you will either be told so immediately or soon find out one way or another.
These neurological characteristics describe the set of Autistic people, many of whom identify with the communal definition of Autistic ways of being and with being socially disabled by our hypernormative society. It does not make any sense to pathologise or medicalise these highly variable characteristics. Attempting to trace these characteristics to specific genes is also futile.
There are dedicated medical labels for speech and language disabilities that make speech difficult and unreliable (apraxia), which are studied by neurologists who specialise such disabilities, and these can be used independently or alongside the label Autistic. This leads to the set of people with speech and language disabilities.
Non-speaking Autistic people are a subset within the set of people with speech and language disabilities. Non-speakers can be understood as having further difficulties with motor control, to the extent that speech becomes impossible – attempting to teach non-speakers to speak is at best a waste of time, and experienced as highly frustrating and nonsensical by non-speakers.
Autistic communities include speaking and non-speaking Autists with varying communication preferences. For some the ability to speak varies from day to day. Mutual aid and respect for individual communication preferences are essential aspects of Autistic culture and multi-generational Autistic whānau.
Finally there are Autistic people who are considered intellectually disabled, based on W.E.I.R.D. definitions of intelligence and bizarre expectations of independence. This set of people is simply the intersection of Autistic people and intellectually disabled people.
We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people. – Jaron Lanier, VR technology pioneer, 2019
The notion of life as a competitive game found its way into the science of biology by interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution through the cultural lens of capitalism. The complementary perspective of life and evolution as a cooperative game as described by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) was largely ignored in so-called “developed” capitalist societies throughout most of the 20th century.
The diagnostic process often assumes that speech disabled and non-speaking Autistic people are also intellectually disabled, and in many cases this assumption is invalid, in exactly the same way that Deaf people are not necessarily intellectually disabled, resulting in a failure to provide appropriate communication support.
In summary, the majority of Autistic people identify as disabled, and all Autistic people have divergent sensory profiles and a reduced capacity for cognitive dissonance. For the most part, the social model of disability offers an appropriate frame for understanding the way in which Autistic people are disabled by society. Like wheelchair users need access to ramps, Autistic people need access to means of communication and non-discriminatory social environments.
Since the vast majority of Autistic people experience their neurological characteristics as part of their core identity, and would never wish to be cured of their Autistic way of being, the pathologisation of Autistic people is entirely inappropriate. Instead, the social model of disability and the strong sense of solidarity, shared lived experiences, and shared cultural practices in terms of appreciation of individually unique sensory profiles and diversity of communication preferences, point to human rights based and design justice based approaches as the most promising avenues for improving the lives of all Autistic people.
Depathologisation of Autistic people as demanded by Autistic rights activists does not negate being socially disabled, and need not prevent anyone from gaining access to appropriate means of communication and other forms of social support. On the contrary, such support would be much more straightforward to provide via established disability and need specific diagnostic labels that exist independently of Autistic ways of being.
Finally, given the extent to which most Autistic people are systematically disabled by social norms and expectations, as well as by the sensory overload in contemporary social environments, Autistic people have an elevated risk of being traumatised, often from a very young age, within their families, within educational settings, within healthcare settings, and later within workplace settings.
The extent to which most Autistic people are traumatised is reflected in the overlap in the diagnostic criteria for autism, ADHD, BPD, and autism, PTSD, and trauma related mental illnesses within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM).
Untold harm is being caused by not identifying sensitive Autistic children before they are heavily traumatised by their social environments, and later, by not identifying trauma as the root cause of mental distress and mental illness that requires therapy and appropriate treatment. The most alarming aspect in the way our society mistreats Autistic people is the Autism Industrial Complex, which actively traumatises Autistic children by subjecting them to conversion / normalisation “therapies”.
Because in our society it is so difficult to find non-traumatised Autistic people, it is difficult to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role that Autistic people have always and will always play in human societies, which can only be properly understood by applying an evolutionary lens to the development of human societies and human cultures over the last 300,000 years.
The current human predicament is a result of the cultural disease of super-human scale powered-up civilisation building endeavours, the origins of which can be traced back to the beginnings of “modern” human history and the social power dynamics resulting from the invention of interest bearing debt around 5,000 years ago.
Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits, and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics, is essential for neurodivergent people to navigate sensory and emotional overload, and for (re)creating safe environments for ourselves and our human and non-human contemporaries.
The biosphere of this planet is our only home. A shift from a brittle W.E.I.R.D. monoculture to ecosystems of resilient human scale ecologies of care eliminates the spurious technological complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains and even grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity and the mutual aid that emerges when we reduce cognitive dissonance by (re)aligning the human ecological footprint with bioregional ecosystem functions.
We know from indigenous cultures that humans have the capacity to think up seven generations ahead when making decisions. Alarmingly, in the cult of busyness of industrialised societies, we have lost this collective capacity.
Spurious technological complexity wastes energy – it is the result of humans working against biological evolution, whereas adaptive cultural complexity saves energy – it is the result of humans engaging in collaborative niche construction as a part of biological ecosystems.
The embedded links and videos in this article provide more in-depth explanations and refer to relevant transdisciplinary research.