Autism in the London Review of Books

ian_hacking.jpgLondon Review of Books has an in-depth review of two recently released books on autism: Laura Schreibman’s The Science and Fiction of Autism and Kamran Nazeer’s Send in the Idiots.

The author of the review, philosopher Ian Hacking (picture on the right), starts with some controversial views on autism.

Autism is devastating ‚Äì to the family. Children can be born with all manner of problems. Some begin life in great pain that can never be relieved, but at least there is a child there. An autistic child ‚Äì and here I am talking about what’s known as core autism ‚Äì is somehow not there. ‘Nobody Nowhere’, as the title of Donna Williams’s autobiography (1992) has it. Very often physically healthy (though there is a high incidence of other problems) he ‚Äì and it is usually he ‚Äì just does not respond. It is not merely that he does not learn to speak until years after his peers, and then inadequately. He has no affect; he never snuggles. He is obsessed with things and order, but does not play with toys in any recognisable way, and certainly does not play with other children. He mercilessly repeats a few things you say. With no comprehension. He has violent tantrums, not the usual sort of thing, but screaming, hitting, biting, smashing. This alternates with a placid gentleness, maybe even a smile ‚Äì but not really for you. Serious Down‚Äôs syndrome is pretty bad too, but despite all the difficulties, physical and mental, there is a loving little child there.

He admits that his views will make many parents angry. Indeed, they represent one of the most emotive debates in the field and centre around the question of whether autism is a disabling disease, or simply another way of experiencing the world.

Those who would argue against Hacking (often autistic people themselves) suggest that the self-absorption and social disinterest often shown by those with autism is considered a disease because of parent’s own dissatisfaction with their child’s unusual behaviour, rather than out of any genuine concern for the person themselves.

In it’s most polarised form, autistic people are being labelled as diseased while parents are accused of being selfish. It is not difficult to see why tempers flare.

The debate is complicated by the wide spectrum of behaviours labelled as autistic. A person diagnosed with autism may be someone who can’t look after themselves and needs constant assistance, or a slightly awkward yet top-of-their-field professional.

Indeed, Kamran Nazeer himself was diagnosed with autism as a child, and recounts his experiences and follows up his classmates in his book Send in the Idiots. One law degree and PhD later, he’s a policy adviser for the government.

The author of the other book, Professor Laura Schreibman, is a psychologist who works with people throughout the autism spectrum, from the most impaired to the most able.

Hacking obviously has a good knowledge of the science of autism, and does the reader the courtesy of making his own position clear early on, was well as making some insightful points about the books in question.

Link to review in London Review of Books (thanks tallapul!).

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