Elephant on the Loose

As Shift Journal’s sidebar indicates, we spend a lot of time around here discussing alternative ways of defining autism.  That discussion got particularly lively over the past two weeks, with much back-and-forth in the comments about the pitfalls of assigning moral attributes to autism and other neurological types.  In light of the autistic population’s tendency to function as a distributed system, a topic explored by Mark Stairwalt not long ago, I’d argue for being cautious about linear cause-and-effect descriptions generally.  We’re often dealing with situational characteristics for which the existing language falls short, as noted in another of Mark’s past articles; and that’s no less true with regard to apparent positive qualities than it is for the deficit model.

Granted, from a political standpoint there often is practical utility in counterbalancing exaggerated negative claims with a strong emphasis on the positive.  That can be an effective way to reframe a conversation quickly, shifting the perceived moderate center of the debate into a more favorable position.  A quick response to a problem at the expense of the big picture has its dangers, however, as Hosni Mubarak just learned to his misfortune and the American Psychiatric Association is due to discover in the next few years.

As to Egypt’s former strongman, when Mubarak decided that the street protests against his rule would not have happened but for the social networking sites where they were organized, he wasn’t necessarily wrong.  The Internet was at least a significant factor.  But Mubarak’s response—shutting off the entire country’s Internet access—was stupendously self-destructive.  Commerce disintegrated instantly, tourists fled en masse, workers didn’t get their pay, and shortages of food and other commodities soon followed.  What had begun as youth demonstrations turned into an overwhelming popular consensus that the incompetent dictator had to go right now, before he could do any more damage.  Although we may never know with certainty what started Egypt’s revolution, it’s very clear what finished it.

Such a spectacular regime implosion has not yet befallen the American Psychiatric Association; but as we can see from the DSM’s proposed revision of the autism criteria, there’s not much left of any vestige of scientific legitimacy it might once have enjoyed.  The APA suffered a major embarrassment four decades ago when protests by gay rights activists forced it to remove homosexuality from the DSM.  No doubt finding a similar threat in the neurodiversity movement, the DSM revision committee opted to define autism more in terms of support needs—which, like autistic behaviors, are situation-dependent.  Whether someone’s support needs are out of the ordinary is not a neurological characteristic; rather, it’s culturally determined by the range of needs to which our society is willing to adapt.

As Stephanie has mentioned, the new emphasis on support needs will be useful for the practical purpose of getting services from bureaucracies.  Put a code in the box, get whatever package of services goes with your support level—just like buying a pair of shoes.  And if they give you blisters, well, you can always try putting on different socks.  Nothing’s perfect, after all, and at least you’ve got something to cover your feet.  It’s all quite simple and functional—but there’s nothing in it that even pretends to define autism in any logical, coherent framework.

So in response to Mark’s post yesterday, I would say that there’s no need to put much effort into rebutting the notion that the DSM comprehensively describes what autism is.  The DSM’s authors have been doing a very effective job of destroying their own credibility, without much need for assistance from anyone else.

Or to put it another way—the circus elephant has broken his chains and taken a few steps out of the tent.  The ringmaster is frantically running after him, yelling “Hey, wait, you can’t go anywhere!  You need us to give you peanuts, don’t you know that?  Whaddaya gonna do without the regime giving you peanuts, huh, buddy?”  But as the elephant takes in a few breaths of the clean fresh air, he’s thinking only of the scent of his ancestral home on the savannah.

on 02/16/11 in featured, Politics | 5 Comments | Read More

Comments (5)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Yeah, not that anyone could tell today, but I take your point about there being “no need to put much effort into rebutting the notion that the DSM comprehensively describes what autism is.” I will try to keep that in mind.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Not meaning to pick on you, Mark, I just had in mind our past discussions about framing, and how it can be more effective just to let bad ideas die on their own instead of giving them attention.

  3. Isabel says:

    On this topic, I really like Anne Corwin’s piece about “Conceptualizing Autism” http://www.existenceiswonderful.com/2008/09/conceptualizing-autism.html

  4. Gwen McKay says:

    Yes, that’s a good one, Isabel — thanks. :)

  5. Stephanie says:

    Beautifully written!

    The DSM as a scientific statement of what is and what isn’t-honestly, I never really saw it as such. I’ve taken just enough science classes to recognize that any scientific field that has half a dozen active schools of thought that all try to explain the same thing in vastly different ways hasn’t actually figured out the real explanation yet. I’ve always seen the DSM as a semi-practical guide for distributing diagnoses and enabling the access of services. What other purpose would it serve?

    But, to go beyond what you stated: I agree (as I think you’re saying) that describing what autism is cannot be done from, or at least not solely from, the authority figure on high and must be done by those who actually experience autism and by those who experience a similitude that can also be called autism.

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