The biggest problem with autism is that no one knows what it is, or what causes it. That’s why the debates about it are so confusing and unrewarding. People aren’t talking about the same thing.
I was very interested in autism when I was writing The Birdcatcher, and that continued as I worked on The Shyness Guide. In both books I argued that, at its core, autism is probably a natural condition. Though I continued to believe that, and I still do, I began to back off from the debate since it seemed to be going nowhere.
Then I came upon The Autism Matrix, a 2010 book by sociologist Gil Eyal and a team of associates at Columbia university. They present autism, and the so-called autism epidemic, in a very new light.
Wondering why autism remained at very low levels for 40 years, then increased rapidly in the 1990s, they examined the history of mental health care and made some remarkable findings.
Eyal and his team concluded that the dramatic increase in diagnoses was not the result of an increase in autism, but the aftermath of an upheaval in the mental health industry. I’ll let them explain:
The current rise in autism diagnoses, we argue, should be understood as the aftershock of the real earthquake, which was the deinstitutionalization of mental retardation that began in the late 1960s. ….. [That] was a massive change – not only materially – large institutions emptied, some razed to the ground, some converted into more humane service centers – but also symbolically. Deinstitutionalization acted as a sort of “moral blender” into which disappeared the old categories that reflected the needs of custodial institutions (moron, imbecile, idiot, feeble-minded, mentally deficient, mentally retarded – whether deemed educable, or trainable, or neither – emotionally disturbed, psychotic, schizophrenic child, and so on). The moral blender of deinstitutionalization scrambled these categories, giving rise to an undifferentiated mass of “atypical children” ….. . Then, gradually, new categories began to be differentiated within a new institutionalized matrix that replaced custodial institutions – community treatment, special education, and early intervention programs. It is this institutional matrix and the therapies that populate it which gave rise to our current notion of a spectrum of autistic disorders running the whole gamut from children with severe disabilities who speak little and require round-the-clock care to semi-genius teenagers with Asperger’s disorder. [p.3-4]
There it is – a whole new vision of autism.
They have much more to say than that, all of it fascinating. Much of it will be unwelcome to many people since our current society usually prefers to hide from its past, but I welcome it and I plan to refer to this book frequently in future posts.