Back in 2017 I did an earlier post on this remarkable book. Let’s look at it again.
The biggest problem with autism is still that there is no agreement on what it is, or what causes it. That’s why the debates about it are so confusing and unrewarding. The decision of the American Psychiatric Association to remove Asperger’s from the DSM-5 (2013), the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, putting high-functioning autism on the spectrum, didn’t resolve much.
In my novel The Birdcatcher, and in The Shyness Guide, I have argued that basic autism is probably a natural condition . Though I continue to believe that, I have to admit that I was initially stopped in my tracks when I came upon The Autism Matrix, the 2010 book by sociologist Gil Eyal and a team of associates at Columbia university.
Some will say that a 2010 book is not new. Well, as far as I can tell, even in the autistic community few people seem to have read it yet, so it is new for almost everyone.
The authors of Matrix present autism, and the notorious 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, Eyal and his team examined the history of mental health care and made some remarkable findings. They 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. They explain:
The current rise in autism diagnoses ….. 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.
There it is – a whole new vision of autism.
They have much more to say than that of course, all of it fascinating. Unfortunately, much of it will be unwelcome to many people since our society usually prefers to hide from its past.
They are not saying that ‘autism’ is not real, at least I don’t think they are, but they remind us that we too easily get confused by words. Just because a new name is introduced into the debate – like ‘autism’ – doesn’t necessarily mean that a new disease has been discovered.
They do remind us that ‘what autism is’, and/or what should be called autism and what shouldn’t remains very undecided.
Anyone who wants to understand autism better needs to read The Autism Matrix.