Sociologist Gil Eyal’s 2010 book The Autism Matrix: The Social Origins of the Autism Epidemic was a bombshell in the debate over autism. Yet over a decade later almost no one appears to have heard the explosion.
The concept of autism was first presented in the 1940s, more or less simultaneously, by New York psychiatrist Leo Kanner and Austrian psychologist Hans Asperger. But during the 1950s it didn’t receive much attention.
Then in the 1960s there was big change in the mental health system – the deinstitutionalization of mental retardation. Look at what Eyal says of that in his introduction to Autism Matrix :
The deinstitutionalization of mental retardation 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 …… emotionally disturbed, psychotic, schizophrenic child, and so on). The moral blender of deinstitutionalization scrambled these categories, giving rise to a great undifferentiated mass of “atypical children”.
Have you ever wondered where those terms – moron, idiot, etc – came from? We have a habit of forgetting our past.
It seems that autism emerged from that upheaval. Because mental retardation and schizophrenia were considered untreatable, they were dead-end diagnoses for children, and so not welcome with parents. Affluent parents began seeking an alternative diagnosis and autism was now there, ready and waiting for them.
To make it easier to fit children into autism, the idea of an autism spectrum developed, with varying degrees of autism. Kanner fought against that. He insisted that autism was a rare condition, that weakening the criteria to allow more children in would render the concept meaningless. But he lost and the spectrum survived. The concept of high-functioning autism came into being.
But even now, do we know what autism is?
Well, if you read The Autism Matrix – 240 dense pages – you will be more in doubt about that when you’re finished than when you began. But that isn’t a fault in the book. It is a fault in our thinking, caused by taking our assumptions for realities.
We would be better to admit that we don’t know what it is, and go back to the beginning. There is no better place to start that than with The Autism Matrix.