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Socially Constructed Autism

To call autism a social construct is accurate according to the rhetoric / philosophy of science. "Autism" is observational, phenomenological, as long as it is defined in the DSM by traits and not a set of etiologies.

That does not mean "autism" is not real. It means we define it imprecisely and experientially by committees and standards organizations. We have no "one" definition even within research or clinical practices because some insist on the broadest definitions (the "spectrum" of which I am increasingly leery) and others want a return to Leo Kanner's rigid definition that excluded "full quadrant" IQs over 100.

If I assign the name "red" to a 650 nm wave, it is measurable and quantifiable. We can argue over the name chosen, but the wave itself is what it is.

Autism is not like "red" because we don't have measurements that are precise. We have DSM-III, IV, and V definitions that conflict. We have Wang debating Cohen debating Attwood over what should or shouldn't be Asperger's Syndrome (or is it "Disorder").

It's a label. It's nothing more than a checklist created by people to define what they themselves admit cannot be located and proved even within their profession. Clinicians argue with researchers constantly over "autism" because researchers are very rigid with the definition; many don't even accept the DSM-IV-TR vs. the DSM-IV because that alters the subject population for researchers.

The only label I reject that has been assigned to me is "mentally retarded." That was the ignorance of the 1960s/70s. But, the other labels represented the best of their time and the evolving DSM. If the DSM weren't socially constructed, my label wouldn't have changed every X years.


  1. Great post, very well stated.

    Paige, SLP

  2. You are a very, good writer. You wrote this, with all that jargon and *I* understood it.

    Well done.

  3. Even red remains a social construction, that is to say which wavelengths in the spectrum of visible light that are significant enough in a particular culture to be given names.

    It is not the case that all languages even have the same number of colours that have names for them. Traffic lights would not have meant much in Homers day given that they would all have been wine dark I suppose.

  4. Author:

    I believe you are confounding "social construction" with "social assignment." Outside the rhetoric of science, in general rhetoric, these concepts overlap -- the notion that societies assign meaning to those things that are significant (or entertaining) enough to merit naming.

    Social assignment (what some also call "social knowledge creation") is not the same as what is "true" with or without human existence. Of course, there are those in philosophy who argue the extreme notion that nothing "exists" without sentient creatures.

    The shift in meaning of "social construction" in the last generation has made academics seem a bit absurd to those outside the humanities. We end up seeming like fools to a lot of people.

    When completing my doctorate, I held strongly the notion there is "Truth" in an analytic tradition, Sam Harris being a major influence along with Davidson and Nagel. As Nagel suggests in "The View from Nowhere," a community of philosophers convinced there is no truth end up making that very statement a truth... a paradox that pragmatism and most Continental schools never fully address.

    That something has no meaning, such as a traffic light in ancient Athens, does not mean it is any less real. It means the *function* (the knowledge of purpose) has not been created. The light itself is a fact, but its meaning and label are meaningless.

    Autism is quite different. It is not understood well enough to claim "Autism is X" with any instrument of measure and even the committees debate what is autism. By comparison, my paralysis is easy to see and agree upon -- arm does not move, nerves do not work, and, if evidence is needed, the fancy machines even allow the mapping of the neural failings. Can't do that with autism because autism is entirely phenomenological and experiential as long as it is observationally diagnosed.

    And this might be the rare time I use my Ph.D in rhetoric... (I'm trying to endeavor on a full recovery from all academic nonsense and fluffery.)

  5. Sorry Mr C.S while that is true from a medical perspective using a more social model the social construction of disability there. This is shown especially well in learning or interlectual disability as many people diagnosed with this have no abnormalities of the brain. Also many people with low iq are not diagnosed as disabled if they can function socially. Also someone with a cromesonal abnormalities may have a iq over 80 where as a person from a different country who sit a iq test in England would get a low mark. This means disability is purely judged as how disabled sociaty perceives you to be hence social construct. In a nut shell we judge people's behaviour from a narrow view of westernised, educated, institutionalized, religious and democratized lens which in its self is weird.


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