Autism, Ableism, and Philosophy

Posted on October 29, 2020 at 8:22 PM by Coleman Gariety

(This was written in the context of a discussion that I found very stimulating involving Nathan Moore’s “Dialogues on Disablity” interview, Brian Leiter’s comment on that interview, and Leiter’s former student Mark Engelson’s response to that comment.)

Today we are increasingly faced with the following antinomy (ἐναντιότης):

  1. On the one hand, the functioning of society necessitates that individuals set aside their idiosyncrasies when working and acting in public space.
  2. On the other hand, not all idiosyncrasies can be set aside by all people, and society must be flexible if it wishes to involve different kinds of people in its functioning.

As we know too well, America is presently having a hard time deciding what the balance of these extremes should look like. The temptation is very strong to identify cheaters (people who do not set aside their idiosyncrasies) and call them out. Auties and aspies, like other minority groups, too often end up on the receiving end of this acrimony. It is too often wrongly believed that they are unintelligent and unmotivated simply because they are unable to practice the complex social rituals that others do without thinking. This prejudice is in part reproduced by public education systems that do not distinguish between social and intellectual ability: with few exceptions, we reward the former as if it were a manifestation of the latter.1 To make matters worse, an organization called Autism Speaks goes to great lengths to make sure that this prejudice is as widespread as possible.2

Whatever the source, the illusion does too often arise that those who fail socially do so because they are unintelligent, unmotivated, and must take medications that alter the functioning of their brains so that they can be “normal.” But it is an illusion. Evolution makes trade-offs. Why would it be shocking if specialization of ability were inversely correlated with “quickness of wit” in the conventional sense? Without being told otherwise, auties might internalize the foregoing prejudice. Generally speaking, no one is harder on auties than auties themselves. Some of them make their way through life without the benefit of a stable, positive self-perception because they have been taught that committing a social faux pas is an indication of an underlying character defect. It is not. The social difficulties faced by auties are not direct indications of moral or intellectual failure.

The issue is to a large extent one of prejudice: as we know, humans make snap judgments on the basis of very little information. But to this we might add: especially when they are under pressure. As the term ‘red flag’ suggests,3 prejudice is a strategy for dealing with a potentially dangerous world. The philosophical solution is perhaps the boring solution: in addition to reminding auties and aspies that they aren’t broken, we should simultaneously work to a) make our world more generally hospitable for everyone, and b) help people learn to make more nuanced judgments. Philosophy can play a critical role in the surmounting of this double challenge.

  1. John Taylor Gatto has written a great deal on this matter.↩︎

  2. Before you donate to Autism Speaks, consider the facts: “Autism Speaks uses its platform and advertising budget to portray autism and autistic people as mysterious and frightening. Their fundraising tactics increase stigma and create barriers to the inclusion of autistic people in our communities.”↩︎

  3. See Mark Engelson’s response to Brain Leiter.↩︎