Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Snowflakes (Part 3)

Theory of mind does violence to autistic people.

Autistic people lack a theory of mind (ToM), so it is said. Autistic people can’t know that other people are people. That they have bodies, unique mental states, lives, experiences. That other people know, want, feel, and believe things.

To have a ToM, it is believed, is a very human thing. To know that other people are people, and that you yourself is a person. To know that people are not mindless bags of skin moving through space.

On one hand, are the humans who do have a ToM. On the other hand, are those distant Others who do not.

ToM is always a binary.

ToM is always a dichotomy between the human and the neurologically impaired.

Autistic bodies are violently absent. The absence of a body suggests that violence cannot be done to it. The absence of a body is the erasure of the violence done to it.

ToM is defined by a negative. ToM relies on a circular logic. We know that autistic people lack a ToM because non-autistic people have a ToM; we know that non-autistic people have a ToM because autistic people lack a ToM. This is what we know – what we think of as fact and hold onto as true.

Non-autistics’ failures mean they are simply human, but autistics’ failures show their impaired ToM. Autistics never have natural ToM. Any ability they demonstrate, however, means they are merely hacking, passing, faking.

In the same way that autism is the boundary for the (in)human, ToM is the boundary for the (non)story.

ToM, it is said, is based on absolute, on empirical fact. ToM represent where a story cannot be trusted.

There are plenty of dichotomies. Theories about ToM represent truth; theories about autistic personhood do not.

Autistic people have come to represent the limit of the inhuman, all in the name of facts, in the name of ToM.

The autistic is not trusted, is not reliable, is not accurate. Any claim coming from a ToM-impaired autistic body can be refuted by everyone with a ToM.

Theories about ToM tell stories about the violence against autistic bodies. They enable the violence, explain the violence, defend the violence.

What matters are the feelings and attitudes of the non-autistic. What matters is what the non-autistic thinks of the autistic.

The autistic body is nonexistent; the autistic body’s story is told by the non-autistic.

Based on an article by Melanie Yergeau



Nevertheless, even if intelligence is only a matter of appearances, appearances matter. […]


In-group, out-group:
The place of intelligence in anthropology




Disputes about intelligence are disputes over status.

Status is usually seen as a two-tiered structure:

  • at the upper level, an abstraction of social goals;
  • at the lower, any concrete evidence or collateral one might have for claiming it.




Intelligence is not itself concrete collateral: it brings no offering to the great god Status except the promise offered by the word itself.

That is because it is wholly internal to the game of bidding for status […] It belongs in the realm of appearances and mutual recognition alone.




[Intelligence] connects status at its higher level, as an abstraction of values and goals, to its lower level, as concrete collateral to be used in support of a bid.

This is why […] people claiming status will talk about their intelligence as if it was self-evident when actually the term is purely self-referential.



(claim to status)

Intelligence, [like honour and grace], fills the round hole of individual human uniqueness with the square peg of abstract hierarchy.

Like them, it creates not just an in-group but an out-group that is definitely disqualified from entering the bidding in the first place.




Intelligence sanctifies the person. It confirms the legitimacy of an individual’s behaviour by referring it to an external authority.

[The psychologist allocates IQ scores (to the intelligent, as a sign of intelligence). Similarly, it is the king who disburses honourable titles (to the noble, as a marker of honour), and it is God who dispenses grace (to the elect, as a confirmation of grace).]

Although this authority is arbitrary, in receiving its blessings we abnegate our right to question it,

thereby binding ourselves to accept practices which a different generation, in different historical circumstances, might regard as utterly wrong.




Intelligence is a form of apparently equal exchange amongst creatures who are actually inequal. […]

The relationship between the intelligent and the intellectually disabled is one of exchange, inasmuch as the credit of the one could not exist without the debit of the other; it takes place without the awareness of either, or perhaps only with the awareness of the latter.




We have already seen that the procedure for establishing intelligence as a scientific concept consists first in conjuring up the notion of a mean purely as such. Subsequently, and only subsequently, this mean becomes something concrete […]

Intelligence [is] what those with the power say it is, as were honour and grace: a dummy category, a magic hold-all into which they can pack whatever they like according to purpose.



(biological hierarchy)

Nevertheless, [intelligence] does have one constituent that covers all contexts: intelligent means better.

The word can only function as a disguised comparative. True, so do all descriptive terms in the human sciences. None is neutral.

But ‘intelligent’ is not only value laden, it is content free. […]




Status by its very definition consists of ranks; and if that is the case, then abilities too must come in ranks, otherwise there would be no way of pegging one to the other. […] But [what] constitutes the merit of one sort of ability against another?

[…] Meritocracy (some abilities are more equal than others) is at one with conservatism (hierarchy is natural). One’s level of intelligence both determines one’s vocation or calling and is that calling, one’s place in a natural social hierarchy […] Meritocracy cannot favour ‘ability’ over bloodline or wealth without passing hierarchical judgements that involve matters intellectual and their concomitant social and political interests.




In […] confusion, the purely nominal classification of certain abilities as intelligent or intellectual is passed off as real.

I may be especially able at maths, for example, or ironic humour, or orienteering, or recognizing another person’s concealed emotions. The only thing they have in common is that I can be judged as being better or worse at them. That judgement may in some cases be real enough.

But to be useless at maths or orienteering is a chosen characteristic of intellectual disability, to be useless at ironic humour or perceiving hidden feelings is not; and in fact some people labelled with severe intellectual disability are better at ironic humour and perceptiveness than some people classed as highly or just normally intelligent.

No distinction between intellectually better or worse can exist unless some temporary, subjective and purely human consensus has been reached as to which particular abilities ‘intellectual’ or ‘intelligent’ covers and which not. Talking about emotional intelligence, which might seem to cover humour and perceptiveness, does not solve the problem, since exactly the same point can be made here too.




One might [think that, surely, the intellectual hierarchy] cuts out at some point near the bottom of the scale, where the selection of certain abilities as intellectual becomes no longer merely consensual but is indeed objective, separating off a discrete set of really intellectually disabled people who are therefore exempt from an otherwise historically constructed group. Surely there must be some such creatures.

But the exemption would only work if one were already assuming that they exist separately in nature as some biological subspecies, which is indeed the historically contingent premise on which the modern notion of intellectual disability has been built. They are exempt from egalitarian principle only because that principle, in order to exist at all, has already exempted them.


C.F. Goodey


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Silhouette (Part 3)

In her 2005 book Constructing Autism, Majia Nadesan provides a useful but woefully under-recognized definition of autism.

She writes that autism is “a nominal category useful for grouping heterogenous people all sharing communication practices deviating significantly from the expectations of normalcy.”

In simpler terms: autism is a label for people whose social behavior is very different from what their culture expects. […]

Autism does not reside a priori within my body.

Autism is an idea, a social category. Autism is the meaning that we project onto certain modes of behavior. It is made up of society’s collective anxieties around what it means to be ‘normal,’ to be fully human.

There is still a stubborn essentialism that pervades the entire discourse around autism […]

Caroline Narby


Autism is not a thing. It’s an abstraction.

The only concrete reality is the existence of the people who get called autistic.

So when I say what autism is, I mean how my particular brain, that is called autistic, works.

Amanda Baggs


I think that my ‘story,’ though intensely personal, is not at all singular.

Beneath its idiosyncrasies lie vast strata of commonality, communality

Out of context, N. Mairs


For many years, ‘autism’ and ‘autistic’ were also used descriptively: […] autistic disorder is a disorder characterised by autistic features, ‘autistic’ being an adjective that describes behaviour

Since 1979, a different use of the word ‘autism’ has crept into general use, and even into specialized use.

It’s now used to refer to an underlying medical condition that is assumed to cause autistic behaviour.

Why does that matter? It matters because what has also crept in is the assumption that if people meet the diagnostic criteria for [autism], that means they have the underlying medical condition that causes autistic behaviour – that everybody’s autistic characteristics must have the same cause.

Sue Gerrard


A lot of autism research begins with the premise that even though there are [over a thousand] different ways of getting an autism diagnosis, being in the autism ‘gang’ makes you (a) fundamentally similar to all the other gang members and (b) fundamentally different to everyone that doesn’t make the grade. That’s a big, big assumption.

Jon Brock


We acknowledge the heterogeneity within autism, but our intuitions still drive us to seek a common essence of autism.

The essentialist view of autism goes hand in hand with the way autism research is conducted and reported. […]

By always beginning with autism and working backwards, we have invested too much significance in the label itself.

Jon Brock


Critics […] pointed out the circularity in Spearman’s argument.

Intelligence tests were assumed to measure intelligence, but because no one knew what intelligence actually was, the tests also defined intelligence – even if they varied considerably.



No true Scotsman / Appeal to purity


[T]here is no consistent underlying ‘essence’ to those ways of being we now classify as autistic; rather, in each case, the underlying difference is idiosyncratic and unique. […] Of course, this is not to deny that autistic cognitive and behavioral profiles tend to overlap in specific and interesting ways.

Robert Chapman


The problem with calling {something} ‘biological’ is that biology is complicated.

Hardly anything in biology fits into […] neat categories

Partial quote, Luz Delfondo


Just because something’s a social construction doesn’t mean it’s not real […] Now, is it based in biology? Influenced by? Completely unmoored from?

That’s a different argument, and one we can’t get to until we stop conflating it with this one.

Sam Killermann


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Silhouette (Part 2)

Each individual who has an autism spectrum diagnosis got that diagnosis based on deficits. That isn’t good or bad, but rather, simply the way diagnosing works […] based on the social and expected norms exhibited by the majority of people.

Judy Endow


[T]he way information is presented influences our judgement and decision-making: the framing effect. How we ‘frame’ information has an impact on how we treat it, and thus on outcomes. So if your research project is based on the assumption that your subjects have a disorder or a deficit, that presumption will be reflected in both your process and your results.

What we see in research involving autistic subjects is that autism is frequently framed as ‘non-neurotypical’, i.e. autistics are measured against people who are non-autistic and thus end up being defined by what they aren’t.

For a comparison, imagine a linguistic study of a Swedish-speaking community by French academics where the conclusion is “they can’t speak French”.

If ethnocentrism is judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture, then what we often see in these papers is a kind of neurocentrism, judging another neurology by the capabilities and standards of one’s own neurology.

In regard to these research biases, it’s revealing to look at how the same academics frame outcomes differently depending on whether their studies involve autistic subjects or not. […]

So, if you’re non-autistic and more rational, it’s because you’re good at regulating your emotions.

But if you’re autistic and more rational, it’s because you’re deficit in recognising your emotions.



Our current biomedical approach to autism, which scans, studies, and reports on autistic people in terms of their differences, deficits, and disorders is actually making autistic people’s lives more difficult and their futures bleaker because we’re teaching people that autistic people are not like us.

Karla McLaren


The underlying attitude [of some professionals] sometimes appears to be: “How dare you continue to attempt to think for yourself when I am here before you with my obviously superior knowledge, status, judgment, and insight?”

Out of context, Lundy Bancroft


[W]ithin psychiatric theory, it does not matter whether a psychological difference is considered ‘hyper’ or ‘hypo’: either way, it is taken to be a matter of pathologically falling outside the norm.

‘Too much’ may be different to ‘too little’, but it is still considered just as inherently bad.

Robert Chapman


how do we measure Schizophrenia, Autism, ADD/ADHD, other than in juxtaposition to normal[?]

how does one quantify normal?

Jenna, Elijah, Tamarjay, Derrick



Lines – Amber (Part 2)

Sometimes the same behaviors in a person {read as} neurotypical would not even be noticed.

But because people with autism are scrutinized all day, every day, by teachers, therapists, parents, and almost everyone else around them, their behaviors are labeled, treated […]

Partial quote, Lisa Jo Rudy


When you tell me there is no such thing as normal, this is true, in a sense. The things we as a society prize as normal can not all be found in one person. […] There is no one ‘normal’ person, never was, never will be. So many of us are more comfortable with people like ourselves that we take as normal those with a certain amount of similarity to ourselves, and if we have sufficient power in society, this normal may override the normals of others.

Alyssa Hillary


There is simply no need to speak at all of ‘what makes us human’ in scientific discourse. What makes us human is nothing, save perhaps our rich diversity.

Sophie Vivian


A lot of people think they can relate {to my struggles} which means it’s brushed under the carpet as not a big deal.

Partial quote, Amy Miller


“You know how it is. People like that . . . they don’t experience emotions the same way that you and I do.” […]

I thought about telling her [that I am autistic]. I chose not to. I’m not sure what it would have accomplished if I had told her […] revealing myself to be a person like that

The truth is, I don’t experience emotions in the same way as that woman who spoke to me about her disabled clients. Or in the same way that you do. No one does.

Human beings are cognitively and behaviorally diverse. We are so diverse that we defy taxonomy entirely.

There really is no norm, no fixed point of reference from which to deviate.

Caroline Narby


[F]ew issues are completely exclusive to one group, but some things affect some groups more strongly than others, and that can be very important.

Elizabeth Bartmess


[S]ome critics […] suggest abandoning the term ‘autism’ altogether. In their opinion, labelling autistic people as such was merely a mistake: We thought there was a natural category called ‘autism,’ but now that we know more about it, we can see that this was an error.

[I]dentifying as autistic may not be biologically meaningful, but it is politically meaningful

[W]e have our own communities, norms, and practices […] Autism, in other words, has begun to develop into a culture, and this culture opens up the space for autistic behaviors to begin to manifest as meaningful […] challeng[ing] existing standards of acceptability within […] dominant social and ideological framework[s]

Some of our most significant and deeply-entrenched human categories – like race and gender – are partly rooted in a constellation of physical elements, and partly in historically situated social construction.

They do not reside on a single gene, or even a network of genes, and yet they are both extremely ‘real’ and extremely important to our conceptions of self and others.

Robert Chapman


When you are different it’s okay for you to not quite meet up with the rest of the world here and there, because most of the time, when it matters, everything syncs up.

When you are disabled you don’t have that luxury.


When you are disabled you have to prove, over and over again, that you are a real person […]

Julia Bascom


In a world where autism exists, because we do taxonomize human difference and build systems of power around it, I am autistic.

Caroline Narby