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