The Dialectic of Autism

autism photo
Photo by hepingting cc

The term dialectic as it is used here is a way of looking at the world that corresponds to the actual structure of the world itself without regard to whether that word is holographic or material.  Put in more philosophical terms, it is an epistemological assumption about the ontological structure of being.  Hegel will write a book about it called The Logic.   It is not, as one might imagine from the title, an elaboration of axioms and proofs, but rather an explanation of the logic that underlies being.  He will often refer to this logical structure as “the dialectic”.

However, Hegel is not himself the father of the dialectic; that title belongs to Heraclitus of Ephesus.  He is the hidden, yet pivotal figure in Western philosophy; not only a great synthesizer of the Presocratics, but a major influence on the thought and history of the Western world.  Socrates studied him, Plato was a “Heraclitean”in his younger days, and incorporated Heraclitus’ concepts into his philosophy, and Aristotle’s own logic arose as a rejection of Heraclitus’ logic.

Regretfully, only a few fragments of his writing remain for us, but they suffice to give us an understanding of his logic.  While the exact meaning of the Greek term “Logos” remains lost to us, Hegel took it to mean the Idea that shapes the world.  It is Heraclitus who first speaks of this Logos,  treating it not only as a single idea, but also as a series of internally related observations.  First is the idea that everything is in flux, is constantly changing.  This is reflected in what is perhaps his most famous quote” You cannot step into the same river twice”( or variants thereof).  This change is driven by the logical structure of the world itself, which is the unity of polar opposites: night and day, up and down, etc.  These opposites struggle with one another, and it is their “war” within the context of their inherent unity that is the source of change.  There are other critical ideas present in the fragments of Heraclitus, that of relativity grounded in change of perspective, of evolution and of revolution; however, they are outside of the scope of my current inquiry.

The polar opposite of Heraclitean logic is that of Aristotle.  Heraclitus was a materialist who built his logic on what he perceived to be the way of the world.  Aristotle’s logic is a formal logic: it is an abstract logic of ideas.  Where Heraclitus posits that the world is structured by paired polar opposites which are mutually defining, Aristotle counters with the first of his “three laws of logic” – the Law of identity which states that everything is what it is and not anything else.  Everything and everyone is individualized.  Aristotle’s second law of logic: the law of contradiction or non contradiction, states that something cannot be itself and other than itself at the same time.  Once again, the structure of the world is conceived to be individual units. Finally, the “law of excluded middle states” reasserts that things are completely separate and isolated from one another.  The idea of internal relationships between elements which are mutually defining and mutually determining is completely negated and with it the idea of change.  Change for Aristotle is mere development, the becoming of what one essentially already is.  Neither revolutionary of evolutionary change are possible.

So what does all this have to do with autism?  Well, I would say that the great flaw in the history of the treatment of autism and the search for a cure has been that autism and autisticshave been perceived in terms of Aristotle’s laws of logic.  They have been regarded as individuals who are very different from other individuals, they have been set apart, the extent of their social relations the mother and/or family.   They have not been defined in and through their social relations and this is the flaw; for the polar opposite of the individual is not other individuals, which are mere differences, but society as a whole.  And it is in these terms, from this dialectical perspective, that autistics should be viewed.

Before the use of the term “autistic”, autistic individuals were clumped together with schizophrenics, which were in turn, perceived as “mentally ill” as opposed to those who were “mentally fit.” This was not the deep unity of opposites which dialecticians understand, but rather categories of pure separation. The focus was absolutely on classifying individuals on the basis of their symptoms, and the cures were often inhumane and brutal, ranging from isolation to frontal lobotomies.

Once “autistics” were identified theywere quickly separated out and categorized as “unfit” and fit,  broken down into the “good” and “bad”, the “geniuises” and the “moronic”  This was done primarily by Hans Asperger.  It is covered in the book In a Different Key.  For Asperger,  here were those “little professors” who fascinated Asperger and who could contribute something to the Nazi society in which they lived, and the others, whom he personally sentenced to death.  An excerpt regarding howhe murdered his less fortunate autistic patients is here Hans Asperger’s Nazi Past.

During the early 40s the term autism is used with increasing frequency and in 1943, a child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner elucidated its symptomsits symptoms: “lack of affective” contact, fascination with objects, desire for samness and non-communicative language before 30 months of age.”   He also placed individual autistics in the context of their family relations nothing that most had highly intelligent but highly compulsive parents who drove them to achieve. He noted that “…there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers.”  The focus for understanding and treating autistics now switched from the individuals themselves, to their parents.

During the 50’s and 60’s, in an unrestrained expression of sexism and accompanied by acts of cold brutality and cruelty, the then prominent psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, introduced his “refrigerator mother” theory”.   Ultimately the cause of autism was to be laid at the feet of women who did not properly perform their primary role as mothers.  In his view, autism was solely a psychological issue that could be reversed by therapy for both mother and child.  However, all too often this therapy consisted of separating the child from the mother.  Likewise, many of his former autistic patients came forward to tell of their physical and psychological brutalization in his “school” for autistics.   This from a man who had himself been a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and who, in an act of good will on the part of Hitler, was given a release. It turned out that he was not only sadistic, but also a liar.  He had lied about his academic credentialsials. In addition, it turned out he had plagerized  This was a contributing factor in his personal and professional  discreditization and led in turn to his suicide.(, p. 3).

During the 1960’s the cruel abuse of autistics did not diminish but only assumed a new form as they were given drugs such as LSD in an effort to alter their consciousness.   During the 1970s, new forms of abuse disguised as new cures  arose. One of the most popular interventions for autism is applied behavioral analysis (ABA), which, its proponents maintain, can help an autistic child lose their self-absorbed, repetitive (and sometimes self-harming) behaviors.  Lovaas, the “inventor” of ABA used electric shocks, shouting, starvation and corporal punishment in the 1960s on autistic children

The atrocities commtted against Autistics gave rise to a new perception of autistics spearheaded by the “neurodiversity” movement.   This movement, which is part of the human rights movement, argues that autism is just one manifestation of a variety of neurological variations.  Thus it challenges the historically prevalent perception of autism (amongst other disorders) as pathological.  Another way to put it would be to say that it challenges the very existence of the categories of “normal” and “abnormal” when it comes to human functioning.  It argues instead, for individualization, the same individualization which underlies the concept of human rights as expressed in liberal democratic theory which has its origins in Aristotle’s logic.  With the focus firmly on the individual, albeit now from a perspective which says that they need not be changed, the possibility of social change is effectively excluded.  No finger is to be pointed: certainly not at the parent or the child, but neither at society.

I have an autistic grandson, and even if I didn’t, I am not going to argue that his rights as an individual should not be respected, or that he or any other autistic child should be regarded as somehow subhuman.  The history of autistics has been punctuated by extermination, isolation, and all forms of abuse both physical and emotional, often at the hands of physicians. (See the book The Nazi Doctors)  This ill treatment, like all ill treatment of one group of human beings by another, has been justified by the fact that they are “other” than fully human.  The differences between us do not and should not be allowed to diminish our humanity.

However, the first law of the dialectic asserts that all definition, and hence all understanding, is by reference to an other.  And so, if we are to understand rather than simply to acknowledge the existence of autism, we must posit its other, not as a justification for mistreatment, but as a ground for understanding.  When it comes to the individual autistic,  this other can only be the social relations of production in which he has been formed; social relations which must themselves be viewed not as timeless and eternal, but as the product of history and human evolution.

Initially, it appears that there are a variety of “causes” or triggers for autism.  Research has shown that there is a strong genetic component.  There are particular genetic mutations that produce autism, such as the “Fragile X” syndrome.  Links have also been established between the mother’s exposure to certain diseases such as ruebella, and autism.  Newer epigenetic research is focusing on the total maternal environment and autism, and resultantly the question has arisen as to how a mother’s exposure to  things such as violence, disease, trauma, and a toxic environment impact the health and wellbeing of the child she is carrying.

However recent research in genetics has pointed to what could be the ultimate causal factor which is “genetic memory.” It is the memory present at birth that exists prior to birth.  It is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time.Neuroscientific research on mice suggests that some experiences can influence subsequent generations. For example,  mice trained to fear a specific smell passed on their trained aversion to their descendants, which were then extremely sensitive and fearful of the same smell, even though they had never encountered it, nor been trained to fear it. Changes in brain structure were also found. The researchers concluded that “the experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations”.[

If this theory is true, and I think it is, then we are not merely the product of our individual histories, we are not in fact, even from the moment of conception, individuals, but rather we are products of the histories of our ancestors and of the social relations which defined their existences.  Thus we must come to understand ourselves as social and historical beings.

Let’s turn from causes to symptoms.  Early on the austic child:

  • He can’t respond to his name by his first birthday.
  • Playing, sharing, or talking with other people doesn’t interest him.
  • He prefers to be alone.
  • He avoids or rejects physical contact.
  • When he’s upset, he doesn’t like to be comforted.
  • He doesn’t understand emotions — his own or others’.

About 40% of kids with autism spectrum disorders don’t talk at all, and between 25% and 30% develop some language skills during infancy but then lose them later. Some children with ASD start talking later in life.

  • Delayed speech and language skills
  • Flat, robotic speaking voice, or singsong voice
  • Echolalia (repeating the same phrase over and over)
  • Problems with pronouns (saying “you” instead of “I,” for example)
  • Not using or rarely using common gestures (pointing or waving), and not responding to them
  • Inability to stay on topic when talking or answering questions
    Repetitive behaviors like hand-flapping, rocking, jumping, or twirling
  •  Constant moving and “hyper” behavior
  •  Fixations on certain activities or objects
  •  Specific routines or rituals (and getting upset when a routine is changed, even slightly)
  •  Extreme sensitivity to touch, light, and sound
  •  Not taking part in “make-believe” play or imitating others’ behaviors
  •  Fussy eating habits
  •  Lack of coordination, clumsiness
  •  Impulsiveness (acting without thinking)
  •  Aggressive behavior, both with self and others
  •  Short attention span

This is taken in its entirety from:

When we look at these symptoms as a whole we find many parallels with the Jungian definition of introversion.  In fact, autism can be understood as an extreme manifestation of introversion.  It is a turning away from and blocking out of the world reflected as the inability or lack of desire for communication, for human contact, for human interaction.  Any intrusion of the world into the absolute isolation of the autistic whether by individuals or by things such as light and sound,  is painful and anxiety producing, giving rise to repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping or “stimming” as well as to aggressive behavior against self and others.  Even the objects of the world are excluded from the inwardness of the autistic consciousness and so they are conceived not as things, but as pure motion.  Thus the autistics’ focus on motion: on spinning fans, on twirling objects, on letting things fall to the ground over and over again, on rocking or turning their bodies, on flapping their hands.  Neither people nor things penetrate the absolute selfhood of the extreme autistic.

Obsessive compulsive behaviors, such as only eating certain foods or engaging in certain interests, or repeating particular patterns of behavior, allay his anxiety and enable the individualtp being  to cope with living in a world from which he remains essentially and profoundly disconnected.

What then?  If we are, each and every one of us, the product not only of our genes, but of epigenetics which are influenced by our enviornments, if we are not pure individuals, but totalities deeply and profoundly affected by the experiences of our ancestors which in turn have been shaped and programmed by human social history, what does this say about autism?  It says to me that it is not a particular aberration of a particular individual, nor a disorder of a person or group of people, but a natural and genetically logical response to an unbearably brutal and hostile world.

As autism becomes more and more common, as it begins to appear in an ever increasing number of individuals, what else can we conclude, but that it is a natural adaptation to the social relations of our time.  What are the social relations of our time?  They are first and foremost capitalist social relations: relations in which profits are not only put before people, but in which people themselves are viewed as things from which profits are to be extracted. Cigarettes are produced and pushed upon the population, toxins are releasted into the environment, war proliferates, not because any of these things are good for humanity, but because capitalist coporations are driven by the need to expand profits.  All other traumatic experiences devolve from this dehumanization: the impoverishment of people, the degradation and devaluation of their labor, the violence in and through which their frustrations and anger are vented not against the system which exploits them, but against one another.  In the face of the ideological myth that people are “individuals” who have “natural rights”, the realities of poverty and violence, of unfulfilled longings and unrealized gifts, of hunger and want, and yes, of bare and cold indifference and brutality are every day embedded in our genomes to be passed on.

Nor does it stop there.  The history of women has been a history of oppression, punctuated by violence and dehumanization.  It is that trauma, that violence, that dehumanization that is passed on both genetically and environmentally to the unborn child.

Racism too, in all its forms; the long brutalization and mistreatment of races of people who are dehumanized and exploited, is written into the book of genetic memories.  The traumas of slave ancestors are present in newborn children of color.

All forms of dehumanization are passed on generation to generation, as cause and as effect.  What wonder then, that the autistic child turns away from the world to enter a world of his own.

Mary Metzger is a New Yorker living in Moscow


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