Special Issue Highlight: The Anthropology of Autism, Part 2

In this week’s entry, we continue our issue highlight on the current special issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry. Released in June 2015, the latest issue explores anthropological research on autism, both across the world and between communities of people with autism and their families. Like the first part of this feature, we will explore two articles in the current special issue.

 “But-He’ll Fall!”: Children with Autism, Interspecies Intersubjectivity, and the Problem of ‘Being Social’

Olga Solomon

Autism-spectrum disorders (ASD) are described in diagnostic manuals as an impairment of one’s ability to successfully relate to and understand other people. Yet this definition of autism relies on a specific notion of sociality that, Solomon argues, becomes much more complicated when considering autistic individuals’ interaction with therapy animals.

Solomon compares two cases that highlight autistic children’s understandings of what it means to be social: one without animals, and another with animals featured prominently in the therapeutic intervention. In the first instance, a child she calls Rosalyn is being tested in a psychological facility. The child attempts to engage in conversation with the psychologist and her parent, but is dismissed. She also shows a picture she has drawn to the psychologist, yet is again dismissed and offered a standardized picture book to complete another diagnostic task. Rosalyn’s own experiences and perspectives are cut from the diagnosis, while artificial tasks and measures that are foreign to her—such as the picture book—are substituted for “real” social materials worth engaging with.

Unlike Rosalyn, whose encounter with the psychologist in the office offers her little opportunity to demonstrate her connections to other people on her own terms, a girl named Kid has a much different experience in animal-based therapy. While Kid has no friends in school and struggles to engage socially, she demonstrates concern for her therapy dog. She worries in one interaction that she might drop him from her lap, and in another vignette, notes to her family that she fears the family dog might be jealous of her interactions with the therapy dog.

In Kid’s case, the presence of animals provided an opportunity for her to demonstrate her understandings of their emotional state and to express her feelings towards them. Rosalyn likewise attempted to engage with her psychologist and mother while in the office, but her attempts to interact were brushed aside and supplanted with artificial testing activities that did not elicit an empathetic response.

Solomon posits that these findings align with theory after the post-human turn, whenever the human actor became destabilized as the center of all social interaction and new notions of sociality began to consider interspecies engagements, particularly in the works of Donna Haraway. When animals enter the picture, these non-human actors prove central to understandings of social relationships that might not otherwise be seen in strictly human-to-human interaction, as in the case of Rosalyn.

Click here for the full article: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9446-7


Making Meaningful Worlds: Role-Playing Subcultures and the Autism Spectrum

Elizabeth Fein

Like Solomon, Fein explores another case where individuals on the autism spectrum learn to interact and engage with others on their own, productive terms. Fein draws on ethnographic research of a summer camp for teens with autism, where they role-play as magicians, scientists, and other fantastical characters.

At the camp, the teens posit themselves in new social roles, explore new identities, and forge relationships with others in novel ways. They largely practiced live-action role playing (LARP), stylized as LARPing, an activity where participants dress and act as mythical characters in a live-action fantasy game. The founders of the camp, called the Journeyfolk, realized that ASD youth were drawn to these fantasy role-playing communities, where a shared mythology and a story arc that pitted villains against heroes created a common social space for participants.

Although participants of the games had unique behavioral qualities—in one team, for instance, there was someone who jumped on other players and another with intense hyperactivity—they accepted that they had to overcome these individual differences in order to work together. Likewise, older players who gravitated to the roles of heroes in the LARP events were often instructed to act as villains: challenging them to take on new roles beyond their own desire to act as a specific character.

The game and the camp provided a strong external structure that guided participants through tasks and activities: structure that individuals on the autism spectrum often need to navigate social situations effectively. Conversely, it also promoted a storytelling environment where characters that teens acted struggled with deep, internal, psychological quandaries, such as battling off evil spirits that possessed team mates, and struggling with being a mythological human/inhuman hybrid being. They could draw upon their real-life struggles, such as anger issues, in order to create characters that—like them—were challenged to solve problems in light of these personal difficulties.

Fein concludes, in part, that these camps both provide the structure and the social patterning that autism-spectrum individuals need to engage with others positively, while also encouraging neurodiversity by valorizing fringe nerd culture and allowing individuals to create characters that are informed by the behavioral patterns and psychological struggles of those who play them in the games.

To access this article, click here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9443-x

To access all of the articles in this issue, click here: http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/39/2/page/1