Friday, April 24, 2009

R.I.P., Alyric

I learned from The Gonzolog that autism blogger Alyric, who wrote A Touch of Alyricism, has passed away, having fought cancer for a year.

Alyric was not a personal blogger; she preferred to write about the science of autism, the ethics of autism advocacy, and to debunk --- with astonishing wit and grace --- the fallacies of the anti-vaccination cranks and the nastier stereotypes of adult autistics.

Because she did not blog about her own life, I had no idea she was sick. From reading others' blog entries memorializing her, they were equally blindsided.

Even though I did not read Alyric regularly, I did find her blog intensely interesting, informative and well-written. Her husband and daughter have chosen to keep her writings visible online, so people who haven't had a chance to read her can still do so.

Here are some of my favorite things she's written:

"Blueprint for a 21st Century Witch-hunt" - an extended analogy between Internet communities and medieval villages, with specific focus on the way in which certain groups of people (she focuses on autistics, though I'm sure there are others, too) get scapegoated and demonized within these insular enclaves. It also features a lot of amusing figures of speech, of which my favorite would be her likening the "flat affect" characteristic of Asperger syndrome to a "witches' caul."

"Unnatural Selection" - a discussion of eugenics and the possibility of a prenatal test for autism

"The Infamous 166" - a closer look at the autism-prevalence statistics

"A Tall Tale - and about to Topple" - a detailed explanation of one of the more sophisticated autism-as-mercury-poisoning conjectures

"Indistinguishable From Their Peers" and "Review: Behavior Therapy for Children with ASD" - critiques of existing literature on ABA

We'll miss you, Alyric. The blogosphere is poorer without you.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Criticism by Armchair Diagnosis

In the past month or so, I've come across two very similar instances of literary criticism in which the critic invokes "autism" to characterize strains of alienation and misanthropy in an author's body of work.

The first such usage I encountered was in a recent article in Raritan by Cambridge professor Andy Martin, titled "Autism, Empathy and Existentialism," which posited that French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus represented opposite extremes of alienation and empathy:

One way of understanding the difference between the two thinkers is to see them as occupying different ends of a spectrum with autism at one end and empathy at the other.
Camus manages to find much to identify with in Sartre, a sense of common ground: "Even in the most well-constructed lives, there always arrives a moment in which all the facades collapse. ... This feeling is common to us. ... As a result of going against the tide, a sense of loathing, a feeling of revolt, takes possession of our entire being, and the revolt of the body is what we call nausea." What they have in common is, paradoxically, the same thing that divides them from each other and even from themselves --- a sense of the unbearable lightness of being, pitting the individual against an interpretive community in a standoff that Camus would eventually evoke with the word "absurdity." It is characteristic of Camus that he derives some glimmer of empathy out of what can be understood as an extreme form of "social autism."

... [I]t is characteristic of Sartre that he takes Camus to pieces to see how his text works. In particular, he homes in on the use of the "passé-composé" --- what we tend to call the "perfect" --- tense. ... [T]he fact that the "composed past," consisting of an auxiliary (either être or avoir) plus a past participle can, in effect, be decomposed, seen as a bundle of disconnected pieces, appears to Sartre as the key to understanding the book: the world is just like that --- a miscellaneous collection of things that don't really fit together to make anything meaningful. It is not a plenitude but a series of gaps and voids, which we have tenuously stitched together. Camus, reading Sartre, asks himself: what does Sartre have in mind, and, by extension, what do we all have in mind, "at the limits of conscious thought"? Sartre, on the other hand, asks himself: what tense is he using?

The second instance (though it was written well before the first; I just encountered them in this order) of this literary use of autism-as-metaphor was a paraphrase of Simone de Beauvoir's "Must We Burn Sade?" in Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

In her essay on the Marquis de Sade, Simone de Beauvoir describes Sade's sexuality as autistic. Her use of the word is figurative, since an autistic child does not require an object of violence outside himself (most autistic children are male). Male power expressed in pornography is autistic as de Beauvoir uses the word in reference to Sade: it is violent and self-obsessed; no perception of another being ever modifies its behavior or persuades it to abandon violence as a form of self-pleasuring.
Both writers, de Beauvoir and Martin (and, to some extent, Dworkin too), are using "autism" and "autistic" to describe a worldview in which everything one encounters is either self or object.

Martin, in particular, is making explicit use of Simon Baron-Cohen's earlier "mindblindness" model of autism (which he has now incorporated into a larger theory involving sex differences in the brain):

Autism, from this point of view, is a form of mindblindness, an inability to form hypotheses about others, or even to acknowledge that there is such a thing as intentionality. Whereas solipsism is a refusal to believe in the existence of others, autism allows that other people exist out there --- I can see them, I can hear them, I can smell them, and so on --- but, at the same time, I cannot recognize them as conscious beings. I can't make sense of them.
(I should point out that, throughout his essay, Martin cannot seem to decide whether Sartre is truly "mindblind," in that he is unwilling or unable to think of other people as entities, with wills, desires and thoughts of their own, or whether he is simply alienated and antagonistic, seeing other minds as inevitably hostile to his own. These are not points of view that can be held simultaneously).

I said earlier that these writers have been using "autism" to describe a worldview. That's true, although Martin and de Beauvoir/Dworkin seem to be talking about different kinds of worldviews --- the former speaks of autism almost like a philosophical school or ideology, while the latter two treat it more like a psychological or character profile. The "autism" de Beauvoir attributes to Sade is, while less precise in what it implies about Sade's beliefs or modes of thought, is just as strong a determinant of his actions as the interpersonal agnosia and alienation Martin ascribes to Sartre.

There are a number of reasons why this use of "autism" annoys me. First, there's the perpetuation of ugly, tired stereotypes about autistics --- that we are unfeeling; that we're incapable of empathy and therefore incapable of kindness, consideration, friendship or love; that we lack understanding; that we are utterly disconnected from everything around us, etc., ad nauseam.

The second reason is that this particular lens doesn't seem to have generated any fresh insights into either Sartre or Sade. Without the oh-so-trendy use of the autism label, what would these articles have said about their subjects? That Sartre liked to take things --- texts, relationships, mental states --- to pieces until nothing recognizable was left of them? That Sade's sexuality was predatory? Neither of those would be much of a newsflash to anyone with a passing familiarity with either man's writing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Link Roundup

I have several long, unfinished, fairly involved posts backed up in my draft queue --- some have been there since February --- but I'm really not up to writing anything substantial yet.

There are, however, a number of things other people have written that really struck a chord with me recently, so I am going to point you guys toward them as well.

First, a couple of short pieces on a perennial favorite topic of mine, sex differences within autism. Mike Stanton of Action for Autism ponders the significance of autism's lower prevalence but greater severity in women and girls, and Elesia Ashkenazy discusses some of the ways in which autistic females don't fit the usual picture of what autism is, and thus are probably overlooked in diagnosis.

There's also this terrific guest post on Shakesville by Meowser, who blogs at Fat-Fu, which I discovered via Shiva's and Hexy's blogs.

In more general non-neurotypical news, Virginia Wood has an interesting and informative post about gender policing in psychiatry. (She follows it up with a discussion of why she does not consider religious-conversion-based therapies useful).

Finally, via the What Sorts of People? blog, a couple of posts about this Current Psychiatry editorial listing six predictions about what the future of psychiatry will be like. The prediction that alarmed all three bloggers is the prospect of "prodromal" diagnosis and treatment --- i.e., diagnosing a mental disorder not on the basis of symtoms but on the basis of likelihood of developing symptoms in the future.

Jonah at Alchemical Musings discusses the implication of this development that most worries me, which is its potential for use in social control:
The trend towards prodromal mental diagnoses is frightening precisely because it cedes even more power to an already cold and inhumane apparatus, which fails to listen to the voices of the people it claims to treat. The risks of preemptive discipline and prescriptive moral judgment reek of eugenics, and are simply too great and horrifying for this practice to continue. Patients are being indicted on the basis of hereditary factors, thought crimes, and innocuous deviant behavior.
Philip Dawdy at Furious Seasons takes another, equally relevant, perspective, questioning the proposed expansion of antipsychotic use to prevent potential cases of schizophrenia on the basis that antipsychotics are powerful and dangerous drugs:
[S]ome in psychiatry believe they can identify people at-risk [sic] for developing psychosis and zap them with antipsychotics and, then, they'll never develop schizophrenia. But the one big trial of this approach --- the PRIME study at Yale --- was a disaster. I wrote about it in 2006. About half the patients bailed from the study, mostly due to side effects of Zyprexa. Overall, only about one-quarter of the 60 original participants experienced psychosis, which perhaps calls into question the power of initial assessments.

Another Stage of the Intentional Communities Odyssey

You might've noticed I haven't been writing in this blog for a while.

That's because I've been in Tennessee, visiting (among other things) the Sequatchie Valley Institute near Whitwell, TN. A friend of my boyfriend's and mine is staying there to work as a gardener, and we decided to visit her and help out with some of the work they're doing, as well as attending a couple of workshops*.

Staying at SVI was a very different experience than staying at The Farm was --- for one thing, it was a very different type of environment, being on a densely forested, steep hillside rather than a flat, grassier area. (The Farm, I was told, had acquired most of its land from a defunct paper mill, and the land had been clear-cut several times during the mill's period of operation). There were also a lot fewer people there: six people living at Moonshadow, which was the part of SVI we were visiting --- there's also a house and gardens at the foot of the hill, called Sweet Gum, where a family of seven people lives --- plus the other visitors who came either for the workshops or the workday at Ulinawi. But, unlike at The Farm, the other visitors did not stay overnight, and even the people who lived there mostly seemed all to have their own, generously spaced, sleeping quarters, with people gradually filtering into the main communal building throughout the day to cook, eat, and hang out. Accordingly, I did not have to interact with people constantly, and the number of people I did see every day was a lot smaller. (Also, two of them were well-known to me, while at The Farm I was thrown together with about a dozen strangers for a very immersive, intensive experience).

Even with all that, though, I had a lot more trouble with overloading at SVI than I ever did at The Farm. I think the main reason for that is because we got there right before the busiest days --- the two workshops, when the most people would be around and the most structured activity would be going on. Also, I was pretty sick physically at the time, so it might also have been that my usual defenses were somewhat lowered.

I really liked the layout of Moonshadow, though: the one communal building with kitchen, fireplace, shower and offices, with smaller sleeping cabins scattered around it. For me, I think the ideal community has both shared spaces for cooking, eating, work and play, and also separate individual spaces to which people can retreat if they need to.

*A wildflower-identification hike and a shiitake-mushroom-growing workshop, both of which I ended up missing because I was sick.