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Tropes vs. autism in Religious Studies

“Why are autistic people different in just the way they are?” asks Uta Frith, a pioneer of autism research. “I put the blame on an absent Self.” Indeed, the absent self theory is the prevailing account of autism among developmental psychologists. Because autistic people lack conscious self-awareness, so the theory goes, they can’t organize their experiences into a meaningful story. They have trouble reflecting on their own intentions and anticipating their own actions. They fail to ascribe mental states to other people. They miss the forest for the trees.

You might think that the sheer number of autie-biographies—autistic-authored personal narratives—would inspire proponents of the absent self theory to reconsider their claim that autistic people lack a sense of self. On the contrary, researchers sustain the theory in the face of such apparent counter-examples by casting doubt on the authenticity of autistic self-expression: if an autistic person shares her memories or describes her feelings, they warn, it might seem like she’s consciously reliving a personal experience (or displaying what they call “episodic” memory), but she’s really just reporting what she’s heard about herself secondhand (or relying on what they call “semantic” memory). Which is to say, she’s “hacking.” In short, the absent self theory “denies autistic agency, denies autistic voice, denies autistic personhood,” to quote Melanie Yergeau, a scholar of rhetoric and an autistic self-advocate. It treats autie-biographers as “the ultimate unreliable narrator.”

But no one has unmediated access to another person’s conscious self-experience. To gather fine-grained information about someone else’s conscious self-experience, then, we typically listen to them speak about themselves, or we read their personal narratives. And in the interest of learning from the speaker/writer, we interpret their statements with a principle of charity. That is, we don’t assume ahead of time that everything they say/write will be an error or a lie, for such an assumption would impede our goal of learning from them.

The trouble with the absent self theory is that it holds water only if we refuse to extend the same principle of charity to an autistic speaker/writer that we would to a non-autistic one. This makes the theory essentially unfalsifiable: evidence that would call the theory into question isn’t allowed to count against it.

What’s more, accepting the unfalsifiable and dehumanizing thesis that autistic self-representation amounts to mere mimicry—rather than an accurate first-person report of the felt character of autistic experience—makes learning from actually autistic people all but impossible. It closes non-autistic people off from a different way of being and knowing, one that “colors every […] thought, emotion, and encounter,” as Jim Sinclair, a founder of the autism-rights movement, puts it. And it thus impoverishes non-autistic people’s perception of the world.

Take the following (imaginary) scenario as an analogy:

Oona and Beth—two women without a language in common—are the only survivors of a plane crash on an uninhabited Pacific atoll. Beth finds Oona’s behavior odd: rather than help Beth search the wreckage for antibiotics or packaged food, Oona paces the shore, staring absently into the forest. “She’s in shock,” Beth thinks. “I can’t rely on her.” Then Oona disappears behind a brightly colored thicket. She returns a short while later with two large orange pine cones (Pandanus fruit), which she breaks into bite-sized pieces, and an armful of pink flowers (firecracker hibiscus), which she arranges into two salad-sized heaps. Oona eats a few flowers and gesticulates at Beth enthusiastically. If, in the face of such countervailing evidence, Beth clings willfully to her belief that Oona is merely in shock, Beth will miss out: Oona, an ethnobotanist, knows the atoll’s edible and medicinal plants.

Now consider the following (all too real) state of affairs:

The absent self theory of autism has obtruded into my multi-disciplinary home field of religious studies. Well-intentioned philosophers, theologians, and anthropologists—scholars who in other respects advocate for disability rights—have taken the theory for granted. Recently, some philosophers of religion have defined faith in a personal god or gods by contrasting it with the supposed inability of autistic persons to attune themselves to other’s mental states. These philosophers have used autism as a trope to explain the difference between “lifeless faith,” or mere (autistic) knowledge, and “living faith,” or heartfelt (non-autistic) devotion. Such accounts define autistic theists out of existence. Theologians, too, have recycled the popular autism-as-living-death trope to show how apophatic theology works and to illustrate the “death of the author” thesis. Meanwhile, after interviewing autistic theists, some anthropologists of religion have doubled down on the absent self theory: they wager that autistic theists use the received cultural scripts of their religion to compensate for their lack of a self. In other words, autistic people of faith are merely “hacking.”

What will we miss out on if we cling to the absent self theory?

For one thing, we’ll have a hard time learning from critiques that autistic theists aim at their own faith traditions. Daniel Salomon’s Confessions of an Autistic Theologian is a powerful example. Salomon, a self-described “mystic” who converted from Judaism to Christianity, decries the discrimination he’s faced in “Christian and Jewish groups” that exclude their autistic members from lay leadership and holy orders. In place of ableist theologies that equate autism with postlapsarian brokenness, he constructs an “autistic liberation theology” that sees autism as a “charism.” “We are not ‘others,’” Salomon insists. “We are not ‘curiosities.’ We are not ‘cute childlike characters.’ We are not ‘tragedies.’ We are not ‘marginal cases.’ We are not ‘complicated machines.’ We are full human beings with desires and feelings” and a “spiritually meaningful inner life.”

Featured image credit: Colors, via Andrew John. CC0 Public domain via Unsplash.

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