On Mowgli, Rhetoric and Autism

So I mentioned last year that I’m autistic. I haven’t written so much about my direct experiences, but I have touched a little on some of the reading I’ve been doing as part of understanding and researching this condition; for instance back in September I wrote about the scientific journal Autism and how it tries to foreground the autistic voice, with mixed results. I’m still reading through some of the research from the 90s and early 2000s – they had a really weird way of talking about autism at that point, but there are also important milestones in the research, so it’s important to dig through. Sometimes, though, you do come across some real corkers. I’ve been sitting on this one for months. We’ve got to talk about understanding minds.

Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Autism (1993) is an important text discussing the theory of mind hypothesis. In essence, there are a bunch of psychological tests that seem to show that autistic kids have trouble understanding or attributing mental states under certain conditions. The classic example is called the ‘Sally-Anne test’ – there are variations, but it usually involves watching a little skit. It’ll be something like this. Sally comes in and puts her chocolate in the fridge. She leaves the room. Anne comes in, takes the chocolate from the fridge, and puts it in the cupboard. Sally comes back in, and the researchers ask the kid – who’s seen the whole thing – where does Sally think her chocolate is? Obviously Sally thinks it’s in the fridge, because she’s not seen it moved. But autistic kids usually struggle to pick that up. They struggle to identify that Sally holds a false belief – they’ll routinely say that Sally thinks the chocolate is in the cupboard. They don’t seem to distinguish between what they know and what Sally knows – they don’t seem to identify that her beliefs are limited to what she was able to see. And this problem seems specific to autistic kids. Pass rates vary a little between experiments, but the one they’ve got listed on Wikipedia has neurotypical and Down Syndrome kids passing 85% of the time, while autistic kids pass only 20%. It seems to be something specific about autism: it seems, the theory goes, that a key feature of autism is a decreased propensity to attribute mental states (such as false belief) to other people.

And there’s a whole broader conversation we could have here, right. Are we talking about a delay or a deficit? That is, these experiments were carried out on autistic children – how do autistic adults perform on these tests? Are autistic people merely delayed in developing theory of mind, or does autism entail a permanent deficit? We’re talking about a whole area of study, and there’s obviously a lot more to discuss than this quick summary. But it’ll serve as context for the article at hand.

So we’ve got this book, Understanding Other Minds, which explores a range of different perspectives and elements of this theory of mind question, obviously with close reference to autism. The third article, authored by Fred R. Volkmar and Ami Klin, is titled ‘Social development in autism: historical and clinical perspectives’. I’m just going to give you this introduction wholesale, and then we’re going to talk about rhetoric.

“Autism has captivated the imagination and research endeavour of investigators in disciplines as diverse as ethology and neurophysiology. In this search for the ‘Rosetta stone’ of social development, many researches have studied autism with the intent of unravelling the very essence of human social relatedness and culture. Many decades ago, a similar endeavour brought about the once fashionable anthropological quest for ‘the savage in a state of nature’ (Zingg 1940). Such a savage, it was thought, would show us which aspects of social and cultural behaviours were innate and which were acquired. The search for isolated humans living outside society led to the description of so-called ‘feral children’, who allegedly grew up in the wild, reared by animals other than man (Gesell 1949; Maclean 1977). These descriptions were blends of small amounts of fact and large amounts of fancy; it appears that the great majority of feral children were congenitally abnormal children deliberately abandoned in the wild to die (cf. Levi-Strauss 1949; Bettelheim 1967).

Although there are no reliable cases of children having grown up outside society, there are, due to a tragic accident of nature, children with autism, who live in society, but who for some as yet ill-understood reasons, cannot profit much from the social stimulation provided by loving and caring parents. Efforts to understand the roots of their social impairment have been as difficult as our predecessors’ quest for ‘the man without culture’. As our predecessors failed to understand that man is biologically a social and cultural animal, we as yet have failed to understand what exactly this biology consists of (Volkmar 1987).”

In discussing the rhetoric of these two passages, we’re going to set aside the overtly hostile elements (“a tragic accident of nature”), as well as the basic thrust of the argument. For what it’s worth, I think the underlying argument is actually fairly reasonable. If you want to understand human social development, it makes sense to look at people who seem to develop according to a different schedule. If we can understand what makes autistic people different, it helps us understand neurotypical people at the same time. Once you drill down to that level, I don’t really have any objections. The concern, for me, is around how these topics are introduced and rhetorically framed.

Let’s start with the first paragraph. The first couple sentences really just outline the concept that we’ve established above: if we can understand why autistic people seem to have a different trajectory of social development, we might learn things about social development in neurotypical people as well. Then we have the comparison to this historical search for the “savage in a state of nature”. In the most literal and concrete sense, it is a fairly relevant precedent. If you want to understand how social development works in humans, you can probably learn some stuff by studying people who grew up without social development – such as, for instance, a feral child, raised by the jungle like a real-life Mowgli. At the same time, as a rhetorical device, the carefree reference to savages makes the reader pause and think – hang on, is this a bit racist? I’m sure I don’t have to rehearse the ways in which ‘culture’ and ‘savagery’ were deployed under the colonial enterprise as a way of legitimizing the invasion and violent suppression of indigenous people. Europeans construed themselves as bringing enlightenment to uncivilized savages – to the less advanced peoples of the world, people who needed a helping hand from benevolent whites. It’s not immediately clear whether these authors understand the weight of that history, or the intellectual and historical baggage they’re introducing when they raise it as a point of comparison.

And it’s the rhetorical function of comparison that really causes them problems. If you simply wanted to lay out the historical search for feral children, and the interest that the search might have had for our understanding of social development, that’s all easy enough to do in fairly neutral language. We’ve done that above. But the study of autistic people is explicitly positioned as a sort of second chance at the feral child thesis. We don’t have any feral children to hand, but we do have autistic people, and they’re kinda like feral children – so the game is back on! If the study of autistic people in some sense revives the quest to study feral children, I think there is a bit more impetus to grapple with the cultural context of the original quest – because it serves as the intellectual foundation and heritage of this new endeavour. We might ask, for instance: was there anything we could learn from the last time this quest took place? Are there, perhaps, any attitudes that we might, with the benefit of time and hindsight, try to avoid in the modern day? If we look back at these early quests for the savage in a state of nature, it might be that we find a bunch of bigots, people convinced of their own superiority looking to study people they’ve categorized as inferior – partly in the name of actual scientific research, sure, but also maybe partly as a way of cementing their sense of superiority. Could it be valuable for (presumably) non-autistic researchers to reflect on that history as they set out to research autism?

“…there are, due to a tragic accident of nature, children with autism…”

Hard to say.

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