Tag Archives: Sandy Starr

Autism, Ethics and the Good Life: disorder or identity?

Sandy Starr is an adult who was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome in his teens. His work for the Progress Educational Trust, a registered charity that works in the field of genetics, assisted conception, embryo/stem cell research and related areas, includes the genetic aspects of autism. He addressed the question

Is autism a disorder? Is autism an identity?
Autism is a disorder with its roots in psychopathology.
The idea that autism is not a disorder is quite recent and seems to derive from three trends.
Expanding the range of what constitutes autism makes the concept of autism less coherent and less useful. This has happened with other psychiatric disorders as well.
Redefining normal has made us lose sight of what it means to be a functioning social being.
There is an assumption that identifying negative aspects of autism entails a moral judgement on the autistic person rather than a medical judgement.

 

Consequences
There have been changes to the law on disability rights and benefit entitlement.
People have been unfairly taken off benefits.
But broadly defined clinical categories are not trusted by government. We need to re-establish boundaries.
We need to defend the pejorative medical judgement that autism is a pathology with disabling aspects.
It is important to seperate moral and medical judgements. Ipseity is more than your health.
Mental health is part of ipseity.
Autism is part of mental health.
Autism exists as a medical condition.
Can it also be an identity.

 

Conclusion
Treating autism as a difference which is valued for itself leads to some interesting ramifications.
In particular should identity affect our judgement?
If I as an autistic person say something about autism should I be believed because of who I am?
That is a kind of ad hominem in reverse.
I deserve to be challenged on the strength of my ideas, not upon the strength of who I am.

In the discussion that followed I pointed out that some commentators had made moral judgements in the other direction. Barnbaum cites Hobson, who argues that without empathy one cannot be part of the moral community. Humanity is not about essential intrinsic qualities which we must possess. It is created out of our relationships with other people. We become persons when we recognize the personhood of others. If that ability is seriously impaired, as in autism, then that person cannot be considered to lead a fully human life.

Starr had an admirably pragmatic solution to the question. Once you are born you are part of the human race. No question about it. But this sidesteps the issue. What about those like Hobson who do question it? Perhaps people are asserting autism as identity in order to defend themselves against these pejorative moral judgements of autism?

I found his presentation stimulating and challenging. And Starr was right to ask whether, if he had not identified himself as autistic, it would have made a difference to how we received his arguments? Or as Murray might have put it, “What role had we individually and collectively assigned to Starr in the narratives of autism that were unfolding in the Royal Academy on World Autism Day?