"[...]When autistic people speak, it speaks more about society than about autism, and challenges the concepts culturally embedded in the naturalistic and dualistic ontology of our Western societies of norm and disability, nature and animals, leading to [the]marginalization of the different and exploitation of natural resources. "
It is a very special journey that Anna-Livia Marchionni invites us to take in her dissertation, which explores the relationships between people with autism, nature and animals.
In the neurotypical world, that is, in a society that functions within the norm of common neurological conditions, people with autism are still subject to denigration (at the very least) for what they allegedly lack in terms of social skills.
Not participating in activities sometimes means being labeled as autistic. Whether this fits you or not, it may have happened to you. But what exactly is it?
Autism was observed and described from a pathological perspective in the early 20th century as a "pattern of thought affecting the relationship between the inner life and the outer world, the inner life being pathologically predominant." In 1944, Hans Asperger, whose name was given to high-functioning autistic people speaks of "princely estrangement."
From the outside, it is a personal, individual disability, for which doctors and psychiatrists have mobilized with the aim of adapting autistic people to society.
Since the 1980s-1990s, the people concerned have come together and are making the values of neurodiversity heard.
What handicaps them comes down more to society's inability to understand and integrate difference, and particularly in relation to what is here a "different cognitive style." This joins the perspective of the social model of disability, which "is thus no longer seen as purely medical, but as a matter of social justice."
Face to face
With great humor and to completely disable pathologization, one will read here a clinical picture of the neurotypical made by individuals with autism:
"The neurotypical (NT) syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by social preoccupation, delusions of superiority, and an obsession with conformity. Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one in existence or the only one that is correct. NTs have difficulty being alone. [...] Autopsies have shown that the neurotypical's brain is generally smaller than that of an autistic individual and may have overdeveloped areas related to social behavior."
Examining Scientific Presuppositions
There are some great pages in the thesis, in which the author explains the scientific process she had to go through to approach her topic in a living way. In it she talks about living science and frozen science, questioning her relationship to the people she studied. Are they living, free subjects or people devitalized by the artificial reproduction of laboratory conditions, and made pure objects of science?
A hypersensory social group
The "autistic community" is approached "as a social group with a collective identity and a way of coping with its own differences". The differences are expressed from the point of view of sensoriality, with a perceptual profusion, "a sensory tide."
Logically, people swept up in a sensory tsunami seek ways to frame and control it, or even not to experience it, causing anxieties, difficulties with people who would be less sensitive to it, and rejection. Often, too, they domesticate and invisibilize themselves so as not to appear too different within the overall "social theater."
Sensory hypersensitivity involves one or more sensory channels, and links them together.
My first yoga student was a person with Asperger's autism. She told me that it was impossible for her to practice in a group class because she had trouble hearing people breathe. For her, hearing that breathing was not only almost painful on an auditory level, but there was also an intrusive tactile quality to other people's breathing that came through strongly. It was a great source of anxiety.
"People with autism seem to perceive with a finer grain."
This was said very simply, heard just as simply, I validated that my own breathing was not in her way and she was of course free to tell me at any time what might be preventing her from enjoying, and we practiced together. Different is not complicated.
"I was born on a blue day "
From a cognitive standpoint, and this is an aspect that would be shared with animals according to Temple Grandin, people with autism have an ability "to think without language, by association of sensory memories and image categories." Daniel Tammet explains in I was born on a blue day that he sees the solutions to mathematical problems appear as landscapes.
Visual thinkers thus sit alongside verbal thinkers. The former must translate into words what is sometimes unspeakable, what can be heard as a poetic, even spiritual quality (and be understood and valued, or not, often out of fear of the different functioning).
Becoming a blade of grass
Finally, there is a particular way in which people with autism relate to the world.
Donna Williams describes "almost mystical sensory experiences, which she calls "deep experiences" (deep experiences) giving her unique satisfaction and the most powerful sensory experiences she knows."
She refers to them as "resonance":
"I could resonate with the cat and spend hours lying in front of it, having no physical contact with it. I could resonate with the tree in the park and feel myself merging with it."
Shaking up our relationship to the world
If we resonate with the world, will we be able to raze it to the ground to put its resources on sale and exploit it? An important point of the thesis shows that the specific capacities of the autistic social group allow us to revisit our cultural way of being in the world.
Anthropologist Philippe Descola has shown that human societies have four major relationships to the world (the mundiations).
- "Totemism emphasizes the material and moral continuity between humans and non-humans;
- analogism postulates between the elements of the world a network of discontinuities structured by relations of correspondences;
- animism lends the interiority of humans to non-humans;
- naturalism relates us[...] to nonhumans through material continuities and separates us from them through cultural fitness. "
Each of these globalizations carries a particular style of economy. Our ecology and economy of exploitation of the world comes from the fact that we are ontologically separated from nature. We can then think of the world and profit from it, with the drifts we see today.
A difference in intensity
While people with autism are indeed also part of the cultural globalization of naturalism, their different sensoriality nevertheless leads them to a difference in intensity:
"It would not be a matter of difference in representation, but of lived experience. "
"Their sensory thinking would allow them to extricate themselves from a categorical logic and enter into a logic of the continuum, from which would arise the subtle elaboration of a "symbolic mesh" that would stand out from that of naturalistic societies. The awareness through sensoriality that is theirs of a connection with the natural elements leads them to conceive of themselves as part of a great universal whole."
"What do you think? "
Knowing the diversity of cognitive functioning and knowing that non-autistic people can also exhibit autistic traits, what will you discover about yourself by reading this thesis?
To be read:
Anna-Livia Marchionni, A Socio-Anthropology of Asperger's Syndrome in its Relationships to Nature and Animals: from Marginalization to Identification and Cultural Renewal. Social Sciences. University of Liege, 2020.
Thesis available at: https://orbi.uliege.be/handle/2268/253617
Illustration: StockSnap from Pixabay.
Daniel Tammet - I was born on a blue day
Donna Williams - Nobody Nowhere. The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl
Jean-Pierre Salgas - An Anthropology of Figuration
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