Autism is an environmentalism

While reading and summarizing Descola’s giant work Beyond nature and culture, I have been ‘side-reading’ some stuff about autism.  Reading the book Women from another planet?: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism has made me think some additional thoughts to my reading of Descola.

Women from another planet? is a book, collectively written by a group of women diagnosed with autism spectrum. The authors are mostly using email as a medium, which is also reflected in the layout of the book, with small paragraphs (in italics), introducing a topic, followed by the women’s statements. I would like to cite a passage from a section headlined ‘Development and maturity’:

MM: I think that some of us [women with autism spectrum/Asperger’s syndrome (AS)] not only have our five senses on high, but also our sixth sense: that we do not draw a line between inanimate and animate beings, that they all have soul to us.

Daina: As a child, everything was somewhat alive to me. Perhaps the face-processing tendency that most NTs [neurotypicals] have, enables them early on to distinguish what is alive and what isn’t, and what is human and what isn’t.  

Ava: Or maybe what is and isn’t alive, is just another assumption that NTs make. So for the NT child, either because of the strength of those attachments to faces and the accompanying social world, or through some coincidental development process, the aliveness of the sensory world fades. Whereas we ASs retain more of the direct experience of the world and less of the face-addiction-belief thing.

This passage inspired me to do some thinking, that I would like to invite you to join.

Gradient neurodiversity?

Are we all wired differently? It’s generally admitted that we are all individually unique when it comes to our faces, our voices, our fingerprints. However it seems to be a general assumption that inside our bodies, – a part from what concerns ‘personality’ – we are all the same. We are the same, except from those, of course, who are ill, abnormal, deviant, right? Those who suffer from what we call a ‘mental disability’, those we give a diagnose that we call Asperger’s syndrome, autism, ADHD, etc.? What if we are just as uniquely different on the inside, as well? As one of the authors in Women from another planet? puts it:

“It seems odd that we value so much the beauty of diversity in nature yet seem afraid to share and appreciate the differences among and between ourselves” Susan Golubock 

Wirings in the West ….

So let’s imagine that we all enter the world with our own unique ‘mental fingerprint’, and that the ways our perceptions and brains are working differ, just like we have different sizes and shapes of noses. In this sense, I find the claim by the neurodiversity movement (NM) stimulating, that “atypical neurological development [is] a normal human difference” (Jaarsma and Welin 2012). In this sense, any given population contains – by default, and because of the ways genes work – a high degree of neurodiversity. I also find it stimulating to think that each culture has its own preference when it comes to brain wirings. Our modern, urban, Western culture favors what we understand as ‘normal’ wirings – or as the NM would call it ‘neurotypicality‘, whereas we unfavour certain other variations of wiring, such as for example those who lead to ways of interacting with people that we diagnose as autism.

The way we have designed life in our modern Western culture works fine for people (the majority? Or in fact only a small minority?) with a certain wiring. This is the case in our worklife, where the way to success not only goes through being skilled at what’s needed for completing the tasks, but the social aspects play a huge role as well. This counts unproportionally much when it comes to recruitment, as well as coping with the daily worklife. I think it might be related to the fact that in our hamster wheel way of life, the time we have available to spend with family and friends is so reduced, that the workplace has taken over the role of providing for our basic social needs. In this sense, people who are less wired for the ‘face-processing tendency’, as Daina calls it, will have a hard time accessing the labor market and staying in a job – no matter how skilled they are at the tasks demanded. What about other cultures? What kinds of wirings do they favor? 

… and the rest

It seems that there is a double movement in our time that is narrowing in the space for what is considered normal and useful for society. This movement has to do, on the one hand, with the way we organise production – IE what parts of human life,we choose to format into paid jobs – vs other activities that are defunct – like shepherding, or industrial jobs for that matter. On the other hand the value we give to social skills, which is now pervading all spheres of society, extending from the private sphere to also include the workplace. In other cultures and times, the way to organise production and social life might follow other logics, that might favor other kinds of wirings, which would suggest a different, and sometimes probably broader (or maybe narrower) definition of which personal traits are considered normal and useful.

These are thoughts that my reading of the accounts from women diagnosed with autism spectrum has inspired me to think. A third thought, that the quote above makes me think, has to do with, not only the way a culture structures its production, but also its whole basic relationship with the world, how its people perceive their surrounds. In other words, their ontology, their cosmology. As the quote suggests, people diagnosed with autism, see the world as animated. This inspires me to ask the question, if there is a certain relationship between on the one hand what we in the West consider as a defect – IE the way a person diagnosed with autism sees the world – and on the other hand the way animist cultures experience their surroundings? According to the women writing about their experiences as ASs, their faculty to perceive the liveliness of objects and textures in their surroundings is not related to a defect in their brains. They argue that all people, as children, perceive the world as animated. The difference is, that most people stop thinking that way because of the expectations from society, whereas people with autism manage to keep, what we would traditionally call a ‘naive’ relationship with the world. Does it make sense to think about animism as something which is latent in all cultures – since it is a way children spontaneously think – but that in some places, this aspect is suppressed whereas others maintain it, in adult life too? This is a quite traditional point of view, which I think you could find in early 20th century art movements, and also in evolutionist theories in social sciences. Descola argues vividly against this stance. The idea that people in animist cultures are somewhat more ‘natural’, because they are more ‘child-like’, uncorrupted, and that all cultures have – at some point in history been through an animistic phase,  is rather problematic. Descola argues that toady’s animist cultures have tens of thousands of years of history behind their current state. They, too, have a history. And social life in cultures that do not have written language is not more simple, or naive than in those who have. On the contrary, as Descola argues (somewhere), it requires much more complex cultural practices, in the form of rites, myths etc., in these cultures, in order to maintain the social fabric, without the written word as a medium.

Autism is an environmentalism

If there is a parallel in the way of seeing and interacting with the world between certain cultures – the ones that Descola calls animist, (read my ‘selective pocket summary’ here) and people with non-neurotypical wirings in our culture, I think it makes sense to add a third question to the two core questions in my ‘pocket research design’ no. 2 (read about it here). Here are the two questions…..

    1. In what way can pre-modern forager societies be said to adhere to proto-ecological guidelines?
    2. How can these societies serve as a model for a bio-synergistic civilization…. and now, I’m adding this question:
    3. What role does a culture’s favored brain wirings play when it comes to a sustainable relationship with the environment?

Indeed, the authors in Women from another planet? talk about how they have a close relationship with green movements, and how they relate to all living and inanimate beings in a respectful and connected way.

As Ava writes:

Many of us here clearly feel a connection with rocks, plants and animals. For me, this is not just an intellectual thing, it is something passionate and living, that I experience deeply in mind, emotions and body all at once (e.g. my response to a familiar tree). Bound with that is a sense of love, respect & responsibility for life, that is most simply and purely experienced in the world of nature, but which also extends to the complexities of human life and the wonders of the wider universe

Maybe the preeminence of ‘the face-processing tendency’ in our Western culture, or in other words, the fact that interactions are expected to favor what is genuinely human, ie the exchange of emotional states and thoughts primarily via facial gestures and spoken languge, sets the standard for what we expect from our surroundings. Maybe this is why we tend to expect animals to act in human-like ways (with intentionality, plots, etc.). Maybe this is why we tend towards optimizing the use-value of non-humans to serve human needs, while forgetting the value that  other organisms have to themselves and other parts of their surroundings.

My point is, that the place to look for other non-Western ways of conceiving of the relationship between human beings and their surroundings might not only be in non-Western cultures, but also in parts of our own culture that are suppressed, forgotten or considered useless, weird, deviant. Animists and autists have another way to reason with nature, it seems….

Or, to finish of in the words of Diane:

“Maybe AS isn’t really a defect. We have traits that may be actually needed in society, and if only society would start listening to us instead of marginalizing us, maybe solutions could be found for the worlds’s serious problems that currently seem to be unsolvable” Diane, in Women from another planet?


Descola, P. & Lloyd, J. (2013). Beyond nature and culture. Chicago London: University of Chicago Press.

Pier Jaarsma and Stellan Welin, Autism as a Natural Human Variation: Reflections on the Claims of the Neurodiversity Movement, 2012, Health Care Analysis, (20), 1, 20-30.  Postprint available here

Miller, J. (2003). Women from another planet? : our lives in the universe of autism. Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks.


One Comment

  1. A propos autism in non-Western cultures, here are some articles to check out:

    Jared Edward Reser. Conceptualizing the autism spectrum in terms of natural selection and behavioral ecology: The solitary forager hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 2011; 9 (2): 207-238

    Comparing Indigenous Approaches to Autism with Western Approaches to Autism. Anna Wilson MEd. University of Alberta (


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