The term ‘Critical Autism Studies’ (CAS) was coined in 2010 by Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini. Although the definition of CAS is subject to some debate, it is thought to comprise three elements:
1. Critically exploring the power dynamics that shape autism – in terms of diagnosis, what is autism and what is knowable about autism and, in turn, understandings of the autistic experience.
In other words, is autism a disorder or a different way of thinking and experiencing the world? How does this impact on the lives of autistic people?
2. Enabling narratives that challenge the dominant negative medical autism discourses.
Why should the negative and disabling opinion of autism as a disorder or a tragedy? Autistic people and academics have been challenging this approach for years and should be listened to. The contemporary CAS approach to autism states that this outdated and stereotypical view is damaging and always has been.
3. Creating ways of understanding and researching autism that are emancipatory and respect the highly individualised nature of autism.
Autism can be a disability for many autistic people – some needing more complex support than others – but it is mainly society that causes the issues for us. CAS and the neurodiversity movement calls for support for ALL neurodivergent people. It is incorrect to view neurodiversity as simply about “High functioning” autistic people; this use of functioning labels is rejected as lacking understanding of the reality of how autism impacts upon people. Whilst many autistic people are able to participate in neurotypical society, the majority are only able to do this by ‘wearing masks’ and hiding their autism. This is very damaging and has a negative impact on mental health that autistic people with Learning Disabilities don’t face. This is not to minimise the experience of anybody, indeed it is stated to focus on the fact that we should be fighting the societal systems and practices that negatively impact on all autistic people differently and not each other. Support should not be based on our ‘value’ to society but that we are all human beings. This is viewed as ‘aspirational’ by some who see the current harsh political climate we live in, neoliberal/conservative ideology has never been supportive of disability rights, but we can change the focus by listening and respecting autistic people as human beings deserving full human right. We can all do that right now.
There is some dispute between CAS writers who see autism and, by extension, the autistic experience, as a construction, i.e. our differences are created as being disorders and therefore pathologised and given damaging labels and those who have a more emancipatory agenda. This group want to free autistic people from the shame and stigma of negative opinions of autism by challenging the disproven stereotypes of our ‘impairments’. This is done by education and challenging traditional and outdated viewpoints.
CAS is critical because it disrupts dominant, largely medical interpretations of autism.
In 2014, Mitzi Waltz stated The ‘criticality’ of CAS comes from investigating power dynamics that operate in Discourses around autism, questioning deficit-based definitions of autism, and being willing to consider the ways in which biology and culture intersect to produce ‘disability’. (Waltz 2014, 1337).
What CAS advocates all have in common however, is a commitment to change the focus of the ‘problems’ faced by autistic people as being our individual issues and accept that most of this is as a result of the world being too loud, too bright, too smelly, too challenging for some and looking to change that instead. Communication is a two-way process.
We need to move from a deficit model to valuing the undoubted but unappreciated skills and abilities of autistic people. We need to develop and evolve from neurobiology to neurodiversity; with autism as the manifestation of the ‘normal’ diversity of the human brain.
Waltz, M. (2008). Autism = Death: The social and medical impact of a catastrophic medical model of autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of Popular Narrative Media, 1(1), 13–24.