Autistic Identity and The Language of Capitalism

This discourse analysis was originally submitted for the MA level course: ANTHROPOLOGY 9228B-001: Language and Power, taught by Dr. Tania Granadillo. While I am the Social Media Coordinator for LAST, this represents my own analysis and may not be representative of either LAST’s stances as an organization, or of the perspectives of other LAST members.

In his 2017 article for the New Republic, Parenting Is Not a “Job” and Marriage is not “Work”, in which he argues against the application of workplace metaphors to other aspects of American life, Jonathan Malesic writes: “When workforce logic pervades parenthood, then child-rearing takes on the competitiveness and status-seeking of professional culture” (Malesic 2017). While the article is written for an American audience, Malesic’s critique has resonance anywhere the logic of capitalism has narrowed the language we use to ascribe value to human activities.

This leakage of the language of capitalism into non-economic spheres can also be seen in discourse around autism. Malesic nods towards the intersection between capitalist logic and ableism, as well as to other forms of oppression such as racism and colonialism, but does not explore this further (Malesic 2017). McGuire writes in more depth about the influence of capitalism in producing childhood and children as sites of “investment” in potential futures (McGuire 2016 119-133). This in turn creates pressure for parents to produce optimal futures for their children by embracing interventions aimed at preventing, curing, or at least mitigating, disability (Carey, Block, and Scotch 2019). In this conception of childhood, neuro-developmental disabilities, like autism, are constructed as an information-commodities. They are both a justification for clinical intervention, and a framework for understanding which interventions should be prescribed. In this process Autistic bodies and experiences are abstracted and objectified. Far from being an economic burden, Autistic people’s lives, and experiences of disability, become the grist that form the basis of an industry (Mallett and Runswick-Cole 2012; McGuire 2016, 126).

This commodification is illustrated in a recent tweet by Autism Ontario. The tweet solicits responses from “all parents, caregivers and other stakeholders”. The language of capitalism is most prominent here in the use of the term “stakeholders”. This term was coined in an attempt to broaden the field of people who corporations are understood to have responsibilities to. More recently the applicability of the term has included groups that may be seen as adversarial to the corporation’s interests, and theory has developed around the best way to “manage” competing stakeholder interests (Freeman and Reed 1983, 88-95).

A tweet from Autism Ontario reads: Autism Ontario is working to compile the views of all parents, caregivers and other stakeholders, in order to provide feedback to the ministry on the regulation of Behaviour Analysts in Ontario. Make your voice heard by filling out this survey. Below is a link to a Survey Monkey survey. An answering tweet from @Pinkame39995103 reads I think you forgot an important category of stakeholders. #ActuallyAutistic
A tweet from Autism Ontario reads: Autism Ontario is working to compile the views of all parents, caregivers and other stakeholders, in order to provide feedback to the ministry on the regulation of Behaviour Analysts in Ontario. Make your voice heard by filling out this survey. Below is a link to a Survey Monkey survey. An answering tweet from @Pinkame39995103 reads I think you forgot an important category of stakeholders. #ActuallyAutistic


Capitalist language can also be seen in the survey linked in the tweet. Front-line clinicians are described as “technicians”, and regulations are described in terms of “quality assurance”.
The use of the term technicians is interesting. While the term can be applied broadly to jobs requiring specific technical skills, it is usually associated with contexts of engineering or laboratory science. It is possible that the choice of the term reveals the valuing of STEM fields in the neoliberal economy, and is an attempt to ascribe value to frontline positions. However, the indexicality of the term, bringing to mind work on machines, contributes to the abstraction of autism as a “thing”, alienated from the Autistic experiences, bodies, and labour, that produce it. Autistic bodies are rendered as objects. We become the base materials from which future returns are produced, by the work of skilled technicians (Mallett and Runswick-Cole 2012, 37-39 41-43)

Question 10 of the survey asks which types of behavioural clinicians regulation should apply to and lists Behaviour Analysts, Behaviour Technicians, and Other as possible responses.
Question 15 of the survey reads: Regulations made under health profession Acts define the quality assurance and continuing education programs members of the profession must participate in, including frequency and type of activity. In determining the quality assurance and continuing education requirements for behavioural clinicians, what factors should be considered?
Question 15 of the survey reads: Regulations made under health profession Acts define the quality assurance and continuing education programs members of the profession must participate in, including frequency and type of activity. In determining the quality assurance and continuing education requirements for behavioural clinicians, what factors should be considered?

This alienation of “autism” as an information-commodity is echoed in Autism Ontario’s persistent use of Person First Language (PFL) over Identity First Language (IFL). While the use of IFL is not universal across all Autistic communities, IFL is the standard among autistic advocacy groups in Canada. All member organizations of the Autistic led, Autistic Advocacy Coalition of Canada use IFL (AACC 2019).

Autistic people do not appear as active participants in either the tweet or the survey. They are notably not mentioned in the description of what behavioural clinicians do. The survey explains that “Behavioural clinicians are professionals who use ABA to support the development of new adaptive behaviours and reduce challenging behaviours”. The behaviours are described in passive terms, and without direct reference to the people performing them. Autistic people are invisible. Their labour, in conforming to the demands of the clinicians, and developing “adaptive behaviours” is likewise rendered invisible.

Autistic activists responded to the tweet by calling attention to the exclusion of Autistic perspectives. They disrupt the implicit assumption that parents, caregivers, and Autistic people all have equal “stake” in the regulation of ABA, by highlighting Autistic people’s unique stake as the targets of intervention, and the holders of expertise gained through experience. They also challenge the assumption that Autistic people can only be considered as passive recipients of therapy by highlighting the fact that Autistic people can also be advocates, professionals, and parents.
At the centre of this argument is a claim to authenticity, illustrated by the marshalling of the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic.

A threaded reply from @Ghillie_Guide reads: I like how immediately I am forced to choose between autistic person, advocate, or registered professional. Did it ever occur to you that autistic people can both advocate for themselves and also get certifications? The structure this creates in your research method implies that autistic people cannot be experts, cannot be advocates, and cannot be parents. I can already see the headlines "X% of autism professionals support ABA" this survey is flawed. What's the point of filling this survey out if I am just gonna get stuck in the autistic category that 80-90% will reject ABA while the "important categories" like the experts will be listened to. This is an appeal to authority built into your research methodology...
A threaded reply from GhillieGuide @Ghillie_Guide reads: I like how immediately I am forced to choose between autistic person, advocate, or registered professional. Did it ever occur to you that autistic people can both advocate for themselves and also get certifications? The structure this creates in your research method implies that autistic people cannot be experts, cannot be advocates, and cannot be parents. I can already see the headlines “X% of autism professionals support ABA” this survey is flawed. What’s the point of filling this survey out if I am just gonna get stuck in the autistic category that 80-90% will reject ABA while the “important categories” like the experts will be listened to. This is an appeal to authority built into your research methodology…
A reply from Erin Rockfort @pineapplefury reads: Maybe A good first step would be to mention actually autistic people explicitly and not just group them under “other stakeholders” as if they’re less important in their own lives than parents. Several other twitter users echo this critical response.
A reply from @Gingerheaddad reads: This survey could have been a terrific time to ask #ActuallyAutistic people in Ontario about their experiences with behaviourists and ABA. But it didn't. AO's close relationship with the ABA lobby undermines its credibility on this issue.
A reply from Jim Martin @Gingerheaddad reads: This survey could have been a terrific time to ask #ActuallyAutistic people in Ontario about their experiences with behaviourists and ABA. But it didn’t. AO’s close relationship with the ABA lobby undermines its credibility on this issue.

It is hard to separate out my personal positive associations with this hashtag, from the vague sense of unease I feel with its seeming reliance on narratives of authenticity. Appeals to authenticity of this type are sometimes expedient, even necessary, in a context where Autistic voices are marginalized, and conversations around autism are too often dominated by non-Autistic people claiming a right to speak for (and over) Autistic people. Nevertheless such appeals sit uneasily alongside community critiques of diagnostic gatekeepers and the embracing of informed self-diagnosis which has emerged as a remedy to disparities in access.

Heller describes the role of authenticity in modern capitalism as both a commodity, and a site where control of production can be contested: “While the conditions of the market, which accords new value to formerly stigmatized identities and products require (visibly) in authentic processes of standardization and commodification. This leaves room for struggle over who is best placed to control the production and distribution of these products” (Heller 2003, 475).

The production of autism as an information-commodity has necessitated a certain level of homogenization. To ascribe authenticity to their information-product AO flattens the diversity of people who have interest in autism policy to the ambiguous category of stakeholders. This allows for an artificial sense that all “stakeholders” have an equal “investment” in policy decisions. AO can then present themselves as authentically responding to the interests of “stakeholders”, even while ignoring criticism from the very demographic which is most impacted. The activist response contests AO’s marketing by asserting greater authenticity, and therefore a greater right to control the production of autism as an information-commodity. Several authors have discussed the limits of strategic essentialism in disability justice (Mallett and Runswick-Cole 2012, 47; Mollow 2004; Runswick-Cole 2014). While identity based claims to authenticity may have limits in their ability to undermine capitalist frameworks, they can also be effective approaches to securing needed rights and resources (Leve 2011, 520).

The individual activists responding to the tweet may have well developed critiques of capitalism, narratives of authenticity, and capitalism’s deeply rooted intersections with ableism (and in my experience as an Autistic activist, I know that some of them certainly do). Their critiques however, still make use of the language of authenticity, constrained as they are by the need to remain “dans le vrai, within the true” of current discourses around autism (Foucault 1972, 224). They must appeal on some level to a discourse in which autism as a category is co-constructed with capitalism (Mallett and Runswick-Cole 2012, 44-45). While social media has gone some way toward democratizing access to media platforms, claims to legitimacy are still mediated by power and resources, putting activists at a disadvantage when it comes to contesting the claims of large not for profit organizations. If they fail to appeal to values such as authenticity, activists risk that, like Foucault’s parable of the mad man, their words will be “considered null and void, without truth or significance, worthless as evidence, inadmissible in the authentication of acts or contracts” (Foucault 1972, 217). It remains to be seen if activist engagement can shift the bounds of autism discourse enough to successfully subvert capitalist constructions of disability.

A short time after the tweet began generating controversy, Autism Ontario deleted the original tweet.

Following a link to the original tweet, a blue box reads: This Tweet is unavailable.

References:

AACC. 2019. “Autistic Advocacy Coalition Of Canada.” London Autistics Standing Together. 2019. https://londonautistics.wordpress.com/national-coalition/.

Carey, Allison C., Pamela Block, and Richard K. Scotch. 2019. “Sometimes Allies: Parent-Led Disability Organizations and Social Movements.” Disability Studies Quarterly 39 (1). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v39i1.6281.

Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Discourse on Language in The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books. 215-237.

Freeman, R. Edward, and David L. Reed. 1983. “Stockholders and Stakeholders: A New Perspective on Corporate Governance.” California Management Review 25 (3): 88–106. https://doi.org/10.2307/41165018.

Heller, Monica. 2003. “Globalization, the New Economy, and the Commodification of Language and Identity.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 7 (4): 473–92. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9841.2003.00238.x.

Leve, Lauren. 2011. “‘Identity.’” Current Anthropology 52 (4): 513–35. https://doi.org/10.1086/660999.

Malesic, Jonathan. 2017. “Parenting Is Not a ‘Job,’ and Marriage Is Not ‘Work.’” The New Republic, August 9, 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/144254/parenting-not-job-marriage-not-work.

Mallett, Rebecca, and Katherine Runswick-Cole. 2012. “Commodifying Autism: The Cultural Contexts of ‘Disability’ in the Academy.” In Disability and Social Theory , edited by Dan Goodley, 33–51. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

McGuire, Anne. 2016. War on Autism. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Mollow, Anna. 2004. “Identity Politics and Disability Studies: A Critique of Recent Theory.” Michigan Quarterly Review XLIII (2).

Runswick-Cole, Katherine. 2014. “‘Us’ and ‘Them’: The Limits and Possibilities of a ‘Politics of Neurodiversity’ in Neoliberal Times.” Disability & Society 29 (7): 1117–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2014.910107.

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