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Challenging the assumptions of autism

Reader in Social Sciences, Dr Allison Moore has always had a fascination in social issues and actually studied for her degree and PhD here at Edge Hill. Allison’s current research interest and teaching explores critical perspectives of autism and why societal views on autism need to change. Allison tells us more.

What made you want to explore autism?

My fascination into exploring autism actually came as result of my PhD research which focussed on sexuality. From my PhD, I was approached by a local autism charity to do some research looking at how staff can support people in residential settings around issues of sexuality. This particular piece of research led me to consider further questions and areas of investigation around autism more broadly. As I was reading, I became aware that the construction of sexuality and the construction of autism meant that autistic people, often wouldn’t be seen as sexual and, therefore, would be denied access to an important aspect of being human. It became increasingly clear that, in society, we still have very deficit models of autism. For example, it is defined and diagnosed by an assumption of things that people can’t do in relation to neurotypical people. This may include assumptions that there are deficits in social communication, social interaction and restricted and repetitive interests. Discovering this, and conducting further research, developed my passion to challenge these definitions and assumptions associated with autism and gave me the desire to educate others on the issue. This resulted in me setting up, and teaching on, the third-year undergraduate module, Critical Autism Studies at Edge Hill.

So, what is critical autism studies?

Critical autism studies simply means to challenge the deficit ideas and the power dynamics around autism. Who has the power to name, diagnose and treat autism? By and large, what we know and hear about autism comes from non-autistic people and the voices of autistic people is either completely absent or incredibly marginal. A critical autism perspective is about looking at ways to do research that is much more inclusive with, and for, autistic people.

“By and large, what we know and hear about autism comes from non-autistic people and the voices of autistic people is either completely absent or incredibly marginal.”

Dr Allison Moore

Why is studying this topic important?

I believe that the experiences that these autistic people face can be understood as a form of systemic structural oppression – a human rights based issue – which highlights the importance for social scientists and students to investigate and explore this topic from a critical perspective. Critical Autism Studies also has a broader application in terms of the critical disabilities debate more widely and studying this topic in third year means that students already approach the module with a critical mind.

What is explored on the module?

The module adopts the approach that autism is not a disorder but rather that it is a natural form of cognitive difference and that difference and diversity is very much a positive. We use this approach to challenge some of the contemporary theories around autism and apply critical perspectives to real case studies. We look at issues around gender and autism, particularly the ratio of diagnosis between males and females and the effect that this has. Girls for instance, are much more likely to either not to be diagnosed with autism at all, or misdiagnosed with a mental health issue. We also ask questions such as what rights do autistic people have? Experts by experience are also invited in to deliver sessions, meaning you will learn from individuals who have first-hand experience of this field. If you wish to pursue this topic beyond your undergraduate degree, there is the option to do so on our MA Social Sciences (Critical Autism Studies) and PGCert Social Sciences (Critical Autism Studies) postgraduate programmes.

Allison answers some of the FAQ’s about the MA Social Sciences (Critical Autism Studies):

Do you have any recommendations for those who may wish to begin exploring this right now?

If you’re interested in this topic, I’d recommend that you start by listening carefully to, and listing, the words that you hear used in relation to autism. That should allow you to discover that the words and phrases used when talking about autism are overwhelmingly negative. For example, phrases such as ‘autistic people lack empathy’ are used which immediately implies and assumes that autistic people are less capable. A little exercise like this will help you to develop your critical mind and will tune you into how autism is actually represented and spoken about currently.

July 11, 2022