Posted by Claire Percy, Senior Marketing Executive
Christopher Goodey, author of a new Ashgate book A History of Intelligence and ‘Intellectual Disability’ poses the question as to whether autistic people existed before the word “autism” was coined.
Goodey highlights that doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists get together and decide on what kinds of behaviour worry them, and that this changes from one generation to the next, and from one society to the next. They then find a name for something that sums up that anxiety, and choose which symptoms to include on a list that makes up the named condition, and which not to include.
The author asks us to consider a symptom that might appear on some lists – the failure to make eye contact. He asks that when most occupations were manual, why would it be desirable to make eye contact with other people? However, in a society now dominated by service industries, more so-called interpersonal skills are required. Anxiety about the lack of such a skill therefore becomes prominent, and leads to an appropriate label. Goodey says it’s not just that too many people are being diagnosed, but simply that “autism” is an inventive, unscientific and arbitrary term.
Goodey believes that Asperger’s syndrome seems to be a special case of the same thing. In the past, children now labeled with Asperger’s would have functioned in mainstream life but would have appeared eccentric (as in the frequent suppositions that Spinoza/Mozart/Einstein etc. etc. was autistic). This might have meant that they were isolated or even bullied. In that situation a so-called “diagnosis” of Asperger’s or autism can be a genuine help for parents, as it may tick a box that enables the child to get extra support. But Goodey asks us to leave our belief in “autism” and “Asperger’s” at that – a means to an end, as he says these things don’t really exist, except in the superficial sense that we have decided, for a generation or two, to talk about certain people in this way.
Goodey’s book highlights an urgent and compassionate appeal for us to consider, through the prism of history, how the apparent certainties of modern biology, medicine and psychology came to question the ethical status of some of us.
Review of the book:
‘This superb interdisciplinary study analyzes a wide range of texts from antique philosophy, religion, medicine, and psychology, to show how the history of disability is intertwined with that of social and cultural formations. A must read for all who want to know how their own discipline organized the world of understanding in a way that made some human beings invisible at best, and despicable at worst.’
Hans Reinders, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
About the Author: C.F. Goodey has researched and published on the history of ‘intellectual disability’, including the ethical and social implications of the concept, for more than 20 years. His articles have appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including History of Science, Medical History, History of the Human Sciences, Political Theory and Ancient Philosophy. He formerly held teaching and research posts at Ruskin College, Oxford, the Open University and the University of London Institute of Education, and is currently an independent consultant working for national and local government services on learning disability in the UK.
Read the introduction, and find full information about “A History of Intelligence and ‘Intellectual Disability’ : The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe”