Academic Autism: Its Institutional Presence and Treatment

Over the weekend, Steve Fuller published this blog post which has understandably been the object of many complaints. Steve is one of a number of people who have accounts which enable them to post directly on the site, without the intervention of an editor. For the six years he has been posting on the site, this has been unproblematic until now. But I’m in complete agreement with the criticisms made of this post, through e-mail and Twitter, regretting the fact that it was ever posted. I’ve decided we should continue to host the piece but also carry responses to it, as well as linking to this note. If you’d like to write one, please e-mail me at to discuss ideas or with your completed response.

Thorstein Veblen notoriously wrote of the ‘trained incapacity’ of academics, by which he meant the inability of scholars to apply their vast learning to public problems by virtue of the narrowness of their training. In effect, academia had caused them to lose both their grasp on empirical reality and their power of imagination. I believe that Veblen was correct, but the pathology also has an inward expression. It appears as a kind of autism that renders academics incapable of engaging with each other’s arguments if they make claims that transgress one’s own disciplinary norms, ranging from the assertion to facts to the deployment of concepts.

The physicist Alan Sokal triggered a celebration of such ‘academic autism’ in 1996 with his notorious ‘hoax’ article in the pages of the cultural studies journal, Social Text. The article was a pitch-perfect politically correct piece of postmodern theorizing that interlaced references to noted theorists and fake physics. The failure of the editors to spot the fake physics by itself was widely taken to have demonstrated their lack of intellectual integrity. That the article may have contained some interesting claims and arguments — notwithstanding the fake physics that Sokal planted and in spite of what he himself may have intended — was never taken seriously.

Because I draw on many fields in my work, sometimes casually, I am susceptible to autistic treatment by fellow academics. It is epitomized in the following question: ‘How do you expect to be taken seriously if you make these egregious errors in presenting material from my field?’ One might have thought that the simple answer is that one reads to the end and then judge the extent to which the ‘errors’ matter to the argument. (Indeed, there may be some other concept, fact or figure from the interlocutor’s field that actually helps the argument.) But all too often the interlocutor responds that the errors blind her from determining what the argument is. At that point, one might question the interlocutor’s ability to handle semantic ambiguity more generally.

Of course, academia provides an institutionalised way of getting around its self-induced autism. It involves the cultivation of a fan base, aka ‘school’, the job of which is to immunize the chosen transgressive academic from autistic assault. Remember when Rudolf Carnap excoriated Martin Heidegger’s misapplication of the logic of negation? When Lawrence Stone took on Michel Foucault’s sloppy scholarship? When John Searle diagnosed all of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy in terms of a failure to appreciate the difference between cause and effect? When Denis Dutton invented a ‘bad writing’ prize just to award it to Judith Butler? When Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont charged Bruno Latour with systematically confusing relativity and relativism? Perhaps not – and that’s the point.

The fans come to the rescue, interpreting the offending the texts in a more charitable light or, if that proves to be too great a labour of love, making explicit what the offending author should have said in order not to have cause such great offence. Much of this work, which may constitute the bulk of scholarship in the ‘human sciences’, is probably best seen as a species of historical fiction. But over time it does the job of keeping the accusers at bay, basically by turning the ‘errors’ of the accused into ‘aporiae’ whose depths can be plumbed in perpetuity – or at least over several academic career cycles.

Jacques Derrida understood this point especially well, as he both wrote about and exemplified this process. It enabled him to face the very many detractors in his lifetime with complete equanimity. As someone who came of intellectual age as Derrida was reaching his peak reception in the Anglophone world, his example left a lasting impression on me, which I encapsulated in my first book Social Epistemology in the phrase, ‘Hobbesian hermeneutician’. Textual interpretation is a war of all against all in semantic space: Your words can mean whatever your readers let you get away with.

Categories: Interdisciplinarity, Outflanking Platitudes, Social Theory

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52 replies »

  1. As a psychologist and senior academic who values the (cross-disciplinary) research, teaching, and collegiality of academics with autistic diagnoses, I am dismayed to find “autism” used as a slur in this way. It’s insensitive, unkind and untrue to label particular kinds of academic critique “autistic assault”. It is unnecessary – and distracting from your argument – to casually derogate a whole category of people in the course of advancing your claims. Your metaphor reinforces prejudice and discrimination against autistic academics (see #autisticsinacademia). I hope you might want to rework this piece to remove the hurtful language.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I clearly come to this matter with a different set of lenses from you.

    First of all, words like ‘autism’, ‘paranoia’, ‘schizophrenia’, ‘obsession’, ‘compulsion’, ‘sadism’, ‘masochism’, etc. have had relatively fluid transit between ordinary and scientific usage, and it’s an open question whether scientific usage should be considered dominant. My article is actually against disciplinary ownership of concepts, which implies a tolerance for the fluidity of concept use. In this particular case, I worry that the scientific colonization of these concepts heightens the difficulty of discussing the normative character of these personality traits without automatically ‘pathologising’ them in some medical sense. We should be able to say that certain traits are desirable or not under certain circumstances without recourse to ‘illness’ talk. Placing taboos on the use of the word ‘autism’ doesn’t help matters in this respect.

    It’s true that ‘autism’ tends to be used pejoratively in public discourse, and my intent was indeed to use the word pejoratively, but not out of disrespect for the people that you’re concerned about. However, it’s worth noting that Thomas Kuhn described the psychological role of paradigms in forming the scientific mind in terms of a great narrowing of vision which at the same time provides insight that could not be got without such a sharp focus. He actually saw this in very positive terms. When people speak of the positive features of ‘autistic’ people, such matters come to the fore. However, I think they can be overvalued – and perhaps they’re overvalued in the academy, where specialisation is still very highly respected and used as a general competence filter.

    My more general view about ‘autism’ and other such psychiatric terms is that rather than trying to regulate the speech surrounding them, regardless of the context, they should be positively re-appropriated in public discourse, in the manner of ‘queer’. That doesn’t solve all the problems, for sure, but that would make more sense to me.

    • I would invite you to look at the #autisticsinacademia hashtag on Twitter – firstly, to observe the hurt that your article has caused, and secondly, to engage with the socio-political issues and cultural world of an identity group that you have appropriated and so publicly denigrated here.

      • The idea that autism is ‘over-valued in the academy’ is laughable for autistic academics. We are extremely marginalised. Furthermore, there is only one stereotype of autism that you are referring to here. We are nothing like this stereotype.

    • “It’s true that ‘autism’ tends to be used pejoratively in public discourse, and my intent was indeed to use the word pejoratively, but not out of disrespect for the people that you’re concerned about.”

      Okay, well, it is we the actually autistic who actually suffer marginalization and ostracism when people like you help popularize use of the term to denote a set of undesireable character traits rather than the results of a neurodevelopmental condition that affects language, movement, and sensory processing.

      I DO think we should positively re-appropriate the term….to refer to what it actually means…but you’re not doing that here. By your own admission, you are using it as a pejorative.

    • “My more general view about ‘autism’ and other such psychiatric terms is that rather than trying to regulate the speech surrounding them, regardless of the context, they should be positively re-appropriated in public discourse, in the manner of ‘queer’. That doesn’t solve all the problems, for sure, but that would make more sense to me.”

      Yes, OK, but I should imagine (someone correct me if I’m wrong) that the re-appropriation of ‘queer’ was initiated and led by those belonging to the queer community, not by smarty-pants provocateurs gleefully using the term as a ‘pejorative metaphor’.

      • Oh my God, how did I miss that he’d written that?

        See, this is what happens when he just can’t say something along the lines of “I see now I was wrong, I apologize, and I will do better.” Or, failing that, just ignoring this comment section altogether would have been better than what I’ve read from the follow-ups! Not “I’m sorry for offense caused” or “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” If he’s not sorry, he doesn’t have to be! But don’t give a BS pseudo-apology, then claim you’ve given an apology, therefore making any more anger about the issue unwarranted.

        Not only what you said is correct, Jason, that the queer community led the move to claim back the word “queer,” and that’s how it should be. Along the same lines, many black people have tried to claim the n-word in the same way. That charge is certainly not led by anyone outside the black community, and it’s *definitely* not being led by someone out of it who admits he’s using the word in a pejorative manner that relies on stereotypes that would be erased with a decent 15-minute Google search.

        Here’s another thing, not quite related to what you said, Jason, but I hope people read this, including the original author (though he seems to be ignoring my question about what aspects of my being I’m currently ignoring by embracing my autistic identity). What is going on here isn’t language policing. No one is going to jail. No one is going to court. What is going on here is that language is being challenged, and it’s being challenged vigorously. If someone wants to put on an academic cap and put this crap out, then that person’s going to get challenged, and “Whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, my language is being policed” is the cry of a bully.

        The author had a chance to respond to these very vigorous, tough challenges. The author, if his ideas are valuable, interesting, worthy of consideration, had a chance to respond to these challenges. Now I know he think he has. But when your defense then includes both ideas of “You all embrace this autistic stuff too much” and “Hey, I’m a champion for autistic rights by re-claiming the word,” I realize I’m dealing with an intellectual fool.

        Here’s the deal. My diagnosis came in my thirties. I wasn’t looking for it. I was looking for help. When I received my diagnosis, I didn’t quite reject it, but I didn’t accept it either. But it was a kind of skeleton key–it would unlock all the doors in my mind that had been previously closed. I suddenly had an explanation for why I did things and why I’d done things all my life. I had better control over my life, my mind, my actions. I found a community of people who’d experienced things that I thought were my failures, my quirks, my burden to bear. They thought like I did, feared things I did, and so on and so forth. Some became my dear friends. I joined their communities, and we talk every day. This idea of “maybe ya’ll hold on too much to your autistic identity” is the same NT nit-wittery as when I heard someone ask me, “So what do you and your autistic friends talk about all the time? Just being autistic?” On the contrary, we talk about movies, literature, politics, science, relationships, and everything else under the sun. And yes, we also talk about our life experiences as autistic people and take solace, get advice, and learn from each other. I lived until my thirties without knowing I was autistic, and after so, so, so many struggles, I have a number of accomplishments and so many hats–so many “aspects of my being”–that I wear. Realizing I was autistic was like applying some kind of cleaning product to my mind…everything became clearer, and I became more confident for it. I went public with it a few months ago, and people (well, most people) have been nothing but supportive precisely because they don’t see me as someone who limits “aspects of my being.” This is just one more window by which they can look in on me and understand me. For me, it’s a huge, huge, huge part of my identity for reasons I’ve described and more.

        What gets me about all of this isn’t really the original post. I mean, academics are pretty notorious for taking ideas that I could explain to a five-year-old and making them largely inaccessible with constant jargon and a belabored metaphor. The fact that it’s an offensive metaphor doesn’t really shock me, especially given the attitude of so many academics. I wasn’t even going to say anything until I started reading the author’s follow-up comments because in THOSE lies the really horrid insults, in my opinion.

        At this rate, I hope I’ve made some sense to anyone reading this. If you’re a fan of putting out daring, controversial ideas, don’t you dare say or imply your language is being policed when you get push-back, when you get challenged.

        But really, I’m refusing to engage this professor to any extent until he answers my original question to him, which I will now repeat to him.

        What, pray tell, “aspects of my being” do you think I’m ignoring by embracing my autistic identity?

      • A most informative post. Do you think Steve Fuller can answer your question?

        “What, pray tell, “aspects of my being” do you think I’m ignoring by embracing my autistic identity?”

        Maybe that is the point of your question is that Steve Fuller can not answer it? He does not know you, so he can not give an informed reply. Therefore Steve Fuller has no right to say what he has said, he even acknowledged it is none of his business.

    • I question your ‘heroic crusade’ to change current social norms to fit your ego based on historical references. Have you ever been in a minority group? Have you ever suffered the pains of persecution? Have you ever empathised genuinely with others who are sensitive to the structures of present day society? I ask that you stop being so pompous and grandiose and start moving with society instead of trying to speak your way back to the era from whence you came. Trying to reclaim language that as you rightly point out is “fluid” is only contradictory to your argument. Doing so, willingly and knowingly hurting a great many in society, to satiate your own ego, testifies only to your psychopathology as evidenced by your blatant disregard for others. If you would like I would be happy to put that in layman’s terms to express it how the majority would, however I have respect for other’s as a social value!!

  3. I also find the use of ‘autism’ in this article offensive. But I also find Fuller’s attitude to his fellow academics offensive, together with his assumption that he is the only sociologist who engages across disciplines and/or with the real world. This is a position he has held for many years: I long ago had the misfortune to attend a seminar where he told a group of sociologists how useless they all were, without any knowledge of the work of most (or possible all) of those present; the constraints of my institutional position at the time made it impossible to tell a visiting speaker exactly what I thought of this. There are real problems about interdisciplinarity, but in my view they are not the product of personality or psychological defects in academics (who are as various as any other walk of life), nor do they represent any form of autism, literal or metaphorical. They are institutional constraints, born of the emergence (especially in social science) of separate disciplines that are inimical to holistic thinking, and the attempt to defend social science in terms of a false understanding of ‘natural’ science – issues that go back over a hundred years, and perhaps especially to the founding of sociology as a discipline. This narrowing of vision is still held in place by disciplinary structures, funding systems and especially audit systems. I think the strength of sociology at its best is that it enables us to see how these systems and structures work, and there is a proper question about the psycho-social consequences of academic disciplinarity. But of course, sometimes if one works across many fields, as I do myself, one may indeed make errors, egregious or otherwise.

  4. The article uses autism as a stereotypical slur and is harmful, stigmatising and ableist.

  5. Perhaps readers would like to know about how autistic academics have been trying to break down the disciplinary silo mentality? Such as the open access journal: Autonomy: The Journal of Critical Interdisciplinary Autism Studies, or the Participatory Autism Research Collective?

  6. First, I want to thank Damian Milton for the reference to the journal, which looks very interesting.

    However, contra Gail Loomes, I don’t believe that using a word, especially as a metaphor, is necessarily to appropriate a group’s identity, let alone in some injurious fashion. In fact, my article is not about autistic people in the sense that concerns you. However, I would say that over-identifying oneself with a word such as ‘autistic’ to capture the essence of one’s being is a potential problem, perhaps a pitfall of identity politics, especially in the case of ‘autistic’, whose medical meaning has considerably broadened out in recent years. Nevertheless, I had no intention to cause offence to you or your community.

    As for Ruth Levitas, I’m happy to see that she’s found a forum to voice some long-standing grievance of which I had not been aware. I’m not sure I quite said what she attributes to me, but I acknowledge that I may have said something that could have been taken that way. However, I must disagree with her substantive point — or at least find it too glib. The fact that disciplinary boundaries have been institutionalised a long time doesn’t mean that they can’t be overturned in shorter time through some determined effort, but that does have a psychological component. Yes, it’s hard and there are many obstacles, but she knows as well as I do that sociologists tend to be in their comfort zones when they diagnose all the ‘structural difficulties’ that prevent things from changing rather than trying to change things themselves. In any case, my apologies to Ruth for any offence I have caused her in the past.

  7. Firstly, the concept of autism used here is wrong: there are many autistic people, academic or otherwise, who are very well able to embrace and debate new ideas. You have misunderstood or misinterpreted what is known about autism, which negates your entire piece.
    Then you use it in a deliberately perjorative way, which is insulting and discriminatory to autistic people and to right minded non-autistic people, most of whom object to discrimination.
    Finally, you try to justify your argument: so who is it who is “incapable of engaging with each other’s arguments if they make claims that transgress one’s own disciplinary norms, ranging from the assertion to facts to the deployment of concepts”?
    What any reasonable person would do, faced with the realisation that they had been offensive, is apologise unreservedly, in the same publication that published their work.
    Otherwise, I cannot see how the editorial team from that publication could risk accepting material from that individual again, as in law, the publisher is liable for what they publish.

  8. Luckily as Professor Fuller is so deeply committed to a de-siloing of academic disciplines, concepts and language, I am fully hopeful that he will now be acquainting himself with the multiple ways the descriptor “autistic” is now used inside and outside the academy.

    He will thus find that his use of the word Autism to denote rigidity of thought and isolationism is wrong and outdated.

    I hold out no hope that he will concede that his usage of it is stigmatising and offensive to autistic people (though many have told him that it is).

    But surely, surely if he cares about accurate scholarship and precise use of words, then he will search his brain, the thesaurus or the words offered to him on Twitter, for a clearer, sharper way to describe a certain sort of sort of monotropism. (Ooh-there’s another good word).

  9. To Michael Cos, I have already apologised for having caused any offence. I was indeed using ‘autism’ in a stereotypical way that does not cover the full range of behaviours, etc. now covered by the ‘autistic spectrum’. But in that case, is it even useful to retain the term ‘autism’ for scientific purposes given its increasingly wide-ranging character? Moreover, don’t you worry that by identifying so strongly with autism, people are limiting other aspects of their being?

    • The way autism is perceived by a very large proportion of the autistic community is that it is inseparable from their being – as our minds are autistic, and this being autistic informs how we understand and perceive the world around us (not just intellectually, but relating, say to sensory perception as well), it informs all aspects of our being and sense of self.

    • In reply to that comment, not at all. I also consider myself a sociologist, would you have the same concerns there? You may find this debate of interest as it specifically addresses this point

    • What sort of academic is proud of using stereotypes? Particularly an outdated one which is debunked by the actual presence of autistic academics, scientists and creatives? At this point, clinging so desperately to your argument speaks more of insularity than an ability to accept that other people may know what they are talking about. For example: I sign myself Cos Michael whereas you mis-assign maleness to me. I know my name.
      Your response to my first comments is deeply patronising: I am autistic and no – it has never limited any aspect of my being – it is part of my being.

    • Autism is not a set of behaviours. It is a neurodiversity.
      In recent years, the definition of autism has for the most part changed to include fewer characteristics, not more. Intellectual disability has been removed from DSM V. Likewise speech/language conditions.
      Autism is a brain difference from before birth, staying with us for life. All of us have brains that use different social communication protocols to non-autistic brains. All of us have a need for predictability and logic, in routines and in communication. All of us have passionate interests, some of which may lead to extraordinary specialisation and expertise. And most of us have sensory processing differences that can be either blessing or problem, depending on the environment. It’s really not a huge range of different things.
      Autism has never limited me, any more than any other aspect of my being. Society’s general attitudes and refusal to build a world that allows us to thrive are what limits. We need fewer articles that are written in a pejorative way, and more engagement with us as fantastic and much loved people.

    • I identify very strongly with being autistic. What other aspects of my being do you imagine I’m limiting?

      When “I’m sorry; I will do better” just won’t cut it, double down, I guess?

  10. It would your last sentence is uncannily prescient: “Textual interpretation is a war of all against all in semantic space: Your words can mean whatever your readers let you get away with.” As an autistic academic, the irony is not lost on me. However this question must be asked; are you deliberately trying to bait us?

  11. Steve – there is an extraordinary amount of cognitive dissonance going on here. You claim to believe that the term ‘autism’ is effectively defunct, it being too broadly applied to be useful and yet you use it to describe a narrow, cliched – and increasingly and effectively challenged – set of characteristics assumed by the ill-informed to apply to those who are defined as ‘autistic’. You complain about the explicit medicalisation of those to whom the term is applied by academics and scientists and yet see no issue with placing the term ‘autism’ within a group of tems that includes others such such as ‘sadism’, ‘paranoia’ and ‘obsession’. You tell autistic people they shouldn’t define themselves by this medicalised, obsolete, narrow definition while defending your use of the term as a ‘symbolic’ description of parallel medicalised, narrow, cliched characteristics you claim to identify among academics. You say you don’t intend to offend anyone and yet refuse to listen to the #actuallyautistic people who are telling you your words have offended them – what makes it worse is you really think it’s ok to tell them/us that perhaps they/we have it wrong and shouldn’t identify as autistic, on the basis, it seems, that you feel you have a better handle on what the term means than anyone else. To quote a great line from a great film by Rob Reiner (1987): ‘”You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Maybe you could just accept that you’ve got it wrong, that your blog-piece was poorly conceived and offensive, apologise profusely and learn something. Or are you deliberately trying to upset people?

  12. First of all, to be honest, it never crossed my mind that my post would be baiting autistic people because I hadn’t realized that autistic people claim such a sense of self-ownership over the word ‘autism’. That does reflect ignorance on my part.

    It’s another matter whether it’s wise for people to identify so strongly with a word like ‘autism’ that they make their identities hang on the latest medical deliverance while meanwhile they police ordinary discourse. You can see that I have my doubts, but in the end it’s none of my business.

    As for my use of stereotypes, I am not doing it ‘proudly’, I’m simply doing it, and they do illuminate to a certain extent — as stereotypes are designed to do, as Walter Lippmann pointed out many years ago. It’s in the nature of stereotypes that they can be spun both positively and negatively, since they bring out saliences. ‘Autism’ is no different in this respect.

    And I said early in the Twitter responses, yes, the responses do exemplify part of what my article was about — but that was not my intent! However, I have found some of the links interesting, especially Damian Milton’s debate on whether autism has an essential nature.

  13. Steve, You have just shown the world how personal conceit can lay waste to academic discourse. You may be right or wrong, but it is not a conversation if one side repeatedly insists that they are correct and denigrates anyone who disagrees. I find it incomprehensible that you are so closed to other opinions, when overwhelmingly, responses to your article have found it wanting in factual basis and offensive in its depiction of autism. Not one response has defended your opinion – do you honestly believe that this makes you the only enlightened academic, beset by a multitude of inferior minds? Or might you have simply made a mistake, but are too arrogant to admit it? This is not your finest hour.

  14. You must not be reading what I’m writing. I’ve conceded lots of points here and apologised at offence caused.

    The fact that others have not ventured to defend my position may be down to editorial discouragement (I do know of one case) or people just not wishing to get into more trouble than it’s worth. It may also be so far there has been little interest in discussing the substance of the article. The article is not about autism. It uses autism as a metaphor. That choice of metaphor may be wise or unwise, and clearly people here think it’s unwise. And they may be right. But from my standpoint, I need to disentangle identity politics side of this from the semantic side of my argument.

    I have found what most people have said here helpful and interesting, but I’m not sure what more you’re looking for.

    • Not sure what more commenters are looking for?
      I’d suggested considering these comments as-not peer review but review from outside-the-silos and substituting another word for autism.

      Show-in some way -that you’re listening.

      This is not only an “identity politics” issue but an accuracy issue.

      You make a valid point about academic silos-is that not more important than sticking with your use of the wrong word? Does your argument rest on this word? No.

  15. Thank you for that – yes, to suggest that autistic people should consider ‘reclaiming’ the word does indeed show how little you are aware of the great amount of work carried out by many autistic people, academics and non-academics, over decades of reclaiming, redefining, and ‘self-owning’. It’s interesting (to me, anyway) that one of the ways in which autistic people are ‘othered’ is through a claim we are incapable of self-awareness and self-insight (apparently one of the defining qualities of a human, and which differentiates us from other mammals) and yet, as you have found, this claim is egregious (in the modern sense), demeaning, othering. I haven’t seen the Twitter responses so I can’t comment on how the responses fitted into your expectations but you must be aware that the limitations of Twitter include both restrictions on terms of communication (word count) and tendency to elicit ‘knee-jerk’ reactions. Damian – yes, highly respected by us other autistic academics (my own PhD focused on Asperger’s girls and anxiety). Incidentally, my younger daughter, who has just graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Psychology, might well agree with you regarding the academic silo problem, I don’t think she’d agree with you in most other respects, not least your use of the term ‘autistic’. She loved her degree, she loved doing her research (gender id and autism) but she also learnt a great deal about ‘academia’ she wasn’t so enthusiastic about. I would love to see her pursuing research as I think she has so much to contribute but I also understand why she might decide not to. It is an ongoing issue for those who are both intellectually able and ethically driven.

    ‘Ordinary discourse’. In my mother’s middle-class day, ‘ordinary discourse’ included terms such as ‘nigger’, used often in a casually dismissive, demeaning, othering context, thoughtlessly used, and often indignantly defended in the context of someone who thought of themselves as well-educated, well-meaning, charitable, on the ‘side of right’. Did that make it ok? No of course not. Terms such as ‘spastic’ and ‘retard’ are also of dubious provenance but have also been part of ‘ordinary discourse’. When ‘ordinary discourse’ takes a whole population of people and defines them – as you rightly identified – solely on their differences in a pejorative sense then it is discriminatory and ultimately inhuman.

  16. I find it fascinating that a blog post about what “renders academics incapable of engaging with each other’s arguments if they make claims that transgress one’s own disciplinary norms, ranging from the assertion to facts to the deployment of concepts” gathers so many replies that fail to engage with the author’s argument.

    “‘How do you expect to be taken seriously if you make these egregious errors in presenting material from my field?’ One might have thought that the simple answer is that one reads to the end and then judge the extent to which the ‘errors’ matter to the argument. (Indeed, there may be some other concept, fact or figure from the interlocutor’s field that actually helps the argument.) But all too often the interlocutor responds that the errors blind her from determining what the argument is. At that point, one might question the interlocutor’s ability to handle semantic ambiguity more generally.”

    Apparently Dr. Fuller’s repeated apologies are not enough to prevent this blog from being abandoned. I have learned so much from “The Sociological Imagination” as an undergraduate adult learner, please don’t double down on PC censorship and remove this informative (and at times controversial) source of Sociological learning. From the comments I have learned more about the “autistic community” and will also be more circumspect in my use of stereotypes. Including SJW’s. 😉

    • ‘I find it fascinating that a blog post about what “renders academics incapable of engaging with each other’s arguments if they make claims that transgress one’s own disciplinary norms, ranging from the assertion to facts to the deployment of concepts” gathers so many replies that fail to engage with the author’s argument.’

      And I find it fascinating that Dr. Fuller himself doesn’t seem to know enough about what autism is to…not use the term in a wholly fallacious fashion.

  17. None are asking for this site to be taken down. I have often referred people to it and find it very useful.

    • Yet Mark Carrigan is doing just that. “This seems like a good reason to finally put the site on indefinite hiatus, with the intention of hopefully relaunching it at some indefinite point in the future with a new purpose & new team behind it.”

      • Mark’s post makes it clear that he putting the site on hiatus for various reasons:

        ” But it also reflects my own lack of attentiveness to Sociological Imagination over a number of years now. What was once an enormously fulfilling hobby has long since become a slightly unwelcome commitment which I aim to dispense with as quickly as possible each month. This has felt frustrating to me for a long time but until this morning, it simply hadn’t occurred to me how problematic this could prove in practice. I now realise how irresponsible it is to leave a platform like this effectively running unattended.This seems like a good reason to finally put the site on indefinite hiatus, with the intention of hopefully relaunching it at some indefinite point in the future with a new purpose & new team behind it”.

        Editorial oversight does not amount to ‘PC Censorship’.

  18. P.s. We have engaged with the argument both here (see references I posted) and elsewhere on social media. Perhaps you could learn from Prof. Fuller’s example here and engage with some of this work?

  19. I don’t think Mark was blaming our responses for that.

  20. “However, I would say that over-identifying oneself with a word such as ‘autistic’ to capture the essence of one’s being is a potential problem, perhaps a pitfall of identity politics, especially in the case of ‘autistic’, whose medical meaning has considerably broadened out in recent years. Nevertheless, I had no intention to cause offence to you or your community.”

    You have to be joking, Steve Fuller. Are you ignorant, or just a a woeful pedant? Autism is an actual neurotype that affects 1 out of 66 of your fellow humans, regardless of your application of the term, It is indeed harmful and ignorant to use “autism” and its variants in the pejorative, and the fact you would say it’s due to “a pitfall of identity politics” shows how little you understand about what the diagnosis of autism is, or why throwing an entire minority of people under a pejorative bus to prove some poltroonish calumny against fellow academics should be perceived as the cognitive and morally bereft bungle it is.

    There are other terms you could have used; I suggest a meander through a thesaurus is in order; there are plenty available online.

  21. Steve, I’d like to thank you for providing such an excellent opportunity for some of the sharpest autistic minds working as academics and activists today to showcase their brilliance. The comments thread on the piece profoundly undermines the negative stereotypes you so thoughtlessly peddle. I will be sharing this with my colleagues as a virtuoso example of the arguments around autistic identity.

    I hope that you may be inching towards a realisation that you do not get to justify your outrageous and offensive statements by claiming an alternative “lens”. What a feeble excuse. It is not for you to decide what should or should not be found offensive by a community to which you do not belong. Your writing does you no credit.

  22. Why would I even bother reading an article that uses “autistic” as a pejorative?

    I don’t care who you are, if you use terms that further the marginalization of an already marginalized group then you can fuck right off.

    I expected better from an “academic”.

    • Micheal Rowlands please could you apologise to Steve Fuller for your comments towards him? While I agree Steve Fuller should never have used autism in the way he did, no-one person deserves to be spoken to so disrespectfully. Especially when most of the autistic person’s points is that Steve Fuller has been willfully ignorant and done us a great disservice as human beings. It is that thing people are told in school: “treat wish people how you wish to be treated”. You are not doing yourself any favours treating Steve Fuller this way. By association you are not doing us any favours by using such language towards Steve Fuller. Maybe in the future you should try to calm down before replying to such charged topics?

      For Steve Fuller if you want an better understanding of autism, I would recommend the book “Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults” by the autistic academic Dr Luke Beardon:

      Luke Beardon does a great job at dispelling most of the present autism myths. Your blog post does highlight why the book’s opening sentence is “Never believe anything you read about autism.”

      • 100% disagree. No one deserves to be talked to so disrespectfully? I can think of a whole host of people who deserve zero respect. While the professor’s not quite in that category, if he’s going to challenge the positivity of autistic pride, then getting an “eff off” in return should be expected and, I would argue, is warranted given his comments here. If the concern is that disrespect will make him ignore our push-back, then that’s even more revealing of the professor and isn’t Michael’s problem.

      • Please justify your comment on you “100% disagree”?

        That is not my concern at all. Pay attention to the comments; we (autistic people) are being judged too, that is my concern. While I agree we (autistic persons) should not always be expected to follow social conventions, however sometimes it is beneficial for us to follow them if we can. Such as most replies by individuals like Catriona Stewart, Damian Milton and Gill Loomes have all been respectfully critically engaging with this thread for a reason, because such tactful replies are the social etiquette.

        There are also more useful conventions to when you disagree with an academic, such as writing journal articles highlighting the perceived errors in the academics work. Taking issue with any academic’s work by writing journal articles is more important to the offending academic, than any blog post you might produce critiquing their work. Which is why I have been writing journal articles recently when I read things that I find antagonistic. This is only my understanding of it. Please enlighten me if you think I am mistaken?

      • I find it disturbing that you are more concerned with a swear word than Mr. Fuller’s smearing a whole disability community to brow beat his colleagues then claims we are too invested in our autistic identity to literally add insult to injury. I say this because given choice of who to side with, you allied with Mr. Fuller over a (rather much deserved) four letter word. Congrats.

      • I have been clear that agree with the critique applied to Steve Fuller. I am disagreeing with how it has been done in some cases. My point is that we should treat Steve Fuller with dignity and respect while we critique him. He is a human being, just as much as autistic persons are. I disagree with the myth of how we lack empathy and have a theory of mind deficits. If we can not treat Steve Fuller with “empathy”, then it just reinforces negative stereotypes about us. Which is the entire point of the community’s response to Steve Fuller is that he has been propagating negative stereotypes of autism.

        Maybe I am trying too hard to convey my point?

      • Richard, two broad points here. As far as justifying my comment as to why I 100% disagree, I was responding to the claim that no one deserves to be talked to with such disrespect. Well, let’s do a thought experiment here. Think of the most evil person you can imagine–either historical or perhaps imaginary. (Define “evil” as you like–replace “evil” with objectionable if that helps.) I’m thinking extremes–Nazis, the KKK, etc. Now when a person goes that far, I owe them no respect. In fact, I would disrespect the concept of respect itself in doing so. (At least that’s what I think.)

        Now the professor here does not fall into one of those extremes. However, what the thought experiment reveals–at least for me–is that some people certainly do not deserve our respect. Therefore, I have to reject the very broad claim that no one deserves to be treated with disrespect. When I reject that claim, then I come to this alternative conclusion–some people can do things to make it so that they do not deserve respect. I’ve chosen to walk that line a bit in this comment section, but I cannot blame anyone who decides that the professor has lost claims to respect, *especially* given the aftermath here in the comment section.

        That’s the first point. If you disagree, I don’t think I can convince you otherwise. But that brings me to the second broad point.

        You suggested that traditional academic discourse is the way to combat antagonist ideas like this, not battling it out over a blog post. Here’s the trouble–I’m responding in the format in which I was presented the ideas, and the author of those ideas is also responding in this format. So as far as recommending that I take to scholarly journals is all fine and well–and may be something autistic academics should do–but they should do it in addition to what’s happening here. If someone writes an inflammatory blog post, and then continues to inflame in the comments section of that blog post, and then I respond in said comments section, it’s a bit disingenuous to tell me that I’m showing bad form by not participating in traditional academic discourse with this matter.

        As far as a larger point goes, you’ve highlighted a HUGE problem with academia–if the ideas mean anything, then they should affect the world outside of academia. Sure, the ideas will get “boiled down” to a general audience, and this may take some time, but if ideas have any merit at all, surely they should have merit for more than a coterie of scholars. I actually *do* admire the efforts on this blog and similar blogs from scholars to present ideas to the public rather than present them exclusively to those with access to a university library. *That’s* a great direction for academia, but it comes with a reality–the nature of the discourse will change. It will not go through a rigorous peer review process, but that’s the nature of discussion outside of academic journals. I’m not saying there’s not a place for scholarly work meant for other scholars, of course not, but when it cannot come out of its ivory tower, then it’s probably not worth very much at all.

        The argument that we need to adhere to rigid academic conventions goes against the professor’s own argument, from what I can tell.

        As for outsiders reading this, if they need 18th-century-salon-type etiquette to go away feeling like ignorance and stereotyping are bad things, then that’s revealing larger issues they probably need to address with themselves and their colleagues.

      • It is not that I fundamentally disagree with you. There are people I do not give the time of day too because I disagree with them and their actions. It is more I think it is a part of everyone’s human rights to be respected and treated with dignity.I would always prefer to be nice to someone than deny someone their rights of being treated in a polite manner. Maybe I am too idealistic on that one? I suspect it is part of my strong sense of right and wrong.

        There are open access journals like Autonomy which can be accessed by the general public. Some journals have free online access for some sections, such as Disability and Society. Generally I do accept your points. I think the situation is more nuanced than you say. Sometimes the best response is the academic literature, Especially when critical blogs are ignored and with some literature the peer reviewers are being too lenient.

        The peer review process has its flaws and is far from perfect. An issue of peer review is that often the reviewers will know of the author and can deduce the author’s identity. Subsequently the paper is “waved” through. I have read some papers of shoddy authorship, where some claims are made without providing references. I think an example I can give is how some of the recent autism articles discussing the neurodiversity movement by non-autistic scholars, often ignores autistic scholarship when discussing the neurodiversity movement leading to some dubious observations. Just as much as I had have a paper rejected by both reviewers and successfully challenged it with the editor, because it looks like the reviewers rejected the paper for political reasons. You are right we should challenge things in blogs and in the literature.

        I do agree with you knowledge should most definitely be shared with the public in an accessible way. It does not help that some academics produce work that is written in a very unaccessible way. I think if all academic articles were open access it would help a lot more.

        I do standby my point on treating Steve Fuller with respect and dignity in this thread. We should aim to be the better person in this situation.

  23. My apologies. I thought this was the original blog post, as it is not I would change my first sentence to “Why would I even bother reading a blog post that uses “autistic” as a pejorative?”

    I actually just made a video about this very topic yesterday and then this came to my attention today.

  24. The inherent problem of using negative stereotypical autism metaphors, is that it runs the risk of alienating autistics from the core augment. This neuronormative barrier makes it problematic to engage with the core augment of silo mentality in academia. The metaphor serves little propose to the core augment, allistics (non-autistics) don’t have to go thought the trouble of filtering out the metaphor in order to have discourse about the silo mind state in this instance.

    • “The inherent problem of using negative stereotypical autism metaphors, is that it runs the risk of alienating autistics from the core augment.”

      I mean, that’s certainly one inherent problem, but I’d argue the biggest one is that it runs not the risk but the near certainty of helping perpetuate false and damaging prejudices about autistic people, including that we are inherently self-absorbed or that we lack empathy or the ability to take the perspective of others. These lead directly to our being discriminated against for jobs, being considered a danger to others (especially children), mistreated in relationships and by health care and education professionals, and to being regarded as something less than entirely human.

  25. Steve Fuller,

    You have provided a good example of the ‘double empathy problem’ as you fail to see how the language you use has real life impact on a marginalised group. We all make mistakes but you are choosing not to take on board what autistic people are telling you. The reason it took 37 years for any one (including myself) to notice I was autistic was because of the stereotypes you are reinforcing. This has had a dramatic effect on my life. This is not an academic argument. Real people get hurt by false stereotypes.

    I have got some reading for you:

    Beardon, L. (2008). ‘Is Autism really a disorder part two – theory of mind? Rethink how we think’. Journal of Inclusive Practice in Further and higher Education, 1: 19 – 21

    Milton, D. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The “double empathy problem”. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883-887. doi:10.1080/09687599.2012.710008


  26. This thread shows how silly academia is… and it is not Steve’s fault. I am just surprised how much rhetoric is nowadays in the sociological discourse. No wonder nobody takes this discipline seriously… So much bias on both sides, but neither of the camps would admit that they are merely perpetuating their own silly discourse.
    I am just surprised how many people here are experts in autism, all of a sudden. Feeling offended is not sociology, my friends! Using the word “problematic” is not an argument in itself.

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