Psychological models of autism tend to work on the cognitive level of explanation, with some attempting to make links to biological and neurological data. In order to produce cognitive models, all of them rely on accounts of behaviour to make inferences from. A major criticism of these models, is that they are formed (with the exception of monotropism theory, see section 2.5) from a perspective of a cognitive psychology overly restricted by its total adherence to scientific method as the gold standard, which do not value the input of ‘autistic voices’, or that of sociological viewpoints on autism. This has come about for a number of reasons, one of which being the splitting of levels of explanation into subject ‘silos’ (Arnold, 2010). Another was the triumphant victory that biomedical explanations earned at the expense of Bettleheim’s theory of the ‘refrigerator mother’. This victory would not just produce a rejection of this theory however, but it seems a total rejection of psycho-sociological reflection upon what it is to be autistic, a fatal flaw that only alienated the voices of autistic people further. The victory spared the mother, yet lay the blame at the neurology of the ‘autistic person’ themselves, in the sense that there was something medically deficient about the ‘autistic person’, and if one could only find the site of the ‘lesion’ one could find a ‘cure’ (Happe, 1994a). Assumptions of what autism is are enshrined in the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-IV (1994) and ICD-10 (1992) and based upon interpretations of observed behavioural traits. All the psychological theories base their models within this criterion of behaviour led framework, although in the monotropism theory (see section 2.5), this is thankfully balanced by the accounts of lived experience of ‘autistic people’ themselves, including one of the authors of the paper, Wendy Lawson.

The current psychological models seem somewhat inadequate at drawing the links between biology and behaviour, but even more so, between biology and the lived experience of autistic subjectivity, often attempting to obscure the ‘autistic voice’ or ignore it, in an attempt to reduce autistic behaviours to definable objective criteria. The theory of monotropism, is a welcome departure from this theoretical dominance however, largely basing its account in subjective accounts. In so doing, this theory is more applicable to the vast array of subjective differences experienced by autistic people, although perhaps not all. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have achieved the widespread recognition enjoyed by the other theories.

“…right from the start, from the time someone came up with the word ‘autism’, the condition has been judged from the outside, by its appearances, and not from the inside according to how it is experienced.” (Williams, 1996: 14).

Source:  So what exactly is autism? 

First, we recognized almost at once that hooks wouldn’t make an LMS, that the very structure of the LMS, the assumptions upon which it is based, the pedagogies it has baked into it, the way that it reinforces patriarchal, capitalist values would never be worth a critical feminist remodel. Erected as it is from the concrete and girders of a predominantly white male educational psychology, the LMS would essentially need to be razed and the ground laid with new pasture before a space more viable, more critical, more feminist, more liberative could be grown in its place.

Source: If bell hooks Made an LMS: a Praxis of Liberation and Domain of One’s Own

When I first heard the term liberation theology (in opposition to a theol­ogy that fosters compliance with the status quo), I thought there should also be a liberation psychology—a psychology that doesn’t equate a lack of adjustment with mental illness, but instead promotes constructive rebel­lion against dehumanizing institutions, and which also provides strategies to build a genuinely democratic society.

libera­tion psychology is about looking at the world from the point of view of the dominated instead of the dominators.

Whether they realize it or not, mental health professionals who narrowly treat their clients in a way that encourages compliance with the status quo are acting politically. Similarly, validating a client’s challenging of these undemocratic hierarchical modes is also a political act. I believe that mental health professionals have an obligation to recognize the broader issues that form a context for their clients’ mental well-being, and to be honest with their clientele about which side of this issue they are on.

A minority of the anti-authoritarian kids I have worked with are aware of anarchism and identify themselves as anarchists, perhaps having T-shirts with a circle drawn around an A. However, even among those adolescents who know nothing of the political significance of the term anarchism, I cannot remember one who didn’t become excited to discover that there is an actual political ideology that encompasses their point of view. They immediately became more whole after they discovered that answering “yes” to the following questions does not mean that they suffer from a mental disorder but that they have a certain political philosophy:

  • Do you hate coercion? Do you love freedom?
  • Are you willing to risk punishments to gain freedom?
  • Do you distrust large, impersonal, and distant authorities?
  • Do you reject centralized authority and believe in participa­tory democracy?
  • Do you hate powerful bigness of any kind?
  • Do you hate laws and rules that benefit the people at the top and make life miserable for people at the bottom?

Source: Toward a Liberation Psychology