This essay is an autie-ethnographic narrative that traces the problems with and limits of theory of mind (ToM) as it is currently constructed in psychology and cognitive studies. In particular, I examine the role of the body in ToM—or rather, the ways in which autistic people are disembodied in theories about ToM. I argue that theories about ToM deny autistic people agency by calling into question their very humanity and, in doing so, wreak violence on autistic bodies. I suggest, furthermore, that feminist rhetorical studies represent one potential location for dismantling the complex web of oppression that ToM has come to signify.
During my second week as a new faculty member, I was involuntarily committed to the psych ward at the university hospital. I would say that I make this statement against my better judgment, but such a sentiment presupposes that I have better judgment. (Which, according to my ex-doctors, I don't.)
My commitment had a slow-motion feel to it. As it was happening, I couldn't believe that it was happening—I was daydreaming, or I was watching a poorly written Lifetime biopic, or I had eaten moldy leftovers that triggered hallucinations, or something, anything but reality. But, no. This was my reality, and my reality soon spiraled into the progressive tense, into something like this:
—They were strapping me down on a gurney.
—They were wheeling me out of an academic building and into the parking lot, onlookers gawking.
—They were forcing me into an ambulance.
—They were dragging me, still on the gurney, into the psych ER, which resembled a TV prison: brisk security guard, cheap wall paint, steel-enforced doors, cameras that aren't supposed to look like cameras but inevitably do look like cameras. They were dragging me in there. There.
—Soon, they were vigorously frisking me, and they were dumping out the contents of my backpack, and they were treating me like I was a criminal because I carried a bottle of Tylenol and a 3-inch Autistic Pride button, and they were shoving me, now shoeless and sweaterless, into a doorless room with hard-backed chairs, and they were prohibiting me from making any phone calls unless I did so via speakerphone, and they were threatening me with overnight and multiple-day stays and refusing to let me wear my headphones, and they were mixing up my diagnoses while periodically asking, How are you doing, sweetie?—As if they really cared. As if I were a sweetie.
Before the EMTs bundled me, pig-in-a-blanket style, into the ambulance, my former therapist asked me why being committed was such a "bad" thing. "If you have to ask that question," I fumed, "then you really don't have a clue."
That pre-ambulance moment, to the best of my memory, is when their ventriloquism started. Suddenly, the experts claimed, I wasn't talking. God, no. "That's your depression talking," they explained. "That's your autism talking. That's your anxiety talking. Really, it's anything but you talking."
I am getting used to not existing, rhetorically speaking. I study rhetoric for a living. I teach it. I have a PhD in it. I breathe it. Rhetoric is everything and everywhere, many of my colleagues say. The exception to rhetoric's everythingness and everywhereness is, of course, autism.
I have reached a point in my adult life where articles on autism and perspective-taking inspire me —inspire me to commit self-injury, that is. Rhetoric is about audience and autism is not, these articles say. Autistic people are "mindblind" (Baron-Cohen 1997, 2); autistic people are "masked by a cloud of social solitude" (Greenbaum 2011, 46); autistic people are self-centered and shrouded by their neurological misery. I grossly paraphrase here. But not really.
And so, I've had to get used to not existing, rhetorically speaking. I will say something about autism, and someone will assert that nothing I've said matters or applies to anything. Because I am self-centered. Because I do not have the capacity to intuit other minds or to understand the life experiences of others. Because it is just my autism talking.
How can one have autism and have something to say? Autistic voice is the ultimate oxymoron. Autism has long been "understood" as a trope for incommunicability (Pinchevski 2005) and as an organizing metaphor for social isolation and bodily imprisonment (Bettelheim 1967). Autistic people are hardly described as having the capability to function as rhetors, interlocutors, or any other descriptor that might confer agency, intentionality, or selfhood onto an autistic body. Indeed, this obsession with our incapability transcends scholarly discipline: it is routinely portrayed as an inseparable part of autism as a condition. 1 In their seminal 1985 article, for instance, Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith posited that autistic people possess an impaired "theory of mind" (or ToM); that is, autistic people, they claimed, do not understand that other people have their own unique mental states, lives, and experiences, do not understand "that other people know, want, feel, or believe things" (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith 1985, 38). Our supposed inability to attribute motives to neurotypical minds is (and I quote) a "circumscribed cognitive failure," a "cognitive dysfunction," a "cognitive deficit," a "social disability," and a "striking poverty" (44, 39).
Fast-forward nearly thirty years, and this ToM refrain has become "empirical" fact (Williams 2010, 483). As David Smukler (2005, 17) has argued, whole academic enterprises have emerged around ToM, for ToM's very existence necessitates questions concerning the limits and boundaries of the mind, of humanity itself. Philosophers invoke ToM to probe the meaning of selfhood and morality and what it means to live a "good life" (Barnbaum 2008, 84). Narrative theorists employ ToM in service of loftier claims about textuality, the brain, and inter/relationality (Ryan 2010, 473-474). Rhetoricians behold ToM as an explanation for failure and disruption in classroom contexts (Jurecic 2007, 429; Greenbaum 2010, 44).
Across disciplines, ToM operates as a binary between the humans who have it and those distant Others who do not. Particularly iconic of this has/has not dichotomy is the following passage from Baron-Cohen's Mindblindness (1997): "A theory of mind remains one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human. …The theory of mind difficulties seem to be universal among such [autistic] individuals" (3). And so, if autistics possess anything, it is decided lack. On one side of the continuum are those whom Baron-Cohen has termed "mindreaders," that is, those individuals whom we know to be human precisely because they possess a ToM. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continuum are the "mindblind," that is, individuals who lack "one of the quintessential abilities" that makes one human. In other words: Humans are human because they possess a theory of mind, and autistics are inhuman because they do not.
As Baron-Cohen postulates (1997, 4): "The gulf between mindreaders and the mindblind must be vast."
As I focus on this gulf, this vastness, my lack—I am drawn to the movements of my body and the office space in which I currently dwell. In these moments, I call to mind a decades-old Adrienne Rich essay entitled "Notes Toward a Politics of Location" (1985). In the essay, Rich draws attention to the ways in which locations reflect ideological standing points, to the ways in which theoretical spaces and the physical environment abstract certain (raced, gendered, classed, dis/abled) bodies in their very designs. As I focus on this gulf, this vastness, my lack, I thumb through my discharge papers and insurance brochures. I hold in my hand a yellowed receipt. I hold in my hand a record, a memory of my mindblind body in a sterile room, a paper representation of the orderly who peppered me with questions about self-injury and diagnoses and what I thought of the weather. (Fuck the weather.) I sit here, fingering the insurance bill that demands $75 for the privilege of being forcibly confined to a psychiatric ward on a rainy autumn Thursday.The gulf between the mindreaders and the mindblind must be vast. Given my mindblindness, however, I cannot say for sure.
What I can say for sure is this: There is something about the body and theory of mind. Rhetoricians have often conceived "the physical body as the place where theory is actualized" (Vandenberg, Hum, and Clary-Lemon 2006, 12). A theory of mind is one of the quintessential abilities that makes "us" human. Without a theory of mind, then, what is a body? What is an autistic body? As an autistic person, I am well aware of the ways in which my "neurological disorder" manifests itself in and through my muscles and sinew, the ways in which autism rolls off my tongue, transforms my gait into autly bounce, stiffens the contours of my face as my eyes survey a room. Autism is embodied; my embodiment is autism. As Jim Sinclair (1993) describes, autism "colors every experience." If the body is where theory is actualized, and autistics lack a ToM—under whose domain must our embodiment fall? What of my tic? What of my purpose? What of the humanity of my flapping fingers?
There is power in abstraction. In her discussion of theory-gone-corporeal, Rich pays particular attention to modifiers—most notably, to the nuances of articles and personal pronouns. Notes Rich, "To write 'my body' plunges me into lived experience, particularity. …To say 'my body' reduces the temptation to grandiose assertions" (1985, 11). Discussions of ToM, whether psychological or philosophical in nature, represent "the impaired" in the most distantly clinical of terms. Mindreaders, the non-autistic, the able-bodied, that is, people who have a ToM—all are variously signaled by us or human. Conversely, when ToM theorists discuss the people who lack a ToM, discussions often revolve around abstractions and de-humanized signifiers, all matters of a and the. Where is the my in ToM? Can there be a personal possessive if one's theoretical existence is defined by what she does not possess?
The body, I argue, brings visibility and materiality to the abstractions of theory and, most notably, to the abstractions of theory about theory of mind. What does it mean, in practice, in real life, beyond the pages of a book or medical chart, to deny the autistic's capacity for empathy, for perspective-taking, for self-reflection? "We" have abstracted bodies and minds both from real autistic humans and, in the process, have rendered them inhuman.
In flagrantly arrogant constructions, ToM theorists presume their metacognitive abilities are so fully realized that they can know the minds of the autistic more than autistics can know themselves. In one such imagining, David Smith (2007, 172) suggests that, without a ToM, "You would be unable to understand the meaning of human behavior and would perceive people as hunks of flesh moving mindlessly through space." In other words, in addition to the "empirical fact" that autistic people signify the boundaries of the human, we are asked to believe that autistics perceive other people as mindless bags of skin. This, then, is the dilemma that ToM poses: How can one defend her own humanity if she does not recognize the humanity of others?
What of this gulf? What of these orbs of skin and bone? What of the social implications of suggesting that two percent of the world's population lack a theory of mind?
$75 for the privilege.
And so, I am getting used to autistic voice being the ultimate oxymoron.
As a rhetorician, my engagement with autism and ToM invokes the topoi that I know, the topoi that have led me through graduate school, that have organized my teaching, that have enabled me to compartmentalize my university accommodation requests as dances with rhetorical triangles—ethos, pathos, and logos, collections of ideas about situation and embodiment, ideas about how to deliver a lecture or how to arrange a letter on why I need extra time to review an essay. As a rhetorician, I apprehend—with the lenses that I know—the cognitive studies articles that line my office floor. I interpret philosophical essays on autism as the collapsing of rhetorical triangles. In this reading, I am bombarded by representations of autistic people as non-rhetors—as non-rhetors who cannot emote (goodbye pathos), as non-rhetors who cannot recognize the mental states nor visualize the needs of the people around them (goodbye ethos), as non-rhetors whose logics are so mechanistic and rigid that their only comparable non-rhetor analogues are robots and chimpanzees (goodbye, logos). 2
As a rhetorician, I am supposed to understand autism as a limit case, one that signifies everything that rhetoric is not. I am supposed to understand that autism is the antithesis of narrative. As a rhetorician, I am supposed to understand that autism prevents me from being a rhetorician.
The cognitive studies articles that line my floor detail the ways in which my people are not really people. I apprehend them with the lenses that I know. Feministic, rhetorical, philosophical, narratological—I think them all echolalic. Autistics are not people. Autistics are not people. How can a non-person assert her personhood? Autistics are not people.
And so, I am getting used to not existing. I am getting used to having a body that is not really a body. I am getting used to the rhetorical violence that theories about theory of mind enable. Tie me to a gurney. The gurney is more material than I am.
I am writing this essay because I tire of getting used to these things.
Thankfully, my hospitalization was short-lived. But being forcibly detained by therapists-cum-faculty, in an academic building, in wait for EMTs to arrive and strap me onto a gurney—that's an experience I never wanted to have, much less while new to a tenure-track job. And at each moment, as I tried and tried to prove my sanity and humanity and rhetoricity, I found myself deeper within a narrative of neurological determinism. Suddenly, doctors were conferring any and all agency to my supposed disembodiment, or my supposed disenmindment. 3 I didn't want therapy because I was autistic. I didn't want to be hospitalized because I was autistic. In those moments, the slowest moments of my life, I summoned Aristotle (2011)—enthymemes, dialectics, topoi. When Aristotle didn't fucking work (does he ever? 4), I drew upon memorized lines from my candidacy exam reading lists, variously channeling Malea Powell (2011) and Peter Elbow (1985). What is ethos. What is reason. Who is the Other and when are they a what. What is kairos. What is of the moment, this slow, agonizing moment, wherein I am trying to convey my authentic self. Questions became statements, and statements became symptoms, and symptoms became my arhetorical body, a body restrained and discarded.
Regardless of what I said, it was my autism saying it. My body became site for ventriloquist rhetoric, words that never were. While conversing with the EMTs, desperate to appear sociable and "normal," I found myself narrating my every anxious action with, "That was a pre-programmed response. That was a pre-programmed response."
I do not know what they wrote in their charts. In my depressive moments, I tend to imagine that they mapped the ebbs and flows of my echolalia, in echolalia. "That's just her autism talking," the clipboard repeats, like a running toilet. "That's just her autism talking, talking, talking. That's just her—autism talking."
Alas, here I project.
My projection is, I suppose, part of a larger point—the point I hope to engage perseveratively, and echolalically, but mostly perseveratively, throughout this essay. When is autism speaking? And, when autism speaks, where is the body? Where is personhood located? Do autistic people, as Roger Gottlieb (2002) so asks, represent moral subjects? Whose corporeality is reflected—and deflected—by the discursive construct of autism?
In other words: Where does my autism end, and where do I begin? Am I my mind?
In other words: When we theorize the mind, what or whom are we theorizing? When we theorize the mind, what or whom do we privilege? (The neurologically typical? Statistical analysis?) When we theorize theories of mind—when we theorize who is a who and who is a what—where is the body? Where is personhood located? Is there a moral subject? Am I my mind?
In other words: How do we fill in the blanks of the autistic enthymeme, the topoi of cognitive philosophy and cognitive narratology? Can the autistic narrate her life? Must one narrate in order to be human?
In other words: Is the autistic human?
In other words: It is 2013. Why are we even asking these questions?
II. Theory of whose mind?
By now you may have guessed that this essay is auto-ethnographic. You may have also guessed that this essay is spiral-like in structure, is lacking a concrete thesis, and is fond of parallel sentence structures. Here I take my cue from Irene Rose (2005), who coined the term autie-ethnography to describe the rich oeuvre of activist life writing produced by autistic people in the past two decades. In large part, Rose seeks to recover and reclaim autistic life writing—what autistic people have long referred to as autie-biography—as more than mere auto(autie)biography. Such acts of recovery and reclamation have long histories in Disability Studies, and are especially indebted to G. Thomas Couser's work on disability life narratives. In "Conflicting Paradigms," Couser (2008) calls for disabled writers and memoirists to resist the cultural scripts that govern the story(s) of disability—to resist the pity-me narrative, to resist the I-had-it-better-before-I-became-disabled narrative, to resist what Stella Young (2012) describes as "inspiration porn."
Indeed, what Rose and Couser alike exhort is the potentiality of disability life writing to serve emancipatory purposes, to function in and as testimonio. There exists, they suggest, transformative power in the stories of the so-called abnormal, aberrant, and autistic. And, in many respects, scholarship on disability-inflected testimonio revolves around feministic conceptions of narrative and positionality. As Laura Milner (2011, sec. 1) asserts, such writing "resists the rhetorical structures that reinforce conventional, discriminatory attitudes and systems."
I would like to claim that my essay is all of the above—aberrant and autistic, yet transformative and resistant. I do not, however, believe that it is those things. And how can I? In many respects, to be autistic is to be conditioned—conditioned into believing that your words are idiosyncratic, self-focused, ephemeral. There exist entire anthologies dedicated to this very idea. 5
Indeed, this essay's very form is a paradox: I am claiming that I have a theory of mind by demonstrating that I lack a theory of mind.
Here I am mindful of my mindlessness. My essay is disjointed and self-focused. It is both revealing and not revealing enough. Francesca Happé has at many junctures described autistic life writing as inherently "limited" because it fails to tell non-autistic people what they want to know. According to Happé (1991), because autistic individuals lack ToM, they cannot express the autistic experience in non-autistic terms (which, of course, are the only "appropriate" terms) (for example, see 210, 223, 231). Autistic activist Amanda Baggs (2003) has summarized Happé's standpoint quite aptly: "Autistics are not expected to write autobiographies. We are expected to write textbooks, which happen to be about ourselves." Under such a framework of neurotypical expectations, my essaying will always fall short—I (dis)narrate from personal experience, depart from typical academic genre conventions, hold close certain intimate details (the doctors must have had a reason to commit me involuntarily, after all). When it comes to narrative theory, rhetorical theory, psychological theory, you-name-it-theory, the center remains fixedly non-autistic. To center autistic embodiment might well be emancipatory and autie-ethnographic, but in the minds of ToM theorists it primarily represents a decided lack—a lack of theory of mind.
Happé is but one of many academics who claim impaired ToM as the defining characteristic of autism. In "Putting Theory of Mind in Its Place," Jill Boucher (2012) traces the ways in which ToM has become the dominant organizing theory for autism (or, for what autistic people lack). Boucher contends that ToM, as a concept, has broadened considerably in the past two decades. Initially defined by one's ability to predict another's behavior and/or discern another's intentionality, ToM was frequently "assessed" via false-belief tasks, tasks that attempt to measure one's "awareness of someone else's different (false) belief" (Bauminger-Zviely 2013, sec. 1). 6 Contemporary theories about ToM now invoke and assert multiple cognitive phenomena—mentalizing, meta-cognition, mindreading (i.e., understanding others' mental states), deducing intentionality, and expressing empathy (Boucher 2012, 229). In others words, to lack a theory of mind is not simply to lack a theory of other's minds—it is also to lack an awareness of one's own mind (Carruthers 1996; McGeer 2004).
And so, I am writing this essay, presumably unaware of my reader and my(non)self.
This is just my autism talking, spewing like a ruptured sieve.
I am cognitively conditioned to be ephemeral and idiosyncratic.
Where is my body?
I frequently perseverate on theories about ToM—their ubiquity in autism studies, and the ways in which theorists and clinicians and parents and teachers absorb them, in seemingly unquestioning ways. Theories about ToM are more pervasive than my pervasive developmental disorder. They walk on water. Theories about ToM are how my therapists have come to know me. My diagnostic papers highlight my "rigidity" and "lack of mental flexibility." I sometimes imagine elaborate scenarios in which social workers convene to discuss the ways in which I have been devoured by my mindmatter—self-consumed in my selfish selflessness.
There is something sticky about ToM. Boucher (2012, 229) submits that theory of mind is, quite disturbingly, a "neat and memorable" term, one tidy enough to resonate across disciplines. In The Perfect Response: Studies of the Rhetorical Personality, Gary Woodward (2010, 91) offers a similar sentiment, asserting that theory of mind is a "perfect phrase, suggesting both the impulse to estimate a person's feelings at a given time and the idea that those inferences will be used to predict how the person will respond to words enacted in their presence."
And yet, I would suggest that, more than its "perfection" and catchiness as a phrase, ToM's staying power is borne of its dependence on "epistemological boundaries" (Pinchevski 2005). Put directly: Would we have a theory of theory of mind without autism? I am not alone in posing this question, and I do not think I am wrong in implicating ToM in a "chicken-egg" reductionism (Ryan 2010, 484). Theories about ToM are theories about continua, about humanity, about continuizing humanity. We only know that ToM is "one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human" because "theory of mind difficulties seem to be universal in [autistic] people" (Baron-Cohen 1997, 3). We only know that ToM is a "fundamental aspect of human relationships" because autistic people are said not to have a "fully functioning theory of mind" (Barnbaum 2008, 154). Despite the fact that ToM was first theorized in relation to chimpanzees in the late 70s (Premack & Woodruff, 1978), its pervasiveness in trans-disciplinary literature is indebted to its imbricatedness in the autistic (non)self.
I posit that theories about ToM are both circumlocutious and violently self-feeding: To argue that autistic people possess a theory of mind would be to argue that there is no theory of theory of mind. In her book-length take on autism and bioethics, Deborah Barnbaum (2008) admits as much:
But the whole point of theory of mind deficits is that the lack of theory of mind is a fundamental deficit that is characteristic of autism: if he did not have a compromised theory of mind, he would not be autistic. (160)
As does Uta Frith (1999):
It is inarguable whether we would ever have thought of such a thing as a neurologically specified theory of mind (ToM) mechanism, let alone a circumscribed brain system underlying this mechanism, were it not for the fact that individuals with autism appear to lack the ability to attribute mental states. (5-6)
In other words: The whole point of ToM is that autistic people do not have it.
In other words: The whole point of ToM is that humans do have it.
In other words: The whole point of ToM is that autistics are not human.
This last item—that the autistic is not human—is the unspoken premise of the ToM enthymeme. There exists an autistic mind, but not an autistic human.
And yet, what would happen if scholars and clinicians were to suggest that autistic people do indeed possess a ToM? Three decades of scholarly work revolve around the idea that autistic people represent a limit, a boundary, a lack. Whole disciplines have emerged around what we autistics do not have. The vibrancy and sheer amount of ToM research is not insignificant. That many academics' life work is so highly invested in the inhumanity of autistic people should speak volumes to the ways in which theories about ToM have become institutionalized constructs and mechanisms that disenfranchise autistic people (and not to mention those with other mental disabilities who are often tossed under the lack of ToM fold as well—people with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and so on).
What would we lose if autistic people were attributed a theory of mind? Or, perhaps the better question—what might we gain?
I am going places with this.
Tie me to a gurney.
I am rolling down a hallway with this.
I am tied to a gurney.
I am imprisoned in a room with this.
I am not imprisoned in my body with this—unless the medical charts say that I am.
Tie me to a gurney.
But I do not want to talk about the whyness or whenness of that gurney. I do not want to imagine the mental states of those who strapped me down. I am invoking paralipsis. I do not want to reflect on the ways in which that one gurney and my one body are but specks in the sea of autistic bodies on non-autistic gurneys, literally and metaphorically, autistic bodies restrained and discarded, autistic bodies that are not theories, but are rather the textuality-gone-corporeal of theories, the corporeal-gone-violent of theories, the actualization of theories, the theories about theory of mind that continue to delegitimize and dehumanize us, and our bodies, and our minds, and our bodyminds.
Where is my body? Am I my mind?
I am (mindlessly) mindful of the mind/body problem as it is presented in both philosophy and rhetorical studies. This problem is not my purpose here. My purpose here is specific to theories about ToM—theories that conveniently ignore decades of feminist theory, embodiment theory, performance theory, disability theory; theories that imagine an autistic life-world of mindless skin-bags; theories that abstract living, breathing, human beings from their physical, mental, theoretical, sociocultural, and spatial locations. Theories about ToM thrive on immateriality. Theories about ToM are theories about power and denying power.
Where is the body in theories about ToM?
As Bre Garrett, Denise Landrum-Geyer, and Jason Palmeri (2012, under Scene 2) write, "We can transform our methodologies; we can move the body from the background to the foreground, as enacted by feminist and disability studies scholars in a variety of media."
As Erin Manning (2013, 16) writes, "The body is a misnomer."
As Kristie Fleckenstein (2009, 108) writes, "Moments of embodiment—one's own or another's—are continually juxtaposed and measured against the culturally privileged body, resulting in a hierarchy of bodies, a sliding scale in which some bodies have more value, credibility, and visibility than others."
As Susan Wendell (1989, 104) writes, "We need a feminist theory of disability. …Disability is not a biological given; like gender, it is socially constructed from a biological reality. Our culture idealizes the body and demands that we control it."
I am building up to something here. My fingers are variously rolling against keys, tousling the elastic folds of rubber bands. I am here. I am paying attention to feminist rhetorical theory and I am paying attention to personal pronouns. My body is a site where theory is actualized. My body is a site where (impaired) ToM makes its mark (in)visible. I am on a sliding scale, a spectral construction of bodily value. My body is a misnomer. I am writing this essay, but anyone with a ToM can refute it, can refute me. This is my scholarship, and my scholarship is experience, and my experience is the experience of impairment and of relationships with skin and bones and mindless orbs.
And again I ask: Where is the body in theories about theory of mind?
Or, more specifically: Where is the autistic body in theories about theory of mind?
Or, more abstractly: Am I my mind?
There is something about the body and theory of mind. In his analysis of Marie Darrieussecq's representations of ghosts in Nassiance des fantomes, Mikko Keskinen (2011) begins to unravel the (dis)embodiment of ToM. Writes Keskinen,
Currently, Theory of Mind could be dubbed Practice of Body without losing much of its functional content. Actual people, real readers, and fictional characters are all accustomed to interpreting human body language as indicative of thoughts and feelings, that is, of otherwise hidden mental structures. This move from body to mind usually happens so automatically that to call it a Theory of Mind is something of a misnomer. (201)
And so, Kenisken maintains, body language represents a signification of one's mental states and processes. It invites a certain complexity: that of interpreting another's paralinguistic cues, that of discerning intent. Yet, there is something conspicuously troubling about Keskinen's argument. While he begins to untangle the intricacy of bodymind—and reciprocally connect mind to body, body to mind—the default assumption here is that bodyminds only exist in those who have an intact, unimpaired theory of mind / practice of body. Keskinen (2011, 201) speaks of "failure[s] in mind reading" and names "suffering from autism" as one such example—and, quite tellingly, he names the absence of a body (in this case, attempting to read the mind of a ghost or phantom) as another. Elsewhere in the text, Keskinen makes similar autism-ghost connections in his exploration of phantom characters and ToM: "the shadow's [ghost's] reluctance to imitate the narrator's gestures may point to its autism, not being a primate, or fundamental nonexistence" (216). Of note here are the items against which autism is compared—not being a primate and fundamental nonexistence.
Thus, being autistic is not only on par with lacking a body—it signifies fundamental nonexistence.
Keskinen's sentiments on autistic corporeal absence do not exist in isolation. In "Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency," Lisa Zunshine (2008) examines ToM in the context of fictional narratives, suggesting that cultural studies and feministic theories of performativity have significant interplay with cognitive-evolutionary theories of ToM. In particular, Zunshine highlights the role of the body, the situatedness of the body, the unreliability of the body as interlocutors attempt to understand one another and attach complex meanings to gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, dress, and so on. Notes Zunshine,
The research on Theory of Mind complements our own discipline's [narrative studies] insight about the body as a site of performance. Because we are drawn to each other's bodies in our quest to figure out each other's thoughts and intentions, we end up performing our bodies (not always consciously or successfully) to shape other people's perceptions of our mental states. (69-70)
There are many contradictory impulses in Zunshine's essay, but of particular note are two items. First, Zunshine (2008, 68) emphasizes that failures in ToM are universal across the species. That is, signals cross, frowns and smiles are misinterpreted, miscommunication based on misunderstandings abound in human interaction. Second, and closely related, Zunshine is quick to announce the autistic subject as having an "impaired" theory of mind (67).
Indeed, in much of her scholarly work, Zunshine bases her theorization of non-autistic ToM upon autistic people's decided lack thereof. In Strange Concepts (2011), for example, she makes a considered distinction between the ToM failures that make one human and the ToM failures that make one autistic:
Still interpreting someone's mental state incorrectly is very different from not being able to conceive that there is a mental state behind the observable behavior. The former happens to all of us, the latter only to people with neurological disorders within the autism spectrum. (60; emphasis added)
Here I would ask: Where is the autistic body? What room is there for autistic agency in such a construction? When non-autistic people misinterpret the motives and mental states of others, they are simply human, but when autistic people misinterpret the motives and mental states of others, they lack a theory of mind?
What's more, Zunshine's configuration fails to consider that autistic people themselves have their own unique mental states, beliefs, and desires. Indeed, theories about ToM are, writ large, a shocking display of theorists' lack of a Theory of Autistic Minds (or, ToAM). As autistic writer Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg (2009) so pointedly asks, Theory of whose mind? Why is our ToM failure a pathology and theirs what makes them human?
My current observable behavior is that of a body rocking against a bedroom wall, elbows grating against books as they sway back and forth, back and forth. What is my mental state? Do I have a mental state? Am I my mind?
Such dichotomous constructions—that of the human vs. that of the neurologically impaired—violently absent autistic bodies. The absence of a body suggests that violence cannot be done to it. The absence of a body is the erasure of the violence done to it.
IV. Theory of war
I am the ultimate unreliable narrator.
That was a pre-programmed response. That was a pre-programmed response.
But the fact remains that I am the ultimate unreliable narrator. As I write this, I am trying to conjure one token example—one unifying story that will make plain the ways in which others hold my narratives with inherent skepticism, the ways in which my lack of ethos charts pathological heights, the ways in which others write my bodymind into untrustworthy oblivion, into fundamental nonexistence.
But I cannot frame one example because such examples abound beyond count. They permeate my life. They borderline define my life. Do I recount the faculty member who introduced me as a "special guest" while introducing my colleagues by their professorial titles and lengthy bios? Do I recount the social workers who informed me that I only disliked the autism flick Adam because my ToM deficit prevented me from understanding the suffering of family members? Do I recount the Autism Society officer who told me that I could refer to myself as autistic if I wanted, but to her and her chapter, I would always be a "person first"—that is, a person with autism? Do I recount the psychologist who told me that I didn't really miss my deceased friend because autistic people cannot form human attachments? Do I recount the neuropsychologist who repeatedly called me "stupid" because she believed that I didn't have emotions and therefore would not "feel" her hatred? Do I recount my forced hospitalization? Childhood bullying? Dropping out of high school? Do I recount the blogger who implied that I was involuntarily committed because I was a James Holmes waiting to happen?
Do I recount these things? I ask this question on two levels. First, which to recount? And second, can I actually recount, can I actually remember and reliably relay these things to you, my reader? Are my feelings to be trusted? Can someone without a body have feelings? Can someone without a body be subject to abuse? Can someone who lacks a theory of mind accurately narrate the lives and actions and abuses of others? Can she narrate her own life?
Where is the body in theory of mind?
Denying the rhetoricity of autistic people and questioning the reliability of their narratives are tropes that permeate scholarly literature. For lacking a ToM not only signifies a lack of empathy and perspective-taking—it also signifies a decided lack of self (Williams & Happé 2009). As I have noted, Uta Frith and Franscesca Happé are among the theorists who proclaim that autistic people have an impaired capacity for self-awareness. Frith and Happé (1999) take up autie-biography as a case study of sorts, examining narratives by well-known autists such as Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. What represents a mainstay and empowering genre within the autistic (non)community, however, represents for Frith and Happé evidence of autistic lack. Frith and Happé contend that autistic ToM deficits not only result in an impaired comprehension of others' mental states—but also significantly limit the autistic subject's awareness of self. Of autie-biographies, they argue, "While the accounts are intriguing, it might be a mistake to take what is said at face value" (18). David Williams (2010) likewise maintains that autie-biography should be held suspect. Arguing that autistic people have both impaired ToM and impaired episodic memory, he offers the following warning: "self-reports offered by individuals with autism only challenge the notion that this disorder involves a diminished theory of own mind if those reports are accurate" (482; emphasis in Williams).
And so, autistic people exemplify inherent unreliability. Whether in published autobiographies or in the blogosphere, autistic narratives are regarded as questionable (un)truths. Even journalists, among them David Newnham (1995/2010), maintain that the "value [of autie-biography] should not be overrated." Indeed, in my research for this essay, I encountered one article title after another affirming the writ-large embrace of autistic lack. Titles such as Frith and Happé's "Theory of Mind and Self-consciousness: What Is It Like to be Autistic?" (1999) hint that non-autistic people have more answers about what it is like to be autistic than do autistics themselves; titles such as Lombardo and Baron-Cohen's "Unraveling the Paradox of the Autistic Self" (2010) highlight the exoticism and epistemological limitations of autistic selfhood—that autistics are the only egocentrics who do not comprehend their own mental states, beliefs, and desires.
The value of my essay should not be overrated. As Newnham (1995/2010) so deftly outlines, "messages from the autistic mind are transmitted on suspect equipment."
My body aches as I attempt to discern the mental states, beliefs, and desires of ToM theorists.
But I need not rely on my own narrative to demonstrate how such theorists and theories and theorizing implicate the autistic body into systemic violence. Such narratives abound in the blogosphere and published accounts of autistic lives. For example, autistic blogger Julia Bascom (2011) recounts a story from her adolescence, the first moment when she concretely recognized that her peers had mental states and lascivious intentions, separate from those of her own. Wryly, she declares that she developed her theory of mind at the age of thirteen, while in gym class. Writes Bascom,
A lot of things changed with that realization. I'd never gained any information from eye contact, but now it terrified me. I'd been abused by my peers, but now I realized that there was a persistent mental component as well. That they wanted to hurt me. They thought about me being confused and scared, and they liked it. (par. 5)
Bascom's definition of ToM is highly embodied and highly brutal. What Baron-Cohen and his ilk name theory of mind, she names theory of war (or, ToW). For to have a theory of mind is to have a theory of how theory of mind theorists violently remove the autistic body—and it is likewise to have that violent removal denied. For how, after all, can an autistic have a body?
And so, the autistic bodymind is inconsequential, fundamentally nonexistent. And violence is enabled in nonexistent spaces. Consider, for example, Frith and Happé's response to autie-biographer Donna Williams's (1992) Nobody Nowhere, which chronicles Williams's horrifying experience of childhood abuse:
Typically in the autobiographical accounts we find relatively little about people's feelings or attitudes. …Thus, harrowing events (in the case of Donna and Gunilla) are reported, while possible reasons for otherwise bizarre behavior on the part of other people are left extremely vague. (Frith and Happé 1999, 18)
In the land of ToM, what matters are the "feelings and attitudes" of the non-autistic. Abusers cannot abuse if they have feelings and attitudes, while the subjects of their abuse are little more than disembodied objects.
What we have is Bascom's theory of war, or ToW. What we have is a system that favors teaching autistics "diplomacy" via intense behavioral therapy over reinventing the ableist structures that deny us personhood, ableist structures that emblemize systemic violence. As autistic writer Kassiane Sibley pleads, "They [non-autistics] are afraid I might not be nice to them. …I'm afraid they'll kill me" (n.p.).
My argument here is that theories about ToM impact the autistic bodymind in material and violent ways. My argument here is that denying autistic selfhood and denying autistic corporeality and denying autistic rhetoricity reifies systemic abuse and ableism. My argument here is that autistic people have come to represent a tidily bounded limit case that signifies what it means to be inhuman—all in the name of empiricism, all in the name of ToM.
The layers surrounding systemic abuse and autism go very deep, and I do not mean to suggest here that ToM is the only ToW that subjugates and discards autistic bodies. What I am suggesting is that theories about ToM signify a meta-narrative for such violence: they enable the violence, they explain the violence, they defend the violence. ToM's staying power takes shape in its robust interdisciplinarity, in its confluence with other markers of autistic experience, ranging from clinical approaches to diagnosis and gender, to what it means to have a language, and on to the ways in which our social structures support segregation over community inclusion.
V. Rhetorical being, rhetorical fact
Who can fight with "empirical fact"?
In many respects, humanistic disciplines—philosophy, narrative studies, gender studies—should be our allies in disability studies. As Simi Linton (1998, 6) argued in Claiming Disability, the humanities represent a potentially hospitable home for DS, given their historical emphases on narrative-based inquiry and their intersections with other cultural studies fields. And so my own response here, especially given the topic of this special issue, is to assert feminist rhetorical response as one robust mode for dismantling theories about ToM.
And yet, writ large, feminist scholars have said surprisingly little about ToM, an absence that reifies ToM and its entrenchment in systemic oppression, gender binaries, and ableist stereotypes. And more, as Marie-Laure Ryan (2010) has suggested, there has been a cognitive turn in narrative studies, rhetorical studies, and other humanistic fields. Likewise, Ryan argues, this cognitive turn is not mutually directed across disciplines. Narratologists employ cognitive theories (such as theories about ToM) in their own work, and yet little evidence suggests that cognitive theorists or psychology researchers do the same with narrative studies scholarship. Theories about ToM, then, become a funneling mechanism of sorts. "Science" provides the basis upon which we can retro-diagnose literary characters, historical figures, or student writers.
This funneling effect—toward science, toward empiricism—is one reason why I suggest feminist rhetorical studies as a means for not only dissecting, but eliminating, the ableism and violence that so frequently attend theories of ToM. Kristie Fleckenstein's work on feminist rhetorical practices and the politics of embodiment, for example, might provide one location from which we can dismantle theories about ToM and its "hierarchy of bodies" (2009, 108). There is likewise Jordynn Jack's (2011) scholarship on matters more explicitly autism-related—in particular, her incisive analysis of Baron-Cohen's sexist conflation of ToM deficits and the "extreme male brain." Both Fleckenstein and Jack offer not only heuristics for identifying oppressive (meta)structures. They also offer vindication—that autistics have bodies.
As Paul Heilker and I (2011) have argued, there already exist theoretical tools at our disposal to further the work of disability rights. Feministic attention to the body, feministic attention to (rhetorical) silences and webs of oppression—why have we not considered these things against theories about ToM?
I highlight rhetorical studies as a potential feministic location for resistance to the disembodiment of autistic people because, as I have narrated throughout, theories about ToM implicitly draw upon the rhetorical condition. In my own disembodiment—gurney-style, classroom-style, hospitalization-style—I draw upon the topoi that I know. And what I know is that rhetoric is everything and everywhere, except for when it comes to autism. Feminist rhetorical studies have often worked in the service of recovering minority rhetors and examining institutionalized oppression (Johnson 2002). But so too do feminist rhetorical studies provide us means and method for examining the complex interplay of body, self, mind, narrative, and being.
Just as I could not narrate my way out of forced hospitalization, I cannot narrate myself out of theories about ToM. No autistic can. Empiricists can explain away any autistic display of ToM. Autie-biographies, though described by Frith and Happé as "intriguing" and "extraordinary," are often rendered as idiosyncratic and self-focused (this, despite the fact that most non-autistic life writing could be characterized similarly). If an autistic rhetor demonstrates the ability to conceptualize or empathize, she or he is said to be merely "hacking" or passing, rather than disaplaying "natural" ToM (Frith, Happé, & Siddons 1994). Writes David Williams (2010),
The point here is that, without empirical confirmation, we need to be cautious about self-reported memories of early mental state understanding amongst individuals with a disorder that is known to be associated with impairments in theory of mind and episodic memory. (483)
Autistic being is predicated on un-being. In order to claim an emotion, we need to have it empirically validated.
In the same way that autism represents an epistemological boundary for the (in)human condition, I would suggest that ToM represents an epistemological boundary for (dis)narrative. That is, given ToM's location in cognitive science and other philosophical inquiry, and given that its existence is based upon both absolutisms and empirical study, ToM signifies a site that is inherently distrustful of narrative—or, at least, disabled narrative.
Autistic writer Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, editor of the Autism and Empathy website, is one among many who have questioned these reductionist and dehumanizing tendencies of theories about ToM. Hundreds of posts and comments on the site, most written by autistic people, document the ways in which theories about ToM erode autistic personhood. Of note, however, is an exchange on the site between Cohen-Rottenberg and ToM forebear Simon Baron-Cohen. In an open letter to the blogosphere, Baron-Cohen (2011) defends theories about ToM with the following:
As a working scientist, all I can do is summarize the empirical evidence. …The last thing I want to do is upset anyone, least of all people with autism or AS. But scientists have a duty to report what they find, openly, since science is conducted in the pursuit of truth. (2)
And so, dichotomies abound. Theories about ToM represent truth; theories about autistic personhood do not. In response, Cohen-Rottenberg (2011) says as much:
I'm not talking about someone hurting my feelings, as Simon [Baron-Cohen] implies. What I'm concerned about are ill-conceived definitions and unwarranted conclusions that have the potential to cause tremendous suffering for autistic people at the hands of the larger world. …Autistic people protest abuse and ill-treatment, only to be told that we can't understand other people's motives and intentions, much less respond to them appropriately. Autistic people face lives of substandard care, isolation, and abuse because we are considered to have been born without a core component of humanity.
It is easy to debunk systemic abuse as "hurt feelings" when one can claim that the subjects in question are incapable of emotional regulation, self-awareness, empathy, diplomacy, or socially appropriate responses. In such a construction, Cohen-Rottenberg and other autistics possess no rhetorical defense: they dwell in a world of mindless skin-bags, a life of utter interiority, an arhetorical wonderland of disempathy.
But, as Cohen-Rottenberg points out, the stakes in theories about ToM are worlds beyond hurt feelings and hurt people. What is at stake are the lives and livelihood of autistic people. Rather than acknowledge the potential for harm, ToM theorists have instead propagated a clinically-sanctioned silencing of autistic people on a large scale. For example, autistic writer Selene dePackh (2013) describes the ways in which autistic people have been victimized by hate crimes. dePackh pays particular attention to the auto-complete search terms of post-Newtown Google, where "autistic people should be killed" and "autistic people should be euthanized" dominate the results. And yet, in response to dePackh's urgent pleas for radical social change, Daniel Torisky (2013), a non-autistic parent, offered an article with the following title: "I've Never Met Anyone Who Hates Those with Autism."
Torisky's essay is an iconic representation of Bascom's ToW, of Cohen-Rottenberg's exhortations against unwarranted conclusions. As a non-autistic, Torisky's ToM is so beyond reproach that he can denounce the existence of autistic abuse with his essay title alone, and—this is important—he is believed. An autistic person cannot experience abuse, cannot feel her body being shoved against the cold wall of a hospital psych ward—an autistic person cannot experience systemic violence unless a non-autistic person validates those claims.
$75 for the privilege.
ToM theorists, whether their theories operate on the printed page or in the throes of diagnostic assessment, are complicit in the systemic oppression of autistic people. The rhetorician who hypothesizes that her student is autistic because he lacks audience awareness is complicit. The philosopher who suggests that autistic people cannot live a "good life" because they lack empathy is complicit. The parent who suggests that I cannot understand the "grasp" of autism because I lack introspective ability is complicit. The journalist who suggests that autistic people should be institutionalized because they are emotionally impaired is complicit.
The stakes are more than hurt. The stakes involve accuracy at its core. ToM is defined by a negative; it relies on a fallacious, circular construction. We know that autistic people lack a ToM because non-autistic people have a ToM; we know that non-autistic people have a ToM because autistic people lack a ToM. This is the state of our knowing—this is where empiricism has led us. Where might a feministic, rhetorical, embodied, disability-positive understanding of autism lead us? What of this skin and bones?
As I write this essay, I am preparing myself for the inevitable onslaught of letters suggesting that I cannot understand what ToM means because I lack a ToM.
Autistic being is predicated on un-being.
During my second week as a new faculty member, I was involuntarily committed to the psych ward at the university hospital.
I reflect upon it daily, even though I supposedly lack the capacity to do so. I reflect upon it as I write this. I reflect upon it as I suggest the potentiality of feminist rhetorics as a heuristic that could prevent it from happening again. I reflect upon it as I urge more scholars to take on this work, as I urge practitioners and clinicians and teachers to listen to autistic people, as I urge society writ large to grant us our humanity.
I reflect upon it always, sometimes perseveratively, sometimes echolalically, but mostly perseveratively.
I recently dreamed that I was forced into a special education class for assistant professors, my three-inch Autistic Pride button affixed to my backpack, bloodstained and visible. This dream was a waking dream, an unrestful dream, a dream filled with groans and body twitches. The button was how I knew I had a body; the wakefulness was how I knew I had a voice.
But that is probably just my autism talking.
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Melanie Yergeau is an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan. A recipient of the 2009 Kairos Best Webtext Award and the 2011 Computers & Composition Hugh Burns Dissertation Award, she researches how disability studies and digital technologies complicate our understandings of writing and communication. She has published in College English, Disability Studies Quarterly, Computers and Composition Online, and Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. Additionally, Melanie is an editor for Computers and Composition Digital Press, an imprint of Utah State University Press. She is a co-author of the SAGE Reference Series on Disability: Arts and Humanities and co-editor of the disability and rhetoric special issue of DSQ. Melanie has served on the boards of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the Autism National Committee. She blogs semi-regularly at http://aspierhetor.com.
- For philosophy, see Barnbaum 2008; for narrative theory, see Goodman 2010; for cognitive studies, see Schuler 2003.
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- In her presidential column for the Association for Psychological Science, Morton Gernsbacher (2007, 31-32) highlights the ways in which scientists find new and inventive ways to strip autistic people of their rhetoricity and their humanity, all in the name of preserving theory.
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- In Mad at School, Margaret Price (2011) proposes the term bodymind as one means of collapsing distinctions between mind and body, as one means of emphasizing the interplay and blurriness and inseparability of terms, of how we inhabit our own selves. Given that this is an essay on autism, and given that this is likewise an essay on theory of mind, it's important to note that my usage of the terms mind and body are overlapping, tangled, and, writ large, signifying a complex web of being.
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- No, I don't think Aristotle works—at least not here, at least not in disability contexts, at least not in contexts that in any way involve an Other. In their introduction to Embodied Rhetorics (2001), James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson contend that Aristotelian rhetorics center nondisabled bodies. In particular, the authors focus on Aristotle's taxonomy of the normal/abnormal and the ways in which deformity and madness—or, cripped embodiment and cripped enmindment—are positioned as opposites of the suasive, nondisabled, "normal," male, and thereby desirable bodymind. The rhetorical canons, then, represent normed constructions of audience and author, of delivery and invention, of gesture and movement and being.
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- For examples, see Carruthers and Smith, Theories of Theories of Mind; also, Leverage, Mancing, Schweickert, and William, eds. Theory of Mind and Literature.
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- Such was the case in Baron-Cohen, Frith, and Leslie's 1985 study, which employed the Sally-Anne test. In the test, two dolls (Sally and Anne) each have a basket. A marble is placed in Sally's basket while both dolls are in the room. Sally leaves, and then Anne moves the marble into her own basket. The children tested are then asked the following question: When Sally returns, where will she look for the marble? (42). Overwhelmingly (80%), autistic children in the original study claimed that Sally would look in Anne's basket.
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