I get the feeling there are several misconceptions about the notion of autism as a cultural construct, and I hope to address them with a list of points and a follow-up example. Some of these misconceptions are aspects of the theory that I have been confused about myself.
- Saying that autism is a cultural construct is simply an ideology.
Actually, a cultural construct or social construct theory about an entity is a scientific theory that is falsifiable. It should not be confused with Neurodiversity, which is an ideology.
- Claiming that autism is a cultural construct is equivalent to claiming that autism is not "real" - that it does not exist, or that it's not useful.
No. Cultural constructs are very real and useful. Language is a cultural construct. Countries are a cultural construct. Money is a cultural construct. Believe me, I'm not about to cash all my savings and throw them away because money is a cultural construct. The purpose of cultural constructionism is to understand the usefulness of cultural constructs.
- It means that people cannot identify as autistic.
That's not correct. See the Example section below.
- It means there are no differences between autistics and non-autistics.
The fact that differences between autistics and non-autistics can be found is not surprising. Differences can probably be found across any behavioral spectrum, regardless of where the spectrum is divided. Differences can be found between men and women; between races; between any two groups of people, in fact. These differences are often found to occur 'in average' (i.e. they can't be generalized), but this is not a requirement of cultural construct theory.
- It means autism does not have a cause or a treatment.
Again, this is not correct. Cultural constructs may have underlying mechanisms which are not only cultural, including but not limited to genetic mechanisms. See the Example section below.
- Cultural construct theory only applies to 'mild' cases of autism.
There is no such limit imposed by cultural construct theory, and there is no non-cultural way to define such a boundary.
- Cultural construct theory does not have a practical application.
I think cultural construct theory can help explain the "autism epidemic" and help decipher some of the causes of autism. Current thinking of autism as an identifiable "brain disease" is leading nowhere. The example below provides a model which could be helpful in this regard.
A straightforward cultural construct is short stature. Consider how short stature is defined. Should only the bottom percentile of the population in height be considered short? How about the bottom 5%? 10%?
Is it real? Of course. Does it have causes? Yes, it probably has many causes, including genetics. Is it pathological? In some cases it probably is. Is pathology determined by severity? Not necessarily. Is it treatable? Human Growth Hormone (HGH) can help - whether it's advisable to use it is debatable. Can people identify as short? Evidently. Is it absolute? "Short" surely has a different meaning in different cultures. Can it be a burden and lead to suffering? I'm sure it can.
A more relevant example of a cultural construct is mental retardation. Consider how the questions above are answered in regards to this construct.
- Timimi, S. Taylor, E. ADHD is best understood as a cultural construct. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2004).
- Timimi, S. Diagnosis of autism: Current epidemic has social context. BMJ (2004).