Again, the suggestion that mental illness – an umbrella term under which autism has also been thrust – is discussed in terms of biological disease. Says the Globe & Mail this morning: “It probably brings us closer to hammering in the idea that mental illness is a disease… It’s a disease we don’t fully understand.” You can link to the full article here by clicking this sentence. Let us put aside for the moment that our medical journalism lacks any critical thinking or understanding of a now broad oeuvre of disability theory and literature. A critique of the media is indeed part of this blog post. Journalism has become as cheap as reality-TV – let’s make something out of nothing. Sure, I’m a cynic, and I tire of news reports on autism and the discourse of mental illness as disease. They are indeed a big obstacle to much of Adam’s progress in terms of how people accept and view him.
The “great” modernist project has been built around not only biology, but revolutionary biology. This includes environmental – internal and external biological causes for “mental illness.” There are two components to that sentence to unpack; the first being that the modernist age has been defined by production and individualism. The notion of autonomy is conflated with the working citizen who fulfills the Social Contract by virtue of pulling oneself up by one’s own boot-straps. Simply put, it stands to reason in this view that our biological goals have largely been built on supporting what is a statistically “normal” “good”-working body. This was indeed a part of the Eugenics Project. Any body that falls beyond the bell curve, continues to be deemed a financial burden and a cost to society. Therefore, the creation of a dependent body is morally judged and biologically defined. This is typically what is constituted as a social construction under which we have created institutions, special education, early intervention and the like.
I am tending to envision (as do others) our present age not simply a post-modern age – although I prefer post-modern theory to redefine the human and extend to other ways of knowing outside of the medical model – but a bizarre hyper-modern period (Umberto Eco used this term in hyper-reality, aesthetic, theory). Briefly, this means that we have extended the Enlightenment project – the one that created modernity in search of normality – into overdrive, seeking to land the first man not on the moon, but to create his or her “theory of everything” to define disease – or the right or wrong kind of human. The first discoverer wins the big financial and reputational prize. Disability theorists do not en masse agree or disagree with the implications of biological alterations, and the use of technology has indeed proven to change the lives of many. I do not have the space herein to discuss all of these aspects.
Instead, let me point to a belief that every research project must create a cure as good as it was for polio. I mention this as an example of the drive to cure diseases of all man-made kinds as well (meaning the socially constructed ones). This raises all kinds of important questions about illness and pain itself including the right to live, die, moral judgements about illness, and so on. I am not mentioning polio for these reasons here, but as an example of how a drive for any cure or human improvement has taken on hyper-funded business investment in research and competition. As such, I am citing the profit incentive for medical research. The two tied are not necessarily wrong until or unless we examine our motives.
I challenge and disagree with many theorists (or bioethicists) who may purport that it is better to separate any linkage of today’s genome and biological research with early twentieth century eugenics. I believe (as Rembis, 2009; Hubbard and Wald, 1999) that we continue to link behavior with biology and have hybridized these into “mental illness/health.” This umbrella term seeks to broaden medical diagnostics from which many industries may profit, namely pharmaceutical and therapeutic occupations. The DSM V is nearly big enough to take a bullet, and it will continue to expand so long as we rely upon a medical model as our only source of knowledge. As such, autism numbers will continue to increase within this model, not because of something environmental or biological, but because of how we imagine and create discourses.
It’s not looking good for autism from where I sit under this rubric, I realize this. We all know that autism, like many other cognitive disabilities, are diagnosed by observation for which we have created an extensive lexicon of disease and abnormality. Bio-markers become a shared lexicon infused with moral implication. Yet, we also know that there are many other ways of knowing and a plethora of disability theory is ignored in most discussions driven by journalists or medical communities. Also, let us not ignore the criminalization of behaviour (an example of moral judgement stirred and shaken with biology) as a reason to create new research business. In this, please test my theory – there will not be one news report of a criminal act that is not linked to mental illness today. I’m not trying to create a conspiracy theory, but there is a definitive financial drive for ameliorating many bodies, and we all take a part in creating the discourse. (Reinforcing discourses is another blog post).
I will agree with Rembis when he states,
“Any informed discussion of the limits of behavioral genetics research must take into account the historically contingent socially situated nature of impairment itself. Such an argument would not deny the existence of impairment. Instead, it would begin with a critical analysis of the social, medical, scientific and juridical discourse at the root of taken for granted classifications of impairment. This type of critical analysis is already taking place in some of the arguments concerning mental “illness” and mental health services …as well as those concerning the social applicability and general reliability of the results of intelligence tests “(Rembis, 2009, 592).
He also bluntly states, “The recent emphasis on genes stems in large part from experts’ drive to tap into the hundreds of millions of dollars made available primarily through NIH Human Genome Project, as well as through huge multinational pharmaceutical companies. There remains, however, a much deeper desire among scientists of the world to bring the vagaries of human reproduction and development under scientific control that continues to drive much of genetic research. Only when we begin to think critically about taken for granted categories of impairment and examine the history of eugenics in a new light will we be able to assess the implications inherent in current and future efforts to control human reproduction and behavior.” (594).
Genetic discrimination (Hubbard and Wald 1999) is already in our midst as the “agents of truth” – a term used to describe how we take the words of medical researchers and how we view them (Rose and Rainbow, 2006) – have already defined autism as a genetic abnormality. Note, that I don’t agree with Rose and Rainbow, however, when they state that biopolitics is not about eugenics as much as capitalism and liberalism (211). Contrary to their position that we need to develop new conceptual tools for critically analysing how biopolitics plays out, I believe that it is impossible to untangle modernity, capitalism and our propinquity to find biological causes for aberrant behaviour and mental illness – morally judged designations with supposed (bad) economic implications. This blog post does not do all of these concepts and arguments justice; however, parents and professionals must all challenge the reasons for the propensity for researching biological causes for autism and/or mental illness. Without doing so, we risk losing opportunities for creating a vibrant future where autism is accepted and where our children may live in peace with education, friendship and family. It is a point of fact that charities such as Autism $peaks spends less than 4% of its budget on services for autistic people (services is another blog post too). Far from being utopian, this thought represents a need for examining social mores in order to overcome the obstacles that prevent social inclusion…for every body. Also, I will agree that the body is under great transformation in terms of identity politics in the way we imagine it, and the other ways of knowing and imagining it can and does exist outside of medicine.
Recently, I am interested, as a woman, theorist and mother, in the lovely intimacy I share with my son as caregiving can be a very physical act. Touted as a burden by many charities and the like – including fellow parents who yearn to have an independent child – I have been grateful to be put into a situation where my expectations have been radically altered; where caring has become an important part of my treasured (ever-changing) identity. This has been created by the reality of caring and the mutually negotiated relationship I share with my son. Therefore, reading accounts of genetically ameliorating autism, or relentless and repeated suggestions that disability (often shoved under the “mental illness” umbrella) is biologically caused or wrong, is troubling for my son and I on many fronts, some of which I have outlined here. Perhaps the Globe & Mail writer Wency Leung may take some of these points into consideration. We need to imagine otherwise.
Hubbard, Ruth. Wald, Elijah. 1999. The Gene Myth: How Genetic Information Is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers.Boston: Beacon Press.
Rembis, Michael. 2009. (Re) Defining disability in the ‘genetic age’: behavioral genetics, ‘new’ eugenics and the future of impairment. Disability and Society, 24:5, 585-597.
Rainbow, Paul. Rose, Nikolas. 2006. Biopower Today. Biosocieties. 1, 195-217.