Autism and “The Social”

Many people don’t realize that autism is a disorder that has been rapidly evolving over the past several years. Thirty years ago, autism was most commonly associated with a low IQ and poor social skills. However, researchers have noticed an increase in the IQ of those with autism and low IQ is hardly associated with autism anymore. In addition, since 1978 the number of people with autism has seen a 25 fold increase. Since this disorder is evolving to have different symptoms and affect more people, the way in which we think about autism may also see change. In his article Autism, sociality, and human nature, Gregory Hollin discusses how the way in which we think about autism also affects the way in which we see society and even human nature.

Since IQ isn’t considered a factor in autism anymore, the main symptom associated with the disorder is a lack of social skills. The fact that we classify this as a disorder tells us a lot about our society and values. We value human interaction and socializing so much, that if someone has difficulty with these things, we say they have a disorder. Clearly, we place a large amount of emphasis on socializing. Hollin observes that autism is believed to be “an exception to the rule that we are inherently social creatures”. Because people with autism frequently have trouble communicating, we say they have a disorder since they are unable to perform what we believe to be an inherent skill in humans. This raises the question: Do we believe that to be “human” you must be able to communicate?

The way in which we define what it means to be “social” also affects what we classify as a “social disorder”. Today we define social as an interpersonal experience, but as Hollin points out, before 1950 praying could have been seen as a social behavior since the decision to pray was shaped by the individual’s previous experience in society. However, today this would not be considered social behavior since praying isn’t an action directed towards other people. Since the early 1900s our definition of what it means to be social has changed substantially. Maybe under the former definition of “social” autism wouldn’t be considered a disorder at all.

Hollin’s article on the concept formation of autism causes us to question how we define autism and how that definition in turn defines what it means to be “social”. Autism is an evolving disorder and the way in which we think about the changes in autism will be completely shaped by the values of society. Since we currently define social as primarily interpersonal relationships, we will likely continue to perceive autism as a “social disorder”, since it usually involves difficulty in communicating. The concepts of autism and being social are two concepts that are both constantly evolving and influencing each other.