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Position Statement on Reification

April 1, 2009

For Immediate Release [first published on April 1, 2009]

The League to Fight Neurelitism, as a public sociology and an advocacy journalism project, actively promotes the application of United Nations values on human rights and social justice to all persons on the autism spectrum.

Simply stated, reification, a common academic term, points to the treatment of abstract categories as real, concrete particulars or essences. The view that these supposed essences can be perceived, comprehended, and discussed is called essentialism. Both concepts are frequently referenced by persons subscribing to one or more systems of metaphysics or speculative philosophy, such as Neoplatonism.

Tendencies toward reification and essentialism can be observed in some of the online discourse concerning the autism spectrum, particularly when the autistic and neurotypical (neurologically typical) constructs are juxtaposed and treated as essentially distinct. Significantly, perhaps, this approach resembles an earlier one taken by cultural feminists who have contended that women and men possess certain essential, innate differences.

Although an essentialistic approach to human neurology, as to gender, lacks nuance and sophistication, it might, nonetheless, be helpful in developing autistic class consciousness. Claims that autistics, especially Asperger’s autistics, represent a prototype for an emerging new species, while superficially silly and easy to dismiss, can be similarly regarded.

Furthermore, anger at oppression, even if manifested in assertions of essentialism, is, in light of a considerable alienation, anomie, and angst which are experienced frequently by autistics, understandable, and it could, over the long run, encourage an activist praxis of self-advocacy. The League to Fight Neurelitism expresses the hope that, moving forwards, feelings of rage may be superseded by a mutual tolerance, which, with the development of third-wave feminism, appears to have taken hold in certain sectors of the women’s movement.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.
Founding Director,
The League to Fight Neurelitism


First published to:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. raggedyannie1 permalink
    April 1, 2009 9:20 pm

    Isn’t a mutual tolerance a stance of superiority from both sides?

    • April 2, 2009 1:33 pm


      Yes. I would even question the idea of two “sides.” Autistic and NT are, IMO, constructs. However, since these constructs have been defined, I think it is important that persons not become overly attached to them, i.e., tolerance.

      (Nice to see you here, by the way.)


  2. tinted permalink
    April 8, 2009 7:27 pm

    The idea of essentialism in autism – if I have understood that right – bothers me, not only when autistics talk of a superior race, but also when they insist autism is a neurological condition, or take some traits that some autistics show and define those as the essential autism or real autism. This approach seems entrenched in both the autistic community and in those wanting to cure autism.

    I see autism as a loose category of people with some overlapping experiences, or who have been lumped together by authorities. Some neurological traits may be more common in those diagnosed with autism, but we are not in any position to say what these are and certainly not that they define autism.

    It’s hard for me to want to stand up for autistic rights, when what that means is standing up for some elite who have “essential” autism, and where people can be more or less autistic in some sort of hierarchy. Also in my view, it doesn’t even make sense to talk of cures, not because autism is neurological but not pathological, but because autism isn’t even neurological, essentially.

    • April 8, 2009 7:54 pm

      The autistic community, like all communities, is socially constructed. I am certainly not opposed to medical diagnosis. I have received several myself. However, when it comes to diagnosis, the process of determining who should be classified on the autism spectrum is more art than science.

      I would make a distinction, however, between autistic traits and autism as a social construction. Many autistic traits appear to have a neurological basis.

      However, the autism spectrum and its posited categories (classical autism, Asperger’s autism, and PDD-NOS) should, IMO, be distinguished from autistic traits. Similarly, there are racial traits, or geographically based physical distinctions, but the so-called races are social constructions – and highly selective ones at that.

      Now, in terms of the aspie supremacy idea, that appears to me to be largely a viewpoint held by teenagers. I know of almost no autistic adults who buy into it.

  3. tinted permalink
    April 8, 2009 10:54 pm

    I think we agree? Yes, there is a distinction between autistic traits and autism, similar to that between racial traits and race. And some autistic traits may be neurologically based. What I object to is when people take autistic traits and say they are the essence of autism. To me that is like saying skin colour or some other physical marker is the essence of race.

    This is widespread in the autistic community and I am not just talking about aspie supremacists, but also researchers who construct “aspie” quizzes or who think they will understand autism by studying brain scans or genetics, as well as neurodiversity activists and curebies who alike insist that autism is a neurological condition. That is like using physical or (narrowly defined) behavioural markers to understand race.

    I am not opposed to all medical diagnosis. I think that some conditions are essentially neurological eg seizures. I just don’t think that autism is a neurological category or that it can be boiled down to autistic traits (which in any case are present in all sorts of people, not just “autistic” people). As you say, it is a social construct.

  4. April 8, 2009 11:21 pm

    Like you, I don’t believe that there is an “essence” to autism. However, ss a nominalist, in the medieval sense, I reject the idea that one can discuss essences with regard to any categories or abstractions.

    As a sociologist, I am interested in the processes of social construction, and in the ways in which knowledge is produced or constructed. To me, any shared traits are secondary to community, including virtual community, development. The most important factor is identification.

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