Tuesday 6 June 2023

Ecological-enactive account of autism spectrum disorder

Today's post is by Janko Nešić at Institute of Social Sciences, on his recent paper "Ecological-enactive account of autism spectrum disorder" (Synthese, 2023).

Janko Nešić

Autism (ASD) is a psychopathological condition characterized by persistent deficits in social interaction and communication, with restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. It is still mostly understood from a cognitivist perspective (“mindblindness”). Phenomenological and enactive theories which view it as a lack of affective attunement, pre-reflective understanding and engagement and are all recently gaining traction.

I think that an integrative account of autism is much needed at this point. It will bring all the diverse aspects of ASD together and do justice to the lived experience of autism. In my paper “Ecological-enactive account of autism spectrum disorder”, I develop a novel approach that connects two aspects of autism (two core types of deficits) found in the current DSM-5 diagnostic criteria: social and non-social (how they relate to persons and objects).

An integrative perspective I put forward can show how social, cognitive and communication deficits hang together with the differences in phenomenology, embodiment and situatedness of autistic people and provide a multidimensional explanation.

I propose to endorse the affordance-based approach of the skilled intentionality framework (SIF; Rietveld, Denys, & van Westen, 2018). In SIF, embodied cognition is understood as skilled engagement with affordances in the sociomaterial environment of the ecological niche by which an individual tends toward the optimal grip.

The human econiche offers a whole landscape of affordances, and situated individuals respond to a field of relevant affordances. An integral part of the SIF is an ecological-enactive interpretation of the free energy principle and predictive processing (PP). In PP terms, autistics reduce uncertainty by over-relying on routines and a predictable ecological niche they construct.

I argue that autism is to be understood as disordered or different bodily normativity. This refers to “the organism’s evaluative capacity” that guides the organism on how to attune to the environment and accomplish dynamic stability (Toro et al., 2020). Being healthy means being “more than normal”, adopting new norms of bodily normativity to reach dynamic stability in novel situations.

Autistic people do develop new skills, but the development of bodily normativity of autistic and non-autistic (neurotypical) people take disparate trajectories. Autistic people can become pathologically embodied if the sociomaterial environment is inflexible and does not allow the individual to find her own skilled ways.

Based on different types of affordances and how the world and self are modelled in PP, I distinguish between forms of bodily normativity concerning the material, social and self-related (toward one`s own body) skilled actions. Although differences in social normativity are most prominent, they are also present in the material and body(self)-related normativity.

Self-related normativity, with stereotyped behaviour, can lose its rigidity over time, while strict habits and routines persist in material and social normativity. Given that three dimensions of the field of affordances can be discriminated (de Haan, 2020), I argue that autistics have a narrow field, with shallow temporal depth and affective salience of those affordances that do come up in their field.

Taking this approach helps us figure out what neurotypical people can do to attune their environment to scaffold the needs of autistic individuals by redesigning the landscape of affordances. This way, greater epistemic justice could be afforded to autistic people.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, thanks for the post, I think it's relevant to have more accessible information on this topic. I have a question regarding the ecological-enactive approach that is provided in the present approach. I agree with the idea that having a non-cognitivist approach is relevant to understand ASD but at the same time I think it is also needed a clear theoretical comprehensive view to achieve that. Consequently, if the enactive and ecological psychology approaches shared some features but they are not equally exchangeable, how can we provide an account that makes justice to the lived experience of autism but at the same time provide a clear theoretical background to do so?
    Thanks in advance for your answer!


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