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Why Tom Clements’ Guardian feature on autism draws criticisms from the autistic community

Why Tom Clements’ Guardian feature on autism draws criticisms from the autistic community

The recent UK newspaper article ‘What is autism? How the term became too broad to have meaning any more’, by Tom Clements, has drawn criticisms from some quarters. Namely that (since the amalgamation of autism diagnoses into the phrase ‘autism’), he seemingly leans towards Aspie supremacy, e.g. wanting to distance himself from the word autism; and also that he uses dated and dehumanising language for those that have a lower IQ than himself. Here, this author considers some of the points within his article that have drawn such criticism.

Autism is a natural difference in processing

A man is shown in shadow to illustrate an article on autismThe original study that promoted the Guardian article is very broad, extensive, international and convincing, and lead researcher Professor Laurent Mottron was not necessarily being dismissive of autism when he found, as Mr Clements reported, that: “The objective difference between people with autism and the general population will disappear in less than 10 years. The definition of autism may get too vague to be meaningful.” Professor Mottron proposed that the diagnostic practices for autism have broadened, leading to a false increase in prevalence, adding that autism is a distinct condition, and also a ‘juxtaposition of natural categories’. This surely goes hand in hand with what neurodiversity advocates (whom Tom Clements is dismissive of) believe, e.g. that autism is a natural difference in processing (not an intrinsic disability, illness or disorder). Mr Clements draws from Professor Mottron’s quotes that autism could become ‘medically meaningless’, however this doesn’t seem to be what Professor Mottron implied.

Intelligence surely does not equate to spoken language?

Mr Clements cites ‘less verbally able autistic people being marginalised from the discussion’ (due to the neurodioversity paradigm), however, surely ‘less verbally able autistic people’ simply need to be given a chance to voice their opinions, which is what should have happened within Mr Clements’ own article, to make the feature more broad, and less opinionated. It is clear from the very many non-verbal autistic writers, bloggers and vloggers (e.g. Carly Fleischmann, Ido Kedar and Naoki Higashida,) who are sharing their stories online and in books, that just because one can’t speak, it doesn’t mean one is not articulate and intelligent. Intelligence does not equate to spoken language. The Guardian should surely have balanced Mr Clements’ views, here.

Mr Clements uses dated and ableist phrasing and rhetoric like ‘severe’ and ‘mild’ autism, as well as person-first language (person with autism), which is becoming more unfashionable, and even offensive to some people. Although, on his own website (see below) he does more frequently use identity-first language, e.g. ‘autistic people’, so perhaps the Guardian had a hand in changing his phrasing.

(Interestingly, Robert Chapman, writing on Psychology for Today, recently proposed ‘making better make sense of autistic disablement’ by drawing on the notion of intersectionality, developed by feminist theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Mr. Chapman suggests using phrasing drawn from intersectional feminism, and applying it within the framing of cognitive disability, e.g., to quote Mr. Chapman: ‘When someone is, say, autistic and learning disabled, then they [could be considered to be] part of a third intersectional category (i.e. that of ‘learning disabled autistics’)… This framing allows us to acknowledge the complexity of autism without dehumanising different disabilities under the term ‘severe’, and [avoids] autistic people ‘talking over’ those autistic people with intersecting disabilities. For on this model, the only people who should be taken as the voice of any given intersectional identity are those that fall within their intersection.’)

What makes someone disabled or disordered?

black and white graphic to illustrate black and white thinking styles for autism blogMoving back to Mr. Clements’ article, the main opportunity that the Guardian missed by publishing the feature is the aspect of WHAT makes someone disabled or disordered. There is a significant school of thought that places autism as predominantly a difference in processing, and believes that it is co-existing conditions that make one cognitively disabled, and in Mr Clements’ words: ‘prone to lashing out and soiling themselves’. It would have been pertinent to bring in a co-author or add a panel with an expert’s opinion to discuss the types of condition that would affect ‘an autistic person with an IQ of lower than 30’, and lead to ‘cracked skulls and savage bites’ (again in Mr Clements’ dismissive words); maybe cognitive and intellectual disabilities, and conditions such as Fragile X and epilepsy. Mr Clements doesn’t have any intellectual disabilities, whereas his brother does – but they are both autistic, with traits that meet diagnostic guidelines for processing differences. (Which include, according to the fascinating study that Mr Clements quotes: Emotion recognition; theory of mind (the ability to understand that other people have their own intentions); cognitive flexibility (the ability to transition from one task to another); activity planning; inhibition; evoked brain responses (the nervous system’s response to sensory stimulation), and brain volume.)

The lower end?

The amalgamation of all autism spectrum neurologies into the one diagnostic heading of ‘autism’ has, as Mr Clements explained, caused may individuals to agree that autism needs dividing (once again) into separate conditions, perhaps even starting with the reintroduction of Asperger Syndrome. (Despite its unpleasant connotations with Hans Asperger, even though he did not coin the eponymous diagnostic phrase himself).

This author concedes the point that ‘contemporary autism discourse and research are both skewed in favour of the verbally able autistic population, at the expense of the most vulnerable.’ One can see what Mr Clements was getting at; however saying that: ‘The lower end of the autism spectrum [should be] treated with the seriousness it deserves’ does use dehumanising language. Surely we need to stop referring to loved ones (as presumably Mr Clements’ brother is) as being at the ‘lower end’ of anything, and should publish articles that help delve into the neurology of autism, and look at the co-existing conditions that make someone ‘severely autistic’, as Mr Clements writes? (Or, to use more acceptable language, lead to the person having higher support needs.)

Mr Clements does seem to have some neurodiverse leanings, and admits on his website that he had been: ‘Conditioned to do all in my power to conceal [his brother] Jack’s disability and to be ashamed of his obviously autistic behaviours,’ but does concede there that: ‘Autistic people are a varied bunch of individuals with a multitude of different strengths and weaknesses.’ Mr Clements describes his own autism (on his website) as: ‘A difference in neurology that has both good and bad sides’, and charmingly explains that: ‘Autistic people tend to see life in much higher resolution.

(It is also worth noting within a feature that touches on neurodiversity, some new phrasing. The neurodiversity paradigm is widely said to represent the concept that autism is a difference in neurology (as opposed to a disability), and was first used by Judy Singer, an autistic social scientist, in a publication called The Atlantic, in 1998. However, Ms. Singer has recently stated that: ‘Neurodiversity is NOT a synonym for neurological disability, divergence or difference‘. She reportedly now prefers the term ‘Neurominorities’ for those with ‘atypical cognition’.)


What is neurodiversity, in the context of autism?

So, back to the Guardian article, and to conclude: presumably, the original, interesting research made its way to the newspaper news desks, and Mr Clements was invited to give his unique take on it. But with some more balanced writing, it could have been a much more inclusive feature.

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about autism. The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!