Feeling Autism Neuroscience

Des Fitzgerald’s new book, Tracing Autism, has a little something for everyone. Readers in the fields of Science and Technology Studies (STS), sociology of science, feminist theory, neuroscience, not to mention the social study of autism, will find much to incite further reflection and debate.

Indeed, one of the strengths of Tracing Autism is its ability to speak to a range of audiences in a manner that is both engaging and provocative. Departing from the trend toward ethnographic accounts of the laboratory, this book draws on more conventional qualitative interviews with autism neuroscientists, two thirds of them women. The presentation of these data nonetheless reveals a rich, narrative tapestry of voices from the field of autism neuroscience.

But this post is not intended to provide a comprehensive review of the book. Instead, I want to move on to what I would really like to discuss.

One of the most compelling discussions in the book is Chapter 3’s focus on scientists as so-called feeling actors. Neuroscientists, we are reminded, are people, too. And they are complicated, messy beings just like the rest of us. In the pages of Tracing Autism, they cry, they love, they feel and express a range of emotional ups and downs. This is hardly news, of course, but what Fitzgerald does successfully is force the reader to confront the reality of neuroscientific research itself as an “emotional landscape” (see Orsini and Wiebe 2014). The “work”, then, of autism neuroscience involves a series of affective commitments and labour, as well.

While acknowledging what Gould terms an “affective curve in the emotional turn” (2009, 23) in the social science and humanities, Fitzgerald is less interested in rehashing some of the debates animating this ever-expanding field. At the same time, however, it is curious that he steers clear of thinking the distinctions between affects and emotions, while nodding to the work of well-known affect theorists such as Brian Massumi. Indeed, there is some slippage in Fitzgerald’s own account. As Gould writes (2009, 20) in her masterful history of the radical AIDS movement, even if such slippage is difficult to avoid, some distinction between the two terms is useful: “I use the idea of an emotion or emotions to describe what of affect – what of the potential of bodily intensities – gets actualized or concretized in the flow of living… Where affect is unfixed, unstructured, noncoherent, and nonlinguistic, an emotion is one’s personal expression of what one is feeling in a given moment, an expression that is structured by social convention, by culture.”

In some of the interviews excerpted in Tracing Autism, the feelings expressed by interviewees can be read differently, depending upon whether one views some of these expressions as non-conscious or deliberate adaptations to particular environments or interactions, such as that between interviewer and subject. The literature on “feeling rules”, for instance, has been useful in helping to sort through questions of whether these emotional outbursts are structured by what people think they should feel or express in a given environment. Unlike other rules, feeling rules “do not apply to action but to what is often taken as a precursor to action” (Hochschild 1979, 566). What might be appropriately felt in one context may not be in another. Hochschild distinguishes between a feeling rule “as it is known by our sense of what we can expect to feel in a given situation, and a rule as it is known by our sense of what we should feel in that situation” (1979, 564). One might, for instance, expect to feel something even when one is aware that ideally they should be feeling something else.

Does the appropriate expression of emotion serve to communicate the sense that scientists who care and feel can otherwise get back to the business of doing science, secure in the comfort that they have shaken any image that they lack empathy? Not necessarily. And their neat relations between the capacity to emote and the ability to gain legitimacy and standing as an autism neuroscientist? Not sure, either. One thing is clear: many of Fitzgerald’s interview participants reflected on past experiences, which they inevitably interpreted retrospectively through the act of telling? Of course, interviews involve, as Fitzgerald appreciates, intersubjective communication between the teller and the listener.

There is the added feature here of how neuroscientists understand the receptivity of the interviewer to their own emotional-laden stories. This is not to cast doubt on the authenticity of these narrative encounters, but to explore further how the world of neuroscience is shifting as it interacts with a world beyond the “neuro”. We do not need to reify terms such as “neuro” or “social” or “biological” to appreciate that discovering that neuroscientists have feelings too is made possible – and knowable – by the rigid boundaries that demarcate the “hard” sciences from the softer sciences in the service of the rapidly disappearing “social”.

Finally, given the author’s interest in the subjectivity of neuroscientists working in the field of autism, the perspectives of actually autistic people who engage with researchers are strikingly absent. The author is clearly familiar with broader debates about neurodiversity that are rooted in a positive autistic identity versus approaches that position autism as a deficit or disorder requiring intervention. What does it mean to focus on how prominent scientists and researchers reflect on autism from their perspective, and from interactions with autistic adults or children?

Although Fitzgerald acknowledges the tensions between medical and social models of disability, there is an untapped potential here to frame some of his insights through the lens of critical disability studies perspectives. For all of its nuance, ambiguity and indeterminacy, the author’s discussion at the end of this chapter is framed in fairly stark terms: either you accept the claims of embodied difference embraced by autistic neurodiversity advocates or you acknowledge a deficit model of autism as lack.

At the end of the book, I was left to wonder how to characterize this book, which is actually a good problem. Tracing Autism defies our attempts to categorize it. While it is not a book about autism per se, but the narratives that unfolds in these pages are intimately connected to ways of thinking about (but not always with) autism. For this reason, it stands out as critical interdisciplinary scholarship in the best sense of the term: not a sloppy grab bag of related concepts throw into a pot and stirred vigorously. Rather, Fitzgerald’s careful engagement with literary theory, cultural studies, and science and technology studies, reveals a need to think boldly about what emerges from these complex interactions. In tracing narratives of autism research and science, Fitzgerald has given us reason to disrupt conventional social science accounts of neuroscience that reproduce problematic, disembodied accounts of scientific practice and of the individuals who inhabit these worlds.


Works Cited

Gould, D. 2009. Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hochschild, A. 1979. Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 85 (3), 551-575.

Orsini, M. and Wiebe, S. 2014. “Between Hope and Fear: Comparing the Emotional Landscapes of Autism Activism in Canada and the U.S.,” in Comparing Canada: Methods and Perspectives on Canadian Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Michael Orsini is Full Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He is co-editor of Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

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