A History of Medical Practices in the Case of Autism

A History of Medical Practices in the Case of Autism

Psychiatric medicine constructs mental disorders from bodily conditions. Being able to medicalize disorders in this way, psychiatric medicine operates as an institution of social control through its power to label individuals as deviant and to establish particular bodily states as medical problems. In this dissertation, I apply Foucauldian concepts, theory, and methods to examine how the history of medical discourse on a particular bodily condition has produced truth about what distinguishes the normal from the pathological. Focusing on the case of autism – a modern-day disorder that now permeates the socio-medical landscape – I show how the relationship between psychiatric medicine and autism might be re-envisioned to provide an alternative perspective on how medical knowledge expands to construct a medical problem. Tracing the history of medical practices used on autistic children, I examine medical documents from the time that autismwas constructed as a disorder in 1943 to 1987, when a treatment for autism was produced by behavioral psychology. Using Foucault’s concepts of the clinical gaze, discipline, and power/knowledge, I show how two quite different discourses aboutautism within medicine emerged at different points in time. Moreover, through the application of Foucault’s methods of archaeology and genealogy, I demonstrate how these disciplines determined what could and could not be stated aboutautism and how power influenced the production of these statements. Key among my findings are how similar disciplinary techniques gain and lose truth value depending on the context of their deployment and how disciplinary methods and outcomes privilege power/knowledge over individual and social bodies rather than seeking to understand and benefit the lived, bodily experiences of particular human beings. I conclude by suggesting that the history of medical discourse onautism has led to the development of practices that misrecognize, if not ignore, the actual bodily experiences of autistic individuals, and that a new discourse of acceptance and admiration needs to replace the discourse of normalization.

A History of Medical Practices in the Case of Autism



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