Imagination and Autism

It’s common to see autism linked to (a lack of) imagination, sense of humor, empathy and a host of other human qualities. That makes me wonder. After all, I feel ‘all too human’ to identify with robots or “very-large-brained” apes. I kid you not: these are analogies made by a leading autism researcher in a best-selling book. He might defend himself by saying it was an attempt at vulgarizing science. That does not change the fact such comparisons are, plainly and simply, vulgar.

Maybe it’s because since my diagnosis I finally form part of a minority (instead of merely feeling that way) that I’m more philosophically sensitive about generalization (instead of merely finding them bullshit). Denying human qualities to people is inhuman. It isn’t any less inhumane to qualify that such qualities are statistically less present in a certain set of people. We’re after all not talking about length or the ability to dance or dress well.

So, the problem has to lie in a confusion of how the word is understood. Clearing up such misunderstanding then has the double benefit of understanding better what such human qualities are not and taking away related false generalizations holding a minority down.

This is what I attempted to do in a (philosophical) way in this paper for one case: that of autism and imagination. I do not believe it is an easy read but if you want to check it out at the level of the abstract, you’ll find that below the fold as a (non-?)appetizer.

Autism has commonly been associated with a lack of imagination. In this paper I will argue that this association is based on an oversimplified view of imaginative capacity. In doing so I will rely on Currie’s theory of imagination where autism is also explicitly taken “to involve a substantial deficit of imaginative capacity”. Although Currie makes a distinction between the recreative mind and the powers of creativity, his theory focuses on the former. His idea of the recreative mind can be paraphrased as: “no imagination without simulation”. Given empirical facts on autism do point to atypicalities in simulation, autistic creativity challenges us to look into the specifically creative part of the imaginative capacity.

The approach in this paper is to analyze the concept of imagination and see what creative component besides simulation is involved. In doing so I follow Currie in associating the recreative mind to imagery, broadly construed to cover all types of imaginings, and hence also as closely related to perception. It will emerge that imagery cannot account on its own for imagination and that a separate creative reflexive component is needed. It may then be that the “typical” functioning of the recreative mind is the “normal” developmental path to imagination but it is not correct to see “typical” imagery as the conditio sine qua non for imagination. Imagination comes apart from recreative imagery by reflexive checking of the subpersonal mechanisms of imagery and perception to see things in a new light (to create a new perspective) rather than just from another perspective. Variation in the components then explains human variation in the development and expression of imaginative capacity across the human population. These insights not only benefit autistics, they say something important about what it is to be imaginative for any human being.


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