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Does medical research in autism proceed "arse backwards"?

Larry Arnold, Autism Centre for Educational Research, University of Birmingham


The purpose of the paper is taking an insider look at the way in which science attempts to define a disorder (essentially arising from a socio-political epistemology) before it really knows what it is.

Background: I am currently researching a doctoral thesis investigating the effectiveness of video as educational tool for autistic people.

Objectives: Since my research is currently in an early stage (a fuller presentation is due to be given at the NAS conference in September) I consider that it would enlightening to the current research community to examine the practice of research instead, looking from an epistemological viewpoint at the challenges I face and going back to first principles in the 'Popperian' sense of seeing what could be wrong with the current hypothesis of assuming that autism is a sufficiently rigorous category or entity which can ever be considered as having a distinct aetiology or that with current knowledge of genetics and neurobiology whether we should not adopt an alternative way of examining the questions of cause and effect.

Methods: My empirical research in the educational field proceeds from the hypothesis that autism is a distinct deeply embedded cognitive style.

Results: I question what would happen if the result were to indicate in real world terms that my initial assumptions about the condition are wrong and deal with the social difficulty that scientists may be faced with in abandoning current paradigms, e. g. Is the notion of a triad of impairments still valid or do we need to rethink what we mean by autism and concentrate instead on sensory and perceptual difference?

Conclusions: The outcome for all of us may be that the findings of any study into autism are inevitably governed by the concept we have of autism in the first place and that far from either nullifying or confirming the particular hypothesis we might need to start thinking of new ways, to match cognitive science to effect that do not presuppose that we even know the problem we are starting with.

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