An Update on the Identity of my Thesis – Part 2: The TV Guide Listing of My Thesis

In my last post, I told you about what happened 3 weeks ago.  In this post, I will tell you what happened 2 weeks ago in my meeting with my thesis advisor.

I started the meeting by admitting that I had no idea how to write the proposal.  He had provided me with an example, but I still just couldn’t quite figure out because my topic was not the topic in the example.

He asked me how I had tried to write it.  I explained that my typical writing process is not like everyone else’s writing process, probably an academic way of my autism expressing itself.  I know that most people can write non-linearly (they can write chapter 3 before writing anything else).  However, I have tried that and it failed miserably because that is not how my brain works.  My writing process is completely linear.  I have to start at the beginning and I have to know what my whole paper is going to look like.  Not only that, but I get stuck on the first sentence or paragraph and no matter how hard I try to push myself past it, I can’t write it if I don’t have the first sentence and the whole paper in my head.

My advisor looked at me and nodded saying, “Okay, we can work that.  Let’s start where most people end, then: the abstract.”

For the next 2 and a half hours, we worked on writing an abstract.  But we didn’t quite get anywhere because I didn’t have a clear idea of what we were doing.  He had recommended that we start with the artifact of Autism Speaks and move on to Theory of Mind.  My brain didn’t quite understand that at that point because you need to understand the crap behind Theory of Mind before you can understand Autism Speaks.

Near the middle of our meeting, he gave me an analogy of a newspaper TV guide listing of a movie.  Usually, in two sentences, it sums up absolutely perfectly what the movie is about.  He asked me at that point, “What would be the TV guide listing for your thesis?”  I sat there looking like a complete idiot because I couldn’t quite figure it out.  In one or two sentences, I could not discuss theory of mind effectively.

We went back to writing the abstract and about a half-hour later, I had written something that really clicked with me.  “Based on the fact that ToM is faulty, it begs the question: is it scientific?”

The dam broke in my mind and it finally clicked.  It being the TV guide listing of my thesis, it being the main idea of my thesis.  I said aloud, “Faulty science leads to faulty advocacy.”

His eyes got big and he started tapping his nose excitedly as he said, “Yeah, that’s the perfect TV guide listing.”

I went home and wrote a 153 word draft of the abstract.  It was and is far from complete and it would change even after I wrote it, but as I am documenting my journey here, I feel it is important to document my first piece of writing for my proposal.

According to many autism experts, autistic people lack the ability to guess what other people are thinking and feeling; in other words, they lack a theory of mind (ToM). Using the theoretical frameworks of disability studies and rhetoric of science, I will critically analyze the nesting dolls that make up ToM research and reveal it for what it is, a pseudoscientific theory. Then, I will examine how ToM research has influenced the advocacy organization Autism Speaks to reveal the answer to two integral questions: (1) what role does science, be it pseudo or actual, perform in autism advocacy groups like Autism Speaks’ practices, and (2) who is Autism Speaks actually advocating for?  The answers to these questions will lead us to the conclusion that pseudoscience leads to pseudoadvocacy and this pseudoadvocacy subjugates the autistic into silence.

It was at this point that I challenged myself to try and start with Autism Speaks and see if I could make it work in my head.  Here was my attempt for that.

Autism Speaks is the self-described “world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.”  However, looking further into their practices shows what they really advocate for: the eradication of autism.  Two integral questions arise from this finding: (1) how does Autism Speaks have the authority to pursue this objective, and (2) who does Autism Speaks really advocate for.  To begin answering question 1, we need only look as far as their self-description, which reveals where the authority of Autism Speaks comes from: science.  Autism Speaks funds, reports on, and is influenced by science.  Analyzing Theory of Mind (ToM), or the ability to know what other people are thinking and feeling (an ability autistic people supposedly lack), from the theoretical frameworks of rhetoric of science and disability studies reveals that ToM is, at best, a pseudoscience, and at worst, an enthymematically dehumanizing rhetorical move.  By analyzing how Autism Speaks responds to ToM, we are lead to the following disconcerting conclusion: pseudoscience (ToM) leads to pseudoadvocacy (Autism Speaks).  This leads to Autism Speaks advocating for the parents of autistic children by conquering the autistic through dehumanizing enthymemes found within ToM thereby muting autistic people into a crippling silence which Autism Speaks then uses as a further warrant for eradicating autism.

These are far from perfect, but they were the start of something: the start to understanding the identity of my thesis.

More to come in the next installment of this story.

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