The Reality of Autism: on the metaphysics of disorder and diversity

Robert Chapman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)
972 Downloads (Pure)


Typically, although it’s notoriously hard to define, autism has been represented as a biologically-based mental disorder that can be usefully investigated by biomedical science. In recent years, however, problematic findings regarding the biological underpinnings of autism; historical research examining the shifting nature of the categorization; and a lack of biomedical utility have led some to suggest abandoning the concept of autism. My interest here is the possibility that autism may remain a meaningful and helpful classification even if it lacks scientific validity and biomedical utility. After arguing that accounts of autism as a psychiatric classification are unsustainable, I draw on feminist philosopher Iris Marion-Young’s distinction between groups and serial collectives in order to account for the reality of autism as a social category, best framed in terms of a social model of disability. When it is taken as a serial collective, I argue, we can coherently understand autistic people as forming a marginalized minority, disabled in relation to the specific material and social contexts, yet in a way that avoids neuro-centric commitments. Autism is thus real and valuable for political and ethical rather than biomedical reasons.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)799-819
JournalPhilosophical Psychology
Issue number6
Early online date18 Apr 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Apr 2020


  • Autism
  • neurodiversity
  • Iris Marion-Young
  • seriality
  • philosophy of psychiatry
  • disability
  • cognitive disability
  • mental disorder


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