Employing Niche Construction to Clarify Ethical Responsibilities in Cases of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Saturday, May 13, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
J. Anderson, Ethics Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
Background:  Appropriate understandings of autism depend crucially on understanding the behavioral context of persons with autism. Diagnosis and treatment involve assessments of “deficits in social communication and social interaction” that hinge on claims about successful functioning in social contexts. Identical neurological conditions can produce significant differences in functioning in different contexts, and this has profound (and contentious) implications for ethics and disability rights, as can be seen from the jurisprudence on the CRPD. What remains fundamentally disputed is the correct way of conceptualizing the interconnections between impaired functioning and the (un)supportive environment. Hence, debates between the “medical model” and the “social model” have reached an unproductive deadlock. Recent work in philosophy of mind and cultural evolution provides a useful tool for reframing these disputes and thereby clarifying the nature of ethical responsibilities in case of ASD. Building on empirical and theoretical work demonstrating human cognition to be “extended, embedded, embodied, enacted, situated, and distributed”, a new paradigm has emerged that incorporates elements from evolutionary theory to reveal the role of “niche construction” in enabling individuals to function effectively.

Objectives:  The objective of this study is to assess the prospects for employing the model of niche construction to clarify the interconnections between impaired functioning and the (un)supportive environment and thereby to clarify the nature of ethical responsibilities in cases of ASD.

Methods:  This study employs research methods that are both theoretical and data-driven. The theoretical methods involve conceptual analysis of claims regarding “functioning,” in light of the inferential implications of competing models. The data come from recent studies showing the effects of “scaffolding” behavioral niches on cognitive performance (in neurotypicals and autistics).

Results:  From both an explanatory and an ethical perspective, the key result of this study is that the model of “niche construction” is better able to accommodate the agency of individuals in their ongoing and dynamic shaping of their environmental affordances. This helps to clarify the nature of ethical responsibilities in cases of ASD in a way that previous models (such as the “social model of disability” or radical forms of relativism) have not been able to do, in particular by integrating agentic and situational aspects of an individual’s ability to meet context specific demands for social communication and social interaction.

Conclusions: These results also serve to help orient new empirical and theoretical research in autism into the ways in which individuals with autism and caregivers intentionally or unconsciously construct the niches in which they must function.


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