The Autism Industrial Complex

Alicia Broderick’s book is reviewed by Ian Parker.


This book grounds the emergence and possible radical responses to autism in political economy, and sets the groundwork for discussion among revolutionary Marxists about how they might engage with one of the new identities that both hinder and mobilise people to think critically about the nature of capitalism. Alicia Broderick’s 2022 The Autism Industrial Complex carries the ambitious subtitle ‘How Branding, Marketing, and Capital Investment Turned Autism into Big Business’. It promises a lot, building on a very interesting and well-received co-authored article published last year.

What it is

The book refuses to go down the rabbit hole of asking what ‘autism’ really is, with a neat overview of the way that the category emerged pretty well simultaneously in the 1940s in Nazi Germany and in the ‘democratic’ United States. You will find plenty of descriptions of what autism ‘is’ online. The descriptions seem certain and ‘scientific’. They are not. The phenomenon emerged at a certain point in time in a certain context; it is historical, not biological.

There is a misstep at this point in the argument, though, with the claim that there was a fundamental difference between the Nazi State ‘ablenationalist’ agendas of Asperger and the free-market context of Leo Kanner’s work. There is a risk then that the Asperger studies, which were explicitly linked to brutal eugenic policies, are treated as quite different from Kanner’s descriptions of 11 children who were, he says, very ‘intelligent’. The similarities of context, both capitalist states, would help us to ask in a more thorough way the kind of questions Broderick is concerned with.

One of the peculiar things about the book, and it is a limitation of the analysis, is that the argument is geared to exactly the kind of ideological context – that of the United States – that it intends to critique.

One example is in the attack on the branding and marketing activities of the behavioural scientists, and the role of ‘applied behavioural analysis’ in claiming to define, manage and even, perhaps, cure ‘autism’. The critique is, in most parts, correct, and Broderick is right to say that it could also have been cognitive-psychological or psychoanalytic approaches that played the same function. There is, as she shows, a hugely profitable industry in the ‘treatment’ and ‘prevention’ of autism, and all of that relies on marking out the category as significantly different from ‘normal people’.

However, she repeatedly puts the blame on what she calls the ‘plutocrats’ of the applied behavioural analysis organisations, as if there were some deliberate conscious manipulation of the population. This conspiratorial account is worst when she affirms the analysis of some critics of the so-called ‘Education Industrial Complex’ – Broderick is a professor of education – that there are ‘shadowy elites’ behind the complex. Come on, please.

This individualist motif is also present in the detailed and otherwise useful analysis of the kinds of ideological discourse that is used to frame ‘autism’. There is analysis of the themes of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’ and ‘science’ in the Autism Industrial Complex, but this is discussed in terms of who is pulling the strings, which rather misses the point, or, worse, leads into places we should be careful of treading into. The rhetoric of the Autism Industrial Complex is managed, Broderick says, by, wait for it’, ‘rhetors’. The danger here is that attention is displaced from the ideology to a search for those who are responsible for producing it. This is unnecessary and misleading.

If we really want a political-economic analysis of autism, we need to think about it as embedded in the kind of social relationships that capitalism replicates, not in a search for individuals who are engineering things to their own advantage, even if that profiting from autism is, indeed, part of the problem. What the book does quite well is to show us how definitions of autism have shifted since it was first named. The question, as Broderick says, is not what autism really is but what the label does.

There was an ‘epidemic’ of autism that gave rise to much fear and then promises of a cure precisely because of the increase in funding for organisations charged with diagnosing it. We need to step aside from those kind of assumptions in order to be inclusive, not reinforce labels that mark people out and confine them in the identities that are generously marketed along with the labels.

Queering Autism

There is a useful discussion toward the end of the book about the arguments around autism intersecting with LGTBQI+ movements, examining the implications for the identity, along with ‘treatments’ and ‘prevention’ developments, which are being sold to those who are labelled as well as to their families. There are shifts now from pathologizing autism – the main concern of this book – to embracing it, with the inclusion agenda also serving to reinforce the idea that this historical phenomenon is a biological bedrock abnormality.

Resisting the Autism Industrial Complex, for Broderick, means not only challenging the way the label is branded and sold, and what a juicy investment opportunity it is for big players in the diagnosis and management markets, but also how those who are subject to the label may themselves escape and organise themselves. Taking a cue from neurotypical and ‘neuroqueer’ initiatives, that radical activity of escape and organisation comes not only from reclaiming what ‘autism’ is, but also from opening the way to questioning what it has become, how it functions, what the label and identity does to people.

The kind of resources the left should be arguing for should not lock people all the more tightly into pathology, but enable us all to rethink what is pathological about a political-economic system that divides those who are good workers from those who work differently. Creative labour, as far as revolutionary Marxists are concerned, comes in many different forms, most of which are excluded from the matrix of the kind of workplace that is geared to the production of surplus value.

Broderick returns time and again through the book to the point that the main problem with autism is not autism as such but capitalism. The Autism Industrial Complex, for her, is now a necessary part of neoliberal capitalism. So, it is an urgent task now to not only acknowledge the claims of people who embrace the label to live their lives against and outside the Autism Industrial Complex, but also to create the kinds of spaces – including in our organisations – in which the label can be questioned and even refused.

Just as queer politics disturbs taken-for-granted ideological common-sense categories of gender and sexuality, so a queer twist on autism may enable new alliances between those who separated into ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, recognising that we all suffer in our own usually private way from the way that capitalism demeans and divides us.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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