At the Encultured Brain session Rachel Brezis will give a talk on Autism and Religious Development: A Case for Neuroanthropology. Here is the abstract:
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that disrupts the juncture between self and culture, affecting an individual’s abilities to interpret and perform in social contexts. As such, it provides an intriguing case for the examination of anthropological theories of acculturation and self-construction. Moreover, person-centered ethnographies of the cultural practices of persons with autism can shed light on the neuropsychological bases of the disorder.
The author’s ethnographic study of the religious development of persons with High-Functioning Autism in Israel demonstrates the ways in which such cultural-level research contradicts some theories of autism derived mostly from experimental research. Instead, ethnographic research corroborates emerging neuropsychological studies to point to an alternative paradigm of autism. Rather than focusing on the deficit in understanding others (Theory of Mind), which predicts shallow, impersonal views of the universe among persons with autism, these studies suggest that the primary deficit in autism lies in weak self-coherence and the related functions of episodic memory and executive planning. These deficits lead individuals to become overly reliant on received cultural scripts, which are then coarsely woven into their personal narratives. Such integrative, interdisciplinary research is beneficial not only to the respective fields of anthropology and neuropsychology, but ultimately enhances our understanding of autism, providing the individuals behind the label with greater insight into their condition and support in their struggle for inclusion.
A graduate of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Rachel is now a PhD student in Comparative Human Development and Clinical Psychology at the University of Chicago. For her masters’ thesis in the Department of Comparative Human Development, she wrote on the religious understandings of children with autism as part of a larger project exploring the psychological bases of religious beliefs. At Chicago she has also helped run the Clinical Ethnography workshop.
Rachel is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Culture, Brain and Development and CART Center for Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA, where she is training in clinical and research methods in autism. Within her broad focus on the intersection of mental health and culture, she plans to pursue the study of autism as a window onto the intricate process of acculturation.
If you want to get in touch with Rachel, her email is brezisrs at uchicago.edu
For more on autism, we have one relevant post about autism and understanding others, discussing the case of Amanda Baggs and her YouTube video.