Wednesday 2 June 2021

Some thoughts following the Interdisciplinary Autism Research Festival (IARF2021)

A couple of weeks ago I spent the best part of three days attending the first Interdisciplinary Autism Research Festival. This was a wonderful event, during which I experienced the rare thrill of encountering an entire community of creative people and academics whose brains are wired the same way as mine. 

It would be both invidious and impossible to try to summarise or critique all the presentations. I managed to attend roughly half (there were two parallel tracks) and found myself impressed by the quality throughout. Every presentation had something special to offer and to single anyone out would give the false impression that there were “highlights”. So, I will restrict myself to describing some general thoughts that have arisen since the event. I needed a week or two to process everything in order to arrive at these comments. Even so, they are very much in formation still, and will doubtless evolve further over time. I just wanted to set them out now before the memories fade.

I should say at this point that I am not an autism researcher. My fields are music and computing (and ‘pataphysics, but that’s a whole other discussion). But I am experienced in interdisciplinary research, having directed a large research institute that sat at the intersection of technology, social science and the arts/humanities, and founded interdisciplinary subject areas, most recently Creative Computing. 

The IARF was inspired by the artistically-driven FlowUnlocked project and was part of the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Remembering what really matters’: Nature, Culture and Autism”. The disciplines represented in the festival included (in no particular order): autism research, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, education, health, disability studies, gender studies, philosophy, politics, linguistics, literature and creative arts (e.g. dance, music, visual arts, performance, animation, photography, graphic design, theatre). There was also a healthy sprinkling of activism, consultancy, community engagement and probably several other important areas that I have missed. Such a superfluity of perspectives provided a very healthy intellectual ecosystem for the kind of discoveries of connections and differences that are essential to the emergence of new, hybrid disciplines. The fact that so many of the participants were united by a shared neurotype meant that one could observe the rapid formation of such an interdiscipline in real time.

There are three main types of cross-disciplinary collaboration: multidisciplinary, in which teams of researchers from different disciplines assemble to address a common problem; transdisciplinary, in which researchers exist beyond, across and above all disciplines; and interdisciplinary, in which the methodologies of one discipline are used by another. The IARF fell largely into the last camp, with a great deal of methodological cross-fertilisation between mainly quantitative disciplines such as neuroscience and mainly qualitative ones, such as the creative arts. Indeed, one recurring fault-line for the whole festival was an autistic take on the ancient debate between positivism and phenomenology. As  usual in such discussions, the consensus was in favour of a mixed-methods approach. But what was unusual was the extent of the consequences for the individuals concerned of an inflexible insistence on one or the other. This was really a theme: the courage and determination of individual researchers and/or artists fighting for an autistic vision within an intolerant culture which insists on a methodological approach that constantly reinforces an outdated and harmful set of stereotypes.

The sense of assertiveness and fellow-feeling that this generated was accompanied by some classic signs of the emerging form of a new interdiscipline. A key area for discussion was jargon, which is always a major concern of communities of scholars as they try to establish boundaries for their field. In this case, participants were actively discouraged from using certain words which evoked rejected forms of research. Other terminologies were debated at length. 

So, this is an exciting time for the community of interdisciplinary autistic researchers. The new field is in formation in front of our eyes, and is ours to shape and develop as we see fit. It has great potential, and it is wonderful to see practice-based artistic research being included and treated as equivalent to more traditionally 'academic' disciplines. Bruce Tuckman’s classic model for group formation is “forming - storming - norming - performing’. So far, I have seen nothing but forming. Perhaps this will be one group that resists that rather neurotypical sequence by skipping past the “storming” and “norming” steps and heading straight from “forming” to “performing”. Certainly, the level of direct communication between participants would suggest that this is very possible.