February 2, 2022    PsychologyReview

Is There Such a Thing As “the Autistic Subject”?

Reading psychological literature about autism often makes me imagine a room full of men discussing what women want or white people trying to analyze black people. It makes me wonder where all the autistic psychologists are. I’m not a psychologist, but I am autistic, so I feel I should pitch in my two cents to compensate for the lack of autistic psychologists. (Although there is a theory that Hans Asperger himself was autistic as he exhibited typical symptoms in his childhood. Maybe autistic psychologists are too shy to come out of the closet?)

Within the field of psychoanalysis, autism is not a popular topic, so when I came across this new book, “The Autistic Subject: On the Threshold of Language” by Lacanian psychoanalyst Leon S. Brenner, I was excited. Lacanians generally do not have much to say on the topic because Jacques Lacan himself never took it up. Only a few remarks were recorded. Personally, I think his lack of interest tells us something. Being such a keen observer of everything happening in his time, I don’t think he would have missed the opportunity if autism presented an entirely new clinical structure. But, even if it’s not a new structure, it would have been useful to hear how he would apply his framework to autism.

“The Autistic Subject” is written superbly. If you are relatively new to Lacanian theories, it would be one of the best introductory books, even if you are not interested in autism. He does a meticulous job explaining many of the fundamental Freudian and Lacanian concepts. Each point he makes is rephrased in multiple ways throughout the book, which is helpful in understanding the often esoteric and poetic terms and neologisms Lacan loved to use.

However, I disagree with his formulation of the autistic subject. To state my conclusion up front, I don’t think autistic subjectivity exists as a separate clinical structure. Or, possibly, Brenner and I have different ideas of what autism is.

Lacan’s Structures

The symptoms of neurosis, perversion, and psychosis (Lacan’s three structures) are consistent and relatively easy to identify. There isn’t much disagreement about them. In contrast, the symptoms of autism are diverse, wildly so. Most people cannot identify them, and those who attempt are often wrong because they rely on stereotypes (or archetypes) presented in the media. Dr. Stephen Shore’s maxim, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” is often quoted to underscore the diversity of the symptoms.

“The Autistic Subject” made me wonder what Brenner is assuming as “autism” because he does not offer clear definitions. The symptoms he describes in the book are mostly from early childhood and extreme cases. The examples he cites seem arbitrarily chosen to support his thesis. Most of the autistic symptoms are not exclusive to autism, so even if his theory correctly identifies what causes them, we still would not know if it determines autism. Perhaps it only determines those specific symptoms.

“Subject” is something that develops over time because it is a product of language. So, neurosis and psychosis are not something we commonly observe in early childhood; they emerge later in life. The opposite is true for autistic symptoms; the symptoms become less pronounced with age.

Psychosis, perversion, and neurosis are three structures determined by how we mediate our jouissance through the Symbolic. Brenner’s assumption is that the determinant of the autistic subject must also exist in this dimension as another variant. But not all of our subjectivity is determined by this dimension. Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, for instance, describe another dimension of subjectivity. Personally, I feel that the Lacanians cited in the book are looking in the wrong dimension.

Unlike Lacan’s three structures, autism has strong biological, hereditary factors. An autistic child often has a parent who is also autistic. This is not true with psychosis, perversion, and neurosis. Autism is more akin to gender in that, while it is not entirely determined by biology, it has a significant influence.

Brenner’s argument that autistic subjects have no access to signifiers and develop a coping mechanism consisting of rigidly mapped signs, feels entirely foreign to me, given what I have experienced and observed of autism. It’s true that some, like Albert Einstein, had significantly delayed language development, but it’s hardly a universal symptom of autism, and it is also a symptom of unrelated disorders.

It seems that every clinician or researcher draws an arbitrary line for where autism ends and begins on the spectrum, and as a result, puts a different weight on the symptoms they observe within their pool. For instance, those who specialize in treating severely autistic children are more likely to overlook high-functioning ones. What they deem as “majority” would be skewed by that sampling.

In this particular study, the researchers observed only those who are high-functioning enough to attend college and found that autistic students had higher writing competency on average. When Lacanians speak of neurotics, psychotics, and perverts, they are not only referring to severe cases. In fact, everyone belongs to one of the three categories, and none are deemed abnormal. If the autistic structure were to be added to this set, we could not look at only severe cases of autism. We must account for the prevalence of autistic individuals with greater-than-average language proficiency. If the foreclosure in the first stage of symbolization (AusstoBung) determined the autistic subject (as Brenner argues), it would not make sense to see so many of these individuals. For them, Brenner’s concept of “the autistic subject” would have no relevance. His claim is that the foreclosure of autistics is more fundamental and radical than that of psychotics, which denies them access to the network of signifiers. If this is true, what exactly are these high-functioning students using to write so well? It could be argued that it’s not a coping mechanism or substitute but a superior alternative to signifiers, to which neurotypicals have no access. I would not posit this, but it becomes a possibility.

Autism could permanently affect how language is used by autistic subjects but it does not necessarily imply deficiency. The foreclosure of AusstoBung would certainly imply it, but there is no evidence among higher-functioning autistics. Psychotic, neurotic, and perverse structures can also affect language use. Just because we can observe some earmarks of autism in speech and writing, it doesn’t mean something radical was foreclosed in childhood. For instance, we can often detect gender in how people speak and write.

In early childhood, if any development is delayed or precocious, the symptoms can be striking. Hyperlexia, for instance, is striking when we observe it, but in many cases, other children eventually catch up, and it ceases to be a symptom. There might be traces of it left in their adult life, but it doesn’t constitute their subjectivity. Likewise, delayed development too may only be temporary despite the symptoms being alarming and worrisome. In Einstein’s case, speech delay turned out positively. In this way, dramatic symptoms in early childhood may mislead us into thinking that something is radically abnormal, even if they have no lasting impact.

Alternative to Brenner’s Model

I do not claim to know how the autistic subject is constituted, but my instinct tells me that we would be better off using Lacan’s formulas of sexuation instead of his three clinical structures. Although I have some reservations about Simon Baron-Cohen’s work, his thesis that autism is an extreme male brain resonates with me. It aligns with the contemporary notion that the gender of our mind is independent of that of our body, as seen in transgenderism. Both men and women can be autistic. Although much fewer cases are diagnosed in women, if we consider autism as a manifestation of an extreme male brain, it follows that the symptoms would be harder to detect in women.

Not many autistic symptoms are universal. Both delayed language acquisition and hyperlexia are symptoms of autism. Some are extroverted and have no fear of speaking in front of a large audience, while others are extremely introverted. One of the few universal presentations of autism is gender. Even women, if they are autistic, present masculine characteristics. It would be quite rare, at least in my experience, to come across an autistic person that everyone describes as “very feminine,” but the opposite is ubiquitous. Despite this consistency, Brenner’s formulation of the autistic subject has no explanation for it.

An important point to note here is that we are not talking about bodily presentations but mental ones. Autistic men do not typically present themselves like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Many tend to be effeminate in physical vibe. We can use the terms “software” and “hardware” for this purpose. The autistic software is extremely masculine, whereas the hardware leans feminine.

Here, I’d like to reiterate my point that the gendered attributes I’m going to discuss below are independent of biology. Both men and women can be masculine or feminine subjects. 

One of the common symptoms of autism is the so-called “little professor syndrome,” extremely narrow interest. Although women too can develop a narrow interest, we tend to attribute this quality to the masculine subject. The lack of “central coherence” in the autistic subject is related to this. We can intuitively see that, if we focus on small details, we would lose sight of the big picture. It is for this reason, I believe, teenage girls appear more psychologically mature than boys. The feminine subject is more holistic, whereas the masculine subject is more reductive. The same can be said of the difference between the East and the West.

This is in line with Lacan’s formulas of sexuation. Men have a single role model, the one who is not subject to castration and does anything he wants as he is not bound by societal prohibitions. We could call him the great imposter, like Donald Trump. He has the phallus that fills in for “the other of the Other” or “the signifier of the lack in the Other.” He is capable of settling any disagreements because any doubts stemming from the ambiguities of life are resolved by his authority.

This fantasy to settle all disagreements is comically depicted in this scene from Annie Hall. Woodie Allen is debating about media theory with a stranger, and Marshall McLuhan is literally pulled into the scene as a paternal figure who resolves the dispute once and for all. If this scene were to take place among three women, we would see how rooted in gender such an argument is because we would have a hard time imagining women doing such a thing.

Another example is a story I heard on NPR where a mother described the differences between her daughter and son. She said she used to turn everything into a competition in order to get her son to do anything. For instance, she would tell him, “Let’s see how quickly you can clean up!” and start timing him. This would motivate the boy to clean up, but when she tried the same tactic on her daughter, she simply responded, “Why?” Even as a little girl, she had better central coherence than her brother.

The masculine subject is more logical, but the feminine subject is more rational. Logic can help you prove your superiority, but you need to be rational to see the very point of being logical (or the lack thereof). Logic is reductive. There is only one right answer, one right way to be, one role model. Since this is not possible in life, the masculine subject is necessarily an imposter.

Men are often told, “Be a man!” and somehow, we know what it means because there is only one role model. The feminine subject, on the other hand, has many different role models and none are definitive. We would not know what “Be a woman!” means.

The autistic subject is essentially the masculine subject taken to the logical extreme where the drive to render everything black and white is relentless. For autistic subjects, everything is logical but not necessarily rational. In this sense, the autistic subject can be described as the great imposter, which is why many of them claim they want to act like robots and think like computers. If there is only one right answer to every question, there would only be one way to be. The concept of “subject” would be effaced, and we would all be “clones” like in Star Wars. The cost of keeping up this facade is the anxiety arising from imposter syndrome.

Here is an example with a tragic consequence. Autistic 17-year-old Teddy Graubard attending the most prestigious high school in New York, jumped out of the window and killed himself after getting caught cheating on a test. Such a confrontation might push a psychotic subject to a psychotic break, but not for an autistic subject because he is still a neurotic subject. The image as a cheater is so disturbing to an autistic subject that it’s not entirely surprising that he would jump. Autistic subjects’ allegiance is to reason, as Temple Grandin once described, but this does not mean that they are immune from irrational behavior. What their egos cannot accept are repressed, as with all neurotics, but a bit too well, because dissonant ideas have to escape the scrutiny of their brutal logic and relentless self-criticism. But, structurally, this is not unique to autistics; it’s just an extreme version of the masculine subject.

AusstoBung being the “mythical moment,” there is no spectrum. It’s either-or. The acceptance of “pure difference” is a single event. If it does not occur, everything that depends on it will fail. Consistent with this logic, Brenner argues that there is no repression for autistics, which would have to be true given his theory that they have no access to the network of signifiers. He supports this with Temple Grandin’s attestation. Denial too is impossible, she claims. This leads to the stereotype of autistics having no “filter”; whatever comes to mind is shared publicly. But the autistic spectrum cannot be explained by this since one either has access to signifiers or don’t. There is no in-between.

Being blunt is a typical quality of the masculine subject. Christopher Hitchens famously said, “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.” I don’t think Hitchens was autistic. If you extrapolate this to the logical extreme, it is not difficult to imagine that someone with an extreme male brain would simply spell out everything he thinks is true, regardless of the emotional consequences. The degree to which we employ repression is a function of this spectrum.

Brenner explains the lack of repression by proposing that autistics invent their own substitute to signifiers, termed “synthetic Other,” a system consisting entirely of signs, no signifiers. But unless I’m entirely delusional, I’m using signifiers to write this article. I have dreams and Freudian slips, with displacement and condensation, metonymies and metaphors, which tells me that my unconscious, too, is structured like a language. This alternative system to signifiers sounds bizarre to me.

A possible explanation using the Lacanian model is that the degree to which one is castrated determines the autistic subject. We mediate our jouissance through the Symbolic, but if we take this to an extreme, the subject is lost entirely. It’s like covering the entire blanket with quilting points. Nothing can slide, so everything is predetermined; therefore, nothing needs to be said. It’s not only your own subject that vanishes; no subjects exist at all. At that point, you embody the Other with universal rules that fix everything permanently in place. Naturally, this is at the extreme; different degrees in the autistic spectrum are possible.

Given that psychosis and neurosis are also spectrums, it might be possible that psychosis is at one end of the spectrum with no quilting point and autism on the other end with too many of them, and neurotics residing somewhere in the middle.

The masculine subject is generally over-invested in the Symbolic. “Give me liberty or give me death!” This type of doggedness, lack of nuance, and compromise are typical of the masculine subject. Symbolic life is privileged over physical life. Autistic people can be extreme in this way.

Biological Cause

Although the biological cause of autism is not directly relevant to psychoanalysis, I have some ideas about how this comes about. One of the widely known theories of autism is that, compared to neurotypical brains, the connections between different departments are less developed, and the connections within each department are more developed in an autistic brain. This makes intuitive sense. For instance, I have a hard time playing ball games because the department that governs physical movement is different from the one that governs vision. If the connections between the two departments are weak, I would have difficulty coordinating my body with what I see.

I also have a hard time watching musicals because I can only pay attention to either music or words, not both at the same time. Since the part of the brain that processes music is different from the part that processes language, if the connections between them are weak, I would have trouble processing both simultaneously.

Seeing the big picture, or having a holistic view, would require many different departments to communicate with one another; therefore, strong inter-departmental connections would lead to more feminine subjectivity. The opposite would be true for the masculine subjectivity. Strong intra-departmental connections would lead to narrowing of interest.

If this is true, the difference wouldn’t be limited to autism. It would be a general difference, or a spectrum, between masculine and feminine subjects, where autism is at the far end of the former.


As a concluding remark, I would propose the opposite of Brenner’s argument: the autistic subject (if it actually exists separately from the masculine subject) is over-invested in signifiers. Autistics’ difficulty with shifters and rigid mapping of signifiers stem from profound disinterest in subjectivity, not from the foreclosure Brenner describes. Since Brenner’s argument is in line with those of other Lacanians, I would be disagreeing with all of them. Arrogant? Who the hell am I? Well, I’m just being honest about my two cents. That’s what we autistics do.