Brendan Gerard Hart

Doctoral Candidate, Mailman School of Public HealthColumbia University

Award Information

2011 IDRF Program

Sociomedical SciencesColumbia University

Translating Autism: "Knowledge Transfer," Expertise, and Therapeutics of the Self in Morocco

This is a study of the introduction and reworking of the category autism within quotidian contexts of Moroccan social life. Autism is a novel kind of psychiatric category – distinct from mental illness and retardation – that represents and intervenes in human difference in unique ways. Autism therapies emphasize cultivating habits of relating to and working on one’s self, as well as translating and facilitating the child’s idiosyncratic mode of communication and interaction. As autism has become the paradigmatic disorder of child development in the U.S. and much of Europe, efforts to promote the category in parts of the world where it has not commonly been used are increasingly common. For the past decade, French and Moroccan parent organizations have been working to raise autism awareness, train a new cadre of experts (parents and professionals alike), and create an infrastructure for detecting, diagnosing, and treating Moroccan children as autistic. This dissertation examines the consequences of global autism activism in the context of distinctive Moroccan understandings and practices of selfhood, childhood, and parenthood and within a complex Moroccan field of expertise concerning what I am calling "therapeutics of the self." In contrast to discussions of “knowledge transfer” in global public health, this project draws on recent work in science studies in order to examine how the category autism and knowledge about it are transformed as they are translated within Morocco. To this end, I propose twelve months of ethnographic study of everyday therapeutic, diagnostic, and interpretive practices among autistic children in homes, clinics, and sites of religious healing in major urban centers (Rabat and Casablanca) and a smaller Southern city (Taroudant) and its rural surroundings. Defined in relation to domains of sociality, behavior, and communication – the very stuff of culture and selfhood – autism is an ideal object for this sort of anthropological study.