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  • Being with OthersLevinas and the Ethics of Autism
  • Megan Craig

This paper explores the relationship between Emmanuel Levinas's alterity ethics, autism, and play. Although Levinas never wrote about autism, he is known as the preeminent thinker of the "other" in the twentieth century, and he is a crucial source for conceiving of ethics as responsiveness to the irreducible difference of other human beings. Insofar as Levinas challenges us to respond to every other, his work provides valuable insights into the nature of responsibility and problematizes every attempt to draw a stark and static line of demarcation between neuro-typical and autistic persons. Levinas helps to show the urgency of thinking about autism from a perspective of respect for and responsibility to difference, highlighting the risks and rewards of being with others who challenge one's sense of self.

It is less clear how one might reconcile Levinas, whose work is characterized by a sober, even traumatic, stress on responsibility, with play. And yet, Levinas's work includes significant, if under-examined, discussions of play (jouer) and enjoyment (jouissance) as they relate to living that should not be dismissed or relegated to an overly stark dichotomy between the serious and the playful. If we can hear the delicate resonances between playing and living in Levinas's work, they may open new areas of research and productively destabilize a caricature of Levinasian ethics as allergic to levity or joy. In what follows, I will argue that play is a crucial aspect of being together with other people and for honing a creative aptitude for solidarity. Play is particularly important for being with others who are nonverbal, as it allows for engagement and [End Page 305] exchange across multiple registers of sensation. In spite of the fact that a "lack of varied spontaneous pretend play or social imitative play" is one of the twelve diagnostic criteria for autism issued by the American Psychiatric Association (an autism diagnosis requires at least two signs from each of three different categories relating to social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors), first-person accounts of autism indicate a very different story with respect to capacities for imaginative play (American Psychiatric Association 1994, 70–71). For too long autistic individuals have been at the mercy of diagnostic rubrics that predetermine the very concepts they should explore. Part of what I want to suggest in this paper is that non-autistic individuals have everything to learn about what play means and how to play from the autistic, that is, from those who have historically been deemed the least adept at recognizable and normalized forms of play. Additionally, although Levinas has little to say about variable forms of play in his work, his alterity ethics foregrounds aspects of enjoyment, communication, and sensibility that relate intimately to play and its ethical implications.

My work proceeds in four parts. The f irst section describes some of the personal history and basis for my interests in autism. I then turn to Levinas, providing a brief overview of his ethics and examining his concepts of "sense" and "language" to show that there are deep resources in his work for thinking about several issues crucial to autism. The third section of the paper brings Levinas's ethics into conversation with first-person accounts of autism and autistic experience, centered on Ron Suskind's 2014 memoir, Life, Animated, which chronicles the life of his autistic son, Owen—but also guided by other accounts from Naoki Higashida, Daniel Tammet, Wendy Lawson, and Donna Williams. Suskind's book helps to dislodge dominant theories of autistic individuals as incapable of play, and it makes a compelling case for rethinking the concepts of play and imagination as they relate not only to autism but to what it means to be with others and to be alive to the world. In the fourth and final section, I bring Levinas's alterity ethics together with play, suggesting some concrete ethical/political implications for early childhood education and long-term care that emerge from a Levinasian examination of autistic experience. I realize that Levinas is not helpful in all ways for thinking about autism, and, at first glance, much of his...


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pp. 305-336
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