“Welcome to the machines”: autism and the acquisition of tacit knowledge

Saturday, November 2, 2013
First author:
Damian E. M. Milton
Reciprocity & Friendship I

Autism Centre for Education and Research, the University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK

All authors:

Damian E. M. Milton

Autism, Tacit Knowledge, Socialisation

Approaches to the ontology of autism have been evolving ever since the phenomenon came into the clinical lexicon, yet the notion of the autistic person somehow being ‘machine-like’, incapable of true socialisation has remained a repeated descriptive metaphor.  This medicalised typology of a separable category of humans, incapable of social reciprocity is criticised within this presentation, by utilising the theoretical framework of tacit knowledge as developed by Collins and Evans (2007).  Upon reflection of lived experience and the expressions of others on the autistic spectrum, this framework helped to elucidate issues of social reciprocity between autistic and non-autistic people.  Therefore, this presentation will involve utilising concepts such as social parasitism, interactional expertise, and the imitation game, to reflect upon autistic sociality as experienced from the positionality and viewpoint of an autistic academic.

The argument will be made in this presentation through reference to the work of other autistic writers as well as the author’s own experiences, that the social parasitism commented upon by Collins and Evans (2007) is never a ‘zero-sum’ game (truly machine-like), with supposed ‘low functioning’ autistic people often finding avenues in which to communicate.  The counter-examples of those who build a capacity for social communication are not limited to those deemed to have ‘mild symptoms’, but the vast majority of those on the spectrum.  The socialisation process as experienced by the non-autistic person however is contrasted as qualitatively different in terms of how this process is experienced by those on the autism spectrum.  Rather than being analogous with machine-like operations however, it is argued here that being autistic represents a diverse and often disparate spectrum of sociality.    In keeping with other autistic self-advocates, this presentation will refer to ‘autistic people’, and ‘those who identify as on the autism spectrum’, rather than ‘people with autism’.


Collins, H. and Evans, R. (2007) Rethinking Expertise.  London: University of Chicago Press.