Literature Annotations


Osteen, M., ed.
Autism and Representation


Genre Anthology (Essays) (302 pp.)
KeywordsAcculturation, Caregivers, Children, Communication, Disability, Disease and Health, Empathy, Family Relationships, History of Medicine, Human Worth, Illness and the Family, Illness Narrative/Pathography, Individuality, Literary Theory, Obsession, Parenthood, Power Relations, Psycho-social Medicine, Society
Summary The book's chapters derive from a conference entitled "Representing Autism: Writing, Cognition, Disability" held in 2005. Contributors are scholars of English, communication studies, psychology, and other disciplines; some are on the autism spectrum themselves or are parents of autistic people. The book attempts to address what editor Mark Osteen in his introduction cites as a deficit in the field of disability studies, namely that the field has ignored cognitive disabilities. Osteen notes that autism is a spectrum not only among people but within individuals: "any given autistic person's abilities will occupy different locations on [the spectrum] at different times" (7) but a severely autistic person is not merely "different." The editor also addresses the question of self- representation, arguing that "we must strive to speak not for but with those unable or unwilling to communicate through orthodox modes" (7).

The book is divided into four sections: Clinical Constructions, Autistry, Autist Biography, and Popular Representations. Clinical Constructions includes a chapter on Virginia Axline's work with the boy, Dibs (see Dibs: In Search of Self in this database), a child who is now thought to have been autistic; and a chapter on how Bruno Bettelheim convinced the world of science and the public that autism was caused by parental behavior, especially that of mothers ("refrigerator mothers") and that he knew how to cure it. The essayists show how these two psychologists constructed a persona of omnipotence that enabled them to appear to "save" autistic children. Chapter 3 reviews the history of autism as a named condition and contextualizes it.

Chapters in the section on Autistry discuss the mental world of people with autism. Patrick McDonagh (chapter 4) postulates that "the capacity to perceive autism in the 1940s may be connected to the proliferation of modern, and modernist, notions of the self" (102) -- for example, isolation and alienation, and "the removal of referential and conventionally communicative functions from language" (111) that appear in the works of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. Subsequent chapters apply theories of information processing (chapter 5), metaphor and metonymy (chapter 6), and narrative (chapter 8) to an understanding of the mental world of autistic individuals, and chapter 7 discusses poetry written by autistics.

The section on Autist Biography concerns memoirs written by parents of autistic children. Deborah Cumberland contrasts the memoirs of several mothers with one written by a father (chapter 9) and Sheryl Stevenson (chapter 10) writes about the rhetorical strategies that mothers use "to negotiate contradictions of motherhood that are exacerbated by autism and their own privileged abilities" (199).

The essays in the section, Popular Representations, concern several films and Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (see annotation). Anthony Baker presents an "autistic formula" used in films and notes that the plots hinge on the way a central character who is not autistic uses the "special powers" of the autistic character, thereby robbing the latter of agency (Chapter 12). Stuart Murray is also critical of how films portray autistic people (Chapter 13). Phil Schwarz, father of a child with Asperger's and an Asperger's adult himself writes about four films ( Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn GouldSmoke Signals, Breaking the Code, The Secret of Roan Inish) he uses to raise the consciousness of autistic peers and to promote self-esteem in the face of society's attitudes toward autistic individuals (Chapter 14).

The authors of chapters 15 and 16 come to different conclusions about the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Gyasi Burks-Abbott, "a 34 year-old African-American male on the autism spectrum" (303), criticizes the novel for perpetuating stereotypes and for "relegat[ing] the autistic to otherworldliness while establishing a non-autistic author like himself as the necessary medium between autistic and non-autistic reality" (295). James Berger, on the other hand, argues that Haddon uses the protagonist Christopher to "explore questions about language and social relations" (fn1, 286) and observes that Haddon understands human neurological features as a continuum.

Commentary This book is an excellent resource for any scholar interested in disability studies and autism. It brings theory to bear on what may be called a cognitive disability, places the diagnosis of autism in a historical and cultural context, and addresses issues of representation (by self and other). I found the chapters that theorize the mental world of autistic individuals particularly interesting and novel, albeit quite speculative. The essays demonstrate, in their entirety, how wide the spectrum of what is being called autism is and alert us to the individuality of autistics.

My own reaction to the critical review of the film "Smoke Signals," discussed by Philip Schwartz (Chapter 14) demonstrates how slippery a diagnosis of autism, especially of Asperger's, can be. This author (an Asperger's adult himself) views one of the main characters in that film as an Asperger's young adult, whereas I would not have attributed Asperger's to this character, nor do I, even in retrospect (see annoation). Such is the ambiguity in naming and pathologizing cognitive or personality differences.

PublisherRoutledge
Edition2008
EditorsMark Osteen
Place PublishedNew York and London
MiscellaneousThere is an index and biosketches of contributors.
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 06/04/08
Last Revised 06/02/10