Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program

Autism and Representation
Case Western Reserve Univ
Cleveland, Ohio
28-30 October 2005



Abstracts of Papers

Recognizing Jake: Contending with Spectacularized Representations of Autism
Anthony D. Baker

Audiences who have a personal familiarity with autism read fictional representations of autism with an extremely intimate lens, one that must reconcile the fiction with the already-mapped reality of their own experiences with autism. Parents of individuals with autism are especially
challenged when films and novels typically remove the parents of autistic characters or endow autistic characters with spectacular powers. This paper constructs a personal subject position that contends with problematic fictional portrayals of autism and also identifies rewarding features in
these representations that inform and validate the realities of parenting an individual with autism.

Autism in Indian Film: Cultural Representations of Disability
Sudha Rai

My paper frames the representations of Autism in Indian film by arguing that the attitude to "disability" in Indian culture is constructed within the concept of "masculinity." I problematize the nexus of gender, family and society for understanding the early cultural phase of the reception of autism, illustrating from two Indian films on Autism - Anjali (1990) and Main Aisa hi Hoon (2004). My paper evaluates the routes taken in these films to reinscribe the notion of "ability," and the threat of assimilation within cultural masculinities and sentimental stereotypes of love and sacrifice.

Filming the Self: Self-Narration and Film for Children with Autism
Kristen Loutensock

One of the main tenets of autism as a developmental disorder is that individuals with autism lack Theory of Mind, meaning that they are supposed to be unable to engage with fiction or to differentiate between their minds and the minds of other. However, the use of video by artists with autism challenges this view, suggesting that the concept of Theory of Mind should be engaged at the critical level not for how realistically it relates to individuals with autism, but for what it suggests about cultural views of cognitive difference.

Hollywood and the Fascination of Autism
Stuart Murray

This paper will analyze a range of Hollywood features from the 1980s to the present in order to chart the fascination with autism that mainstream American cinema has consistently displayed. It will seek to highlight the manner in which autism becomes a condition subject to neurotypical display and narrative (especially generic) coding in all the films in question. It will especially seek to discuss the ways in which the various features use the condition to create open narrative spaces that are invitations for neurotypical speculation on the nature of autistic agency, but rarely (for all their intentions) make this the subject of the film narrative. As such the paper will conclude that in mainstrean contemporary cinema an idea of autism, and cognitive impairment more widely, has been created for public consumption, but that this idea is, ultimately, a speculative fantasy that reflects the current status of autism as the present's preferred "enigmatic" condition.

From Disorders of Affect to Mindblindness:
Framing the History of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Chloe Silverman

In order for autism spectrum disorders to become a site for contestation, organization, and intellectual production, the diagnostic category of autism first had to be stabilized and consensus had to be achieved regarding the primary symptoms of the disorder. This paper explores the history of the autism diagnosis in terms of the professions and forms of expertise that shaped the category. Throughout the history of the disorder, decisions have been made regarding the nature of the deficits involved in autism and the appropriate means of identifying these symptoms, and autism has become the basis for a variety of research programs focused not only on autism as such, but on autism as a means to explore the nature of human development and human cognition. I will consider the concept of a "core deficit" in autism, and the transformation of autism from a rare form of psychosis to a spectrum disorder. I conclude with a short discussion of the normative or ethical issues involved in a focus on human neurological difference as both research subject and marker of identity.

Constructing Autism
Majia Holmer Nadesan

This paper addresses the social complexity of autism, not only to understand its social construction historically but also to gain insight into some of the leading cultural frameworks of interpretation in the early twenty first century. Accordingly, the paper addresses the matrices of nineteenth- and twentieth-century psychological and psychiatric institutions providing the conditions of possibility for autism. Also explored is the twentieth-century tendency to invoke reductionistic, biogenetic metaphors that reduce mind to brain and brain to gene when understanding autism. Finally, the paper explores how autistic people are inscribed by, perform, and resist their constitutions as "autistic."

Mindblindness: The Problem of Empathy in the Representation of Autism
Ann Jurecic

"Mindblindness" explores early representations of autism by Melanie Klein and Bruno Bettelheim along with contemporary representations by Temple Grandin and Oliver Sacks to analyze shifts in the understanding of autism and uses of empathy. Early scholarship by Klein and Bettelheim exposes shocking failures of both reason and empathy. Grandin and Sacks create more successful, interdisciplinary representations of autism not only because they resist underdetermined theories of autism, but also because their texts enact a critical empathy; that is, they elicit empathy while making readers aware of its limitations, such as the erasure of difference and the potential for coercion.

Redefining Creativity: Autism and the Imagination
Bruce Mills

Given current definitions of autism spectrum disorders, it could be asserted that those with autism lack imagination or the possibility of experiencing the full, creative life of "neurotypical" individuals. In the DSM-IV, clinicians note the "restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities" of those on the spectrum and underscore how this particular behavior presents itself through "delays or abnormal functioning" in the area of "symbolic or imaginative play." Alongside influential notions of the imagination, I will explore diagnostic criteria and current theories relevant to the "autistic" imagination and consider alternative ways to envision the art and creativity of those with ASD.

Human, but More So:
What the Autistic Brain Tells Us About the Process of Narrative

Matthew Belmonte

The human juxtaposition of mental and physical existence demands of us a constant denial of the potential for death, and more generally an aversion to direct experience of disorder and entropy. The requisite overlaying of cognitive order on sensory chaos is enacted within neurophysiological processes that integrate fragmented percepts into coherent scenes, and link unconnected events into coherent narrative. In autism, when failures of neural connectivity impede narrative linkage and each element of a scene or a story exists in isolation, the world can seem threateningly intractable. Autistic withdrawal into repetitive scripts can be read as a defence against this threat, and thus as an exaggerated form of normal human psychological development and textual representation.

Autism and Modernism: An Inquiry into Aesthetics
Patrick McDonagh

In 1943, Leo Kanner defined a new condition which he called autism; in 1944, unaware of Kanner's work, Hans Asperger described a very similar condition, giving it the same name - a remarkable coincidence. If people with autistic characteristics had existed previously, why had it taken so long to recognize them as sharing a particular pathology, and why was the pathology identified in the 1940s and named "autism"? This presentation argues that early definitions of autism suggest a condition that is not only modern, but also modernist, sharing with literary and artistic works of the period a concern with the nature of identity and personality.

Asperger's Syndrome and the Gender of Genius
Nancy Bombaci

Recent clinical definitions of Asperger's Syndrome have associated the disorder with exaggerated male neurological patterns that lead to emotional coldness and a "geekish" rejection of social norms. Speculation by both psychologists and laymen has also associated Asperger's Syndrome with the high intellectual creativity that popular cultural narratives define in terms of genius. Various commentators, for example, have diagnosed notable artists and scientists from Michelangelo to Glenn Gould, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein as having Asperger's Syndrome - a mental disability that nonetheless fosters exceptional talents. Arguably, the current fascination with Asperger's Syndrome is based on an attempt to resurrect and explain genius - an idea on to which people project their desires to be exceptional, Promethean, and immortal. The idea of Asperger's syndrome also humanizes genius by associating it with a mental disability - one that is linked with an excessively masculine brain.

Representation and Time in Autism
Michael Turnheim

From a psychoanalytical point of view, speech cannot be reduced to the function of the description of objects or the expression of ideas. In certain life situations speech transforms by "deferred action" (Freud's Nachträglichkeit) what the subject has taken to be his own identity. It is at this "existential" level that we will try to distinguish between normal, psychotic, and autistic speech. In normal speech the violence linked to the transformation of identity is more or less forgotten. In psychotic speech the transformation of identity is anticipated but cannot be assumed by the speaker him/herself. Under this hypothesis the well-known poverty of autistic speech is the result of an absence of anticipatory speech productions likely to transform the subject. This apparently linguistic approach to autism has to be situated in a more general conception according to which autism appears as the effect of a specific problem at the level of an "unfolding of time."

Autistic Autobiography - Introducing the Field
Irene Rose

Focusing upon written autobiographies still in publication, this paper will engage with current debates surrounding the representation of autism. By evaluating the influence of the generic conventions of autobiography within this corpus of texts, this paper will assess the role of readership expectations and will ask what strategies readers employ to accommodate authors who "struggle to use 'the world' language to describe a way of thinking and being and experiencing for which this world gives you no words or concepts" (Williams, 1994). In outlining the genre, this paper seeks to elucidate the particularities of autistic creative self-formation that make their authors individuals, and autistic experience complex.

Transforming Memoir: The Performance of the Self in Three Memoirs of Autism
Debra Cumberland

Memoir has emerged as a vital genre because we wish not only to understand ourselves, but also to connect with others. As a result, memoir has become the perfect vehicle for understanding those who exist on the margins of society. Memoirs such as Clara Claiborne Park's The Seige, Jane McDonnell's News from the Border, and Paul Collins's Not Even Wrong, among others, illustrate the key elements of memoir, as modeled on the experience of spiritual transformation. I will also explore how each of these memoirs helps to clarify for the writer, the subject, and the
audience, what, exactly, it means to be a "self."

No Search, No Subject? Autism and the American Conversion Narrative
James T. Fisher

This paper surveys the exclusion/disqualification of persons with autism from the genres of American spiritual narrative; treats some of the autism "recovery narratives" that first appeared in the 1960s; and surveys the growing body of "anti-conversion narratives" authored by autistic people unwilling to perform the assigned role of subjects "in search of self." Autism renders problematic the most familiar discursive practices, including the conversion narrative, which has been adapted by virtually every community of "difference" in U.S. history and has indeed provided a foundation for the nation's vaunted cultural diversity.

From "Refrigerator Mothers" to "Mommie Wyrdest":
Autism's Refiguring of Maternal Roles

Sheryl Stevenson

The culture of autism includes numerous texts representing mothers in relationship to children who resist the intimate closeness widely thought to characterize the mother-child bond. Yet along with novels and nonfiction that reflect maternal adjustment to the autistic child, this vibrant culture also includes defenses of alternative motherhood by autistic mothers. These diverse representations of mothering and being mothered challenge limited conceptions and traditional gender roles. Rather than underscoring impairment of lives, families, and mothers themselves, these texts construct autism spectrum disorders as granting opportunities for understanding and accepting differences, even in the most fundamental and socially defined relationships.

From Ordinary Life and Radiance
Barbara Crooker

Ordinary Life is a collection of poetry centered around the emotional landscape of a family whose youngest son has autism. Barbara Crooker will read poems about caregiving and its effects on the primary caregiver, spouse, and siblings. In Radiance, her newest book, Crooker's focus shifts to the world of the child with autism and how he perceives it, using paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, etc. as points of departure for the poems.

"Family Resemblance"
Erika Nanes

"Family Resemblance" employs a paratactic, fragmented narrative style to explore how the cultural discourses surrounding autism in particular, and developmental disabilities in general, affect an adult sibling of someone with autism. The essay traces the speaker's reaction to a friend's decision to abort a developmentally disabled fetus, juxtaposing that reaction with commentary on her relationship with her profoundly autistic adult brother. It is taken from a book-length project tentatively titled My Brother's Keeper.

From One of Us
Mark Osteen

The ever-growing library of autism memoirs is dominated by stories of high-functioning children and adults. In contrast to these books, One of Us mixes narrative and reflection to recount, with honesty and humor, the Osteens' struggle to treat, understand, and accept the severe autism of their son, Cameron. At the conference, Osteen will read a chapter from One of Us entitled "Urinetown: A Chronicle of the Potty Wars."

Poetry and the Language of Autism
Kristina Chew

"Poetry and the Language of Autism" explores the poetic qualities of the language of autistic persons and of autism itself as poetry in Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism by Clara Claiborne Park (2001), and a prose poem by Anne Carson from Short Talks (1992). To understand an autistic person's language, one must read metonymically. I will refer to Roman Jakobson's formulation of metaphor and metonymy to explain how what seems "metonymical" to a non-cognitively disabled reader can be "metaphorical" and true to an autistic individual. I will describe the elaborate systems of "correlated" elements of Park's daughter Jessy, and, in Carson's "Short Talk on Autism," a woman's experience of a doctor's words as concrete objects. This concrete use of language is related to metonymy and links the language of autism to poetic language.

Imagination and Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets

Ilona Roth

The recent spate of autobiographical writings and poetry by people with Autism Spectrum Difficulties (ASD) offers a unique window into the mind of the person with autism, and in particular into self-awareness and imagination. These two faculties of mind are frequently assumed to be impaired in ASD and yet, to date, no research has thoroughly evaluated this idea. My studies of autistic spectrum poetry aim to remedy this omission. The oft-reported preference among people with ASD for repetition and "sameness," and the observation that children with ASD do not engage in pretence or fantasy, all suggest a cognitive style which is the antithesis of the original and innovative thought associated with creative activity. In light of this background, the fact that some autistic individuals are accomplished poets is of especial importance. It seems unlikely that
such writings could be executed without reflexive or imaginative content, which, in turn, casts doubt on the received way of viewing the inner life of the person with ASD.

Alterity and Autism:
Mark Haddon's Curious Incident in the Neurological Spectrum

James Berger

Mark Haddon uses the notion of the autistic spectrum to explore questions of language, metaphor, and genre. Disliking the slippery ambiguities of figurative language and narrative, Haddon's protagonist Christopher Boone (a teenage boy with Asperger's Syndrome) strives for absolute literality: at times Christopher seems to want to escape language altogether, and his neurological condition appears to place him radically outside the normative social-symbolic field. Paradoxically, this move toward alterity places Christopher squarely in one of the most familiar of genres, the detective novel. Trying to solve the murder of his neighbor's dog, he finds a social condition of post-Thatcher, working-class England analogous to his neurological condition - what we might call "social autism," characterized by lack of community, impaired communication, and damaged family relations. Haddon's novel depicts a complicated neurological-social situation in which Christopher's oddness and his determination to remake conventional symbolization only seem to render him other. As this novel presents it, no person truly is other to another. All are connected by non-symbolic, indexical, and emotional bonds that we share with other animals, as well as by symbolic bonds. Moreover, our symbolic capacities are built upon and cannot exist apart from the earlier, non-symbolic cognitive structures; and all of us live, think, and interact along a spectrum of symbolic and non-symbolic capacities. Yet, as this novel also suggests, this spectrum includes as well the autistic spectrum and its tendencies toward isolation.

Panel Abstract
A Spectrum of Autistic Perspectives: Fresh Voices in Disability Studies
Organized by Ruth Burks

A web of "myths, fears, and misunderstandings" are associated with the cognitively disabled - a web whose triad of assumptions sway the most enlightened members of society to stigmatize those with neurological disorders even more than those with physical impairments. Our panel explodes erroneous suppositions that prevent those labeled as cognitively disabled from enjoying the intellectual citizenship that the non-disabled of equal or less intelligence take for granted. All three autistic panelists (whose abstracts appear immediately below) provide a personal and theoretical outlook on the social model of the disorder, a perspective that includes specific analyses of the representation of people like themselves in popular culture.

Mark Haddon's Popularity and Other Curious Incidents in My Life as an Autistic
Gyasi Burks-Abbott

Hailed by The New Yorker as "a triumph of empathy," Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time appears to have encapsulated one individual challenged by autism. Although Haddon tells a compelling story, neither he, nor his narrator Christopher, succeeds in approaching my experiences as a person on the Autism Spectrum. In addition to offering a corrective to Haddon's monolithic representation of such a varied and complex disorder, my presentation interrogates Haddon's claim that autistics cannot appreciate metaphor while questioning why works by non-autistics take precedence over those written by people with intimate knowledge of the disorder.

Poetry, Asperger's Syndrome, and Emotional Literacy: A Poet's Experience
Lisa Janice Cohen

A lack of connection between cognition and emotion is thought to be one of the features of individuals on the Autism spectrum. Poetry has enabled one individual with Asperger's Syndrome to more fully connect thought to feeling. Poetry may be uniquely suited to this exploration as it uses concrete imagery to evoke emotion. Lisa will present select pieces of her own poetry along with the events that inspired each particular piece and the lessons learned as a result of exploring the poetic imagery.

Film as a Vehicle for Raising Consciousness among Autistic Peers
Philip Schwarz

This year, I organized a film series at the Asperger's Association of New England for my peers on the autism spectrum and for family, friends, and supporters. The goal was not just entertainment. The films were chosen to highlight issues critical to living fully as a person on the autism spectrum: identity, self-esteem, community membership, reclamation of history and culture, interaction with the majority non-autistic population. After each screening, the audience discussed the film and the issues it raised. My presentation will illustrate the ideas behind the film series and the highlights of our discussions through exploration (from an autistic perspective) of the four films we screened.


Return to Top of Page

Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program