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



James T. Fisher
Do not cite without permission of author.

"No Search No Subject?   Autism and the American Conversion Narrative "

The best-known literature treating autism in the United States is rooted in the genre of conversion narrative. This is easy to miss because the conversion narrative is so ubiquitous in American culture as to be virtually normative: that is, the narrative of a subject in search of a transformed or redeemed "self" is such a dominant motif in the American idiom that we scarcely pause to contemplate the historical origins of the genre in colonial-era Protestant narratives of spiritual conversion, or its many subsequent permutations in classic American literature. Since autism is widely understood as at least in part a disorder of "selfhood," the notion of autism literature-as-conversion-narrative threatens to unsettle the conventions of the genre. If autistic persons fail to conform to expectations attached to notions of the developing, disclosing, searching self, their presence constitutes a kind of scandal in a culture where the "subject in search of self" is virtually synonymous with "that which makes us human." A practice of literary interventions has sought to make autism safe for this dominant if largely unexamined tradition, often at great cost to actual autistic persons. The search for the autistic "subject in search of self," in fact, reveals much more about the broader culture than about autism.

Autism was named by Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Leo Kanner in 1943 at a moment when psychoanalytic interpretive categories had achieved their final hegemony among American cultural elites. This putatively scientific approach had grown so dominant that the usurpation of a "priestly" role by psychotherapists--so obvious in retrospect--met with little resistance at the time. As Philip Rieff wrote in 1966, since "the Christian myth was no longer therapeutic" for C.G. Jung and other Freudian-era psychoanalysts with an interest in spirituality, therapists from a wide array of traditions would provide their own surrogates. Yet the classic American conversion narrative was marked by its unmediated character: man [sic] before God and nature, striving for redemption in a distinctly Protestant idiom. The secularizing ideology of psychoanalysis paradoxically empowered a new mediating caste of mystics, visionaries, and seers intent on pioneering, again in Rieff's words, "uses of faith [in therapies] after Freud." Autism was a perfect vehicle for the display of psychotherapists' prowess at transforming mute subjects into authentic selves, especially once the threat of competing counter-narratives authored by parents or other non-professionals (not to mention autistic persons themselves) was subdued, a goal achieved by Kanner in his earliest published accounts of "refrigerator mothers" (in the mid-1950s) and ritually reasserted in virtually all authoritative autism narratives published over the next two decades and beyond. 1

Kanner deigned to finally "acquit you people as parents" at a meeting of the fledgling National Society for Autistic Children in 1968, but by then a genre of autism conversion narratives had achieved canonical, best selling status in the American literary marketplace. While the psychoanalyst-manque Bruno Bettlelheim would achieve great celebrity for his 1967 work, The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self , with is claims of "cure" for scores of autistic children, the most representative work in the genre is surely Virginia Mae Axline's 1964 best-seller, Dibs: In Search of Self . This remarkably enduring work, perpetually reprinted and subtitled Personality Development in Play Therapy , is structured akin to the classic American conversion narrative: a youthful (extraordinarily youthful, in this case) subject, an estranged or 'divided self,' (after the category first devised by William James in 1902), achieves wholeness and authentic selfhood following an arduous journey of self-discovery. The difference is that the transformation in this case is effected solely via the mediation of the omnipotent therapist turned omniscient author, who first saves Dibs' soul, then imprints her priestly authority on the pages of the conversion/recovery narrative, characteristically merging her own persona with her practice:  

This is the story of a child in search of self through the process of psychotherapy. It was created out of the experience of a living person--a little boy named Dibs. As this child came forth to meet the abrupt forces of life, there grew within him a new awareness of selfhood, and a breathless discovery that he had within himself a stature and a wisdom that expanded and contracted even as do the shadows that are influence by the sun and the clouds." 2

In the classic tradition of conversion narrative the subject was ultimately expected to speak for one's own true self. Dibs speaks solely through Axline's healing intercession, undergoing a miraculous and rapid transformation from withdrawn, echolalic, pronoun-reversing and tormented young soul to perhaps the most adult-sounding, self-aware six year old in the annals of American literature. Play therapist Axline used dollhouse figures to quite literally 'unlock' Dibs from the source of his antisocial rage, his cold and unfeeling parents, especially Dibs' mother, a former surgeon who reportedly confessed to Axline: "It was bad enough to have a child, but to have a mentally retarded child was really more than we could bear." At a crucial stage of his recovery, Axline encourages Dibs to fantasize about his parents trapped in their burning home.   "They scream and cry and beat on the door," intones Dibs. "They want to get out. But the house is burning and they are locked in and they can't get out. They scream and cry for help." Axline writes: "Dibs clasped his hands together and tears streamed down his face. 'I weep! I weep!' he cried to me. 'Because of this I weep.' Do you weep because the mother and father are locked in the house and can't get out and the house is burning?" Axline asks. "'Oh no!' Dibs replied. A sob caught his voice and broke it. He stumbled across the room to me and flung his arms around my neck while he wept bitter tears. 'I weep because I feel again the hurt of doors closed and locked against me,' he sobbed. I put my arm around him." His parents could put out their own damn fire. 3  

While it is sorely tempting to dismiss this work as a hoax, or one very bad novel, Dibs is in fact a landmark autism conversion narrative, in which "autism" as such is revealingly invoked only once in the book and only then by Dibs' mother who, unlike Axline, fears her son's difference might be "organic" in nature. I suspect that Axline eschewed applying a formal diagnosis to Dibs because autism was still viewed as quite rare in 1964 and because she clearly viewed Dibs' condition as resulting from emotional injury that was readily curable by such a gifted healer as herself. Autism continued to be viewed as an emotional disorder in 1964 and for many years thereafter, so Axline was able to have it both ways, drawing on the Kanner/Bettelheim playbook while reaching out to a much wider audience than they had found. In fact, Axline successfully transformed some common markers of autism into a metaphor for the human condition itself, a literary coup that was astonishingly successful. Dibs , as best-seller and conversation piece, surely exposed millions of Americans to autism for the first time. In the absence of any scholarly literature on the work's reception I will offer into evidence the following "anecdotal" account.

A kid named John Spillane passed Dibs around to classmates at St. Bridget's Junior High School in Cheshire, Connecticut circa 1969. I vividly recall Spillane explaining that the book was about autism: John provided a terrifying account of a condition I had never heard of, and I recall confusing "autism" with "auditory," thinking the disorder was somehow connected to responses to sound that drove children into a catatonic state of withdrawal. I also recall that Dibs belonged to that category of books ( Fahrenheit 451, A Separate Peace, Death Be Not Proud , among numerous others) that conferred a certain stature on their young bearers in the late 60s, perhaps even a stamp of superior sensitivity and insight. And this is where we may begin to see Dibs as an autism conversion narrative with special resonance for the post-war era and especially the 1960s. Dibs' initial withdrawal from the cold brutal world marks him as one of the archetypal sensitive literary heroes of the era, a kind of Holden Caulfield in extremis (at the end of her book Axline even includes a letter purportedly written by the now-fifteen year old Dibs, years after he had left her care. The letter is in protest against the expulsion of one of Dibs' private school friends. While it is intended by Axline to demonstrate his superior sensitivity and leadership, the letter evokes the smug tone of every insufferable adolescent immortalized in boarding school fiction).   What sane and gifted person, Axline is suggesting, would not retreat against the onslaught of monstrously uncaring parents who in turn, by her magnanimous account, are merely victims themselves of the malnourished environment that produced them? 4

Virginia Mae Axline was Bruno Bettelheim without the baggage, which may help explain why this book has transcended the autism wars and continues to be read as a useful guide to the wonders of play therapy. Bettelheim was very much a man of the postwar moment, whose theories linking autism to totalitarianism were lent credence by his own experiences in a concentration camp. As discrepancies in Bettleheim's biography--and reports of his abusive treatment of children--gradually began to emerge in the decades following the publication of The Empty Fortress , his stature as visionary healer of autistic children was undermined, but the ideas he had championed remained very much in circulation in the work of Axline and other popularizers. Axline's affinity for the more humanistic, "person-centered" therapeutic model associated with Carl Rogers and other post-Freudians helped immunize her from the eventual backlash against Bettleheim and made Dibs read like a story that even non-believers in psychotherapeutic categories could embrace. But it is important to remember that even the most militant Freudians on the autism scene were lauded in the 1960s by figures from precincts once hostile to the "irreligion" of psychoanalysis. A Connecticut mental health professional, for example, lauded Bettelheim in a review of The Empty Fortress in the pages of Commonweal , a magazine of the Catholic laity, where his healing ministry was baptized and confirmed as "holy work." The reviewer added: "Bettelheim's lessons are useful for anyone concerned with humanity; they are absolutely essential for all concerned about the present crisis of poverty and inequality in America." 5

This was the cultural context in which the autism conversion narrative achieved unchallenged canonical status. Dibs became the world's first recovered autistic person to be offered up by his healer as an antidote to a dehumanized mass culture. By the time autism was recast as a public crisis in the very different era of the 1990s, the trajectory of Axline's narrative would still be echoed even in works which explicitly rejected her premises, most notably in Catherine Maurice's Let Me Hear Your Voice (1993)--which re-defined the conversion narrative from a mother's perspective and substituted Applied Behavioral Analysis for play therapy. While this presentation does not afford the time to pursue this theme in any detail, I would argue that--the merits of ABA notwithstanding-- Let Me Hear Your Voice evokes the tradition of "no search, no subject" or to put it more commercially,   "no recovery, no story." This work shares features with Dibs that, far from incidental, are markers of contemporary narratives of conversion/recovery. Like Dibs, Maurice's children are declared normal (cured, recovered) and even gifted by competent scientific authorities (Dibs tests to an IQ of 168). Like Dibs, these children are protected from the glare of publicity, their names changed (like that of the author), just as "all identifying information" was "disguised so completely" by Axline that "no one will ever be able to know or be able to guess the true identity of Dibs."   No conversion, of course, is consummated without a leap of faith, a leap that readers with a will to believe are invited to make by authors of autism conversion narratives. 6 

The American literary marketplace clearly privileges if it does not demand narratives of heroic triumph over seemingly insuperable obstacles. In recent years, in autism literature, those obstacles, as featured in the literature, have come to include the Bettelheim legacy itself; doubters of the efficacy of Facilitated Communication (Russell Martin's Out of Silence );   pharmaceutical makers (see the women whose transformed lives are chronicled in David Kirby's best-selling Evidence of Harm ), and the pediatric establishment. The latter two interest groups were tackled head-on by Karyn Seroussi in Unraveling the Mystery of Autism . Seroussi and others have generated a subgenre of autism recovery narratives that--in their focus on dietary purity, alternative medicine and the purging of toxins through such practices as chelation--evoke a venerable American tradition of conversion/recovery through avoidance of contaminants both physical and spiritual. 7

There is a counter-narrative to the practice of recognizing the autistic subject only when it is engaged in a search for autonomous selfhood. We might call this the phenomenological approach and it ranges from the work of parent-authors such as Clara Claiborne Park ( The Siege , 1967; Exiting Nirvana , 2001) and (at the risk of conflict of interest) present-day bloggers such as Kristina Chew ( to works by persons with autism. Phenomenological accounts are grounded in an ethic of acceptance and a way of seeing that replaces abstractions (e.g. recovery) with faithful chronicling of lives in progress with all the requisite joys and sorrows but without pre-scripted trajectories for either subject or author. Only in recent years has an autism literature emerged in which subject and author is one and the same. The phenomenological approach is strongly represented in the works of Temple Grandin, Donna Williams and many others. More recently another cohort of autistic authors (including Sue Rubin and Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay) has emerged whose written works challenge conventional hierarchies of "high" vs. "low" functioning autistic subjects. At the same time, the works of these authors have revived notions of a submerged, articulate (articulate, that is, in the idiom identified as normative by audiences invested in "neurotypical" modes of self-expression) autistic self struggling to escape the disabled subject). 8

Finally, yet another community of autistic authors represented on blogs and websites (; has emerged to vociferously challenge the conversion narrative as fundamentally inimical to human rights. A blogger on, along with so many other autistic persons, rejects the contention "that I was 'broken' and needed to be 'fixed;" a theme that resonates across the spectrum of conversion narratives from early Christianity to the autism wars of the present. Though we are witnessing an understandable tendency to valorize this autism literature as more "authentic" than the narratives of outsiders, we must recognize that all autism literature, regardless of its source, is grounded in literary conventions as well as experience. There is no such thing as "unmediated" autism literature. Nor should we be overly pre-occupied with questions of "authorship" in collaborative works in which autistic authors take part. In fact, if we've learned anything from our life in the new country of autismland it is that all of our prior assumptions regarding autonomous "selfhood" have fallen away. Narratives of autism conversion/recovery that focus primarily on the autistic "self;" the self and therapist or even the self and "family" owe too much to a narrative tradition ill-suited to the lived experience of autism. Autism in fact represents a "sign of contradiction" to many of the cherished notions enshrined in conversion narratives. When these narrative conventions shape our ways of seeing we do injustice to persons with autism, past present and future. Rather than forcing autism narratives into inadequate cultural forms we might being to seek ways of representing autism as radically transpersonal, as communal, and authentic as is. 9


1. Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (Chicago, 1966), 109;   L. Kanner and L. Eisenberg, "Notes on the Follow-Up Studies of Autistic Children," in P.H. Hoch and J. Zubin, Psychopathology of Childhood (New York, 1955).

2.  Bruno Bettelheim, The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (New York, 1967); William James , The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1902), Lecture VIII;   Virginia M. Axline, Dibs In Search of Self: Personality Development in Play Therapy (Boston, 1964), xi.

3. Dibs In Search of Self , 65, 125-26.

4. Dibs in Search of Self , 183-84

5. Richard Pollak, The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim , (New York, 1997).

6. Catherine Maurice, Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family's Triumph Over Autism (New York, 1993); Dibs In Search of Self , 20.

7. David Kirby, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy (New York, 2005); Karyn Seroussi, Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder: A Mother's Story of Research and Recovery   (New York, 2000).

8. Clara Claiborne Park, The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child   (New York, 1967) ; Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life With Autism (Boston, 2001), Temple Grandin , Emergence: Labeled Autistic ;   Donna Williams, Tito Rajarshy Mukhopadhyay, The Mind Tree: A Miraculous Child Breaks the Silence of Autis m (New York, 2003)

9. "Faking NT vs. Being Yourself,"



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