Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination

By Biklen, Douglas | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination


Biklen, Douglas, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


Stuart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008. isbn 978-1-84631-092-8 pbk 236pp £16.95

Stuart Murray's Representing Autism is less about autism than it is about the culture that creates the idea of autism. It is less about the experiences of people with autism than it is about how celebrities, journalists, parents of people with autism, and experts create narratives about autism and thus construct its meaning. It is less about trying to discover answers to autism than it is about critically examining the kinds of questions posed in relation to autism. In this sense autism becomes alens through which to examine dominant culture or, as many autistic activists often put it, the NTs (neurotypicals). This is abook about normals, and about autism as normals construct it.

It is about the multiple and shifting faces of autism the idea.

Perhaps the best way to explain the contribution of Representing Autism is to share some of its findings:

- Autism is typically characterized as adifference from the norm, and is experienced by the dominant culture as a "worry and afear" (3).

- Autism is a "current concern" and also an "alien phenomenon, something that seems to have come from nowhere" (2).

- Autism is popular; it appears frequently in news accounts, magazine articles, television and radio talk shows, theatre productions, and film.

- Autism is often characterized as having atragic impact on the family; it is even said to ruin families (15).

- Autism, like other developmental disabilities, has received relatively little attention from the field of Disability Studies where physical impairment dominates scholarly discussions.

- Autism serves the purpose of helping to define normalcy; "fascination with the subject must always be in the terms of the majority audience" (13).

- "That which is known about autism-by anyone, in any field-is probably in its infancy." While there may be agreement that there are neurological bases for autism and that there could be agenetic aspect to it, "there are countless unknowns" (21).

- Autism invites akind of voyeurism, where "the person is viewed as the complex host of the condition" and is "open to study" (31).

- Popular culture accounts of autism paint it as an assault on children and primarily as acondition of children.

- Autism is popularly framed as aunitary condition to be found and eradicated, to be discovered and cured.

These are just ahandful of the dozens of critical, interpretive findings that Murray puts forward in Representing Autism.

As Ihave written in my own work on the sociology of autism, metaphor is ubiquitous, beginning with the very term autism, which implies that the person is an island to him or herself. More recently, news accounts characterize autism as an epidemic. And in professional circles, it is often said that the person labeled autistic is "mind blind" (i.e. unable to imagine that others may have different perspectives from their own). These are some of autism's metaphors and it is worth noting that science is nearly as guilty as popular culture of generating and perpetuating metaphors, and simultaneously of ignoring or minimizing the importance of the autistic perspective.

As Murray explains, the one consistent feature of films and other creative representations about autism is that in nearly all of them, the person with autism and the perspective of the person with autism are nowhere to be found. Raymond, in the film Rain Man, displays remarkable skills of calculation, for example-this reaches an absurd level when Raymond is shown naming the number of toothpicks that fall on the floor at adiner-yet viewers never learn what Raymond feels when sent off on atrain back to institutional exile. …

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