Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum

Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum

Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum

Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum


A disorder that is only just beginning to find a place in disability studies and activism, autism remains in large part a mystery, giving rise to both fear and fascination. Sonya Freeman Loftis's groundbreaking study examines literary representations of autism or autistic behavior to discover what impact they have had on cultural stereotypes, autistic culture, and the identity politics of autism. Imagining Autism looks at fictional characters (and an author or two) widely understood as autistic, ranging from Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Harper Lee's Boo Radley to Mark Haddon's boy detective Christopher Boone and Steig Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. The silent figure trapped inside himself, the savant made famous by his other-worldly intellect, the brilliant detective linked to the criminal mastermind by their common neurology--these characters become protean symbols, stand-ins for the chaotic forces of inspiration, contagion, and disorder. They are also part of the imagined lives of the autistic, argues Loftis, sometimes for good, sometimes threatening to undermine self-identity and the activism of the autistic community.


(Behavior is communication.)
(Not being able to talk is not the same as not having anything to say.)

—Julia Bascom, Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking

Even though the stereotype of autistics is that we lack empathy, I could not sleep after I heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the winter of 2012. I read headlines online each morning, and, like many other people across the nation, I prayed for the families involved. Three days after the tragedy, I saw a headline connecting the killer at Sandy Hook with Asperger’s syndrome. After carefully insuring that the volume was turned down low (loud noises terrify me, even when they are coming from my own computer), I clicked on the video. I covered my mouth with my hand and rocked back and forth slowly while the news clip, now turned down to a “safe” level, blared bad news. the media said that the Autism Research Institute had released an official statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the community of Newtown, Connecticut. … the eyes of the world are on this wrenching tragedy. … [M]isinformation could easily trigger increased prejudice and misunderstanding. Let us all come together and mourn for the families.” Because the college where I work as an assistant professor was out for the holiday, I had all day to work on a new article. Instead, I opted for the uneasy comfort of pacing around my living room. Mingled with my sorrow for the tragedy was a new fear of how the actions of one individual might influence the public perception of people on the autism spectrum.

Later, people asked me about the tragedy at Sandy Hook. If someone who uses a wheelchair committed a crime, would you ask your neighbor who also happens to use a wheelchair for insight into the psychology of the killer? Such questions oversimplistically reduce neurological difference into a universal way of thinking, as though all people on the spectrum think alike, our thoughts and personalities reduced to a mythological, biological destiny. While autistics may think differently from neurotypicals (people who do not have autism) by definition, this does not mean that people with autism are a homogeneous group . . .

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