Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Autistic Autobiography or Autistic Life Narrative?

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Autistic Autobiography or Autistic Life Narrative?

Article excerpt

The article offers an overview of autistic autobiography and suggests that, when studying disability life narratives, attention to the relations of production will help to assess the importance of traditional autobiographical texts in facilitating attitudinal change. Exploring the notion of relationality, the article argues that intertextual references within a substantial segment of autistic autobiography render the corpus testimonio. As such, autistic life narratives exceed the individualisation of autobiography, asserting a communal response through the repetition of similar experiences represented across a variety of autistic life narratives. This corroboration inverts power relations by attesting to the ordinariness and intentionality of autistic action, actions that in other sites of articulation would be pathologised and dismissed. The article also demonstrates how the unusual material conditions of publication afford people with autism a unique opportunity to convert autobiographical 'truth' into autistic authority, as autobiographers go on to author instructional texts based on the validation of their autistic experiences.

Introduction

People with autism have been committing their life experiences to print for over 20 years and since 1986 there has been a significant growth in the publication of autistic autobiography. Using the criterion of personal accounts of autism accredited to a single author, a recent survey found that there are more than fifty autistic autobiographies in print (see Baggs Autistics.Org for a full list).2

To investigate how autobiographical acts symbolically interact with the world, as Smith and Watson note in their guide to reading autobiography, it is useful to recognise autobiographies as "life narratives" (3). The term encompasses "many kinds of self-referential writing that make use of the components of the autobiographical act [namely] memory, experience, identity, embodiment, and agency" (3). As such, life narratives include traditional autobiography, but work to unseat the master narrative of the "sovereign self" that traditional autobiography elevates. The concept thereby recognises a wide variety of autobiographical textual forms and prompts investigation into the component parts of autobiographical acts and the cultural sites and structures that motivate their telling (50).

The term life narrative also resonates with Paul John Eakin's concept of "narrative identity". Eakin uses this concept to denote the intimate link between autobiographical narrative and identity formation, observing that "narrative is not merely a literary form but a mode of phenomenological and cognitive self-experience" (100). Recognising that how people may narrate their selves is determined by how society perceives that selves are brought into being, Eakin calls for eschewal of the potentially misleading distinctions that presuppose a monolithic self, unproblematically re-presented in narrative. Instead he recommends a model that posits that identity at once contains and is constituted by narrative in a mutually reinforcing relationship.

"Life narrative" and "narrative identity" are particularly useful concepts to apply to autistic life writing, as they not only draw attention to the efforts to construct a coherent narrative self that is static and open to communication through normative modes of expression, but also recall the occasions and sites that motivate this articulation. As autistic advocate and activist Amanda Baggs notes on her website "Getting the Truth Out": "Sometimes, while barely (if at all) able to perceive my surroundings, move, perceive the passage of time, react, or some combination of those things, I laugh in my head at the contrast between my life and the way people online pretend to themselves that my life goes." Echoing this sentiment, Eakin notes that autistic life narratives testify to the difficulties for people with autism of participating in the interpersonal exchange that fosters narrative identity (129). …

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