Geniuses without Imagination: Discourses of Autism, Ability, and Achievement

By Quirici, Marion | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Geniuses without Imagination: Discourses of Autism, Ability, and Achievement


Quirici, Marion, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


The expectation of genius in autistic people is becoming commonplace, largely due to the prevalence of stories of overcoming and achievement in popular representations of autism as well as the market for autistic personal narratives. Genius and savant abilities are more readily attributed to neurological abnormality than to genuine creativity and work. Though the artistic work of people with autism has the potential to challenge existing clinical beliefs about imaginative deficits in people with autism, it is often described in pathological terms. The article reads personal narratives of autism against theories of deficit to deconstruct the composite stereotype of the autistic genius without imagination. It calls upon disability studies scholars to revise the ableist implications of the term genius as it is presently applied, and to reclaim definitions of the term that service diversity and empowerment.

Introduction

The expectation of genius in autistic people is becoming commonplace. This incarnation of the "supercrip" stereotype is attributable, in part, to the expanding market for autistic personal narratives, which favors stories of overcoming and success.1 As Stuart Murray has noted, "in a manner that has no statistical evidence to support it, the most common cultural representation of autism associates it with the idea of the savant, in other words, with ability and achievement" (94). Beyond representation, the autistic genius stereotype invades lived experiences. Kamran Nazeer writes in the epilogue of Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism (2006), "Neither Craig nor André nor I [autistic adults] have magnificent IQs. None of us has ever completed a crossword puzzle and we couldn't with any rapidity reel off, for example, the next five prime numbers following 91. However, people have frequently expected us to perform such feats" (224). In Nazeer's experience, the kind of brilliance people look for in autistics is of a rote, computational nature: a good command of vocabulary, perhaps a talent for trivia, and the ability to memorize sequences or visualize patterns. If it is not enough that people expect autistic ability to exceed the norm, they anticipate a narrow set of particular skills. Due to a long-standing clinical belief that autism involves imaginative deficits, people expect autistics to be geniuses without imagination. The assumption is that people with autism are suited to concrete and pragmatic pursuits like engineering, physics, and mathematics-as though such disciplines are at odds with imagination-but not to abstract or creative fields like the fine arts, poetry, or philosophy. Despite numerous examples of autistic artistry and narrative that prove the artificiality of such a divide, the stereotype of the autistic genius without imagination endures.

Indeed, the stereotype is so ingrained that genius is often referenced in lay conversations regarding autism as the condition's signature quality. I have observed this attitude in my students, among fans waiting to see Temple Grandin, and even at an academic conference, where an audience member pronounced that James Joyce had had Asperger's Syndrome. The latter took cues from Michael Fitzgerald, a professor of psychiatry who, in books like Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World (2007), engages in an alarming practice of diagnosing the dead, naming Einstein, Darwin, Archimedes, and other proclaimed geniuses as autistics avant la lettre. The association with such highly revered historical figures may seem to vindicate autism itself-as it does for Paul Collins in Not Even Wrong: A Father's Journey into the Lost History of Autism (2005)-but what it actually indicates is ableism. To call on the possibility of genius as a means of redeeming autism in the public eye is to measure the value of autistic people by that which the neurotypical majority might stand to gain from their potentially superior abilities. The presumed relationship between autism and genius is an invidious conflation that ignores as much of the reality of autism as it does the significance of genius as a cultural designation. …

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