Our main focus this week was gaining a vocabulary for talking about Autism Spectrum Disorder–a vocabulary we can hopefully apply to the works of fiction we’ll read in upcoming weeks. This we did courtesy of Steve Silberman’s comprehensive book Neurotribes (listen to Silberman’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air). We began by finishing the iconic film Rain Man, a movie that put autism on the map but also established some troubling stereotypes. In our subsequent discussion, we wondered specifically about 1) the lack of agency Raymond has throughout the film, but particularly in the elevator scene 2) the necessity of re-institutionalizing Raymond at the end of the film, despite his ability to function at a higher level 3) the characterization of Raymond as a stereotypical “angel,”–that is, a person with a disability who makes all those around him better. These and other questions showed that while the film did a great service for ASD awareness, it may not be the final word on representation of ASD in works of fiction.
We then turned to Neurotribes, re-examining chapters 9, 10, and 11 in small groups of 3-4. After small group discuessed the issues below, we reconvened to talk about the terms and ideas. I will add some of our ideas here:
Institutions v. Autistic Space
What is institutional space?
–A sorting mechanism for dividing the neurodivergent (ND) from the neurotypical (NT)
–A space created by the NT for the ND
–A space reinforced and maintained by powerful social structures (government, law enforcement, hospitals
What is autistic space? (Chapter 11 of Neurotribes)
–A space created by the ND for the ND
–A space where ND behaviors are not regarded as deviant
–A space where NDs have autonomy and identity
Neurodivergent (ND) and Neurotypical are difficult to define because they rely on one another. But neurodivergence is, like race and gender, a socially constructed term: that it, its parameters and definition are not innate but determined by socio-cultural forces.
Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder
The history of the DSM and the changing ASD diagnosis (Chapter 10)
–The DSM begins as a largely theoretical work, but shifts toward application. It becomes the official diagnostic tool of the mental health industry with DSM-3, DSM-4, and DSM-5 (2013).
–In general, the diagnosis begins as highly limited and specific (Leo Kanner, one of the founding figures of the field, thought 1 in 10,000).
–It moves from a limited age range (30 months or less) to an ageless range
–It moves from separate diagnosis with similar symptoms (Infantile Autism, PDD-NOS, Asperger Syndrome) to the broad diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (2013)
–Changing diagnostic criteria reflect how fluid the idea of NT really is
–Personal identity is wrapped up in diagnoses/labels, for better and for worse
–Diagnostic labels have practical value in that they can result in support from medical providers, insurance companies, and schools
Representing ASD in Fiction
—Rain Man makes us consider the danger of stereotypes
—Rain Man also raises awareness and helps with advocacy efforts
–Representing ASD in works of fiction allows autistic individuals to see themselves in these works
–What does a truthful representation of ASD in fiction look like?
–What does a dishonest or manipulative representation of ASD look like?
Lastly, we took a few minutes for some book talks on young adult novels that feature autistic characters/narrators. Many of us signed up for literature circle groups and chose a work, at least tentatively. For next time, we’ll ask some of these questions about “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a work that is often discussed as an early example of ASD representation. Until then.