Kiessel, Analysis 3: Intersectionality and Autism

After reading the Silberman chapters that consisted of the history of Eugenics and the theories behind autism, I was fascinated specifically by the “refrigerator mother” theory. My first thought was in regards to how sexist and discriminatory toward successful women this theory actually is. Kanner states, “there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers” (p 183). While Kanner did not solely blame the mother for not being nurturing and warm enough, many believers of this theory did take a sexist approach. Secondly, it was extremely classist. The upper-middle and upper class mothers were being blamed for, essentially, being too busy working and not being fully dedicated to their most pertinent role of caring for her developing fetus/child. However, my view started to change after thinking about this theory. I do agree that it is abhorrent that mothers and fathers were to blame due to a lack of concern for their offspring, I think it is more concerning that only one group of people were studied and acknowledged: white children with successful parents. Whole groups of people were being erased and not even thought of. Genders, races, and classes were being overlooked, with researchers only attempting to aid those members of society who were in power: rich, white males.

I stumbled across a youtube video that talked about a black mother identifying her son with symptoms of autism. However, when she took her son to a doctor he classified her son as being “emotionally disturbed.” The mother claims that this misdiagnosis is guided in part because her son was not viewed as a savant. Her family was therefore assumed to be uneducated and unintelligent. Because of the aforementioned factors, the intersectionality of some people (socioeconomic (dis)advantages mixed with race (dis)advantages and all other classification tools) have reinforced the deep stereotypes of people with autism.

I also came across a blog on wordpress, which discusses intersectionality and the lack of coverage of those that do not fit the status quo of the disorder. I think we can clearly see the stereotypes of savant abilities, emotionally withdrawn behaviors, criminality, gender, race, and class in the examples we have looked at. Not only in older texts such as Sherlock Holmes (white male, savant-like abilities), if one does believe that Holmes is on the spectrum, or Bartleby (while he may not be upperclass or obtain savant abilities, he does obtain other characteristics of popular stereotypes), but in newer texts and shows as well. For example, the show Parenthood demonstrates a child on the spectrum, Max, whose family is upper-middle class and white.

I find it interesting that while science has progressed the understanding of the disorder, the stereotypes have largely remained stagnant, as well as societies blatant disregard of intersectionality. Today, these stereotypes are being reinforced in mainstream literature, television, and media. These popular views and divisiveness only aid in the idea of neurotypicality versus neurodivergence and that a “standard” does, in fact, exist. It creates a barrier that will never be crossed unless society does not start accounting for all people that could be coping with the disorder.

Works Cited

Dachel, Anne. “‘A Medical Nightmare’- Refrigerator Mothers.” Age of Austism. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.       mothers.html

“Autism and Race.” Web blog post. Aspergers and Me. Web. 9 Oct.       2016.


One thought on “Kiessel, Analysis 3: Intersectionality and Autism

  1. kaitlynschweda

    Your post brought up some really interesting points that I also thought about during this week’s reading. My women’s genders studies class actually covered the “refrigerator mother” theory earlier this semester. I like that you brought up the point of intersectionality and the fact that there are a long list of other factors that go into autism other than this idea of “cold” mothers. There are statistics that explain that white males are most commonly diagnosed with autism but that can’t belittle the other facts. I found a dissertation that explained,
    “Autism affects more Whites than other minorities and more males than females (1 in 42 versus 1 in 189 respectively). In African American families, autism is often diagnosed at a later age due to access to healthcare, educational level of their parents, as well as the training of their family physicians “
    Even though society has moved on from the “refrigerator mother” theory, people are still disregarding the idea of intersectionality. As of right now, African American children are being diagnosed far later in life than Caucasian children. Like you said in your post, African American’s are being misdiagnosed or their symptoms are being ignored. I think one way to fix this would be to make it a point to get the proper information/research to the public, especially unprivileged areas where the research isn’t as easily accessed.
    I have a rather lengthy quote from the dissertation I found but I think it’s worth reading:
    “Research regarding autism and African-American families considering the intersections of race and gender related to their experience is needed to raise awareness, understanding, and to improve diagnostic processes and experiences for families. Because the research on this topic is very slim, African-American families find themselves having to take on roles that other races do not have to take, i.e. protector and advocate. This is because the African-American experience is different from other experiences. This racial realism comes with the notion that “black people will never gain full equality in this 3 country”. Because of this, African-American families have to fulfill roles to pursue equality and equity for their African-American son with autism.”
    I think this quote really encompasses the idea of intersectionality and shows the problem with blaming the parents for autism. First of all, ignoring autism in African American causes even more of a need for equality in this society. There needs to be more inclusive research on autism that takes in different races, cultures, and genders. I personally think that regardless of race or gender, having a child with autism means that the parents have to adopt addition roles that parents of nuerotypical children don’t. Parents have to pursue equality in both society and their children’s education making them both parents and advocators for their children.
    In conclusion, I completely agree with your final paragraph. Research has come a long way but these stereotypes are still prominent and it’s important for researchers to use an intersectional approach when studying autism to help to eliminate such stereotypes.



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