This article asserts that an idea of function is central to the loose public understanding of the ways in which autism is thought to operate in the world. It charts the multiple meanings of an idea of function and functioning across a number of examples — the early diagnostic writing of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, the subsequent development of their ideas in the formation of the languages of cognitive psychology and social psychiatry in which autism is discussed, and the languages of charities and foundations — before then looking at how this notion of function works in contemporary cultural/media moments. Here, the article uses two UK-based examples — a recent theatrical production of Rain Man in London and the reporting of the association between autism and crime — to argue that the notion of function is a fundamental and dangerous simplification of the ways in which autistic presence and intelligence actually manifest themselves.

The Function of Function

Hopefully, my title carries multiple resonances. An idea of "function" and "functioning" is central to contemporary discussions of autism. The seeming division between "low-functioning" and "high-functioning" autism has found its way into the popular vocabulary used to describe autistic identity, especially following the increasing acceptance and publicizing of the existence of Asperger syndrome during the 1990s, and its projected difference from ideas of "classic" autism. Functioning is, it appears, what people with autism do, and they do it to different levels, although we might note that the high/low split works as an organisational category (not unlike ideas of "high" and "low/popular" culture) that actually erases any real sense of differentiation, offering as it does only two possible positions of identification. For all the supposed received wisdom of the idea of the autistic spectrum, knowing which level of function an autistic person might have can, for a majority audience with a limited knowledge of the condition, offer an initial way to classify what types of autistic presence might exist. In Barry Levinson's 1988 film Rain Man, still the most seminal of cultural texts depicting the condition, the response by psychiatrist Dr. Bruner (Jerry Molen) to the comment made by Charlie (Tom Cruise), upon first meeting his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), is to dispute Charlie's claim that his brother is "retarded." Raymond is "autistic, actually high-functioning," Bruner counters, and his correction carries the weight, within the realist fabric of the film, of scientific authority. The level of function in this instance clarifies the autism and gives it meaning.

Within this logic, autism is a product of personal function — it is what an individual does. In this sense it conforms to the definition, found in the OED, of function as a noun being that "of a person."1 But my title also aims to allude to the fact that there is an increasing sense in non-scientific writing and media especially that autism itself can somehow be characterised or representing as an independent operating entity. In using the term "Autism Functions" I mean to parallel the idea that "Autism Speaks," a personification that allows the US-based foundation of that name a particular and peculiar conception of the condition. As I will show, the language of charities or foundations such as Autism Speaks is increasingly becoming a way in which autism is seen to function, with the word here displaying the range of effects the condition is seen to produce. When, in the Autism Speaks mission statement, the organisation makes the assertion that "Autism Speaks. It's Time to Listen," the listening process that it envisages is multi-faceted: "We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments, and cure for autism," the statement asserts, "to raising public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families, and society; and to bringing hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder."2 Arguably, however, the broad scope here is disingenuous, because, as so often with autism, the final equation of the condition with "hardships" reveals the form through which any listening might take place. If one function of autism is to speak in the manner that Autism Speaks suggests, then it is clear that the foundation does not like what it hears, or that it chooses exactly which version of autism it listens to. The function of the foundation to "bring hope" comes with a certain characterization of what it believes the condition to be, with the language of "pity" — so common in charity and foundation discourse — again in operation.

The notion that autism is itself somehow functional or performative has become more and more pervasive in the contemporary moment, particularly with the widespread idea that the current rise in diagnoses constitutes an "epidemic." Such characterization allows for the idea that the condition is capable of a depersonalized mobility, that it can operate a policy of horrific visitation on the unsuspecting. As I have argued before, this logic has a particular valency in its concentration on children or families as those most affected by autism. 3 More widely, it operates a sense of formlessness through which the condition becomes an almost free-floating phenomenon, allowed to operate as observers (however qualified) see fit, and worryingly often distanced from any real apprehension of what autism itself is. Hence the second half of my title, and the need to observe what the function/working of autism is, to be able to know how the word is being deployed, and to what effect. Autism is currently the subject of more discussion and debate than ever before, from the detail of scientific research to media musings on causes and behaviors; the need to understand the range of its usage is greater than it ever has been. In what follows I intend to chart these various ideas of function, with a concentration on a selection of moments and events, from the early clinical writings on the condition to the latest public concerns surrounding the possibilities of pre-natal screening, and from the characterization of the condition in London's West End Theatre to the growing association between autism and crime that is a marked feature of current media narratives. As I shall show, in all cases, the worrying aspect is that an idea of autistic functioning equates with an idea of disabled human value, that the shorthand that "function" has become allows for processes of assessment and judgment that fix those with autism into inflexible ontological categories, and that these categories themselves then pass for the norm. Equally, there is a very real sense that this idea of function dangerously misrepresents the actual nature of ability and intelligence in those with autism, that it creates the presumption of a link between the condition and the "deficit" in a manner which misreads what autistic intelligence actually is. Again, the danger here is that the profile produced comes to act as the norm by which autism is judged.

Kanner, Asperger and the Development of the Idea of Functional Autistic Intelligence

In thinking through ideas of function and functioning, it is instructive to return to the early clinical formulations of autism. While there is no working idea generated by the word anywhere in Leo Kanner's foundational 1943 essay "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," with it only being used in the context of describing communication ("the communicative functions of speech"), "function" as concept and word occurs in the second sentence of Uta Frith's edited translation of Hans Asperger's equally seminal article "'Autistic Psychopathy' in Childhood," first published in German ("Die 'Autistichen Psychopathen' im Kindesalter") in 1944. "The children I will present," wrote Asperger, "all have in common a fundamental disturbance which manifests itself in their physical appearance, expressive functions and, indeed, their whole behaviour."4 Here, function allows for a more wide-ranging use than is the case with Kanner's deployment of the word; it suggests (even if possibly Asperger did not intend it to) anything that might be read as "expressive" or "working." As such, it opens the door for what Douglas Biklen has succinctly termed "the traverse from neurology to behavior," something he goes on to describe as a "tricky and remarkable elusive" procedure, but one that nevertheless is often treated as if it is "direct, obvious and specific."5 When function is thought of like this in terms of behavior, or more precisely as an intersection between behavior and neurological effect, it becomes a shorthand that simplifies the difficulties Biklen observes. It is this understanding of the process, as adapted in more recent narratives of medical intervention in particular, that allows for the "high/low functioning" usage that has increasingly become part of the common vocabulary of describing autism.

To give a specific example: for Asperger, in his case study of seven-and-a-half-year-old Ernst K., the "unmistakable characteristics of autistic psychopathy" are set against what he terms the "counterweight of otherwise normal functions,"6 with the idea of function here articulating the space between the "autistic" and the "norm." This kind of delineation is exactly the space in which ideas of "high" and "low" work; reading the early 1990s work of Uta Frith and Lorna Wing, two of the figures who did the most to popularize Asperger's writings during this period, it is possible to see the ways in which this conception of function became part of the language of cognitive psychology and social psychiatry as these disciplines developed in the 1980s and 1990s. Frith, introducing Asperger in the 1991 volume in which her English translation of his 1944 essay also appeared, talks of how an understanding of his work has helped in producing a more variable picture of autism. Central to this is her juxtaposition of Asperger syndrome with "high-functioning autism," and that what she terms the "categorical distinction of normal and abnormal functioning of mental processes" can now be subtler because of the insight into the condition Asperger provides.7 "Function" here is very much about an idea of "working" or "operation," and potentially of use-value (Frith also refers to "a normally functioning theory of mind" and "abnormally functioning processes" in her essay8 ), a language of general grading and assessment. For her part, Wing — in her essay in the same volume — concludes a literature review of existing research on Asperger syndrome with reference to "well-functioning" children and, like Frith, notes the equation between "Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism."9 When she comes to her own commentary on the condition, in a section entitled "Creating Order out of Chaos," Wing's use of the idea of function is central to her notion of the overlap between neurology and behavior in the disabled subject:

The questions that need to be answered [on diagnosis and classification] concern the relationships among all the "syndromes" (not just those of Kanner and Asperger) in which impaired social interaction is a feature, and the relationships of these syndromes to mental retardation, other childhood disorders affecting cognitive, language and social functions, personality variations and disorders and the psychoses usually occurring in adult life.10

In this formation, function appears as a blanket term that allows for a series of interconnected moments between the cognitive, linguistic and the social. It is, we might note with a certain degree of irony, a spectrum in itself, uniting the operations of the brain, forms of expression and social behavior. Within it, autism becomes effectively singular, for all that there is a range of effects implied. "Function" orders autism into hierarchies, with all the problems that this implies. In particular, this logic, with its presumption of the relationship between impairment and function, occludes the possibility that autistic intelligence may well stem from the very places that psychological studies assume to be the domain of "low-functioning" deficit. As Michelle Dawson, Isabelle Soulières, Morton Ann Gernsbacher and Laurent Mottron note in the introduction to their work on autistic intelligence:

The assumption that autistics are cognitively impaired pervades the popular and scientific literature. Autistics who are considered minimally verbal or nonverbal… are considered the most cognitively impaired; it is commonplace to refer to such individuals as "low functioning." And although it has become impolite to refer to autistics with exceptional abilities as "idiot savants," superior performance by autistics is frequently considered to be a side effect of abnormal neuroanatomical function, rather than a reflection of genuine human intelligence.11

In fact, Dawson et al's work goes on to show, through the use of a range of intelligence testing procedures not normally used with those with autism, that "autistics are not disproportionately impaired on a test of fluid intelligence, as many current theories of autism predict they should be."12 The assumption that autistic ability can only be considered from within "low-level" intelligence has simply created a research question that produces the answer it expects to find. In this model, impaired equals low-functioning in a mutually enforcing bond. But when this assumption is removed, and it is considered possible that autistic intelligence can be seen outside of the frame of "deficit," then the logic collapses. Where might an idea of "intelligent function" lie in the case of a child who struggles to do up her shirt buttons, or use pronouns correctly, yet can describe or illustrate vivid emotional or cognitive states?

Such work is illuminating, but it is still arguably an example of minority thinking within the empirical research community that works on autism. Orthodox research practices continue to maintain and emphasize notions of authority and objectification in assessing autism, elements that further underscore the centrality of the case study approach, with all its associated ideas of functionality. As Leonard Cassuto has observed, the case study "is one of the most powerful tools of the Western medical profession. As a genre with tendentiously objective connotations, it became the vehicle by which rationally based medical science turned the disabled person into a medical narrative."13 The dominant assessment methods of autism, concerning either research or diagnosis, have developed procedural structures whereby "results" can be ascertained by using case study principles. The potential here to, in Ralph James Savarese's words, "lose the person in the condition" is all too obvious.14 In such a scenario, those with autism perform their condition for the (impersonal) expert whose expertise, in turn, allows for the grading of the condition through an idea of "functioning" behavior.

In a more specific move, the idea of function has become central to autism through the notion of "weak executive function" or "executive dysfunction," one of the three core explanatory categories (along with theory of mind and central coherence) often used to characterize and clarify how the condition might manifest itself and operate. Here function means organizing and planning, as well as moving between different activities, with the thesis being that those with autism possess difficulties in undertaking such tasks and that this, in turn, might explain what is perceived as stereotyped or repetitive behavior in any particular individual. As with other central ideas that seek to explain autism's workings, that of executive function offers as many problems as solutions (is repetitive action always to be judged negatively, for example),15 but we might note how it again coheres around a notion of "work" and allows for a continuity between a neurological idea and one that is fundamentally social. In naming function so prominently, the theory marks a moment where the word becomes orthodox in an expression of what autism is believed to be.

As Majia Holmer Nadesan pointed out in her 2005 study, Constructing Autism: Unravelling the "Truth" and Understanding the Social, such developments in the language with which autism and Asperger syndrome are described could only have come with specific developments in the "social conditions involved in the production, interpretation, and remediation with autism," especially those in "social institutions such as medicine, psychology, … psychiatry, and… the popular media." Nadesan goes on:

Autism… is a disorder of the early twentieth century while the high-functioning variants of autism such as Semantic Pragmatic Disorder (SPD), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), and Asperger's syndrome (AS) are fundamentally disorders of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries… And so the history of autism in all its forms must be contextualized with the evolution and transformation of medical practices, the development of professions such as psychiatry, psychology, social work and special education… The history of "high-functioning" forms of autism must be further understood in the context of new standards of parenting that emerged mid-twentieth century and new economic and social conditions surrounding the purported "information revolution" that began in the 1960s.16

Nadesan's noting of the "social institutions" involved in the construction of autism does not deny its biogenetic existence. Rather, her account of how the actuality of the condition has proceeded hand in hand with increased concerns surrounding, especially, child development (her chosen focus) helps to understand how an idea of function has transformed from a sense of neurological operation to one wherein a concept of working human value is under discussion. The contexts she explores are not just advances in medical research, but also the social parameters that push that research in the first place. It is exactly the subsequent sense of autism as occupying a "place" in contemporary society that makes an analysis of function so urgent. If, as Mark Osteen has noted, most medical explanations of the condition "have sought to erect a monolithic concept of autism in order to promote a particular therapy and buttress a clinician's authority," then that monolith exists beyond the therapist and clinician.17 The uninterrogated nature of autism that exists in the popular imagination, despite the huge levels of interest in the condition, develops, and yet is separate from, the centralized narratives that emerge from medical paradigms. Like the medical characterization, it limits and contains autistic presence in the name of a supposed clarification, but it also feeds upon a diffuse sense of wonder and latent notion of threat. That such effects are intangible is precisely the point; autism is, it seems, in our world in multiple ways, some frightening and some exciting. The idea of function then becomes a tool through which these multiplicities can be measured, a guide in the processes of misrepresentation.

The Language of Function and the Media

The equation between function and value is pivotal in understanding how autism is seen to operate in the contemporary period. If we can characterize the very contemporary moment as one in which we are past the worst excesses of the vaccine scares that so dominated discussions of autism during the transition from the twentieth to the twenty first century18 , then the new public debates surrounding the condition are less about fears of causation and contagion, and more about issues of detection, screening, education and a consequent idea of "quality of life." The Guardian's front page headline on 12 January 2009 was "New Research Brings Autism Screening Closer to Reality," with the article, written by health editor Sarah Boseley, describing how a new study on foetal testosterone from Cambridge University in the UK will prompt calls "for a national debate about the consequences of screening for the disorder in the womb and allowing women to terminate babies with the condition." Noting the controversy that such action would undoubtedly produce, Boseley's article constructs the risks of screening in terms of an explicit idea of function and value: "Enabling couples to terminate the pregnancy if an autistic disorder is detected is highly controversial. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which famously includes mathematical savants as well as children who are unable to communicate and spend their lives in an institution." The polarity here could not be greater, nor the subtext clearer. Eradicating autism in the womb runs the risk of losing those who might be brilliant later in life. Those "at the very high-functioning end of the spectrum," Boseley writes, possess "formidable powers of focus and concentration and a love of systems which may lead to extraordinary abilities in mathematics." 19 The paper's Science Blog in the same day's issue made the issue explicit in its title: "A Prenatal Test for Autism Would Deprive the World of Future Geniuses."20

The stereotypical association between autism, mathematics and savantism here is depressingly familiar, but more important is the manner in which the idea of "high-functioning" constructs the use value of the condition. The ordinary autistic life disappears from consideration within the frame of reference outlined by the core concerns of The Guardian's article, which is clearly more associated with an idea of "low" function than with any notion of ability.21 Function, here both thought of in the sense of what the person can do and also how a wider majority society might value such actions, dominates the assessment of what autism actually is. That the quality of life debate has become enveloped in the language of function clearly limits the possibilities of allowing those with autism meaningful expression or agency; the ways in which the intricacies of autistic being manifest themselves, both in terms of ontology and in interactions with that which is outside the self, are lost if such complexity is reduced to an idea of scale and decided by what are clearly utilitarian processes.

There is another, and even more crucial, point to be made about Boseley's article, however; one that arguably gives greater insight into the preoccupation of the media with ideas of autistic functioning: it was almost completely wrong. The article was based on research carried out by Simon Baron-Cohen's team based at Cambridge's Autism Research Centre and which was subsequently published in the British Journal of Psychology.22 Having read the piece in The Guardian, in which he was quoted, Baron Cohen immediately wrote a response in which he pointed out that all the major claims of the article's head- and tag-lines, and much of the coverage on the inside pages, was incorrect. "The new research was not about autism screening," he wrote, adding, "The new research has not discovered that a high level of testosterone in prenatal tests is an indicator of autism; autism spectrum disorder has not been linked to high levels of testosterone in the womb; and tests (of autism) do not allow termination of pregnancies." Indeed, as Baron-Cohen pointed out, the research in question "did not even test children with autism" at all.23 Following up on the article, Baron-Cohen wrote in the New Scientist about the "blatant distortions" in the newspaper, and he observed that the desire for "a simple, bite-size but inaccurate message" had totally misrepresented the nature of the actual research that had been undertaken.24

The media formation of the language of autism research here has so internalized the concept of function, without any self-reflexion, that it simply produced a version of the work it purported to be reporting on; it is hard to think of a better example of the desire of a media institution to see autism within the frame of ability and value that the notion of function provides. Within The Guardian's fiction (and it is worth stressing that the newspaper is seen to be one of the most serious and authoritative broadsheets in the UK), the working individual with autism is also the individual who behaves in an orthodox manner, whether that behavior is deemed "acceptable" by society at large or is consistent with the stereotypes that come with perceived "extraordinary ability." Such individuals, in this emerging terminology of assessment, can be understood to be useful and valuable. The language of function and the functional here carries overtones of management systems and the rhetoric of supply-side macroeconomics, vocabularies that are themselves increasingly part and parcel of the languages utilized by the major autism charities and foundations in their fundraising activities.

In the summer of 2008, I wrote to the UK branch of Autism Speaks, expressing some concerns about the terminology in one of its press releases. The reply I received spoke of the need to target appropriate "impact recipients" and to find necessary "people of affluence or influence" in the quest to fund research.25 Clearly, one of the functions of current autism fundraising is to produce an economy of the condition, with the consequence that the language of financing research can be seen to spread into an assessment of autism itself. Paul Longmore, in a parallel but instructive critique of charity telethons, has observed that donations and the very act of giving allow individuals to "demonstrate to themselves that they still belong to a moral community, that they have not succumbed to materialism, that they are givers who fulfill their obligations to their neighbors," and that such acts operate in terms of processes of "cleansing and renewal." This is the appeal of the charity appeal as it were, that it grants a majority audience the opportunity to, as Longmore puts it, "reassure itself, individually and collectively, of its moral health."26 Such a sense of moral virtue is at the heart of charity fundraising, not only in terms of "giving," but also the kinds of consciousness-raising that a complex condition such as autism is seen to demand. The "renewal" that is the potential outcome for associations such as Autism Speaks, or the UK's National Autistic Society (NAS), is both of new insight into the nature of autism and new attitudes towards it. The language of the appeal, however, increasingly promotes the cultural economy/function/operation model not just of the fundraising itself, but of the condition itself.

Rain Man's Back Again

Within the whirl of the effects produced by these kinds of positions and this use of language, it can often be difficult to be precise about exactly what this means in terms of specific representations of autism. In order to try to articulate how the ideas I have outlined above about function might be recognised within specific cultural moments, I want to take two examples — the recent run, in London, of a stage version of Rain Man, and the reporting surrounding the case of British computer hacker Gary McKinnon, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as efforts were made to extradite him to the US to stand trail for illegally breaking into the US Defense Department systems. Both are moments in which the evaluation of autism becomes central to the ways in which the event (the play, the court case, or the newspaper headline) is communicated and understood. Each offers a sense of how, increasingly, autism is becoming received through cultural narrative as a condition primarily apprehended through a constructed idea of what it is, a construction that locates notions of function at its heart.

I attended the stage version of Rain Man during the first week of its run at the Apollo Theatre in London's West End in September 2008. Though there may seem to be a danger of creating a sense of exhaustion through the continual reference to Levinson's film in connection to autism, its status as a touchstone in the discussion of representations of the condition remains unchallenged, something that in itself explains why the promise of a new production could generate a potential audience. It is still the "breakthrough" cultural text that brought the condition to a wide public awareness. The production team itself had worked closely with the NAS in the run up to the play's opening, and the program devoted some six full pages to an outline of autism (from NAS President, actress Jane Asher), the workings of the NAS, and accounts of living with the condition. Indeed, the program itself makes for an interesting text, with the explanation of the condition and life stories coming in the first section, and thus acting as an instructive and educational lens — if read sequentially — before the viewer encounters details of the production itself and biographies of the actors and remainder of the creative team. As it was represented in the program, autism was "a serious, lifelong and disabling condition," though the kind of "right support at the right time" offered by the NAS "can make the difference between a life of fear, loneliness and depression and one of dignity and fulfilled potential." In terms of the play itself, "the NAS was approached by the Rain Man production team to help it gain an insight into autism and the lives of people with autism today," with the director and assistant director visiting a NAS resource center "to learn about autism and meet people with autism… Our staff have also been working with leading cast members to help them understand what it like to have this lifelong disabling condition."27

The central assertion that the production would reflect the "lives of people with autism today" was intriguing. The play had updated the original narrative, setting it in 2008, and thus offered the opportunity to show what had been learned about autism in the 20 years since the film was made. Levinson's film went out of its way to highlight the research that he and writer Barry Morrow had done on the condition, using six "Consultants on Autistic Behavior" (as the credits termed it). It might appropriately be thought of as a cultural narrative that wanted to display its desire to be responsible, to get its facts right as they were thought to exist at that time. But so much more is now known about autism than was the case in 1988; a 2008 production should have greater subtlety and understanding, and more reserves on which to draw. It looked as if it might be possible that the film could be reinvented for the contemporary period.

In the event, nothing like that happened. The play was an impression of the film, almost wholly lifting its dialogue from Morrow's film script, aside from some jarring references to the "spectrum" and "care in the community" that were clearly dropped in with an eye to autism as it is discussed in the present, and which clashed with the stereotypical savant associations and broad sense of autism "humanizing" excessive egotistical, capitalistic behavior. The two central performances — Josh Hartnett as Charlie and Adam Godley as Raymond — were also strange imitations of Cruise and Hoffman, with the latter being especially odd given how feted Hoffman's acting in the film is in the annals of Hollywood. Rain Man had become, I realised as the play drew to a close, a brand; it would attract an audience on the power of its name alone, with the legacy of its success (a point about the function of the film) and its opportunity as a star vehicle (Hartnett the latest A-List movie star to try out the London stage) underpinning the pulling power of its iconic title.

Where this left autism was instructive. The care that the NAS had sought to exercise in framing the production with a contemporary account of autism was rendered meaningless by the force of the heritage that the film provided. The fascination of fiction triumphed, and, as it emerged in the play, autism was still seen to be the sum of its various behaviors, a collection of external characteristics that caused many in the audience at the Apollo on the night I attended to laugh at Raymond as they sought to find a context for his difference. The production lacked any real sense of theatricality or dramatic development (undoubtedly due to its dependence on the film script), so what other response was possible to the various literal or tangential utterances from a character who is supposed to be enigmatic and strange? In the theatre that night, autism was conveyed as being a condition that lacked any kind of core ontology, but rather invited speculation as to what it might be; a kind of blank slate on which any audience might explore, within the safe boundaries of a tried and tested story, an idea of the mystery of being human.

The function of autism in the new production of Rain Man is not remotely progressive. The force of what James T. Fisher has termed the autism "conversion narrative," a "record of the quest for a transformed or redeemed self," still predominates.28 The enigma that is fictional autistic presence still operates, as in the classic prosthetic disability narrative, to inform the non-autistic majority and leave it supposedly wiser. The dated nature of such referencing is troubling, but equally so is that the careful language employed by the NAS was not only superseded by the production's reliance on the "classic" narrative of Levinson's film, but arguably the Society's own fixation with celebrity association (those "impact recipients" mentioned earlier) contributed to the process. The assumption that the NAS would, in any way, not have wanted to support the new production, or might have publicly criticized its portrayal of the condition, was, of course, unthinkable. Members of the London branch of Autreach, an Autism Rights network largely composed of individuals with autism, did distribute educational flyers outside the Apollo Theatre during the early days of the play's run, but the by now entrenched link between any major national charity and celebrity meant that, for the NAS, the simple fact of the production's high-profile exposure of the condition itself constituted a success. The detail of the representation was lost in the functioning of the new autism economy, an arena in which press headlines can be equated with awareness.

Autism and Criminal Functionality

The stage version of Rain Man reinforced many of the prevalent stereotypes that surround autism and, in addition, displayed the longevity and power of fictional representations. Possibly its impact can be attributed to the wider workings of a cultural industry, with the production team recognising that relying on the "successful" narrative of the 1988 film was likely to be more lucrative than any attempt to have a genuinely updated version of the play that attempted to reflect the condition as we know it today. In spite of this, it is possible to see a number of progressive features connected to autism and its portrayal at the present time. The success and popularity of books such as Ralph James Savarese's Reasonable People, Roy Richard Grinker's Unstrange Minds and Paul A. Offit's Autism's False Prophets, regardless of the arguments that these authors might have amongst themselves, points to a growing complexity in the ways in which is autism is now discussed.29 And yet the waning of the vaccine scares has left a space into which other public narratives of autism have entered. Most noticeable here is the increasing association between a representation of autism and the presumption of criminal behaviour, a process that threatens to overtake the centrality in the public mind of the "traditional" link between the condition and the idea of the "extraordinary" inherent in the valorization of "special abilities."

An extended example can be discerned in the press reporting of the case of Gary McKinnon, the British man accused of hacking into the US military computer system and indicted in 2002 by a Federal Grand Jury. In an article written by David Brown that appeared in The Times on 29 August 2008, entitled "UFO Buff Who Hacked into Pentagon's Computers Loses Battle Against Extradition," the case was described in the following manner (I quote at length to give a sense of the way in which the argument develops):

A UFO enthusiast who hacked into top-secret US military computers appealed to the Home Secretary yesterday to stop his extradition after losing a legal appeal. Gary McKinnon is due to be extradited to the United States within two weeks and could face a sentence of up to 80 years in a maximum-security prison if found guilty. He admits to having accessed 97 US Navy, Army, NASA and Pentagon computers in what has been described as "the biggest computer hack of all time." Mr. McKinnon, 42, an unemployed systems analyst, has said that he was looking for computer files containing details about UFOs and aliens. The US Government say that he stole passwords, deleted files and left threatening messages….[McKinnon] had asked the European Court of Human Rights to stay his extradition pending an appeal, but the application was refused yesterday. He lost appeals to the High Court last year and the House of Lords last month. US prosecutors allege that he caused nearly $1 million (£555,000) in damage. The US military says that he rendered 300 computers at a US Navy weapons station unusable immediately after the September 11 attacks…Karen Todner, from Kaim Todner solicitors, said that Mr McKinnon was "distraught" about the decision by the European Court of Human Rights and appealed to Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, to intervene. "He is terrified by the prospect of going to America," she said. Ms Todner added that the alleged offences had been committed on British soil and so he should be tried here. She also said that Mr McKinnon had recently been found to have Asperger's syndrome.30

The final sentence above is the last in the article. This sudden, last-minute introduction of Asperger syndrome, without any explanatory context and, crucially, without any link to the alleged crime that dominates the remainder of the piece, automatically sets up an implicit but unlocated link between McKinnon's supposed behavior and his condition. The idea of function here is intriguingly multiple. On one level, the new addition to the overall story created by the final sentence provides an explanation for McKinnon's actions — the crime took place, it can be suggested due to the openness with which the link is made, because he has Asperger syndrome. At the same time, the fact of McKinnon's diagnosis might be seen to mitigate against the idea that his behavior was criminal, in that the so-called "obsessive" interests associated with Asperger syndrome can make his activities seem the misguided actions of someone fixated with computers. Certainly, the idea of McKinnon as a vulnerable obsessive came to dominate the various reports on the case after the initial report of his 2002 arrest, with numerous comments about his claim to have been searching for evidence of UFOs.31 The Times alone has published nearly 60 separate articles on the McKinnon story to date, but the August 2008 piece is the first in which his diagnosis with Asperger syndrome is mentioned. That this is the case adds another layer of potential autism function to the story: namely, that the diagnosis can be seen as a deliberate attempt to use a functioning idea of Asperger syndrome to aid McKinnon's defence. In the wake of the diagnosis, The Times carried a parallel article on this form of autism in its Health section, entitled "An Obsessive Condition that Fits in Well with Computing," while the NAS and other autism organizations launched campaigns to prevent McKinnon's extradition based on the representation of his condition as a disability that had not been properly taken into consideration as the case against him progressed.32 "I believe Gary to be 'guilty' of having AS," said Luke Beardon of the autism research center at Sheffield Hallam University, in the clearest statement of such sentiments.33 At the time of this writing, McKinnon's legal team is still seeking a judicial review to prevent any extradition.

The reporting of the McKinnon case makes a number of points transparent. Firstly, whether or not one believes Asperger syndrome to be the cause, or even an explanation, of his actions, the truth is that both are animated by an idea of autism functioning in a loose and worryingly imprecise manner. The logic of both accounts creates a working idea of the condition as an explanatory category in which excessive behavior is at best problematic and at worst obviously criminal. Secondly, the link to criminality, and especially the ease with which it is made, is obviously the most dangerous consequence of this logic since it has the potential to provide an idea of autistic behavior as naturally antisocial. Added to this is the possibility that the free-floating idea of "autistic criminality" might attach itself to the various zeitgeist fears that dominate the present. The reporting of the case of Nicky Reilly, who admitted planting a bomb in a UK restaurant in May 2008 and was convicted of the crime in January 2009, can be seen to be a case in point. As The Times reported in an article, entitled "Bomber was Brainwashed over the Internet," about Reilly's trial:

A vulnerable Muslim convert was persuaded online by shadowy Pakistan-based extremists into trying to carry out a suicide bomb attack on a busy restaurant. Nicky Reilly, 22, who has Asperger's syndrome and a mental age of 10, was directed how to build bombs filled with hundreds of nails, which he attempted to detonate at the Giraffe restaurant in Exeter in May. The devices went off prematurely, injuring only him… Reilly admitted yesterday researching how to make improvised explosive devices, investigating potential targets and acquiring components for them. His mother insisted, however, that her son would never have been able to make the explosives himself. Kim Reilly said: "He would not be able to make the bomb. He would have had to have some instruction or guidance from someone. I am absolutely convinced about that. There is no way Nicky was capable to do that." Officers said the failed attack was a terrifying echo of the tactics of extremists in Iraq who use the mentally or physically disabled to carry out attacks. Neighbours said that Reilly was a recluse who spent most of his time online in his darkened bedroom. The influence of extremist websites and jihadists is clear in a suicide note left at Reilly's home.34

As with the case of Gary McKinnon, there is no kind of specific detail at all here to link any aspect of Asperger behaviour to criminality. Moreover, the conflation of Reilly's condition and his supposed "mental age of 10" is nonsensical, given that no individual with such an impairment would receive a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. Rather the force of the article lies in its juxtaposition of an idea of autism and one of jihad fanaticism, of the supposed isolation of the "recluse" and "shadowy extremism." The function of autism in this instance is to tap into the fears that have been seminal in constructing our idea of the present; there could be no clearer sign of the condition's status as a barometer of contemporary fear than the spectre of Nicky Reilly, the autistic suicide bomber.

Conclusion: Function and the Construction of an Autism Future

The idea that "autism" and "jihad" might find a common place in the same news article is preposterous and yet also possesses a strange, if perverse, logic. The incoherence of the many and varied discourses that posit the concept of "threat" or, conversely, of "safety" as a marker of our times allows for the conflation of a number of rhetorical positions. The ideas of isolation, difference and obsession that form part of the public fabric that constitutes a majority view of autism play to the notion of the "enemy within" that also denotes our security-obsessed present. If it is true that some forms of difference will always become the object of suspicion in any given period, then the danger exists that autism is slowly being maneuvered into such a position, a largely media-driven creation of fear and misunderstanding. The association of autism with crime appears as a contrary backlash to the wider public understanding that the condition has achieved through the increase in recent media exposure, but it is nevertheless a new function of the condition in the world, and a deeply problematic one.

Our incomplete knowledge of autism always precedes us. Autism Speaks, the self-styled "largest autism advocacy organization," was designated a non-government organization in association with the United Nations Department of Public Information in December 2008.35 As such it will be able to exercise a global reach in pursuing its particular characterization of the condition (in the UK, for example, World Autism Day was marked by a high-profile visiting to Downing Street by Autism Speaks representatives), despite the sense, felt by many who live and work with autism, that its conceptions are partial and limited. Its ideas of autistic function will become the majority ideas on the widest possible scale, and they may well shape formative understandings of the condition in cultures where it is still subject to the processes of secrecy and shame and the prejudices that follow. How autism will function in these contexts could make life very difficult for those who have the condition and seek to understand it as part of their sense of self.

More widely, the sense of an autism function that produces an idea of use and value calls up the forms and languages of previous historical moments when those with disabilities were stigmatized and persecuted because of the empirical ways in which their difference was quantified. Lennard J. Davis's seminal work on the construction of normalcy tells of the nineteenth-century processes of statistics and eugenics that created "a dominating, hegemonic vision of what the human body should be," where the desired "elimination of deviance" was a consequence of such measuring and assessment.36 The idea of function in relation to autism, the hierarchies it creates and the parameters it suggests, threatens to form a twenty-first century parallel to this, one in which those with the condition have their humanity defined by a quota of autistic function in which genetic mapping and prenatal screening may suggest that "how autistic?" is seen to be a reasonable question with real projected outcomes. If autism comes to function in this manner (this is, of course, also true of other neurobehavioral conditions), and there is no reason to suggest that it will not, then the threat to those who understand and claim the condition as integral to their being will be real and profound.


  1. Oxford English Dictionary, "Function." http://www.oed.com (accessed January 6, 2009).
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  2. Autism Speaks, "Our Mission." http://www.autismspeaks.org/goals.php?WT.svl=Top_Nav (accessed January 6, 2009).
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  3. Stuart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 139-53 and 168-206.
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  4. Leo Kanner, "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," Nervous Child 2 (1943): 243. Hans Asperger, "'Autistic Psychopathy' in Childhood," in Autism and Asperger Syndrome, ed. Uta Frith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 37. In the first footnote to her translation of Asperger's article, Frith points out that she has omitted the first seven pages of the original German article, describing them as a "general and somewhat discursive introduction."
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  5. Douglas Biklen, Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone (New York and London: New York University Press, 2005), 35.
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  6. Asperger, "'Autistic Psychopathy' in Childhood," 64.
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  7. Uta Frith, "Asperger and His Syndrome," in Autism and Asperger Syndrome, 12 and 31.
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  8. Frith, "Asperger and His Syndrome," 21.
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  9. Lorna Wing, "Asperger's Syndrome and Kanner's Autism," in Autism and Asperger Syndrome, ed. Uta Frith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 99 and 102.
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  10. Wing, "Asperger's Syndrome and Kanner's Autism." 107-8.
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  11. Michelle Dawson, Isabelle Soulières, Morton Ann Gernsbacher and Laurent Mottron, "The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence," Psychological Science 18:8 (2007), 657.
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  12. Dawson et al., "The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence," 661. This study used Raven's Progressive Matrices, a common of fluid intelligence, on the research sample, and not the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, more commonly used on children with autism.
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  13. Leonard Cassuto, "Oliver Sacks and the Medical Case Narrative," in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002), 119.
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  14. Ralph James Savarese, Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism & Adoption (New York: Other Press, 2007), 198.
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  15. For a discussion of executive function alongside theory of mind and central coherence, see Deborah R. Barnbaum, The Ethics of Autism: Among Them but Not of Them (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), 19-32.
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  16. Majia Holmer Nadesan, Constructing Autism: Unravelling the "Truth" and Understanding the Social (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), 3.
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  17. Mark Osteen, "Autism and Representation: A Comprehensive Introduction," in Autism and Representation, ed. Osteen (New York: Routledge, 2008), 10.
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  18. For full accounts of the vaccine scare, see Paul A. Offit, Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine and the Search for a Cure (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), and Ben Goldacre, "The Media's MMR Hoax," in Bad Science (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 273-314. In February 2009, a special US Federal Court, after looking at three special test cases, ruled that vaccines do not cause autism. The cases involved some 5,000 pages of transcripts, 939 medical articles and 50 expert reports, and the three decisions ran to more than 650 pages altogether.
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  19. Sarah Boseley, "New Research Brings Autism Screening Closer to Reality," The Guardian, January 12, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/jan/12/autism-screening-health (accessed January 12, 2009).
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  20. James Randerson, "A Prenatal Test for Autism Would Deprive the World of Future Geniuses," The Guardian, January 12, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2009/jan/07/autism-test-genius-dirac (accessed January 12, 2009).
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  21. The paper did include, in the same issue, an article by Charlotte Moore, entitled "Autism: A Mother's Story," in which she made it clear that she would not have wanted any pre-natal test, and argues for the validity of her autistic sons' lives as they are ("They're autistic; that's what they do"). While this suggests a concern for the balance of opinions in the paper overall, it is noticeable that Boseley's lead article itself didn't properly express the view that "ordinary autism" might not be a tragedy. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/jan/12/prenatal-autism-test (accessed January 12, 2009).
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  22. Bonnie Auyeung, Simon Baron-Cohen et al., "Fetal Testosterone and Autistic Traits," British Journal of Psychology, 100 (2009), 1-22.
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  23. Simon Baron-Cohen, "Our Research Was Not about Prenatal Screening for Autism," The Guardian, January 20, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/20/research-autism-health-response-comment (accessed July 6, 2009).
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  24. Simon Baron-Cohen, "Media Distortion Damages Both Science and Journalism," New Scientist 2701, March 27, 2009. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20127011.300-media-distortion-damages-both-science-and-journalism.html?full=true&print=true (accessed July 6, 2009).
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  25. Stephanie Shirley, email message to author, July 9, 2008.
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  26. Paul K. Longmore, "Conspicuous Contribution and American Cultural Dilemmas: Telethon Rituals of Cleansing and Renewal," in The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability, ed. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 135-6 (italics in original).
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  27. Rain Man production program (London: Dewynters, 2008), n.p.
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  28. James T. Fisher, "No Search, No Subject? Autism and the American Conversion Narrative," in Autism and Representation, ed. Osteen, 51-64. The quote is on p. 51.
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  29. For details of the Savarese book, see note 12. For details of Offit's book, see note 16. Roy Richard Grinker's study is Unstrange Minds: A Father, a Daughter, and a Search for New Answers (New York: Basic Books, 2007).
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  30. David Brown, "UFO Buff Who Hacked into Pentagon's Computers Loses Battle Against Extradition," The Times, August 29, 2008, Home section. The online version of the article has a different title — "British Hacker Gary McKinnon in Final Appeal to Home Secretary over Extradition." See http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article4628575.ece (accessed December 14, 2008).
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  31. See, for example, Lucy Bannerman, "Genius Who Wasted $1bn? My Son Gary McKinnon Was just Looking for ET," The Times, January 13, 2009, Home section. See http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article5505489.ece (accessed January 13, 2009).
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  32. Mark Porter, "An Obsessive Condition that Fits in Well with Computing," The Times, January 13, 2009, Health section. See http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article5505486.ece (accessed January 13 2009). The latest NAS statement on the McKinnon case (at the time of writing) can be found at http://www.nas.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=1895&a=18512 (accessed July 7, 2009).
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  33. Luke Beardon, quoted in Duncan Campbell, "Supporters Urge Halt to Hacker's Extradition to US," The Guardian September 26, 2008, Home section. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/sep/26/hacking.hitechcrime (accessed December 13, 2008).
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  34. Adam Fresco, "Bomber Was Brainwashed over the Internet," The Times, October 16, 2008, Home section. See http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article4951616.ece (accessed December 3, 2008). On January 30 2009, Reilly was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his crime.
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  35. See http://www.autismspeaks.org/press/united_nations_ngo_dpi.php (accessed January 28, 2009).
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  36. Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (London and New York: Verso, 1995), 35.
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