Abstract

I explore the rise of international technology companies that recruit people with autism and Asperger's Syndrome, focusing specifically on the type of professional ethos that these companies cultivate for their employees. Using theories of ethos and communication from the field of technical communication, I argue that these companies often predetermine a limited sense of professional ethos for employees and reinforce stereotypes about people with autism. More broadly, I examine how this limitation is indicative of the ableism of traditional formulations of ethos in the rhetorical tradition. I then turn to potential revisions that technical communicators with autism can offer. Specifically, I examine two technical and professional writers in particular—Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince Hughes—showing how each invents a professional ethos that resists stereotypes about autism and what it means to be an "ideal" professional communicator.

In the rhetorical tradition and contemporary rhetoric, ethos is typically understood as a speaker or writer's character, including his or her ability to convey credibility and goodwill to an audience. Typically, a successful rhetor constructs his or her ethos to show audiences that he or she is trustworthy, believable, and relatable. A rhetor with an effective sense of ethos usually connects well with his or her audiences, identifying himself or herself with them. But what does ethos as it is traditionally understood mean for people who may think, speak, and act outside of what is usually considered "typical"? Does ethos, as it is usually understood, support the efforts of neurodiverse rhetors—people with a wide range of cognitive styles—or only neurotypical ones? In what follows, I show that traditional and contemporary approaches to ethos often model a narrowly neurotypical sense of ethos that does not easily support the character development of people with cognitive differences such as autism. I then explore possibilities for rethinking traditional ethos through contexts of technical and professional communication.

Traditions of Neurotypcial Ethos

Both ancient sophistic and Aristotelian approaches to ethos emphasize a rhetor who connects easily to audiences, who is in tune with the minds of others, and who can reciprocate feelings easily. In Isocrates' view, anyone who "wishes to persuade people will not be negligent to the matter of character" and "words carry greater conviction when spoken by men of good repute than when spoken by men who live under a cloud" (77). For Isocrates, cultivation of good character and "a most honorable name" is important because "the power to speak well is taken as the surest index of a sound understanding" (75). Outward projections of ability such as speaking well indicate a sound thinking style or cognition. Subsequently, one's internal thought processes are expected to align with external evidence of cognition: "for the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts" (75). For Isocrates, the best ethos is one that is effortlessly social, well-connected, and both publicly and privately consistent. In this view, an isolated speaker is neither persuasive nor in possession of a sense of ethos.

Aristotelian approaches to ethos also emphasize this attention to social connection, providing a more systematic program for ethos construction. According to Aristotle, for whom the elements of ethos are "good sense, good moral character and goodwill," it "is true generally whatever the question is" that a rhetor's good character makes him persuasive because "[w]e believe good men more fully and more readily than others" (213). Furthermore, "it adds much to an orator's influence that his character should look right and that he should be thought to entertain the right feelings toward his hearers; and also the hearers themselves should be in just the right frame of mind" (213). Sounding right is also integral to Aristotle's directions for proper delivery—the "right management of voice," including volume, pitch and rhythm are recommended. For Aristotle, as with Isocrates, the ideal ethos is a combination of the right stuff, including an able body, sound mind, and thoroughly social self.

Legacies of this implicitly neurotypical approach to ethos in the tradition surface in contemporary approaches to ethos as well. James S. Baumlin, applying Richard Lanham's notions of the self to ethos, notes that a tension between "a social self and a central self" characterizes competing approaches to ethos in ancient and contemporary theory (xvii). For example, ethos translated etymologically as "character" would "seem to describe a singular, stable 'central' self," while ethos translated as "custom" or "habit" would "describe a 'social self', a set of verbal habits or behaviors, a playing out of customary roles" (xviii). Contemporary approaches to ethos, in particular, demand a deft negotiation between individual and social senses of the self. It is an implicit assumption that a successful rhetor constructs an individual ethos that is also seamlessly social as he or she communicates to audiences. As Karen Burke LeFevre remarks, because "ethos arises from the relationship between the individual and the community," it "cannot exist in isolation" (x; 45). Typically, an effective ethos is one that demonstrates a seamless connection between individual and social selves.

People with cognitive differences such as autism and Asperger's Syndrome disrupt the traditional mold of neurotypical ethos. In part because of their own cognitive differences and in part because of pervasive stereotypes about autism, people with autism often construct ethos differently. They may not experience seamless negotiation between their individual and social senses of self. Rhetors with autism may have difficulty regulating the volume and rhythm of their voice. They may not effortlessly connect to their audiences and may experience particular difficulty relating or connecting to neurotypical audiences. They may have to work harder to show reciprocity of feelings to their audiences. They may not experience a seamless alignment between their internal and external thought processes that translate easily to all audiences.

In their own words, people with autism have given voice to the challenges of ethos production. Jim, a contributor to a collection on the experiences of autistic students in the academy and beyond, describes the discrepancy between internal and external "projections" of his character in his definition of what autism means for him: "It means I don't receive and process information in the same manner as other people, not that I am stupid. It means I don't share the general neurotypical population's innate receptive and expressive communication skills; it doesn't mean I am unable to have feelings and emotions or am unable to share those emotions with others" (Aquamarine 67). People with autism like Jim may not possess a neurotypical sense of "innate receptivity" and "expressiveness" such as that modeled in Isocratean and Aristotelian traditions and legacies of ethos. Dawn Prince Hughes, in her exploration of autism, describes the energy she exerts to translate between neurotypical and autistic codes, noting that "I am glad that I am so successful at appearing normal (whatever that is), but I also wish at times people knew how hard I work at it" (Songs 2). In contrast to the seamless alignment of internal and external thoughts to an audience that Isocrates and Aristotle imagine, Hughes notes barriers: "I am always aware of a moving sort of glass between me and the world … between what is seen and what is not seen" (4).

Stereotypes about people with autism only increase these challenges. As Hughes describes in her memoir, "the public at large tends to hold in its collective consciousness a certain manifestation" of autistic deficits such as "impairments in the use of nonverbal, expressive gestures," often believing "that all people with autism are by definition incapable of communicating, that they do not experience emotions, and that they cannot care about other people or the world around them" (28). Stereotypes such as these impede the process of ethos construction for people with autism. If people with autism are assumed to be emotionless and unconnected to the world around them, audiences are less likely to be receptive to them. In resistance to stereotypes of people with autism as unconnected, Hughes contends that "in many cases quite the opposite is true" and describes a "significant number of autistic people who care deeply" and are "profoundly emotional" (31). These emotions, however, may not translate easily to neurotypical audiences. People with autism, long stereotyped as possessing deficits in social communication and interaction, face challenges conveying their constructions of ethos to audiences misinformed about or unfamiliar with their differences.

Technical Communication Contexts

Approaches to ethos in the contexts of technical and professional communication offer alternative ways of understanding the limits and possibilities of traditional ethos for neurodiverse rhetors. Broadly understood, a technical communicator is anyone who creates, engages with and even transforms specialized knowledge for various audiences and publics—a writer of a computer user's manual, a popular scientist writer, a data or software analyst, or a corporate communications employee can all be understood as technical or professional communicators. Until fairly recently, ethos was little-explored in technical and professional communication. As Jennifer Daryl Slack, David James Miller, and Jeffrey Doak explain, "The discourses created by technical communicators have not been considered authored discourses; the technical communicator may be a transmitter of messages or a translator of meanings, but he or she is not—or at least not until now—considered to be an author" (162). Before humanistic, social and cultural turns in the field of technical communication, technical communicators were usually characterized as neutral conduits of scientific or technical knowledge, simply responsible for translating specialized knowledge in the sciences into layperson's language.1 Greater attention to the active and participatory roles of technical communicators, however, has recently blurred the line between this limited dichotomy of "producers" and "translators" of scientific and technical knowledge. How and why a technical communicator crafts a message is often as important as the message itself. Integral to this more rhetorical turn in technical communication is analysis of the role of ethos construction among technical communicators themselves.

Recently, people with autism have been invited and encouraged to take on the role of technical communicator. In today's information economy, companies are cropping up globally that purport to draw on the abilities of people with autism and to provide an accommodating work environment for them. Aspiritech is an American company that trains "high-functioning" autistics and people with Asperger's Syndrome "to provide competitively-priced testing services to area software development companies" (aspiritech.org). A Danish Information Technology consultant company, Specialisterne, also recruits people with autism for software testing, quality control, and data conversion, retaining Microsoft, Oracle, and CSC as clients. The company, which has recently extended to a branch in Scotland, "matches the unique skill sets of people with autism spectrum disorders—skills such as focus, high tolerance for repetitive tasks, and excellent memory—with a critical business need in the technology industry, software and game testing" (odemagazine.com). In Japan, a company called Kaien employs people with autism for software testing, noting that "high-functioning" people with autism are 50% more efficient that "normal" testers (kaien-lab.com). The creation of jobs for people with autism is encouraging, but it is necessary to situate these positions in relation to broader perspectives about the role of ethos in technical communication and pervasive stereotypes about autism. Is it possible for technical communicators with autism to author their own sense of ethos in these positions or do their companies' understandings of autism and neurotypical approaches to ethos limit them?

In the following, I explore the approaches to ethos that these companies encourage for people with autism through the lens of two different models of ethos in technical communication. First, I explore the transmission model, a model that limits the ethos of technical communicators in general and especially those with autism. I argue that pervasive misconceptions and stereotypes of autism often constrain ethos production of people with autism to the transmission model, a model that discourages a fully developed sense of ethos and that is rooted in neurotypical traditions of ethos. To resist these limiting ethos opportunities, I then explore the possibilities of the articulated model of technical communication, which offers people with autism the opportunities to construct their senses of ethos more fully and often in resistance to stereotypes about autism. I offer the examples of two current technical and professional communicators with autism, Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince Hughes, who have each invented their own sense of ethos in ways that revise neurotypical approaches to ethos and resist stereotypes about the "ideal" employee with autism. I conclude by exploring the implications of continued exploration between the fields of technical communication and disability studies. My purpose is to present alternatives to normative approaches to ethos through the specific context of technical and professional communication in ways that can disrupt broader and more pervasive neurotypical underpinnings of ethos in the rhetorical tradition.

The Transmission Model of Ethos

In the transmission model, the technical communicator possesses little or no ethos. The role of the technical communicator is simply to transmit pre-made messages, with "efficiency" and "accuracy" operating as the main goals; correctness, clarity, and brevity are also key objectives (Slack, Miller, and Doak 162-165). In this model, technical communicators ideally are transparent, nearly "becoming the clear channel itself," and are "not seen as adding or contributing to meaning. In fact, if they are, they are not doing their job!" (165). As Bernadette Longo explains, "Good technical writing is so clear that it is invisible" and "will not contaminate the pure meaning of applied scientific knowledge" (ix). Carolyn Miller associates the aims of this model with a positivist view of science and the windowpane theory of language, as defined by James Kinneavy, in which language merely reflects reality, instead of creating it. In terms of ethos, the technical communicator's character is only suitable if he is or she virtually invisible as well. Technical writing and the technical communicator are "expected to be objective, scientifically impartial, utterly clear, and unemotional … concerned with facts and the careful, honest interpretation of those facts" (Pearsall, qtd in Miller 49). Furthermore, technical communication and the technical communicator are expected to be "utilitarian … exact, direct and to the point" (49). The "good character" or ethos of this communicator is limited and restricted in this view of communication as utilitarian.

The characteristics of the "ideal" autistic employee parallel the attributes of the transmission model and the ethos of the technical communicator that it encourages. Technical communicators often develop their ethos in relation to the companies or organizations for whom they work.2 Companies like Aspiritech, Specialisterne, and Kaien desire employees who are nearly neutral conduits for tasks such as data entry or other highly repetitive activities such as software testing. Companies that recruit people with autism enforce a transmission view of technical communication as limited to clarity, accuracy, and efficiency by emphasizing only certain skills of people with autism. Aspiritech, for example, is founded on the assumption that people with autism "thrive on predictable, monotonous work" and that this makes them well-suited for software testing, game testing, and data entry ("For Some Jobs"). A recent feature on an Aspiritech employee, a computer systems developer, attributes "intense attention to detail, single-minded focus, and a willingness to work on something repetitively until perfect" as the autistic traits that make an "ideal employee" ("Autism seen"). Both Kaien and Aspiritech emphasize the accuracy and efficiency of people with autism and a view of technical communication that focus on accuracy and efficiency. Kaien asserts that "[p]eople with HFA possess unique and valuable talents that enable them to perform at a very high level in various situations," but limit these talents to "thinking logically, pattern recognition, discovering irregularities, and … perform[ing] repetitive processes without becoming distracted" (kaien-lab.com). At Specialisterne, which assumes that everyone with autism is a "natural born specialist," the "special skills" that people with autism possess are precision and regularity (http://www.specialisterne.com).3 Like the ethos of the technical communicator in the transmission model of communication and technology, the "ideal" autistic employee is simply a conveyer of information, with efficiency, accuracy, and clarity being his or her only attributes. This approach to ethos reinforces the implicitly neurotypical foundations of ethos in the rhetorical tradition, leaving little opportunity for neurodiverse rhetors to craft ethos.

The ethos of the technical communicator shaped by companies that recruit autistic employees also enforces several limiting stereotypes about people with autism. People with autism are usually stereotyped as resistant to change, overly logical or literal minded, inflexible in their behavior, and insensitive to subtleties in language. In contrast to this stereotypical portrait of the person with autism, Hughes notes that people with autism are "not only cognitively intact but are actually gifted intellectually," using "their profound intellectual capacities and acute memory skills to learn coping strategies" to fit into a largely neurotypical world (Songs 30). Hughes emphasizes how autistic cognition can be an asset—"insatiable curiosity, and a disregard for standard ways of behaving and thinking with intelligence, creativity, and divergent problem solving" (xxiv). Hughes' descriptions of autistic intelligence and ethos are in stark comparison to the ethos encouraged by the "ideal" autistic technical communicator. Rather than the stereotypical cold, objective, detail-oriented, perfectionistic, fact-obsessed, and direct-to-a-fault person with autism that the ethos of the ideal technical communicator perpetuates, Hughes portrays the character of people with autism as deeply emotional, creative and curious.

The Articulated Model of Ethos

The transmission model has been critiqued and revised by technical communication theorists. Jennifer Slack, David Miller, and Jeffrey Doak offer the articulated model of communication as an alternative in which the technical communicator is an "author who among others participates in articulating and rearticulating meanings" (163). In contrast to the transmission model, the technical communicator in the articulation model is an inventor and author of meanings. Michel Foucault's notion of the author function, crucial to the articulated model, demonstrates how technical communicators have invented a new ethos for themselves. As Foucault observes, "in our culture, the name of an author is a variable that accompanies only certain texts to the exclusion of others" (24). Indeed, texts of technical communication—from reports and proposals to data entries and testing protocols—often are assumed not to possess an author. From the perspective of the transmission model, a technical communicator is far from an author or inventor of meaning. In contrast, the articulation approach, drawn from Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall, posits technical communicators as authors. According to Slack, Miller, and Doak, "The articulation view allows us to move beyond a conception of communication as the polar contributions of sender and receiver to a conception of an ongoing process of articulation constituted in (and constituting) the relations of meaning and power operating in the entire context within which messages move" (169). This context includes not only the sender and receiver but also "frameworks of knowledge, relations of production, and technical infrastructure" (169). The ethos of the technical communicator in the articulation model is much more capacious and agential.

The concept of articulation also affords a less stereotypical view of the ethos of an autistic technical communicator. The relationship between articulation and identity, especially as it is explained by Hall, means that there are flexible and changeable connections among people and the groups of which they are a part, such as workplaces, professional entities, or other organizations. For technical communicators, this is valuable because it contributes to what Marilyn Cooper, among others, have understood as participatory communication, or communication which prizes "working together to create common interests, to construct the ideals of our society … and to examine the ends of [our] action" (12). Articulation forwards these goals because it "asserts that any identity in the social formation must be understood as the nonnecessary connection between the elements that constitute it. Each identity is actually a particular connection of elements that, like a string of connotations, works to forge an identity that can and does change" (Hall, "Signification"; Slack, Doak, and Miller 169). Furthermore, as Slack, Doak, and Miller suggest, "Any identity might be compared to a train, which is constituted of many different types of train cars in a particular arrangement (or articulation). Each car is connected (or articulated) to another in a specific way that, taken as a whole (as a series of articulations), constitutes the identity train" (169). An advantage to understanding identity this way is that it enables a specific train car or identity to exist in and of itself, but also in relation to the other identities or articulated trains. Also, various permutations and combinations of the train are possible—"we could disconnect (disarticulate) and reconnect (rearticulate) cars in a different order to constitute a new identity train" (169). The ethos of an employee and an organization is much more flexible in this model.

The concept of articulation offers possibilities for re-imagining connections among individuals and group formations. As scholars of disability studies have pointed out, to understand "the disabled" as a single, uniform and monolithic group is profoundly misleading and neglectful of the difference and diversity among people with disabilities. In fact, many people with autism or Asperger's Syndrome may not even concern themselves with the categories of high and low functioning that companies like Kaien emphasize, but instead may emphasize the spectrum of differences in thinking styles among everyone, on the spectrum or not. The concept of articulation parallels the spectrum approach that emphasizes the similarities and differences among individuals along a continuum. Furthermore, the articulation approach can be extended to other group formations and identities therein—autistic technical communicators, for example, may form identifications with the companies for which they work, but these identifications are flexible, changeable and potentially even resistant. This model affords articulations and disarticulations from ethical identifications with and against companies that recruit people with autism.

Most crucially, the articulation model values how autistic technical communicators form a sense of ethos not linked to narrow assumptions about their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding ethos as articulated rather than transmitted values a scenario in which people with autism author their own sense of professional ethos. Rather than fitting into the mold of the "ideal" technical communicator and its focus on repetition, memorization, and perfectionism, people with autism who articulate their own professional ethos model the valuable skills and abilities that autism can afford. In resistance to a rhetorical tradition based on neurotypical approaches to ethos, the articulation model offers possibilities for neurodiverse rhetors.

Inventing Autistic Ethos in Technical and Professional Contexts

As Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee have pointed out, Aristotle recognized two types of ethical proof—invented and situated: "According to Aristotle, rhetors can invent a character suitable for an occasion—this is invented ethos. However, if rhetors are fortunate enough to enjoy a good reputation in the community, they can use it as an ethical proof—this is situated ethos" (167). Stereotypes of people with autism have limited the situated ethos of people with autism, but interventions from an articulated model inspire alternative models of invented ethos. Two autistic technical communicators in particular—Grandin in her capacity as a animal scientist, designer of handling equipment, and writer about autism and Hughes in her position as an interdisciplinary anthropologist, zookeeper, and locus of autistic culture—offer examples of a flexible and inventive professional ethos that resists stereotypes of autism, mediates between autistic and neurotypical communication, and redefines what it means to be an "ideal" professional with autism.

Grandin, author of numerous books on autism and hundreds of scientific articles in animal science, is a technical communicator who has written extensively for a specialized audience in her own discipline and who has popularized science and medicine for a general audience. She credits her choice of profession as a crucial element in her "emergence" from autism, or her increased ability to use the abilities her autism provides to connect with people and form strong professional relationships.4 Her career path begins as a junior in high school when she visits her aunt's ranch one summer and observes how cattle become calm when put into a squeeze chute—a V-shaped device for holding animals in place for vaccination or branding. She had always attributed her hypersensitivity to touch and other sensory perceptions to her autism, but when she notices how the pressure of the squeeze chute calms the animals, she decides to design and build her own squeeze machine and try it herself. After using it, she describes the experience, writing, "The effect was both stimulating and relaxing at the same time. But most importantly for an autistic person, I was in control … The squeeze chute provided relief from my nerve attacks. True to form, I became fixated on it" (Emergence 95).

This fixation becomes an advantage for Grandin, eventually enabling a career as a world-renowned animal scientist and designer of livestock handling facilities, feedlots, and slaughter systems. Grandin's educational experiences prepare her to cultivate this effective professional ethos. Driven to explore the reasons behind her reaction to the squeeze chute, she explains, "For the first time in my life I felt a purpose for learning" (99). In high school and college, she reads widely in psychology and physiology, independently learning principles that may explain her reaction to the squeeze machine. Even though doctors are skeptical of her squeeze machine therapy, she writes, "At college I was making great strides in communicating with people. I attributed this 'break-through' in getting along better with people to my maligned squeeze machine. It enabled me to learn to be gentle, to have empathy" (108). She explains, "When I was in the chute, I felt closer to people" (100). This feeling of closeness originally includes her mother, relatives and teachers with whom she has a close relationship, but then extends to include a wider range of people in her personal, educational and professional life.

When Grandin makes the transition to graduate school, she writes a thesis on the design of cattle chutes in feedlots and articulates more clearly how her invention of the squeeze machine also aids her invention of a professional ethos. Her thesis was "one of the first farm animal behavior research projects in the United States" and to write it she had to change the minds of her advisors who thought "cattle behavior during handling was not a proper academic subject" (137). Grandin also begins to develop her own professional ethos by differentiating herself from others in the industry. She develops her skills as a visual thinker—skills she attributes to her autism—and capitalizes on them. Differentiating visual thinkers from sequential thinkers, she explains that "visual thinking is an asset for an equipment designer. I am able to 'see' how all the parts of a project will fit together and also see potential problems. Sometimes a sequential thinker makes a mistake in designing because he can't see the whole" (142). Grandin's visual abilities, which enable her a "cow's eye view," also contribute to one of her main innovations in handling design—a curved and rounded shape which mimics cattle's natural circling behavior and limits their field of vision.

Grandin attributes an article she writes for Arizona Farmer Ranchman as the "first vital step in establishing [her] credibility in the livestock industry" (Thinking 107). She boldly approaches the publisher at a rodeo and simply asks to write for the magazine. After publishing, she retains her first job designing cattle chutes. On the job, Grandin continues to develop her professional ethos, learning important lessons not only in her credibility but also by developing her goodwill to others. During one project, for example, she "learned that being technically right was not always socially right" when she "criticized some sloppy welding in a very tactless way" (108). Grandin also learns to develop her ethos in the face of sexism and other threats to her credibility. She describes men blocking her entrance to feedlots, her car decorated in bull testicles, and excessive "gross-out" tours in meat processing facilities (110). During one visit in which she was shown "the blood pit" three times, she writes, "I stamped my feet and splattered [the blood] all over the plant manager. He respected me after he saw I knew how to operate the equipment" (110).

Grandin invents and maintains a professional ethos that resists stereotypes of autism and mediates between autistic and neurotypical codes. Her invention of the squeeze machine as a form of self-therapy for her autism directly leads to her inventive designs in the animal handling industry, enabling her to build her ethos and credibility. She connects to people by learning how to regulate her feelings through the squeeze machine, resisting stereotypes that people with autism are alone or asocial. She also builds her credibility by learning to mediate between neurotypical and autistic codes—learning the difference, for example, between being technically and socially right. This articulated ethos enables her to work together with different teams in the design of systems and their implementation, enacting a form of participatory communication. She maintains her ethos in the face of sexism by reasserting her technical knowledge. She exercises her credibility as an author, realizing that meaning is made through a rich context and ongoing process of power and knowledge beyond simple assignations of sender and receiver of information.

Grandin's invention of a flexible professional ethos leads her to imagine a wider range of jobs for people with autism than those outlined by companies such as Specialisterne, Aspiritech, or Kaien. She writes, "People with autism can develop skills in fields that they can really excel in, such as computer programming, drafting, advertising art, cartooning, car mechanics, and small engine repair" and also mentions "satisfying jobs" in "graphic arts, architectural drawing, and laboratory pathology" (106). Like a technical communicator enacting the articulated model of communication, Grandin is aware, in her own job and the jobs she imagines for people with autism, of the ongoing process of making meaning within the various relations of power and production and frameworks of knowledge. She sees people with autism as participators in a wide range of workplaces, cultivating character with diverse audiences.

Autistic Ethos, Work, and Culture

Hughes is another woman with autism who invents a professional ethos in ways that challenge stereotypes about autism and revise neurotypical foundations of ethos. Undiagnosed with autism until the age of thirty-six, Hughes first wanders into a Seattle Zoo after quitting school, running away from home as a teenager and working as an exotic dancer in a women-run club, and exploring the modern primitive movement (73). After she begins visiting the zoo, she begins finding deeper connections within herself, with animals, and eventually among her new colleagues. Like Grandin's invention of the squeeze chute, Hughes' regular visits to the zoo put her on a path toward a career.

At the zoo, Hughes quickly begins to develop her character and ethos as a person in active relation to her environment, animals, and other people. She is drawn to and intently observes the gorillas, experiencing an awakening: "They were so subtle and steady that I felt like I was watching people for the first time in my whole life, really watching them" (93). Hughes considers gorillas to be people, often differentiating between "human" people and "gorilla" people, but finding more commonalities than differences. The more she observes the gorillas, the more she learns about herself and other people. Like Grandin's path of intense study and focus after her invention of the chute, Hughes begins reading and writing voraciously about the gorillas. She laments the forgotten connections between gorillas and people, explaining,

As I wrote, and watched, and studied, in sadness, I grew to understand and identify with the gorillas, the way other human people did not identify with them; indeed, they treated them in ways similar to how I had been treated all my life. As I discovered and witnessed this, I often found myself awash in feelings that had threatened to drown the tiny, emerging spark that was my hope for relating to humans in a new way. (95)

Hughes finds a way to nurture this spark, however, by obtaining a job at the zoo. After deciding to return to school to study anthropology, she finds an animal science program through a technical college that allows her "to work externally in mentoring situations" (101). The zoo offers her a position in their program and she begins interacting with a wide range of people, including gorilla keepers, zoo administrators, veterinarians, and technicians. She finds that everyone she works with at the zoo is "patient and tried hard to help [her] learn through social interaction" (101). After obtaining the job, she realizes, "I was surprised to look around and realize that I had communicated with people toward a common goal and that they understood me" (101).

As an aide at the zoo, Hughes quickly makes herself indispensable and starts building her ethos and credibility. Although she has yet to be diagnosed with autism, upon reflection she knows that her autism is what enabled her to do her job well. Describing her strengths, she writes, "The fact that I excelled at certain tasks—keeping records, making keen observations, descriptively communicating information, and memorizing events perfectly—not only saved me but deposited me exactly where I wanted to be" (104). During crucial times at the zoo, such as a gorilla's illness, Hughes is assigned to observe, putting her skills to use. She recognizes reciprocity between her and the other zoo staff. She elaborates:

I believe they had started to care for me because I had begun to find ways to make it known to them that I cared for them and had good intentions. I cared about them as people, and after years of watching gorillas, I was learning how to tell them that. I knew to smile at them when I saw them. I knew how to put them at ease by sitting near them and to show interest in their lives by asking questions. I learned to show them a face that demonstrated sincerity and concern … Because I cared, I wanted to do a good job in everything they asked, especially any job relating to gorillas, as I cared about them more than anything. (104)

By watching the gorillas, Hughes learns how to cultivate her sense of ethos and to communicate to her colleagues that they share the same goals and interests. This work ethic, based on goodwill, empathy, and connection, pays off when Hughes receives her next "big break" (105). In one particular assignment, Hughes, determined to meticulously record everything about the gorillas with "fastidious accuracy," turns in a report that is "so thorough, precise, and insightful that the director of research at the zoo met with [her] to discuss her plans for the future" (105). Together they work out a plan that eventually leads Hughes on the path toward a doctoral degree.

The connections she forms as a zookeeper enable Hughes to form a professional ethos as an anthropologist not only of gorillas, but also of what she calls an emerging autistic culture. In her research, she brings an interdisciplinary approach to investigating "the possibility that our minds and memories are not specific to us as individuals but are part of a resonant fabric that informs our psychology and morphology" (183). Although she recognizes that this investigation may mean that her "way of being a scientist would be rejected by most," Hughes puts this perspective to work as a shaper of autistic culture (130). She calls people with autism a "culture of one," noting that "[w]e individuals, with our cultures of one, are building a culture of many" (7). In her role as an editor of personal essays of college students with autism, she argues that "[w]e are all different and all the same; a cultural composite" (xiii). One of the purposes of conveying this composite is so that college faculty, administrators, and service personnel will find "practical information" about the needs and abilities of people with autism. Hughes argues that people with autism are valuable members of the university community and contributors to human culture because of their characteristics, including "unusual focusing capabilities," "unpretentiousness," "insatiable curiosity," and "a disregard for standard ways of behaving and thinking with intelligence, creativity, and divergent problem solving" (xxiii-xxiv).

Like Grandin, Hughes invents a professional ethos out of an untraditional path of study and work. Hughes, especially in her relations with other zoo staff, builds her credibility by engaging in participatory communication and working with others to achieve a common goal. Like technical communicators' models of participatory communication, she is interested in reexamining the ideals of society and the ends of our action, especially in human and animal relationships, connections to the past, and in forging a new idea of identity that might include these partnerships. Hughes also uses her invented professional ethos to forward a notion of articulated identity among people with autism. With her ideal of a culture of one, she maintains non-necessary connections among people with autism and ensures a flexible and changeable identity among this culture of individuals, open to different combinations or "new identity trains," dependent on the individual. While Grandin imagines a wide range of professions and occupations for people with autism, Hughes takes this a step further, and looks to the wide range of abilities and skills that people with autism often possess, positing them as key contributors to educational and work environments as well as culture in general. Both Grandin and Hughes are models of a potential kind of ethos formation for other people with autism who must invent a flexible and effective ethos. They craft good characters in resistance to many damaging stereotypes of people with autism. They develop an ethos that mediates between autistic and neurotypical ways of looking at the world and participate in reciprocal ways of working, learning, and communicating with other people.

Most notably, Grandin and Hughes craft effective senses of ethos in resistance to a rhetorical tradition steeped in normative and neurotypical approaches to ethos construction. The senses of ethos that each develops resists normative assumptions of the traditional model of ethos construction in Aristotelian and sophistic traditions. Both Grandin and Hughes experience difficulty rather than seamlessness in their attempts to align their internal and external thought processes, behaviors, and emotions when communicating with different audiences. Both Hughes and Grandin experience challenges blending an individual and social sense of self in ethos construction at certain times, yet each finds a way to establish their ethos in an alternative way. For Grandin, her invention of the squeeze machine enables her to cultivate a character more in sync with her surroundings, colleagues and environment. For Hughes, watching the gorillas teaches her to craft an ethos based on reciprocity and receptivity with her colleagues.

Autism, Disability Studies, and Technical Communication

Grandin and Hughes are not the only people with autism working as technical communicators and writing about their experiences. Among the recent proliferation of publications by people with autism, more than a few can be seen as exercising an articulated approach to communication in their daily and professional lives.5 John Elder Robison, in his memoir of life with Asperger's Syndrome, explores his adventures as a sound engineer for the band KISS and his development into a successful small business owner in custom auto repair. David Tammet, in his memoir of his life as an "autistic savant," describes his first job, which involved teaching English abroad, and his eventual development of an educational website, which offers for-profit distance learning courses in many languages. In Hughes' edited collection, many students are non-traditional and returning students and offer their perspectives from their experiences at work to compare and contrast to their educational experiences. Grandin and Hughes, along with other accounts of people with autism working in a range of professional capacities and cultivating their own sense of ethos, resist the limiting and stereotypical professional identities constructed by companies such as Aspiritech, Specialisterne, and Kaien.

In the context of the workplace and other areas outside of the traditional classroom, people with autism have important insights to share about communication, as they straddle neurotypical and autistic discourses. Both inside and outside professional contexts as technical communicators, people with autism actively revise normative foundations of traditional ethos. They achieve many of the objectives of a traditionally effective ethos, showing themselves to be reciprocal communicators, connected to their audiences and the people with whom they work, and full of goodwill, but do so in non-normative ways.

Grandin and Hughes model non-normative ways of resisting the foundations of neurotypical ethos in the rhetorical tradition and its contemporary legacies. Rhetors with autism are actively negotiating a sense of ethos by understanding their own cognitive differences and presenting their characters in ways that make their audiences rethink their assumptions about autism. Rhetors with autism cannot simply be dismissed as isolated speakers who "live under a cloud," unable to connect to audiences or struggling to merge individual and social senses of self. They invent a sense of ethos based on traditional traits such as goodwill, credibility, and good character, while demonstrating alternatives to the neurotypical foundations of these elements of ethos. By writing about their struggles with ethos construction and by detailing their successful alternative strategies for constructing their characters, Grandin and Hughes model non-normative ways for other autistic writers to invent their own sense of ethos. They also draw attention to the inherently constructed nature of ethos itself, rather than presenting it as natural, seamless, and uncomplicated.

Analyses of the workplace and other technical and professional contexts in which people with autism write are important areas to develop at the intersections of disability studies and rhetoric and composition studies.6 Studying the invention of professional ethos by writers such as Grandin, Hughes, and others can also forward important interdisciplinary projects within disability studies. As technical communicators, both Grandin and Hughes are authors of a professional ethos, offering additional examples to the alternative autistic authorship such that Melanie Yergeau has explored in the dual roles of teacher and student. A critical resistance to the limited forms of professional ethos that Aspiritech, Specialisterne, and Kaien shape is also in keeping with the spirit of neurodiversity recently forwarded by Emily Thornton Savarese and Ralph James Savarese. Wondering about "a therapy, as of yet undeveloped, that would eradicate autism itself," Savarese and Savarese cite Grandin's response—"I wouldn't be me" (qtd. in Sacks 291). Instead of a cure, Savarese and Savarese reinforce the need for a perspective of neurodiversity—"the greater the departure from the norm, the more a concept of neurodiversity is required" ("The Superior Half"). Companies that recruit people with autism, operating from a transmission view of communication, norm people with autism, whittling down the rich, diverse, and valuable ways in which they are different from neurotypicals. These companies, although they combat the high numbers of unemployment among people with autism, parcel people on the spectrum into high and low functioning categories and limit forms of authorship and professionalism. In resistance, rhetors with autism such as Grandin and Hughes demonstrate neurodiverse approaches to ethos in their professions. Rather than efficient, predictable, and invisible, they are keen, curious, and creative.

Interdisciplinary explorations between disability studies and technical and professional communication studies also forward both fields' ongoing project of intervening critically in discourses and practices of science, medicine, and technology. Grandin, for example, who has been authored by the medical community by individuals such as Oliver Sacks, authors herself and her own ethos in her capacity as a technical communicator. To a certain extent, disability studies is already engaged in an articulation model of communication with science, medicine, and technology, as scholars and activists seek to author their own relationships with dominant discourses and practices. Resistance of stereotypes and active negotiation of the meaning-making of disability, in relation to existing frameworks of knowledge, relations of production, and contexts of power, are already part of this process. Technical communicators can be powerful allies in this process. The efforts of technical and professional communicators like Grandin, Hughes, and others contribute to and forward this engagement. At work and in writing, they redefine what it means to possess autistic ethos, remaking possibilities.

Works Cited

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Endnotes

  1. For more information on a humanistic approach as well as the social and cultural turns in technical communication, see Rutter, Miller, Blyler, and Thralls and Scott and Longo. Longo's Spurious Coin also details the traditional view of "pure" scientific and technological knowledge as threatened by technical writers who may pollute it.


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  2. As technical communicators such as John Bryan, among others, point out, "technical writers … have traditionally relied on the ethical orientation of the organizational families that adopt us" (73). As Charles P. Campbell elaborates, "In modern terms, ethos is the public image one acquires, say, from acting habitually as an engineer among engineers, or as a banker among bankers" (135). See Bryan and Campbell for more details on ethos among technical writers.


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  3. Danish entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne, the company's founder and father of a son with autism, conceived of the idea for the company when he "realized that while most people find software testing tedious and often miss bugs, people like his son could be brilliant at it" (http://www.odemagazine.com).


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  4. Grandin's assignation of an "emergence" from autism is problematic from a disability studies perspective. Although Grandin breaks many stereotypes about people with autism, she also promulgates some troubling assumptions about autism, including that it is something one must overcome. Also an issue is her categorization of people with autism into high and low functioning categories. While some of Grandin's statements on autism are reductive and must be noted, it is still possible to read her experiences as resistant.


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  5. In fictionalized accounts in popular culture, people with autism are also working as technical communicators. In the science fiction novel The Speed of Dark, for example, a man with autism works in a specialized group of autistic-only employees. Also, the film Mozart and the Whale, which is based on real events, includes a character whose autism uniquely qualifies him for a job interpreting data at a university.


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  6. There are several valuable studies of disability within composition and rhetoric from pedagogical and theoretical perspectives (Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson, 2001; Brueggemann, 2002; Dolmage, 2006; McRuer, 2006; Vidali, 2007; and contributors to Embodied Rhetorics and Disability and the Teaching of Writing), but none as of yet have focused or emphasized the experiences of students with disabilities transitioning to the workplace. There are also important efforts in technical communication to consider disability and accessibility that can be extended via connections to technical communicators with autism: see Slatin, Palmeri, and Zdenek in particular.


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Copyright (c) 2011 Shannon Walters



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