Abstract

This paper first explicates various forces working to construct autism as an overwhelmingly white phenomenon in public discourse, including popular films, television programming, "armchair" internet diagnoses, "geek chic," "shiny" autistics, "Aspie supremacy," the rhetorics of autism advocacy organizations, special education, access to health care, and parental education levels. It then considers the epistemological and rhetorical implications of autistic whiteness, including an examination of its functions in Burkean identification and its possible operation in educational, workplace, criminal justice, and governmental contexts.

Introduction

Whatever else it may be, autism is a profoundly rhetorical phenomenon. First, let us recall Aristotle's ancient distinction between the necessary and the contingent: the proper domain of rhetoric, he wrote, is not the realm of the necessarily true, certain, or stable, but rather the realm of the contingent, possible, and probable (Honeycutt 1357a). We do not yet know what causes autism, and outside of any personal experiences we have had with autistics, all there is to work with is fundamentally uncertain yet aggressively suasive public discourse about the condition, where there is heated argument about what, exactly, autism is, how we should think about it, and how we should respond to it. Is it a disease? A disability? A diversity issue? All these things and more? Here, then, is a second way that autism is rhetorical: as Dilip Gaonkar has said, "Rhetoric is the discursive medium of deliberating and choosing, especially in the public sphere" (8). All we are presented with in the public sphere are competing narratives and arguments about autism, all of which are clamouring for our assent and none of which is remotely disinterested. The arguments wielded in this conflict are often verbal, of course, but they are increasingly visual in nature as well, and they come at us from professional, popular, and amateur authors through a wide variety of media — books, magazines, film, television, advocacy campaigns, public service announcements, wikis, and blogs, to name but a few.

But what all these rhetorical constructions have in common is that they almost inevitably portray autistics as white — no matter whether the person in question is real or fictional, male or female, young or old, a child or parent or sibling, and regardless of his or her occupation, degree of success, or celebrity. There is thus a complex, somewhat contradictory set of effects of these discourses, one that affects both those on the autism spectrum and neurotypicals as well, implicitly but powerfully shaping what we can collectively perceive and conceive about autism and autistics. On the one hand, for instance, this rhetoric suggests that autism is radically democratic, that it is socially unifying, affecting a broad range of people over a variety of typical demographic distinctions, such as gender, age, class, nationality, and religion. On the other hand, this rhetoric suggests that autism is exclusive, that it is socially divisive, affecting only a particular kind of people as determined by the single and especially fraught demographic distinction of race. This vexed dynamic has additional implications for autistics and neurotypicals alike, affecting our assumptions and relationships at every level from the interpersonal to the international. After explicating how some of these rhetorical constructions of autism and whiteness are created by popular media, autism discourses, and other cultural forces, this paper will conclude by considering a range of their potential social, political, and cultural effects.

Popular Discourses

Let us begin, then, with the more obvious factors. While the rates of incidence of autism have been climbing since the American Psychological Association redefined the condition in 1994 — the Center for Disease Control currently places the rate at 1 in 88 persons in the United States (par. 1) — most people still do not have regular, personal contact with autistic individuals. Hence, our conceptions of autism and autistics are driven primarily by what we encounter in popular media. What we learn from the movies, for instance, is that all autistics are white. In Adam (2009), for example, the autistic character was portrayed by Hugh Dancy; in P.S. I Love You (2007), it was Harry Connick, Jr.; in Snow Cake (2006), Sigourney Weaver; in Mozart and the Whale (2005), both Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell; in I Am Sam (1998), Sean Penn; in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Leonardo DiCaprio; and in Rain Man (1988), the iconic film representation of an autistic, Dustin Hoffman. Likewise, on television, when autistic characters or persons are shown, they are inevitably white. TV dramas give us autistic characters played by Max Burkholder ("Parenthood"), Mary McDonnell ("Grey's Anatomy"), and Matthew Gray Gubler ("Criminal Minds"), while reality shows present us with Heather Kuzmich ("America's Next Top Model"), Zev Glassenberg ("The Amazing Race"), and James Durbin ("American Idol").

While most people might point to Sheldon Cooper, the physicist portrayed by Jim Parsons on the comedy "The Big Bang Theory," as the most obviously autistic character on television, Sheldon actually exemplifies two other forces working to construct autism as a relentlessly white condition: "armchair" internet diagnoses and "geek chic." Consider armchair diagnoses: while all the other film and television portrayals I have mentioned involve persons being overtly identified as being autistic within the production itself or by its actors or producers, Sheldon has never been identified as such, although there is broad public acceptance that he is. The greater rhetorical power of these armchair diagnoses, though, does not come from their identifying additional fictional characters as autistic (although Napoleon Dynamite and Mr. Bean leap to mind, for instance), but from their invocation of real, historical figures as autistic. There are numerous lists of famous autistic people on the internet, all of which are completely speculative, but which nonetheless have considerable suasive power, especially when taken together. Indeed, as Fred Volkmar, a psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Centre has said, "there is a sort of cottage industry of finding that everyone has Asperger's" (qtd. in Goode, par. 13). But in this industry, it seems, everyone is white. On these lists, we regularly find such people as Hans Christian Andersen, Béla Bartók, Lewis Carroll, Henry Cavendish, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Glenn Gould, Thomas Jefferson, James Joyce, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Isaac Newton, George Orwell, Erik Satie, Jonathan Swift, Nikola Tesla, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and W. B. Yeats ("Historical Figures").

Even a cursory examination of such lists reveals a high proportion of scientists and technology experts, which leads us to consider the role geek chic plays in the construction of autistic whiteness. As Steve Silberman wrote in Wired magazine in 2001, "It's a familiar joke in the industry that many of the hardcore programmers […] are residing somewhere in the Asperger's domain," that autism is "the engineers' disorder" (par. 32). Silberman cites a recurring theme in case histories of autism: a "fascination with technology, ordered systems, visual modes of thinking, and subversive creativity" (par. 35). And in our digital world, such interests and skills are increasingly coded as positive traits, while traditional social skills are becoming less important. Hence, as Neil Shepard notes, "in our cultural moment of geek chic […] the proto-typical Aspergian persona represented dominantly in the media is often both intelligent and successful," which also means "masculine, middle/upper class and white" (i).

Autism Discourses

Shepard notes that success in terms of geek chic thus "upholds traditional normativity in terms of gender, race and class, as well as reifying stigma toward other points on the autistic spectrum" (ii), a dynamic which many people on the autism spectrum themselves are finding increasingly problematic. We thus come to the idea of the "shiny" autistic and how this concept works, as well, to construct autism as a white condition. According to one source,

Shiny autistic is a term used in the Autistic community to denote an individual who is held up as an example of "what autistics should be" [… .] Most shiny autistics […] are high-functioning individuals who become famous by writing a book or otherwise sharing their experience as an autistic. It is felt by other autistics that society at large generalizes the lives of the shiny autistics and expects all autistics to be the same or very similar. ("Shiny Autistic," pars. 1-2)

Temple Grandin, of course, is the quintessential shiny autistic, but we can also point to Daniel Tammet, John Elder Robison, and Dawn Prince-Hughes, for instance, all of whom are white, high-profile authors of popular books sharing their experiences as autistics.

Another rhetoric coming from the autistic community itself which is working to construct autistic identity as white is that of Aspie supremacism. In this discourse, autism is seen not as problem to be fixed or a deficit or to be overcome, but rather as a marked improvement over normal neurology. On websites such as Wrong Planet, for example, there are those who describe autism as the next and better phase of human evolution ("Why Is Aspie Separatism/Supremacy Controversial?"), and the Facebook page "Aspie Supremacy" defines Aspie, that is, someone with Asperger Syndrome, as

A superior being, [though] deficient in chaotic morasses such as small-talk […and the] double-standard-laden customs and values trumpeted by Neurotypicals, […but] more than makes up for it with a sharp, penetrating mind that is highly adept at developing an intense focus on a subject giving them a near-savant level of proficiency […] and an ability to reason independently, reducing their susceptibility to dogma, acceptance of groundless assertions, and the hazards of groupthink. (par. 4)

And while neurotypicals might deflect some of the barbs here by noting the irony and dark humor, the same cannot be said of web postings like this one:

Well, guess what folks? I'm a supremacist! I think neurotypicals are idiots who are fucking this world up, I look down on primate politics, [and] I think if aspies were in charge things would be a whole lot better. (Anonymous, par. 3)

I admit that I find this rhetoric disturbing, since any discourse that invokes a reference to genetic or evolutionary superiority will, of course, immediately raise the spectre of racism. While no example of Aspie supremacist rhetoric that I have seen overtly mentions race, the general orientation and thrust of this discourse aligns uncomfortably well with commonplace tropes of white superiority, both those working historically in American political and popular discourse to justify — ostensibly — the systemic institution of slavery, and those running from Arthur de Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853) through mid-twentieth century Nazi propaganda to contemporary discussions of white separatism and nationalism in European contexts. In the two examples cited above, for instance, we see an argument for a hierarchical sociopolitical arrangement based on a particular group's cognitive, intellectual, and philosophical superiority over others, a differential which results from evolutionary processes. Thus, when I hear that a self-described Aspie supremacist "looks down at primate politics," it is difficult not to hear strong, disturbing echoes of white racist discourses purporting that African-Americans were sub-human and that Aryans were a master race.

The rhetorics of autism advocacy groups also work to construct autism as a white phenomenon. The two most powerful advocacy groups, Autism Speaks and Generation Rescue, are both fronted by photogenic white celebrities: Suzanne Wright, the wife of former NBC Universal CEO Robert Wright, and Jenny McCarthy, the popular comedic actress, respectively. Wright takes advantage of her husband's industry ties to appear regularly on news broadcasts in the United States, while McCarthy appears frequently on talk shows such as "Oprah" and "Good Morning America." Both rely on their personal ethos as grandmother and mother to autistic children, respectively, as they make their appeals, demonstrating how autism affects several generations at once in white families. Moreover, if one sees a Public Service Announcement on U.S. television, it is invariably produced by Autism Speaks, and the these spots overwhelmingly feature white actors or celebrities, such as golfer Ernie Els ("Autism Awareness") and the musical group the Jonas Brothers ("Jonas Brothers"). And finally, each of these organizations' websites feature images of white children only. McCarthy is featured on the banner of the Generation Rescue website hugging a white boy (Generation Rescue), for instance, and the Autism Speaks site urges us to click on various photos so we can "meet" Bobby, Kyle, Deena, Christian, Louisa, Michael, Adam, Lilly, and Helena, all of whom are white (Autism Speaks).

Cultural Forces

Let us now consider some of the less obvious forces working to construct autism as a white condition. For instance, cultural biases for and against special education programs are powerful factors in this regard. A recent study of New York City suburbs found that "Affluent school districts […] classify more than five times as many of their students with autism as districts at the opposite end of the economic spectrum" (Rudy, par. 1). The report notes that while "Many white parents actively seek special-education classifications for their children, […] for advantages such as extended testing time," for example, "Black and Hispanic parents tend to be warier of special-education programs that, historically, placed many minority children in classes beneath their ability levels" (Rudy, par. 2). In other words, since autism is a special education issue, and since white parents, communities, and schools disproportionately embrace special education programs, far more children are diagnosed with autism in those communities.

This same study pointed to a second less obvious, though quite powerful, force constructing autism a white condition: access to health care. Medical experts, the report said,

blame the problem […] on a lack of quality health care in low-income neighborhoods. Research shows toddlers in poor families who aren't taken on regular visits to pediatricians are less likely to have their autism diagnosed when it first appears. (Rudy, par. 1)

Additional support for this idea comes from a recent study in California which

discovered clusters of autism, largely in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, where children are twice as likely to have autism as children in surrounding areas. The 10 clusters were found mostly among children with highly educated parents, leading researchers to report that they probably can be explained by better access to medical experts who diagnose the disorder. (Cone, pars. 1-2)

According to Irva Hertz-Picciotto, the senior author of the study, "access to services plays the major role" (qtd. in Cone, par. 3). Deresha Gibson, a social work researcher, agrees, contending that

since African-American children are more likely to not have access to healthcare, experience greater discontinuity in healthcare, and/or are more likely to see multiple primary care physicians, the opportunity for a provider to make an accurate and timely diagnosis [of autism] is greatly jeopardized. (36)

Hertz-Picciotto notes an additional barrier to health care faced by Hispanic families in the U.S.: "Hispanic parents were underrepresented in all 10 of the clusters," she said, which "could be because some parents are reluctant to seek help from a state agency if they have a member of the family who is undocumented" (qtd. in Soraya, par. 5).

And even when minority children with autism do get access to health care, there are diagnostic biases in place that delay if not prevent their being diagnosed with autism. Gibson writes that black children with autism-spectrum disorders are often misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. She likewise discusses a 2006 study that found that "African-American children were three times more likely than Caucasian children to receive another diagnosis first and 2.6 times less likely to receive an autism diagnosis on their first specialty care visit" (34). And once they entered treatment, she writes, African-American children "required three times the number of visits over a period three times as long as Caucasian children before receiving an autistic disorder diagnosis" (35). A similar study found that while it usually takes three or four doctor's visits for a white family to get an accurate diagnosis for their autistic child, for Latino families it takes more than eight (Soraya, pars. 12-13).

The influences of special education programs and access to health care are both connected to a third less obvious factor working to create autism as a white condition, which is the level of parental education. According to Bernard Weiss, an expert in environmental medicine, the California study "confirms an association between parental education and autism risk" that had been found in earlier studies. Weiss says these "findings indicate a higher likelihood of seeking services by educated parents" (qtd. in Cone, pars. 12-13). In other words, the more educated a child's parents are, the more likely they are to seek educational and medical services if they suspect their child is autistic, and thus the more likely their children are to be diagnosed as autistic. This being the case, the current situation in American education, at least, which continues to have racially disproportionate results favoring greater degrees of achievement by white students, is thus heavily weighted toward perpetuating autism as a white phenomenon. According to the Civil Society Institute, 75% of white students graduate from U.S. high schools, but only 50% of black students, 51% of Native American students, and 53% of Hispanic students do (qtd. in "Minorities Have '50-50' Chance," par. 3). Moreover, white high school graduates are also more likely to go to college than their black or Hispanic classmates. According to the American Council on Education, 47.3% of white high school graduates attend college, versus 41.1% of black and 35.2% of Hispanic high school graduates (Marklein, par. 3). In sum, if, as Weiss suggests, there is a link between the level of parental education and the number of diagnoses of autism in their children, autism will continue to be skewed quite heavily toward being a white condition until race-based disparities in educational achievement are ameliorated.

Implications

Even the limited analysis presented here strongly suggests that autism is being rhetorically constructed in public discourse as an overwhelmingly white condition. In professional, popular, and amateur discourses — and across a variety of media — it seems clear that autistics are consistently portrayed as white, regardless of any other demographic distinctions that would seem to apply, such as gender, age, class, nationality, or religion. While additional, more in-depth studies of autism as a white phenomenon should surely be conducted to determine the full range and depth of this phenomenon, I would prefer to turn at this point from this preliminary discussion of some of its causes to a initial discussion of its potential implications. My hope here is to be suggestive rather than comprehensive, to spur discussion rather than to exhaust the possibilities.

I begin, then, with the perhaps obvious matter of epistemology, of how rhetoric and social construction can work to create the "truth" in a given circumstance. In other words, what can someone know of autism or autistics, and how can he or she know it? While the best information would likely come from direct, sustained, personal contact with a range of autistics across a variety of contexts over a long period of time, few people have that opportunity. Even those of us on the spectrum or who have close relationships with an autistic family member or members will still always be working with a necessarily limited data set. Hence, now matter how great the educational effort — that is, even if World Autism Awareness Day and Autism Awareness Month somehow become a perpetual World Autism Awareness Year — what we have to work with, then, are less our lived experiences than they are the increasingly ubiquitous narratives and arguments about autism and autistics being pushed at us in books, magazines, film, television, newspapers, advocacy campaigns, public service announcements, and a wide variety of internet sites. And generally speaking, what audiences learn from these discourses is that regardless of any other kinds of diversity they might embody or enact, autistics are white. I will go further: what audiences learn from these discourses is that regardless of any other disagreements people might have about autism — what it is, what causes it, how we should think about it, how we should respond to it — autism is a relentlessly white condition. That is the "truth" about autism. Without substantial and direct experiential evidence to counter this rhetorical onslaught, how could we possibly think or know otherwise?

This "truth" has profound implications for our relationships with autism and autistics. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke argues that identification is the engine of persuasion, and that our desire to identify operates rhetorically whether we are deliberate about it or conscious of it or not. What, then, are the rhetorical effects of this overwhelming autistic whiteness? For someone just coming to understand that he might be autistic, for instance, his ability or inability to identify with autistic whiteness could be a powerful force in persuading him that he is or is not on the spectrum. Such identification could bring a sense of belonging, community, and agency; a lack of such identification could mean loneliness, confusion, and political disempowerment. Persons of color somehow have to look around or ignore this whiteness as the single most obvious and unifying characteristic of autistic identity to identify with others on the spectrum, which is not impossible, of course, but would seem highly problematic. For a neurotypical working out her relationship with someone on the spectrum, her ability or inability to identify with this autistic whiteness could be a powerful force in persuading her to support or resist a particular agenda about autism — for instance, whether she should understand and respond to autism as a disease, a disability, or a diversity issue. Indeed, autistic whiteness is such an overweaningly obvious and unifying characteristic that it could easily rhetorically trump other considerations. Audience members who identify with autistic whiteness could easily come to ignore, collapse, or obliterate any number of critical differences that might actually exist between them and people they know on the spectrum, such as class, gender, or sexual orientation, obfuscations and denials that would surely cause more rifts in a relationship than any identification via autistic whiteness might bridge. Moreover, if identifying with autistic whiteness serves to collapse or efface critical differences between people on the spectrum and neurotypicals, as I believe it may, then it would seem to be deeply involved in difficult questions about empathy and its place in autistic-neurotypical relations (see Heilker and Yergeau, 491). To what extent, we might ask, does the ease of neurotypical identification with autistic whiteness foster an uncritical, problematic, over-reaching "empathy" for autistics?

In like manner, beyond these interpersonal considerations, we should examine the degree to which assumptions about the "truth" of autistic whiteness seem to undergird and operate within larger social systems. Within the United States, for instance, how does the rhetoric of autistic whiteness operate in educational settings? How does it work to frame what teachers, special education aides, administrators, nurses, librarians, cafeteria workers, office staff, and even janitorial staff can perceive and conceive about students on the spectrum in their charge? To what extent has the rhetoric of autistic whiteness filtered into workplace settings to determine what employers, supervisors, co-workers, and clients "know" about autism and autistic employees? To what degree does the rhetoric of autistic whiteness operate in the criminal justice system? What does it empower police officers, lawyers, and judges to see about the accused and the victims they encounter? And to what does it blind them? To what extent does the rhetoric of autistic whiteness serve as a set of implicit, unexamined, foundational assumptions for those working in social services and legislation? To what extent does the rhetoric of autistic whiteness drive public policies and laws that empower citizens or control their access to economic and political power. And finally, to what degree does the rhetoric of autistic whiteness operate in other cultures? How does autistic whiteness circulate and function in other countries' various social systems to construct the "truth" about autism and autistics that can be known there? And how do these constructions compare and contrast with — harmonize and conflict with — those operating in our own culture?

It may seem that I overstate the case, that I ascribe too much agency to the rhetoric of autistic whiteness I describe here. But even the simplest Google search suggests that my concerns may be well founded: a search for "autism" reveals that approximately 94% of the images returned are of white subjects — 47 of the first 50 images ("Autism"). The disparity between this very powerful, overdetermined rhetoric and the reality of autism, though, may be extreme. In at least one study of 987 Caucasian and African-American children, it was found that the prevalence of autism did not vary by race, even within race and sex subgroups (Gibson 34). Hence, there is a great deal of work to be done to create a more realistic portrait of autism and autistics in our public discourse. Until that more realistic discourse emerges, our collective understanding of autism, our various relationships with autistics, and the social systems we base on those relationships will remain unfortunately and necessarily skewed.

Works Cited

Paul Heilker is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where he serves as the Director of the PhD Program in Rhetoric and Writing. With Melanie Yergeau, he is co-author of "Autism and Rhetoric," which appeared in College English 73.5 (May 2011); with Jason King, he is co-author of "The Rhetorics of Online Autism Advocacy: A Case for Rhetorical Listening," which appeared in Rhetorics and Technologies: New Directions in Communication, edited by Stuart Selber (University of South Carolina Press, 2010). This paper began as a presentation at the Global Conference on Images of Whiteness (Oxford University, United Kingdom, July 2011).

Author's note: In this text, I use the term autistic to refer to and to describe persons on the autism spectrum. In doing so, I am following the advice of Ari Ne'eman, President of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, and John Duffy and Melanie Yergeau, Editors of Disability Studies Quarterly 31.3 (2011), who have taught me that, generally speaking, the autistic community prefers identity-first language rather than person-first language.

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Copyright (c) 2012 Paul Heilker



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