Sonya Freeman Loftis' book Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum employs a "moderated" materialism or social constructionist approach in interrogating how autism has been characterized in the popular imagination. Such an approach offers a corrective to dualistic frameworks that wrench apart culture and biology, ideas and materiality. Autism should, according to Loftis, be understood as always-already constituted by and in relation to cultural practices. In other words, the symbolic inscribes and produces autism. Loftis, whose work is informed by her own experience as an autistic person, begins with an account of how the media connected the killer at Sandy Hook Elementary with Asperger's Syndrome in order to provide a vivid example of the dangers of stereotyping: how our culture's obsession with and prejudice against autism spectrum disorder can negatively influence the way people think about autistic individuals. In Imagining Autism, she "examines the interrelationship of literary representations of autism, cultural stereotypes, autistic culture, and disability identity politics" (2). Arguing that literary depictions of life on the spectrum remain unexamined from the standpoints of both Disability Studies and autistic culture, Loftis seeks to "examine the assumptions that underpin common literary stereotypes of people on the spectrum" as well as "explore the implications that these fictional depictions have on public perceptions of the condition" (3). As this is the first book on autism and literature, its scope is necessarily wide-ranging, extending from "before the diagnosis" to contemporary fiction, from literary characters clearly represented to those characters widely suspected to be on the spectrum, from canonical classroom staples to recent best sellers. The diversity of works examined allows Imagining Autism to illuminate not the nature and source of autism but rather the "fantastic variety," the "flexible alterity" that the term autism encompasses (2), emphasizing, thereby, "autism's place in our culture as a shifting symbol of difference" (21-22).

The chapters in Imagining Autism move roughly chronologically and are grouped thematically around literary characters that express a common stereotype about autistic individuals: from unfeeling detectives and genius savants to victims of filicide and social outcasts and outsiders. Loftis primarily concerns herself with illuminating the space, overlap, and interdependence between cultural stereotypes of people on the spectrum and the search for autistic identity. She examines how "these metaphors imagine autism as a condition that is separable from the autistic person […rendering] the person with autism passive" (16). In emphasizing the gap between the literary and the nonliterary, fiction and reality, Loftis' work engages with debates concerning the compatibility of Disability Studies and literary studies. During a particular moment in Disability Studies, scholars like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, and Tobin Siebers critiqued literary representations of disability for failing to represent the actual lived experience of disabled individuals. Mitchell and Snyder, for instance, suggested that narrative, rather than highlighting the social and political dimensions of disability, often employed disability as a metaphor, as a "narrative prosthesis," that is, as a "crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representative power, disruptive potential, and analytical insight" (49). Placing her work within this lineage, Loftis worries that the "seemingly inexplicable or ineffable nature of the [autistic] condition has made its metaphorical uses in our society particularly charged" (16). In Chapter 5, "The Autistic Child Narrator: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Jonathan Safran Foer and Mark Haddon are critiqued for offering their child narrators – Oskar Schell and Christopher Boone, respectively – as metaphors for larger social concerns. Oskar's struggle to communicate symbolizes the "cultural trauma surrounding 9/11;" Christopher stands in for "cultural anxieties regarding the instability of the postmodern family" (108). While the perpetuation of negative metaphors regarding individuals on the spectrum should certainly be criticized, Loftis does not adequately theorize the use of metaphor to describe autism, failing to engage with more recent work on this important tension. Michael Bérubé argues that Disability Studies' suggestion to not read the representation of disability as figural threatens to make it "incompatible with the enterprise of professional literary studies, dedicated as so much of it is to the interpretation of the figural" ("Disability and Narrative," 570). 1 In response, James Berger has posited readings of fictional portrayals of characters and ideological directions of texts that "overall are far more multivalent than straightforward disability analyses would seem to allow" (152). Critiquing all depictions of autism that signify something other than itself prevents Loftis from considering what the study of autism in literature brings to the discipline of literary criticism.

The cultural stereotype that garners the most attention in Imagining Autism is that of the detective figure with autistic traits. Loftis convincingly traces a long-standing "autistic detective tradition" by examining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous tales about Sherlock Holmes (as well as later adaptations of these stories for film and television), Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, and the television series Criminal Minds and Bones. In Chapter 1, "The Autistic Detective: Sherlock Holmes and His Legacy," Loftis reveals the potentially dehumanizing stereotypes that such detective heroes may perpetuate about autistic individuals. Her analysis of Holmes emphasizes that the reader's understanding of him is filtered through his "neurotypical" sidekick Watson: while Holmes may not be autistic, Watson certainly perceives him to be autistic. Indeed, for Loftis, Watson places the reader in the default neurotypical position by "[mirroring] the assumed norm of the majority perspective in society at large" (25). By perceiving Holmes to have intense interests, lack social skills, and a display of unusual body language, Watson presents Holmes in ways that perpetuates negative stereotypes about autistic difference: not only as a machine incapable of emotion but also as a "puzzle" or "mystery" to be solved by neurotypicals. In her reading of the characters Spencer Reid and Temperance Brennan from Criminal Minds and Bones, respectively, Loftis argues that their autistic traits, which perpetuate these same negative stereotypes, can be traced back to Holmes. Although autistic detectives may seem to affirmatively work for law and order, they are depicted as existing in an ambiguously liminal position with respect to criminality by virtue of the potential danger manifesting in their unusual minds: Reid is depicted as sharing a common neurological makeup with the criminals he pursues, while Brennan is shown to possess the intelligence and interest in crime needed to be a dangerous criminal.

In tracing this autistic detective tradition – indeed, throughout Imagining Autism – Loftis gazes backward from a contemporary perspective. As such, depictions of characters whether in literature from "before the diagnosis" or in contemporary fiction are uniformly criticized for conforming to a plethora of stereotypes that have only emerged during recent decades and years. While it is certainly important to interrogate the ways in which the depiction of characters from literary history can shape and influence contemporary perceptions of people on the spectrum, painting such a wide canvas with a narrowly contemporary brush does threaten at times to erase important historical nuance. Examining the stereotype that autistic individuals are more likely to be victims of filicide in Chapter 3, "The Autistic Victim: Of Mice and Men and Flowers for Algernon," Loftis convincingly argues that the depictions of Lennie Small and Charlie Gordon reveal cultural assumptions that devalue disability and thereby connect it with notions of killing and curing. As she explains, Lennie and Charlie conform to cultural stereotypes relating to both intellectual and cognitive disability. Lennie is represented as "unusually large, animal like, mechanical, clumsy, and symbolically deprived of 'freewill and rationality'" as well as connected with animals (65); Charlie is represented as, on the one hand, "a child worthy of pity" and, on the other hand, "egocentric, didactic, and unempathetic" (71). Since much work remains to be done on the historical refinement of the general category of "idiocy" into autism, it is disappointing that Loftis does not attempt to untangle the workings of such representations. Instead, by the end of the chapter, each character has been reduced to a representation of contemporary cultural myths relating to autism, curing, and killing.

In Chapter 4, "The Autistic Gothic: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Glass Menagerie, and The Sound and the Fury, " Loftis examines the stereotype of the autistic individual as isolated, that is, as trapped within an imprisoning interiority and unable to communicate with the outside world. For her, the Gothic mode proves an ideal genre to emphasize the monstrosity of autistic characters, who either pull together or tear apart the family unit. In making this claim, Loftis differentiates between Arthur "Boo" Radley, Laura Wingfield, and Benjy Compson: where these former two characters are read as having Asperger's syndrome, Benjy is read as having autistic traits. While Loftis admits that these diagnoses are anachronistic, she does not explore the historical framework of cultural practices and institutions that allowed autism and later Asperger's syndrome to be identified and interpreted as distinct psychiatric disorders. Patrick McDonagh has, for instance, taken up this challenge, arguing that "the capacity to perceive autism in the 1940s may be connected to the proliferation of modern, and modernist, notions of the self, which were given shape in the literary works of the era" (101-102). Reading Imagining Autism, thereby, often left me asking the question of why, if literature plays as large a role as Loftis argues, the articulation of autism had to initially happen through a fictional discourse rather than a scientific discourse.

Imagining Autism is at its most interesting and challenging when considering the workings of autistic culture. The very helpful Introduction outlines some of the contemporary debates within the autistic community regarding terminology and language, labels and naming. Citing the rise of online communities for autistics as allowing for the creation of an original and distinctive language, Loftis suggests that the powerful term "neurotypical" (NT) "destabilizes common conceptions of what is considered 'normal'" (8). Chapter 2, "The Autistic Savant: Pygmalion, Saint John, and the Neurodiversity Movement," extends her consideration of this political act of (re)naming to the main focus of her book: stereotypes. She writes that "[i]t is not surprising that people on the autism spectrum have banded together to oppose and rewrite negative stereotypes perpetuated by the majority culture" (18). Exploring the pervasive stereotype connecting genius with autism, Loftis considers how the autistic community has claimed the figure of George Bernard Shaw, who can be seen as a kind of literary savant, as a positive role model. Analyzing a 2011 discussion thread on "Wrong Plant" about a quotation from Shaw's Man and Superman, Loftis suggests that, while claiming Shaw may seem to present autistic identity in a positive light, it "perpetuates the savant stereotype" (59). Provocatively, she claims that such a choice of role model reveals that individuals in the autistic community have internalized some of the stereotypes used to define them. What is needed, according to her, is a more complicated picture of what it means to live with autism. Still, this chapter offers something that is largely missing from Imagining Autism as a whole: the possibility of resisting negative stereotypes of individuals on the spectrum.

In bringing such a diverse and eclectic group of characters together under the diagnostic label of "autism," Imagining Autism threatens to expand the scope of this condition to the point of incoherence. In Chapter 6, "The Autistic Label: Diagnosing (and Undiagnosing) the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Loftis begins by diagnosing Lisbeth Salander as autistic, arguing that her "social struggles" and "intense interests" place her on the spectrum (132), and that her silence, or lack of reciprocity in dialogue, is "distinctively autistic" (133). Loftis then concludes that the climactic scene of the final novel erases this label, as she is declared "officially and legally neurotypical" (149). The implication, here, is that Lisbeth must be "undiagnosed" because audiences are not prepared to embrace an autistic or neurodiverse heroine. Yet, because, as Loftis admits, Lisbeth suggests "so many diagnoses […] that none of them ever become definitive," one cannot help but question the label itself (131). Indeed, the question becomes at what point characteristics like "social struggles" and "intense interests" can be understood as meeting the criteria for diagnosis, particularly within the realm of the literary. Loftis' numerous attempts at retrospective diagnosis can, at the same time, be read in a more positive light. In prompting such questions, Imagining Autism seems to propose that autism is not a thing with a specific nature and source but rather a nominal category comprising a "remarkably diverse group" of characters who "share many of the same basic traits (sensory sensitivities, social struggles, deep interests) and face many of the same problems (social rejection, familial violence, damaging label)" (152-153). In this way, Imagining Autism illuminates Stuart Murray's claim that retrospective diagnosis is "a fraught process that is all too open to the abuse of the lazy claim, but it can also be a radical critical intervention that is enlightening in extending the parameters of how we understand and read disability" (51). While this review has emphasized a number of perceived shortcomings, Loftis' Imagining Autism should be understood as an important and necessary early step in bringing the study of autism into the field of literary studies.


  1. See also Bérubé, The Secret Life of Stories (40-56).
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Works Cited

  • Berger, James. The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity. New York: New York University Press, 2014. Print.
  • Bérubé, Michael. "Disability and Narrative." PMLA 120.2 (2005): 568-576. Web. 14 May 2013.
  • - - -. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York: New York University Press, 2016. Print.
  • McDonagh, Patrick. "Autism and Modernism: A Genealogical Exploration." Autism and Representation. Ed. Mark Osteen. New York: Routledge, 2008. 99-116. Print.
  • Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.
  • Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008. Print.
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