Efforts to redefine autism and find a place for it in Disability Studies have gained momentum in recent years. Monographs and collections by scholars such as Stuart Murray, Jordynn Jack, Sonya Loftis, Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini, and myself, along with numerous contributions from autistic persons, their parents and siblings, have advanced this revolution in thinking. Alice Wexler's book, despite some organizational and theoretical shortcomings, makes an important contribution to this movement.

The book is split into two parts, its first five chapters concentrating on "Theories of Selfhood," and the second comprising profiles of four autistic visual artists. Drawing on David Hume, Wexler first discusses how humans place ourselves within a narrative of identity. If all selves are reforged constantly, how do the differences in self-perception and sensation, as well as their communicative challenges, affect autistic persons' identities? And what sort of art issues from these unusual minds? Wexler writes that "the autistic self … presents a seepage in our tenuous hold on our illusion" of a coherent identity (9), because "autists experience, probably in excess, the 'bundle-like' quality of self" that Hume hypothesizes (35). Yet the "neurotypical can only speculate about atypical brains" (9). Wexler herself is neurotypical, so it follows that her arguments are speculative. Although these speculations yield some creative conclusions and prompt some powerful advocacy, at times they seem thinly supported.

In her opening chapter, Wexler questions both "the stability of the neurotypical self" and "the illusion of a hard and fast boundary between neurotypicality and otherness," concluding that "autism reminds us of the fragility of identity, the lack of absoluteness of 'I,' and the porous borders of the self" (35). Autists' decenteredness, that is, exposes the asymmetry of the world itself and the fictive nature of all selfhood. In that regard, as Matthew K. Belmonte has put it, autists are "human, but more so."

Chapter two draws from the writings of autists such as Tito Mukhopadhyay to posit the existence of a "thinking self" discrete from an "acting self." While this idea helps to explain the dyspraxia described by some articulate autists, it may also erect a neo-Cartesian dualism that would create as many problems as it would solve. More useful is the chapter's discussions of the "Intense World Syndrome" posited by Olga Bogdashina (51) and the dynamic, "leaky" self described by Erin Manning (49). In any case, Wexler perceptively discusses the overwhelming sensorium experienced by many on the autism spectrum, and persuasively rebuts the belief that autists possess a poor Theory of Mind. Likewise, her third chapter provides a provocative discussion of neurotypicals' language bias, which "renders non-symbolic ways of representing the world inconceivable" to them (75). Most striking is her discussion of the indexical and metonymic character of autistic thinking, an idea reinforced by my experiences with my autistic son. These chapters spotlight Wexler's ability to synthesize diverse research on brain development, language, perception and consciousness.

She then mounts a history and defense of the controversial technique of Facilitated Communication. If we expect communication to be autonomous, she writes, the controversy continues; but if instead we view FC as a "collaborative interaction both verbally and non-verbally in which movements are synchronized and facial expressions and posture are responsive" (107), a different conclusion emerges. It's impossible not to feel thrilled that formerly non-communicative persons have learned to express themselves, but by concentrating only on success stories and minimizing the controversies about FC, Wexler fails to address such perplexing problems as the blurry line between collaboration and ventriloquism. She is right, though, that FC invites us to rethink our tests for intelligence, motivation, and selfhood.

Part One's final chapter surveys parent narratives and autist biographies. But here her advocacy overwhelms her analysis. For example, she glosses over the question of who, if anyone, should speak for those who cannot. Is a parent who speaks for her non-speaking and non-typing child different from (or similar to) an FC facilitator? Is such a relationship also "collaborative?" Wexler's selection of parent narratives is skimpy—three books published more than ten years ago—and her treatment of autie-biographies uncritically reproduces too many unsupported claims, such as the assertion that their interactions with the environment are "fuller and livelier" than those of neurotypicals (140). How could they know? The larger question remains: how do we find in autistic minds freshness and strength without minimizing the severe difficulties that many face and without ignoring the profound disparities among those who carry the diagnosis? Wexler's approach risks reifying the autism diagnosis and thereby transforming a collection of symptoms into a transcendental signifier.

Part Two begins with a brief history of "outsider" art, before focusing on four artists who work at Oakland's Creative Growth Art Center: Gerone Spruill, Dan Miller, William Scott, and the gender non-conforming R. B. Wexler's attention to Spruill's comics, which build on the wild cosmology of Parliament-Funkadelic, and her appreciation for Dan Miller's heavily layered amalgams of paint and print will open many eyes to the range and power of autistry. How do these fascinating works exemplify the forms of autistic creativity and communication, or the sensory issues and fragmented consciousness treated in Part One? We are left wondering, because Wexler draws few connections. Thus she misses opportunities to give her theoretical excursions some concrete endpoints. More disappointingly, her final chapter, which begins as a discussion of R. B.'s work, detours into a brief on educational policy, and fails to unify her wide-ranging material into a firm conclusion.

Although the book is marred by a host of editing errors—misspelled or mistaken names, wrong dates, typos, and diction blunders—Wexler deserves praise for her ambitious synthesis of research on autistic intelligence and for her exploration of autistic creativity. Even so, one closes the book feeling that its title describes its main flaw, for Autism in a Decentered World is too decentered to be as valuable as it could have been.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2016 Mark Osteen

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)