Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Biklen, Douglas. (2005).  Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone.  New York: New York University Press. 304 pages. $65.00 (hardcover), $21.00 (paper). ISBN 0-8147-9927-2.

Reviewed by Kristina Chew, Saint Peter's College

A "basic desire for aloneness and sameness" is central to Leo Kanner's original 1943 description of autism. It is precisely this "myth" that is refuted in Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone by Douglas Biklen of Syracuse University Biklen's book is a qualitative study that incorporates autobiographical narratives by autistic persons. Even more, it is a wake-up call exhorting us to understand how people who have been "classified with autism interpret themselves and the world" (3). Biklen describes autism as a social construct in that we can only begin to understand autism if we move beyond thinking of it as a "developmental disability" and as a medical, neurological, condition. Drawing on the critical perspective of disability studies, Biklen writes that "autism is not a given condition or set of realities--at least, it is not 'given' or 'real' on its own. Rather, autism is and will be, in part, what any of us make of it" (65). Parents and professionals, teachers and therapists, must constantly reflect on their preconceived notions of what autism is as we seek to interact, understand, and be with autistic individuals.

As Biklen notes, there is a tendency to equate the inability to talk with intellectual disability, with mental retardation. Rather, "[f]ar from confirming the deficit model, where the person labeled autistic is presumed isolated and uninterested, recent autobiographical accounts reveal people in search of a connection with the world" (49). We presume that a "failure" in an autistic child to respond immediately to our questions or simply to our verbal requests is a sign of incomprehension when actually the child may be processing the words, albeit very slowly. When we rather presume competence in autistic persons, we "outsiders" can begin to "regard the person labeled autistic as a thinking, feeling person" (72-73).

Biklen's examination of the "origins of autism as disability category" (29) and his analysis of the myth of autistic aloneness frame the contributions of seven people who live with autism. Sue Rubin, Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, Lucy Blackman, Larry Bissonnette, Alberto Frugone, Richard Attfield, and Jamie Burke participated directly in the writing of the book either through interviews or by writing their own autobiographical accounts. Most of these contributors are minimally verbal and were classified as mentally retarded in their childhood. Each discusses autism and themselves as autistic, though Attfield describes himself rather as physically and linguistically delayed as a child (199). It was only when each contributor learned how to type (often as adolescents or later) that their parents and teachers learned how fully they understood the world around them, and how richly they could express their thoughts. Each contributor's account also makes clear how much each depends on others--especially their mothers--and appreciates this support.

Biklen addresses the imperative of "presumed competence" specifically to educators (72), but his optimistic approach to expectations for autistic persons is for all to act on by presuming "there must be a rationale [my emphasis] and then to try and discover it, always from the other person's perspective, listening carefully" (282). The writings of Rubin, Mukhopadhyay, and all of the contributors are testament to the need to embrace a "disability consciousness" in seeking educational and therapeutic options for autistic persons so that they can achieve their full potential. While Biklen refrains from extensive analysis of his contributors' words, his book is truly valuable in its straightforward presentation of the voices of autistic persons speaking not only for but as themselves. All of Biklen's interviewees were motivated to learn to type because they wanted to communicate and connect with others. The power of Biklen's book lies indeed most of all in the autobiographical accounts by adults with autism that make up much of the book.

"Some perceive autistic people to be rude and antisocial, I view it as being true to one's self," writes Sue Rubin in "A Conversation with Leo Kanner" (104). She ends her essay by noting that "one thing I have never felt is aloneness, although at times retreating to my own world.....To my sincerest gratitude I have been motivated to be an intellectual, social individual" (108). Rubin's words make clear how necessary it is to assume competence and comprehension in autistic individuals no matter how "low" (so to speak) their "functioning" appears to be, and to continue to argue against the falseness of the myth of autism and "the person alone." 

Copyright (c) 2006 Kristina Chew

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