Misfits and ecological saints: strategies for non-normative living in autistic life writing





Autism, life writing, materialism, misfitting, human-environment interaction


The historical construction of autism since the early 20th century has retained a focus on deficient 'interest in people, severe impairments in communication and bizarre responses to the environment' (DSM III). This means that he or she is represented as narcissistic and a-social rather than 'ecocentric', with an interest in the 'mechanical aspects of the environment'. Life writing by autistics including Chris Packham (2018) and Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay (2008) demonstrates an awareness that human experiences of the non-human world are intra-active and constantly changing (Alaimo 2010).

Ironically, autistic writers who describe affinity with non-human nature are seen as having an innate (hence unreflective and naïve, in Schiller's sense) ecocentrism. This downplays the importance of experimental life writing by autistic authors which displays self-awareness and sensitivity to preconceptions about autism. Whether environmental discourse frames autistics as symbols of toxic practices such as vaccination (see Gibbons 2017) or as 'exemplary neurotypes' (Duan et al 2018) enabled by their autism to deliver us from collective environmental threat, this contributes to the silencing of autistic experience. This is particularly the case when we recognize that autistic lives are manifold and involve difficulties that are highly individual. These difficulties are often key to understanding their author's self-stories.

This article reads the autobiographical writings of Packham, Greta Thunberg and Mukhopadhyay in terms of intra-action between humans and their environments. It attends to the ways that autistic self-narratives are framed, and how they suggest the 'emergence of alternative strategies of nonnormative living" that include writing itself (Grossman 2019).