Anne McGuire's (2016) book War on autism: On the cultural logic of normative violence is a highly effective critical analysis of the history of the autism advocacy movement in the west. McGuire takes a critical look at autism awareness campaigns and unpacks the ways in which the rhetoric of autism advocacy is weaponized against autistic people themselves, constructing autism not as a lived identity but instead as an unwanted appendage (Sinclair, 1993). The end result is that "to be a 'good' autism advocate is [to be] positioned 'against' autism" (p. 58).

McGuire makes an expertly researched and academically rich intersectional argument about the landscape of autism advocacy. As the inaugural winner of the Tobin Siebers prize for Disability Studies in the Humanities, McGuire's beautifully written text weaves together theoretical arguments from intersectional framings of Disability Studies, critical analysis from French philosopher Michel Foucault, and the expert knowledge of autistic activists and academics to make a potent critique of the violence embedded in the current autism advocacy landscape.

War on autism begins with asking the question, "Who is served by the autism advocacy movement?" The legacy of autism research has been focused not on improving the lives of autistic people but rather on addressing the concerns of nonautistic people, and more specifically nonautistic parents of autistic children. Within autism advocacy rhetoric, autism is positioned as a "crisis" and therefore violence against autistic people becomes "thinkable, reasonable, and even normal" (p. 9). McGuire's analysis is built off of examining archival advocacy campaigns, therefore, images of posters, policy documents, and still images from TV commercials and print ads are crucial elements of the text. War on Autism (2016) is the first book published under the University of Michigan Press' accessible publishing initiative, which follows the recommendations of the Society of Disability. This accessibility initiative insists that accommodations are built in throughout the text. When McGuire introduces an archival image, she is careful to spend one or two pages fully describing the image and the text while also richly unpacking how she understands this archival material. The result leaves the reader with an intimacy with McGuire's analysis that is very effective and illustrates that accommodations benefit everyone.

McGuire builds her argument by examining specific autism advocacy images and rhetoric. She starts with the "red flag" campaigns aimed at parents to watch for "slow" development. Then she moves on to discuss the Autism Speaks campaign with Starbucks which advertised the skyrocketing numbers of autism diagnosis. Advocacy campaigns built to a frenzied crescendo, McGuire argues, with several "Ransom Notes'' campaigns sponsored by both Autism Speaks and NYU Child Study Center. In the print version, cut out letters appear on giant billboards and warn onlookers that autism is holding children and families "hostage" (p. 153). Autism Speaks later produced a short film where a disembodied voice says, "I am autism […] I will plot to take away your children and your dreams" (p. 15). Both of these threatening pieces positioned autism as a terrorist-like monster that was kidnapping normative children and destroying healthy families. What does one do with an impending threat? When "the imagined frontiers of normative life are penetrated and normative life is understood to be under attack, we go to war. (p. 168)." In this war, mainstream advocacy efforts can easily become focused on eliminating the threat, the threat being autistic people themselves. The rhetoric normalizes violence.

One of the strengths of the War on Autism is the reverence and respect McGuire holds for autistic scholars, activists, and the neurodiversity movement at large. McGuire cites the work of Jim Sinclair, Ari Ne'eman, Julia Bascom, Lydia Brown, Melanie Yergeau, M Baggs, Amy Sequenzia and other autistic leaders in the neurodiversity movement. In a text that argues that the advocacy movement has prioritized the needs of parents and nonautistics, McGuire avoids that trap herself. This makes her retelling of Lovaas' original work and the evolution of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) so striking. McGuire explains that prior to developing ABA, Lovaas first worked on the Feminine Boy Project (Burke, 1997). In this study, Lovaas worked with a young 4-year-old boy to extinguish his feminine behaviors. McGuire details some elements of the study but fails to mention the most harmful aspects of the study, particularly the use of rewards (tokens and candy) and punishments (physical abuse and planned ignoring) to erase gay or gender-nonconforming behavior. In fact, this study created a template for what later became gay conversion therapy, which employed shock treatment and verbal abuse to "cure" individuals of their homosexual urges. It is now banned in 35 states (Conley, 2017).

Additionally, McGuire omits descriptions of abuse that were elements of Lovaas' work with autistic children in the 1960s which served as foundational research for the development of ABA. Life Magazine (Moser & Grant, 1965) covered his work in a photo essay entitled, Screams, slaps, and love: A surprising, shocking treatment helps fargone mental cripples, which documented Lovaas' use of shock treatment and verbal abuse. Black and white photographs show a psychologist screaming into the face of a young boy and a young girl who is shocked through metallic strips in a floor. The violence against autistic children is explicit and grotesque. Many autistics describe their more recent experience with ABA as a form of abuse and grooming (Bascom, 2012; Sequenzia, 2015). Throughout the book McGuire carefully forefronts the perspectives of autistics, which is why it stands out that their voices are silenced here. War on autism eloquently maps out the ways in which violence against autistic people becomes normalized, yet McGuire misses an opportunity to trace the connection between "autism intervention" and "normalized violence" in her framing of Lovaas and ABA. This stands out as a gap in her argument.

Overall McGuire's War on autism is an exceptional book that is meticulously researched and also very readable. The way in which McGuire specifically outlines the role of rhetoric in the evolution of autism advocacy paired with her strong analytical lens of applying intersectional framing of disability studies to archival images brings a new perspective to the field of autism studies. War on autism is an important read for anyone in the field of disability studies, education, policy, and students of cultural and critical theory.

References

  • Bascom, J. (2012). Loud hands: Autistic people, speaking. Washington, DC: Autistic Press.
  • Burke, P. (1997). Gender shock: Exploding the myths of male and female. New York: Anchor Books.
  • McGuire, A. (2016). War on autism: On the cultural logic of normative violence. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.7784427
  • Moser, D. & Grant, A. (1965, May 7). Screams, slaps, and love: A surprising, shocking, treatment helps forgone mental cripples. Life Magazine, 90-96.
  • Seqenzia, A. (2015, February 11). My thoughts on ABA. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://awnnetwork.org/my-thoughts-on-aba/.
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