This critical anthology redresses a major shortcoming in cultural disability studies. As the volume's editor, Mark Osteen, puts it, "Disability scholarship has ignored cognitive, intellectual, or neurological disabilities, thereby excluding the intellectually disabled just as mainstream society has done" (3). What interest mainstream society has given the intellectually disabled has largely been directed toward autism. Autism has received this attention in part due to the Center for Disease Control's statistics indicating that, while in 1980 one in 10,000 children in the United States were diagnosed with autism, today the figure is one in 150. Whether the increase is due to changing diagnostic criteria or to environmental factors does not matter; either way, public anxiety about autism (rather than curiosity about it) has been profoundly aroused. In the American imagination, autism is rapidly becoming a catchall term, colonizing a broad swathe of mistaken associations in the way that the term idiocy once did. It is good that disability scholars have begun to address these misconceptions. According to Osteen, this book grew out of a 2005 conference that he and many of the volume's contributors attended, and what has emerged is a provocative collection of articles blending scholarly rigor with personal insight.

Autism and Representation neither discusses etiological investigations and diagnostic criteria nor seeks ways to prevent or cure autism. On the contrary, each piece in this collection implicitly deconstructs the medical model's master representation of autism, which is the most entrenched, pernicious, and widely circulating of all the representations and which is the one that drives public perception and fear. In the medical model's representation, the autist is a hopelessly isolated and pathologized entity that embodies lack and that forever is bereft of the mental capacity to attain fundamental communication and social skills. Moreover, this model's representation divides autists into high- and low-functioning categories. The former supposedly are detail oriented and have extraordinary but narrowly focused memories, but they can neither appreciate metaphors and jokes nor be at ease with others. The latter, the orthodoxy goes, have little or no prospect of acquiring language, and if one were to learn to communicate with others using an assistive technology, the process itself must be regarded with skepticism because "everyone knows" that such autists cannot communicate intentionally.

And yet, somehow, communication does happen. The medical model's orthodoxy has come under assault from autists themselves, some of whom rely upon "suspect" assisted communication devices. In the last few years, a sense of common identity and purpose has emerged among autists through venues such as "Aspies for Freedom" ( and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (, and some of their voices can be heard in this anthology. The fact that autists speak for themselves in these pages renders this text's publication a notable event. Still, the volume balances their voices with the realization that many autists remain non-verbal, and it foregrounds the question of whether and how one should speak on their behalf. In the introduction and conclusion, Osteen makes the question of "who speaks" particularly prominent.

The sixteen chapters are divided into four sections: "Clinical Constructions," "Autistry," "Autist Biography," and "Popular Representations." In the first, "Clinical Constructions," three scholars inspect some of the early and mid-twentieth century baggage from psychoanalysis — particularly that imposed by Bruno Bettelheim — that the autism label carries. Bettelheim became a prominent proponent of the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism, the theory that autistic behaviors stem from the emotional frigidity of the autists' mothers. His 1967 book, The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self, enjoyed wide success. In the section's first chapter, James T. Fisher ("No Search, No Subject? Autism and the American Conversion Narrative") examines the mid-twentieth century's now discredited paradigm of autism (appropriated from developmental psychology) as a disordered selfhood resulting from unfeeling parents, and he argues that this vestigial way of thinking still persists in much current writing on autism. In the next piece, Katherine Severson, James Arnt Aune, and Denise Jodlowski ("Bruno Bettelheim, Autism, and the Rhetoric of Scientific Authority") interrogate the rhetoric and procedures of Bruno Bettelheim, whose dubious claims with regard to his having cured autists comes under intense scrutiny. And finally, Majia Nadesan's chapter ("Constructing Autism: A Brief Genealogy") investigates the reasons why autism was not recognized until the 1940s (though there is strong reason to believe that it existed prior), its representation in clinical discourses, and its manifestations in the 1990s and 2000s as a symbolic site of contamination (i.e., vaccination) and as a postmodern trope (i.e., the cyborg).

In the second section, "Autistry," five commentators explore the concept of "local coherence" by rethinking autistic consciousness and imagination and reexamining the interconnections and differences between autistic and neurotypical creativity. Local coherence is the idea that the autistic mind works in unusual and creative ways and that non-autistic people can benefit from learning about, and from, the ways autistic people think. As such, local coherence offers an alternative to the limiting and negative misconception of autistic consciousness as consisting of nothing other than intensely and myopically self-directed mental processes, a "blindness of the mind" to other people and surrounding situations. Along these lines, Patrick McDonagh's cogent and incisive "Autism and Modernism: A Genealogical Exploration" uncovers a symbiotic relation between the modernist aesthetic and Leo Kanner's and Hans Asperger's conceptualizations of physiological conditions known as autism and Asperger syndrome. McDonagh convincingly argues that the modernist era's literary zeitgeist was conducive for these two to describe the respective conditions in the terms that they did. Reading Kanner's and Asperger's language closely in light of the modernist texts available when they were writing, McDonagh glimpses the classical autist as a figure emerging from the period's aesthetic conventions. Next, Bruce Mills, in "Autism and Imagination," draws on the theories of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson to validate a certain type of autist imagination as "defined by close attention to mechanical or physical patterns not psychological or social rules"; Mills privileges this mental activity as illustrating local coherence and opposing the Theory of Mind Mechanism, something that increasingly has been asserted of late in academia and which finds expression in texts such as Simon Baron-Cohen's 1997 influential Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Further drawing on the concept of local coherence after Mills are Kristina Chew ("Fractured Idiom: Metonymy and the Language of Autism") and Ilona Roth ("Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets"). Both Chew and Roth examine specific instances of autistic poetry. Lastly, Matthew Belmonte ("Human, but More So: What the Autistic Brain Tells Us about the Process of Narrative") looks at the relation between narrative organization and autistic consciousness.

In "Autist Biography," the third section, three scholars take up the issue of writing the autistic memoir. Books on autism are ubiquitous — memoirs (especially parental) abound on Amazon. With this wave of books arise the issues of voice and of "speaking for" those who cannot speak. The section begins with Debra L. Cumberland's "Crossing Over: Writing the Autistic Memoir," both a personal and critical scrutiny of several early parental memoirs. Cumberland suggests that the recent proliferation over the last fifteen or twenty years of such texts constitutes an important development. Next comes Sheryl Stevenson's "(M)othering and Autism: Maternal Rhetorics and Self-Revision." Taking as her subject the strategies that mothers writing about their autistic children use and the inherent limitations of these strategies, Stevenson notes that the "question is one of the appropriate rhetorical stance for the mother-writer who wishes to portray, but not betray, her autistic child" (204). In the final entry of the section, the volume's editor, Mark Osteen, contributes a personal account of the toilet-training wars undertaken in his own house with his autistic son, Cameron. "And so the bathroom became a battlefield," he writes in a sometimes moving, occasionally humorous account.

The final section, "Popular Representations," moves away from memoir and clinical discourse and toward media representation. Along with the increasing public awareness of autism has come growing media attention. Fictive representations of autism are on the rise, from Dustin Hoffman's impersonation of a person with autism in the 1988 film Rain Man, to the portrayal of autist Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, to autism in primetime television dramas, where its increasing incidence reflects the recognition of its usefulness as a handy plot gimmick. With neurotypical people responsible for these almost always inaccurate, stereotypical, and sensational fictive renderings, this section's five entries are sorely needed. Together they consider portrayals of autists in diverse cultural media but primarily in films and novels.

In the first, "Recognizing Jake: Contending with Formulaic and Spectacularized Representations of Autism in Film," Anthony Baker takes up the various formulas used in cinema to project the autist, examining a large number of commercial films from Rain Man and Mercury Rising to Cube and Molly. Stuart Murray's "Hollywood and the Fascination of Autism" begins by pointing out that Martin Norden's groundbreaking 1994 Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies does exactly what its title indicates it will do, namely, focus on physical disability. Mental disability hardly is mentioned. Murray goes about making up the deficit by applying some of Norden's categories to cinematic depictions of mental disability, and creating some of his own categories as well, to such films as House of Cards, Cube, Bless this Child, and The United States of Leland. Murray comments that he is disappointed by "Hollywood's continual return to the autistic figure," adding that the "drive of the industry's commercial aesthetic, and the desire for conformity on issues of social relations, is too overpowering to allow audiences to move beyond the parameters offered by genre and sentiment." What both Baker and Murray would like to see is some degree of accuracy in cinematic portrayals of autists, with both pointing to interesting exceptions but also sounding pessimistic about the prospect of any major change taking place in the industry. Phil Schwarz, a person on the autism spectrum, takes a different tack from Baker and Murray in a contribution entitled "Film as a Vehicle for Raising Consciousness among Autistic Peers." In it, he documents how a group of autistic adults responded to a set of films. Schwarz registers how he used the group's responses as a means for developing autistic self-advocacy, self-identity, and self-awareness.

The last two articles in the fourth section, James Berger ("Alterity and Autism: Mark Haddon's Curious Incident in the Neurological Spectrum") and Gyasi Burks-Abbott ("Mark Haddon's Popularity and Other Curious Incidents in My Life as an Autistic") debate the accuracy and impact of Hadden's Curious Incident and its autistic narrator Christopher Boone. Burks-Abbott contends that it exploits and creates a misleading picture of autism. Berger, while critical of aspects of the novel, reasons that, overall, it advances the public's understanding of autism. Because Curious Incident has risen to the type of canonical status once enjoyed by J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye — a sort of cult classic for young disaffected readers — both Berger's and Burks-Abbott's chapters should be required reading for the many university instructors now introducing this novel in their classrooms.

Overall, this anthology combines professionally rigorous investigations with experiential knowledge derived from the contributors' lives with, or as, autistic people. Additionally, a current of advocacy scholarship runs through the text. The anthology's only shortcomings lie, first, in its exclusive preoccupation with autism, for it gives nary a glance to representations of other forms of cognitive disability such as Down syndrome, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. And second, it fails to give a big picture historical grounding; it tracks autism and Asperger Syndrome back to their inception in Kanner's and Asperger's writing in the early 1940s, but it does not attempt to explain how the discourse of autism arose from earlier ones associated with idiocy, folly, cretinism, feeblemindedness, imbecility, and so forth.

Cultural analyses of the rhetoric and representation associated with various forms of mental disability are rare. So rare, in fact, that Autism and Representation is one of the few volumes of its kind. Prior to its publication, only two book-length studies on related subjects had appeared: From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency: Historical Perspectives on People with Learning Disabilities, edited by David Wright and Anne Digby (Routledge 1996), and Martin Halliwell's Images of Idiocy: The Idiot Figure in Modern Fiction and Film (Ashgate 2004). This dearth of sustained approaches strongly suggests that, in the words of David Wright, "the social marginality of people with learning disabilities has been mirrored by their academic marginality." Since Autism and Representation came out, two more books have arrived: Patrick McDonagh's 2009 Idiocy: A Cultural History, and Stuart Murray's 2008 Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination, both from the Liverpool University Press. Given that these authors and editors — Wright, Digby, Murray, Halliwell, McDonagh — are either British or Canadian, the volume Osteen edited constitutes the first one published in the United States and comprised mainly of American contributors.

Autism and Representation represents a turning point, and probably what most distinguishes it is Osteen's thematic preoccupation with "empathic scholarship," which he describes as a "convergence of the personal and the professional." Emerging out of the 2005 conference he and some of the contributors attended, the concept of empathic scholarship suggests an approach to speaking on behalf of people who are unable to speak for themselves. It stems from Cynthia Lewieki-Wilson's understanding of "mediated rhetoricity" and philosopher Martha Nussbaum's definition of empathy as the "imaginative reconstruction of another's experience, without any particular evaluation of that experience." Such an approach obviously calls for caution. Thinking through the implications and complexities that speaking for a non-verbal population entails, Osteen outlines guidelines for "fellow travelers," that is, responsible scholars interested in bringing to academic and public light autism-related issues and concerns. Empathic scholarship introduces a framework for these socially committed scholars to negotiate the bind in which they inevitably find themselves, that is, of either "speaking out of turn" by speaking on behalf of non-verbal autists or else lapsing into silence for fear of speaking out-of-turn and, in effect abandoning people who need a voice. Osteen stresses that "we need new ways to engage and include those with significant cognitive impairments [in public conversations] yet avoid the presumptuousness of colonization" to which voicing another population's concerns might lead. He observes that "we must strive to speak not for but with those unable or unwilling to communicate through orthodox modes." The essays in this collection to a large degree instantiate empathic scholarship and provide models worth emulating for fellow travelers.

Return to Top of Page