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 (2003, 2008, 2013) 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).


The social model of disability shows that the most disabling aspects of impairments are often caused by interactions with social mechanisms and institutions that give meaning to those impairments. Impairments are bodily states or conditions taken to be impaired. In addition to these "barriers to doing", which may include the socially-sanctioned restrictions in activities for those who are deemed impaired, theorists have emphasized the relational nature of disability in social structures and attitudes that both restrict activities and create 'barriers to being' that influence a person's sense of self-worth. 1 While barriers to inclusion can impact on one's self-esteem and happiness as 'indirect disablism', psycho-emotional disablism can also be experienced directly through invalidating social interactions, and both act to the detriment of what Thomas called 'psycho-emotional wellbeing'. 2 Furthermore, direct disablism can become internalized as they shape our "'inner worlds', sense of self and social relationships".

Life narratives by autistic authors often present clear examples of indirect, direct and internalized disablism and those I refer to here are particularly attentive to both the embodied aspects of emotional pain and joy and to circumstances that either reinforce or mitigate these. This coincides with work by disability scholars, such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who have reformulated dis/ability in terms of the material and more-than-human basis of human agency. The shift towards considering the physical bases of 'dis/ability' and agency lead to recognition that disability arises from a long-term misfit between our bodies and the socio-cultural environments in which we find ourselves and would otherwise gain sustenance from. This requires a consideration of what these individual narratives tell us about the 'social' and 'individual' factors that produce dis/ablism and dis/ability.

As Garland-Thomson explains, from the materialist-feminist perspective, disability experiences can be understood through the idea of 'material-discursive becoming' – which emphasizes the fragile 'fit' between all humans and their environments. 3 Coming to identify as disabled or autistic through misfitting can also be a process that confers agency as we narrate our bodily experiences through space and time, even in a culture that would otherwise devalue our experiences. The feeling of misfitting can help us to create solidarity between marginalized identities, through recognition of our shared vulnerability and need for caregiving relationships, but it can also be conveniently overlooked if we only attend to wider cultural scripts. This is apparent in life writing by Tito Mukhopadhyay, Chris Packham and Greta Thunberg and in discourses surrounding their lives as they have gained recognition. 4

Autism and misfitting

While not all autistics consider themselves disabled, Garland-Thomson's definition of misfitting allows us to think about the realities of living with impairments and the contexts against which abilities are measured. For instance, some autistic people (as Tito Mukhopadhyay has described in his 2003 autobiography The Mind Tree)5 struggle to cope with being in new environments, and this cannot easily be accounted for either within a medical model of autism that emphasizes static 'traits', or within a social model of disability that does not attend to the real-world contexts in which dis/abilities are produced. This is consistent with what many autistics describe as differences and difficulties produced by 'hypo-' and 'hyper-' receptivity to sensory and perceptual input, and to a preference for attending to one thing at a time. 6 Without consideration for the 'internalized' aspects of disablism for the individual who is forced to question the validity of their experiences, we cannot address the role that narrative, and social identities engendered by such, play in addressing the painful aspects of misfitting. Life writing can aid the process of re-interpreting one's experiences in the light of new conceptual frameworks that produce a more affirmative identity. The authors I consider here can be read in terms of environmental discourses that emphasize the ethical significance of human creative becoming with the material world as part of a broader process of 'intra-action'. Karen Barad coined this term to define "the mutual constitution of entangled agencies" where "agencies are only distinct in a relational, not an absolute, sense". 7 Intra-action has been widely employed by feminist theorists in the environmental humanities who have sought to reframe 'agency' within a broadly relational and materialist ontology.

It is in this connection that I hope to intervene in environmental discourses around disability through a focus on how Western culture has latched onto the idea that autistic authors can serve as 'intermediaries' with an otherwise unreachable non-human nature, and thereby conferred with the status of Ecological Sainthood. The Ecological Saint character-type is an idea I have borrowed from Peter Coates's analysis of Western narratives about the pre-colonial environmental attitudes in indigenous North Americans. 8 The autistic 'ecological saint' narrative presents autistics as ahistorical beings and as symbols of naïve, pre-Industrial attitudes to nature, rather than as historically and spatially enacted human beings. While disability and autism as misfitting are the primary focus in this analysis, the ecological saint reinforces an exclusionary connection between cultural and individual psychological development. Since autism is represented as precluding agency or introspection, the autistic person's self-reports about their material-dependence on the non-human – including experiences of misfitting – world are conceived as symptoms of autism. The enduring legacy of the idea that autistics lack a 'theory-of-mind', combined with Western discourse about human distinctness from non-nature, means that autistic environmental commitments are represented as either self-indulgence or a reversal to a more noble, pre-human state that is defined by freedom from concern for human social life. In attending to this, we can learn about some of the realities that cause suffering for those who have been marked as 'other' and some of the more troubling aspects of the environmental movement that posits 'normal' humans as unable to experience social relationships with non-human nature.

This is the case in recent responses to environmental writers including Chris Packham, Greta Thunberg, and Tito Mukhopadhyay. All three authors position themselves as 'environmental' writers by situating their self-stories within the context of the more-than-human world. Both Packham and Thunberg relate their interest in the non-human world to disablist attitudes that influenced their ability to participate in the mainstream social world. Mukhopadhyay and Packham narrate sensory and imaginative play in nature, but their stories about 'fitting' in non-human nature should be understood as part of a broader structure of meaning that includes experiences of misfitting and diminished psycho-emotional wellbeing. Focusing on the context of narrative communication adds an important qualification to the idea of an 'autobiographical pact' between the reader and the implied author. These autobiographical texts require an ethical commitment from the reader to consider those subjective truths that may disrupt our assumptions about what it means to have a life. 9

Within the traditional medical model, the focus on supposed difficulties with social communication means that autistic writers are an anomaly who have overcome the difficulties in mentalizing and introspection that are supposedly definitive of the condition. 10 When writers including Temple Grandin explain that autistic strengths in social communication may arise from the unique features of autistic sensory processing, this is viewed as at best a kind of evasion that does not do justice to what is most interesting about autism for non-autistics, which is what it would be like to live without concern for the social world, and at worst taken as evidence of a lack of concern for the 'real' effects of our difference. Writing at a time when it was widely believed that autistics lacked self-other awareness (connected to 'Theory of Mind' deficits), Grandin's work Emergence: Labeled Autistic was only recognized as a "rare insight" into autism as a result of endorsement by Oliver Sacks. 11 Yet, what individual autistic writers – including Grandin – have said about their lives often shows a more complicated relationship to 'impairments', showing how collective practices make autistic sensory, social and communicative differences difficult to endure. An example of this could be our awareness that one cannot both work in a way that accommodates sensory and perceptual differences and join in with family activities that rely on synchronization with external schedules designed for those with more 'typical' ways of working. This can make it difficult to distinguish painful experiences that may accompany autism from those that are produced by the internalization of other people's expectations.

Yet for the autism self-advocacy and neurodiversity movements operating since the 1990s in response to broader disability activism, autism is an inseparable part of selfhood that involves what Nick Walker has called "atypical ways of thinking, moving, interaction, and sensory and cognitive processing" which means that "to describe autism as a disorder represents a value judgment rather than a scientific fact". 12 For activists informed by the idea of individual inclusion as a requirement of a more just society, autism is not inherently disabling but becomes a disability in certain contexts, particularly the social realm produced by a majority non-autistic world. This means that so-called social communication difficulties are not the defining feature of autism seen from the inside, but a symptom of ableist attitudes that govern how people interact with each other. While different co-occurring conditions may require support to overcome specific barriers to their communicative expression, self-advocates have offered insights into what helps with expression. 13 The persistence of the idea that autism is always marked by difficulties in communication may itself become a 'barrier to doing' at the level of representation. But this does not quite capture the full meaning of misfitting and the way it can contribute to knowledge about human embodiment and vulnerability more generally.

'Monotropic focus' – which is a tendency to focus on one interest or activity at a time – combined with sensory and perceptual difference and an absence of opportunities for joining mainstream social activities, means autistic life writers often refer to unusual aspects of entanglement with the non-human world. 14 This idea of being 'in the world' is theorized by the British anthropologist Tim Ingold, who considers that conceptual thought diminishes our recognition of our processes of being, knowledge and description as dependent on material immersion in the human and non-human lifeworld. 15 While more typical social identities that value collective forms of meaning-making and engagement may leave little room for the articulation of these experiences, life writing in both individual and collective forms provides a space for phenomenal experience and the construction of alternative social identities. What autistic writers published since 1990 say is consistent with a view of ability as determined by social and environmental factors, where impairment may exist not only because of social attitudes but also because of material reality.

This is apparent in Garland-Thomson's idea of the material misfit as a kind of temporary and situated "discrepancy' between body and world", such as the wheelchair user confronted by a set of steps or a Deaf person using sign language in a boardroom full of non-signing businessmen. 16 For an autistic person, misfitting might be most obviously apparent in social rules and practices that would be recognized by the social model of disability, but it can also be measured through the stresses of overstimulating urban environments and in the objects of culture. In general, how we shape the material and cultural environment – as much as social attitudes and architecture of built environments – has a direct impact on experiences of disability. This is consistent within a materialist paradigm that "understands the fundamental units of being not as words and things or subjects and objects, but as dynamic phenomena produced through entangled and shifting forms of agency inherent in all materiality". 17 In the case of autism it is particularly unhelpful to separate the material and social dimensions of experience, since this move can reinforce existing ideas about human exceptionalism. Relating to this, verbal language can be seen as just one, rather than an exemplary, 'technology' for enabling intra-active exchanges.

While some autistics can, with effort, fit in certain contexts, fitting allows one the kind of invisibility that confers status and privilege: it allows access to spaces that grant further rewards such as membership of any group or organization. Through misfitting, we become aware of our vulnerability and reliance on others, and of the dependencies of our bodies on resources that become hard to come by. Garland-Thomson explains that this misfitting can lead to oppositional consciousness that is based on "awareness of our fleshiness and the contingencies of human embodiment". 18 Through misfitting – rather than any intrinsically 'primitive' identity – autistic individuals gain a heightened awareness that our embodiment itself is experienced through discursive structures and depends on caregiving relationships.

For Garland-Thomson, misfitting can either be generative or catastrophic. 19 It may encourage us to develop innovative practices as an artist or writer or in oppositional politics that demands we invest more in care for others. Misfitting is also catastrophic in that it can mean we lose the material means to sustain our lives or the social connections upon which our psycho-emotional health depends. The nature of misfitting is unstable since it is based on shifting encounters of "body and world, between that which is expected and that which is, [which] produces fits and misfits". 20 Garland-Thomson affirms the "utility of the concept of misfit [sic] is that it definitively lodges injustice and discrimination in the materiality of the world" rather than in social constructions or individuals. 21

This kind of sensitivity to the context of supposed impairments is almost absent in the case of the diagnostic manual most commonly used to diagnose differences in mental and cognitive processing, DSM 5. 22 For those labeled with developmental or mental disorders, the lack of any reference to cultural or environmental context and etiology means that impairment is described as residing exclusively in the individual, who is defined as not only experiencing deficits in areas of social 'functioning' but also, and implicitly, a lack of skills and knowledge to live a good life with that impairment. This, in turn, is based on an idea of impairment that is defined as the loss of a function or structure that is considered typical for humans. In its current focus on social cognition defined in terms of norms, the existing medical model embedded in the DSM does not account for the suffering that comes from exclusive therapeutic focus on installing normative communication skills, nor the possible sources of pleasure and meaning that autistics often describe. The DSM pathologizes autistic environmental experience by defining it as a social-communication deficit, as "restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior" including "unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment" such as "visual fascination with lights or movement". 23

Of the many conditions that are included in the DSM, autism appears to offer a clear case of where cultural contexts, as well as material environments, create additional challenges for autistic people, particularly those in which either independence and/or conformity are socially esteemed. Furthermore, the focus on social difficulties in autism may be thought of as an example of the "coloniality of being" that imposes a modern Western idea of a flourishing individual life that is based on economic activity rather than caregiving relationships. 24 Finally, the dominance of the medical model of autism overlooks the difficulties autistics report and may make it harder to think about experiences of relational embodiment and the psycho-emotional effects of misfitting.

In what follows, I read three recent works of life writing in relation to ideas of misfitting and 'barriers to being' produced by existing reading practices and discourses around autism. I also consider the potential for a reparative reading that shows what 'fitting' feels like for those who experience psycho-emotional disablism. This means reading against recent uses of theory that see all texts as evidence of oppression and binary thinking. On this basis, we might look at how literary texts produced within a hostile culture may also offer sustenance to our lives by way of pleasure and knowledge. 25 These authors improve their material circumstances in an otherwise alienating culture by playing to their strengths and developing a "broader strategy for non-normative living". 26 The reception of their work shows us how culture intervenes in the production of what are supposedly innate abilities, eliding the effort and resources upon which these depend. This makes it clearer that our normative standards of individual flourishing are far from natural or given but require both privilege and "resource-intensive lifestyles of neoliberal 'self-care'". 27 The standards, however, are far from the only possible ones, but they can be seen as part of the broader context of 'global modernity' that has sought to separate the individual from their environment. However, recognition of these new possibilities depends on active reading, for as we'll see, individual narratives of impairment and misfitting are always at risk of being subsumed by cultural and gendered tropes of the 'supercrip' or, in my analysis, Ecological Sainthood. 28

The naturalist Chris Packham is a prominent figure in contemporary British culture, and while otherwise appearing to conform to the idealized white, male, able-bodied standard and being a popular television and media personality, he has disclosed both mental health difficulties and autism in the form of Asperger's Syndrome. 29 Packham attributes his unapologetic approach to environmental activism to his autism, but he also acknowledges the cost of his attempt to camouflage and to reign in his views when he is presenting. Packham is a figurehead for both wildlife conservation and an ambassador for the National Autistic Society: he is the target of abuse because of his campaigns in support of everyday wildlife that is threatened by gamekeeping practices. 30

Another writer who identifies with the diagnostic label of Asperger's is the environmental activist, Greta Thunberg. At just 19 years' old at the time of writing, Thunberg has gained international recognition for her school strikes and eloquent speeches to international organizations that demand an immediate response to anthropogenic climate change. As a young woman, Thunberg challenges both dominant cultural and gendered depictions of autism that focus on male children and adult male 'geeks'. 31 Her book No One is Too Small to Make a Difference includes her talks from 2018 and 2019, with two that connect her activism to neurological difference. 32 Like Packham, she has been subject to abuse and adoration in the light of her environmental activism, but the abuse has often referred to her Asperger's and the psycho-emotional effects of misfitting, as I describe below.

Tito Mukhopadhyay is a non-speaking, middle-class Indian American author of poetry, life writing and short stories. His relative prominence within literary discussions of autism – which have focused on Mukhopadhyay's synesthesia – has challenged a wide-spread assumption that autism is predominantly a white condition. 33 Through his material and social dependence on his mother alongside his unique perspective and personality, he challenges the Western concept of identity that privileges autonomy. 34 While his earlier work attracted attention as it was based on what were widely thought of as controversial 'facilitated communication' techniques, Mukhopadhyay now writes by hand independently.

All three writers challenge cultural and clinical assumptions that autistics lack interest in or abilities in the realm of social communication and show that what is generally thought of as ability is dependent on social and environmental context. Furthermore, they are often candid in describing atypical sensory and perceptual experiences, alongside the psycho-emotional and disabling aspects of their conditions. This is most evident in discussions of the non-human world.

Trans-corporeality and autistic embodiment

Developmental psychologists have attempted to define a more general theory of autism that would explain purported social difficulties in autism, and these have tended to focus either on an inferred impairment in organizing perceptual information or in deficiencies in empathy and mentalizing. However, autistic theorists have shown that 'social communication' depends on social context and that activities that may seem repetitive to others are actually full of variety from the perspective of someone who perceives the world differently. 35 Further, as the literary critic James McGrath has described, what may look from the outside as automatic behavior is the result of deliberate choice. 36

McGrath gives the example of his preference for visiting the same table at the same café at the same time each morning before going to work. This is because "every single visit to the café is distinct" […] "[s]ome mornings, combinations of light and shade might remind me of a previous visit, and there is a pleasing feeling, not of repetition, but of continuity". 37 This attitude to autistic differences is manifest in the autism activist Jim Sinclair's view that autistic individuals should be met on their own terms rather than through existing social understandings. 38 Sinclair has pointed out that what is missing is a language with which autistic people can communicate these experiences to those whose processing and perspectives differ from theirs. This article argues that we also need a shift in thinking about agency and creativity.

In her materialist and postcolonial feminist epistemology, Alaimo focuses on the agency of human and non-human bodies by drawing on Barad's idea of intra-action. She describes the how those who have been historically excluded from the status of disembodied Cartesian knowers or fully rational agents derive new forms of knowing that are themselves political:

[F]eminists, LGBT people, persons with disabilities, and others thinking through how corporeal processes, desires, orientations, and harms are in accordance with or divergent from social categories, norms, and discourses is a necessary epistemological and political process. 39

Disability may, therefore, become a condition through which embodiment offers a potentially affirmative new identity. As individuals attend to their embodiment, they gain a heightened awareness of 'trans-corporeality' as entanglement with the "multiple material agencies, flows and processes that connect human bodies, animal bodies, ecosystems, technologies, and the wider world". 40 It is precisely this sense of entanglement – and the 'swirling landscape of uncertainty' that can give life a renewed meaning – and that is apparent in much recent autistic life writing.

The material reality of language – which itself may be seen as a kind of landscape of signs or sounds – offers communicative tools to all writers, particularly in poetry. Yet, Western culture privileges socially-derived semantic meanings rather than the sensory aspects of language or pragmatic 'speaker meanings' that are dependent both on material context and the intentions of the speaker. This is registered in the faster rate at which our language responds to changes in our social, as opposed to the natural, environment and the assumed naturalness of verbal communication. Awareness of 'misfits' between bodies and environment may be what leads us to seek out aesthetic pleasure in both language and environment – which in turn may contribute to knowledge of our bodily and linguistic entanglement with the world. 41 The film 'In My Language', Mel Baggs described hirself in a subsequent synthesized voice narrative as "being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment". 42

In his second memoir, written at the age of 19, Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay also used subsequent narration to describe autism as "the dynamic experience of my relationship to the world, with its many aspects of place, people, climate, and their own interactions". 43 Here this and in his earlier work The Mind Tree: A Miraculous Child Breaks the Silence of Autism, Mukhopadhyay offered prose and poetry descriptions of his earlier life organized around objects and the experiences they afforded. These first two books were accompanied by paratextual recommendations by notable psychologists such as Oliver Sacks, who praised not the works so much as the author's "remarkable" status as a "deeply autistic" young man who is still capable of both "introspection and deep thought". As with the early 'autie-biography' by Temple Grandin, 44 Mukhopadhyay's writing is voyeuristically presented in its paratext as a "rare insight" into something virtually miraculous – the subjective realm of the autistic.

Yet in The Mind Tree, the author employed a third-person narrator which, according to Ralph Savarese "was designed, Tito said, to push back against pernicious stereotypes" specifically in relation to 'self-awareness' that autistics supposedly lack. 45 In narrating through what he calls his 'unruly body' rather than the socially-constructed self or the Cartesian 'I', the third-person perspective allowed him to connect his pre-verbal and postverbal experiences to the same experiencing body and to offer causal explanations that conform with typical expectations of biographical writing.

In his third memoir, Plankton Dreams: What I Learned in Special Ed, from 2015, Mukhopadhyay's subject is the humiliation he experienced in the hands of special education in the US. Contrary to the conventional autobiographical focus on self-development, his satire focused on the 'misfit' between the special education environment and his rich imaginative world, which is parodied through the suggestion that humiliation has become his teacher. Organizing this work according to ironic moral platitudes, he makes clear the experience of misfitting is produced through the configuration of his unruly body, the classroom setup, his interests, and his teacher's choices of activity. While for the teacher, "all can be solved once the piece knows where his seat is", movement helps him integrate his senses and Mukhopadhyay knows that the classroom "is not set up for those of us with puzzle-piece vision". 46 While typically puzzlement is described in relation to the non-autistic's response to autistic behavior, this writer represents the perceptual information he receives as puzzling, and part of the broader non-human world that he interacts with.

Mukhopadhyay had already described in his earlier work the challenges of "fragmentary sensory experiences", which meant that he must "pick on one component" of his perceptual world, so that "every situation is valued in the right way". 47 From a clinician's perspective, this meant that he could not conform to behavioral expectations, even while he had intellectual abilities that surpassed normative developmental timelines. Despite his apparent 'fit' with the environment of the special education classroom in which he has a 'designated seat', he experiences misfitting in relation to age-inappropriate learning materials and the sense of incarceration produced by inability to leave the site of various humiliations.

Yet How Can I Talk? offers an explanation of how his "enchanting extrasensory experiences" form the basis of his poetry and story-writing. 48 Further, while he explains that he regrets not having had the sort of education that would befit his intelligence, he described his ambivalence about his lack of independence. He believes that human independence is an illusion.

I am dependent and will be dependent on certain caregivers and therapists. Those caregivers and therapists need people like me to earn their bread and butter and draw their salaries […]We like to think that we are independent living things, forgetting how bound we are to our physical bodies, with their own packages of diseases and emotions. 49

As Mukhopadhyay explains it, it's not only misfitting due to autism or apraxia that makes him aware of his dependence on others, but also the fact that he shares ordinary human vulnerabilities and needs in both physical and emotional senses. In this light, Mukhopadhyay describes his moral commitment to making the best of his life through what he can do – which is thinking and writing. Even this, however, is dependent on others since a basic education is "that component which brings in a meaningful relationship between the happenings around us and how our senses experience them". 50 This attitude to education defines it as less about the transfer of information or regulating behavior as in special education than as nurturing abilities and interests. Like the other authors I consider, Mukhopadhyay defies the idea that autism can be essentially characterized by individual deficits in social communication, since a two-way education can help create a shared context in which individual experiences can be narrated.

Everyday objects both help Mukhopadhyay to tell stories and to reunite his 'shattered senses'. 51 In his infancy, these materials included a mirror and an alphabet board, through which he was able to focus his senses and switch between sense modalities. The mirror stories allowed the world around him to talk to him since he believed it reflected "the essence of the reflected objects and the possible stories about them". 52 Unlike his human interlocutors who rely on spoken words, the mirror seems to produce figurative language by sharing reflected images with him. While he had initially aimed to use the mirror to monitor the shapes his mouth made as he tried to utter words, the dominance of his visual perception in attending to his image created a sense that colors communicated with him through their own agency. While he was able to understand spoken words, he could focus on 'happenings' through only one sense modality at a time. He believed that others experienced the world as he did, and so he perceived their actions as part of the ongoing intra-action between himself and the world, which was not communicable in conventional language:

The sound of her voice made me come back from behind the mirror while I was hearing a story of green and red from the green of the curtains and the red of the cement floor, which the maid intended to mop. The smell of phenol water from her bucket and mop filled the spaces which were yet to be filled with stories of green and red […] one experience diffused into the next. 53

While psychoanalytically inclined clinicians may describe this as narcissism, 54 the narrator suggested that this wasn't about enjoying his own image but immersing himself in a phenomenal world which did not require expressive verbal language. Here and throughout his life writing, Mukhopadhyay consistently describes a situation that accounts for the disjunction between his rich inner world and the social environment in which he finds himself. While he had learnt to communicate in writing before he was ten years old, he remains fascinated by intra-acting agencies of the world: the environmental 'happenings' that influence his body and other objects, yet which other humans seem oblivious to. Thus, following a reparative reading, the fascination that the senses offer mitigates against more socially sanctioned experiences that are not available to him. Furthermore, Mukhopadhyay does not consider his embodiment to be lacking.

Chris Packham's first memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (2016), suggests that he too has "enchanting extrasensory experiences", which relate to the non-human creatures around him. While 'extra-sensory experiences' might be thought to be outside the parameters of the human body, in both Packham's and Mukhopadhyay's usage, they denote embodied imaginative processes. In Packham's memoir, this is evident in the titular 'sparkle jar' – a preserving jar that contains captured insects. As Mukhopadhyay adds an 'extra' layer of linguistic meaning to his vivid sensory encounters with the world, Packham tells a story about finding a new conceptual structure that allows him to recognize the fragility of all lives.

Packham also describes difficulties that result from assuming everyone experiences the world as he does. This is represented through a third-person depiction of his young self as a 'Brand New Savage' for whom ladybirds offer a reasonable unit of currency in exchange for ice-lollies. While Mukhopadhyay's early sensory fragmentation and limited motor control make it hard for him even to communicate with the technology of writing, young Chris did not have problems with spoken language but preferred not to. Instead, he tried to communicate using tokens – a diorama of dinosaurs – a stuffed juvenile caiman - that embodied what was of interest and value. What he perceived, however, was not individual objects but the dynamic interaction between them and the observer. This is how he describes the play of light through a tree canopy:

Glitterlight sparkled through the dancing canopy and lime-lit the compacted soil with a jigsaw of chasing patterns, swishing and mixing as his eyes chased them trying to find regularity, snatching spots and smudges that almost returned as the branches bounced and shade fell for a cloud-bound minute. 55

In the literary-critic Ralph Savarese's terms, Packham's early 'perceptual intelligence' outstripped his early abilities with language, although his adult writing style conveys the dynamics of his experience. Through adolescence, he developed a unique stance on what Mukhopadhyay described as a "meaningful relationship between the happenings around us and how our senses experience them". But at school, Packham was ridiculed for precisely this: "I spoke all the time, but I couldn't really talk, I tried a few times but they told me I was talking too fast, that it was boring, that I was a divvy". 56 While this might be explained as due to autistic deficits in social communication, in Packham's account, something else was going on, and this was partly due to the misfit between his interests, available narrative scripts and the school environment.

Through the incorporation of anecdotes from his more recent life, Packham shows that he still finds it easier to relate to non-human creatures than to fellow humans. This can be understood as partly due to the disjunction between Packham's sensory experiences, the conformist social environment and his unusual interests, which might well have been shaped by his experiences of 'misfitting' rather than exclusively an innate preference. However, his experiences of misfitting led him to a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of all creatures. The text includes the narrator's conversations with a therapist, which are aimed at reconciling the disjunction between his own emotional suffering represented as a "[p]lace … where … nothing … sparkles", and animal lives he thinks of as "immaculate" in their capacity for total devotion. 57

As Stacy Alaimo has noted in connection to the ethical and political implications of material-semiotic entanglements, New Materialists have sometimes found themselves focusing on objects outside of the relationships through which they gain meaning and agency. 58 If we focus on ideas of selfhood that require mastery over the material and social realms, we miss the opportunity to consider how life writing can serve as both a presentation of subjective truths and as a repository for new language, knowledge and cultural scripts. Reading their words in this way rather than as exclusively symptomatic of oppression or disorder, Packham and Mukhopadhyay show us how to value their "enchanting extrasensory experiences". Yet autistic writers have come to be associated with both the negative and positive inflections of non-human nature even as they gain recognition in mainstream culture for their non-normative living.

Autistics and environment – naïve and unreflective?

Since the early days of critical autism studies, theorists have noted that narratives in which autistics are described as having a particular kind of affective relationship to other species assume that autistics and nature share "empathy deficiency". 59 While many have produced unintended beneficial consequences in the realm of animal-therapies for autistics, it reinforces binary thinking about both the differences between autistics and 'normates', and between humans and other species. As I explore below, this is clear from language that describes autistics as developmental primitives who are less rational and therefore closer to nature, and in the narrative function of autistics as Ecological Saints. None of these roles do justice to human agency, nor the agencies of the non-human world. 60

While the writer Steve Silberman has powerfully questioned abject representations of autism in his bestselling Neurotribes his recent article on autism in relation to the environment exemplifies the 'ecological sainthood' narrative. Writing in Vox in connection to Greta Thunberg's address to the UN Climate Summit in 2019, he states that Thunberg, Packham and the young Irish environmentalist Dara McAnulty experience an 'intuitive love for nature and an instinctive disdain for dishonesty'. 61 Yet, the suggestion that this love is entirely intuitive for Packham and Thunberg seems inaccurate, and conflicts with Silberman's earlier reference to Thunberg's depiction of climate change as a 'special interest' that had occupied hours of her attention. Further, it is unhelpful in that it suggests that moral judgments that arise from autistic embodiment and interaction with the world are unreflective.

Even if joy in natural beauty is innate in some autistics – as it clearly is in Packham's case – this is not the case for all autistics, nor that it is exclusive to this neurotype. Further, it mistakes the intra-active awareness of one's own body and surroundings for an appreciation of 'nature' in the sense of something apart from all human activities. As I have explored above, autistic differences in perceptual processing may lead some to seek out the sensory aspects of the environment, but it may also, as in Mukhopadhyay's case, produce painful experiences in new environments. This may also contribute to a sense of our affectual dependence on other humans, even as such dependence can contribute to psycho-emotional disablism.

Focusing on a supposedly 'easy fit' between autistics and nature obscures the fact that being a social outsider remains painful for many people. Further, those such as Packham and Thunberg who receive recognition for their contributions do so as a result of access to material resources – and education – that aren't available to many. This creates an unattainable ideal for autistics to aspire to and downplays the importance of education for all humans. Finally, it can contribute to an environmental discourse that unthinkingly links autism to environmental toxicity, and to the idea that autism itself is a punishment for modern interventions in nature. 62

The apparently 'positive' framing of autism in these accounts may not seem as problematic unless we are familiar with the broader context of cultural representations of autism. This has included a view that autistics lack moral sentiments or can merely parrot the convictions of those around them. 63 The British editor of Spiked magazine – in a publication that is notable for its denial of anthropogenic climate change – has accused Thunberg of a "pre-modern lack of affect". 64 This hints at a wider association between the goal of developing civilization according to modern ideals with eliminating genetic threats to collective genetic flourishing. A similar supposition that humans can be divided into static categories is implied by those who describe autism in connection to involuntary interests and passions, even if this leads to the conclusion that autism is beneficial to humanity in general.

Yet the desire to see autistics as somehow closer to non-human nature is also problematic within the field of literary studies. This can be observed in both early cognitive literary studies and in certain Enlightenment ideas about the superiority of knowledge gained through reason: this manifests in both the division between the 'naïve' and the 'sentimental' artist, who is ultimately charged with determining what is culturally valuable, and in the assumption that psychological constructs offer more authoritative perspectives from which to interpret literature than those that exist within ethics and aesthetics. In these contexts, autism may figure as another name for the 'naïve' (idealist) and sentimental (realist) artist, based upon essentialized and unhistorical relationships between the poet and external nature. 65 The division of humans into hierarchical 'types' endowed with varying degrees of rationality – even if this is 'inverted' to offer an apparently affirmative role for the historically marginalized – destroys the possibility of collective collaboration and becoming.

Reframing ecological norms through autism

I finish with a few further reflections on the overlaps between cultural representations of autism and environmental interests. I've argued that environmental affinities in autistics are often understood as part of the nature of autism, whether this is seen in terms of threats to 'collective biological inheritance' aimed at the development of civilization or those who see autistics as 'Ecological Saints' who connect us to lost plenitude. The dehumanizing connotations of this are apparent in medical framing of autism in the DSM, in popular understandings that suggest that autism is a manifestation of environmental toxicity (despite no evidence to this effect) and also in the assumption that autism predisposes someone to act without thought at an instinctual level. Moral judgments made about an autistic person's environmental interests are further denigrated according to normative assumptions about race and gender. 66

Both positive framings of autistics as "exemplary neurotypes" 67 and as disordered selves are similarly based on the idea that there is a singular 'trait' that marks individuals as valuable, independently of the material and cultural contexts in which their lives are lived. The focus on individual cognitive traits also obscures experiences of misfitting, which make apparent our shared human need for care and emotional sustenance. I therefore propose that misfitting is not exclusively about our felt response to social circumstances that are outside of our control, but also an absence or paucity of interpretive frameworks to describe these experiences in a culture that privileges received understandings. What may seem 'naïve' and unreflective may be an absence of (relational) agency gained through language and social status, which would allow an individual to contradict received understandings.

Though Thunberg has come to symbolize hope for many people around the world, the medical model of autism would suggest that her achievements are side-effects of an arrested development rather than her ingenious approach to the 'misfit' between herself and the social world. Both positive and negative representations of an 'innate' interest in nature among autistics contribute to the silencing of individual experiences and lead us to overlook strategies for non-normative living that may come from misfitting. The emergence of autistic culture offers new forms of language and imagery to define what may indeed be uniquely autistic forms of being related to the senses and perception, but individual narratives can also be understood as speaking to collective understandings of fitting and misfitting, barriers to being and doing, and psycho-emotional difficulty. Life writing using new media – as Tweets and speeches, including poetry and unconventional narrators – allows us to challenge both received understandings of human abilities and to address epistemic injustice. These texts contradict the idea of an autobiographer as a masterful individual author imposing his will on both the environment and his experiences and suggest instead the need for constant re-interpretation in the light of new understandings.

This is not to reject the category of disability – nor a category of life writing predicated on it – since this construction may allow individuals to gain material resources, recognition and support. However, it is also important that we should question the material basis of so-called abilities, and the unsustainable results of semantic structures based on culturally determined ideas of human value, such as independence, self-determination and success. What autistic life writing shows us most powerfully is that disability "can be an occasion for suffering, but it can also be an occasion for joy, knowledge, and connection". 68 This is obscured by medical narratives about autism that focus on normative social behaviors and on cultural depictions of autistics as unreflective intermediaries with an unresponsive non-human world.

This article was written with the support of Wellcome Trust grant number 218124/z/19/z.


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  1. Donna Reeve, "Psycho-Emotional Disablism in the Lives of People Experiencing Mental Distress", in Distress or Disability? Proceedings of a Symposium Held at Lancaster Disability, 15-16 November 2011. Centre for Disability Research, Lancaster University. https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/69661/1/ReeveChapter2012a.pdf.
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  2. Carol Thomas, Sociologies of Disability and Illness: Contested Ideas in Disability Studies and Medical Sociology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 72.
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  3. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept", in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 26, no3 (2011): pp591- 609. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2011.01206.x
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  4. Life writing is used here to refer to 'auto/biographical expressions of selfhood' that 'deconstruct the supposedly secure limits of selfhood' (see David McCooey, "Editorial - The Limits of Life Writing", Life Writing, 14:3, pp277-280). This has required "expanding the object of study from putatively literary texts to life narratives as they might be most broadly understood: testimony; autoethnography; digital life writing; and so on" (277).
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  5. Tito Mukhopadhyay, The Mind Tree: A Miraculous Child Breaks the Silence of Autism (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2003).
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  6. Autism may therefore be described as varying degrees of sensory and perceptual hypo- and hyper-sensitivities and to differences in allocating attention (rather than 'weakness' in central coherence). Together, these account for the ethical significance of autistic interests as a matter of 'biologically-grounded value system[s]' (np). See Dinah Murray's "Monotropism: An Interest Based Account of Autism" in Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, edited by Fred R. Volkmar (NY, New York: Springer, 2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-6435-8_102269-1
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  7. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) 33.
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  8. Peter Coates, Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press: 2004) 88.
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  9. Philippe Lejeune, "Le pacte autobiographique," in Moi aussi. Collection Poétique (Paris: Seuil, 1986) 13–36.
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  10. Bernard Rimland, "Foreword", to Emergence: Labeled Autistic, by Temple Grandin (Novato, CA: Arena Press, 1986) pp4-8.
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  11. Oliver Sacks, "An Anthropologist on Mars", The New Yorker, December 27, 1993 & January 3, 1994 Issue. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1993/12/27/anthropologist-mars
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  12. Nick Walker, "What is autism?", available at https://neuroqueer.com/what-is-autism/ (2020).
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  13. Jim. Sinclair, "Don't Mourn for Us", originally published in Our Voice, Volume 1, Number 3, 1993, available at https://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html
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  14. Murray, "Monotropism", np.
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  15. Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).
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  16. Garland-Thomson, "Misfits", 595.
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  17. Garland-Thomson, "Misfits", 592.
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  18. Garland-Thomson, "Misfits", 596-597.
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  19. Garland-Thompson, "Misfits", 604.
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  20. Garland-Thompson, "Misfits", 593.
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  21. Garland-Thompson, "Misfits", 593.
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  22. American Psychiatric Association (APA). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Fifth Edition. Arlington (VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013) https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
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  23. APA, DSM-5, 50.
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  24. Thomas P. Dirth and Glenn Adams, "Decolonial Theory and Disability Studies: On the Modernity/Coloniality of Ability", Journal of Social and Political Psychology 7(1) 2019, 275
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  25. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You" in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003) 150.
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  26. Sarah J. Grossman 2019. 'Disabilities', in Environmental Humanities (2019) 11 (1): 242–246.
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  27. Dirth and Adams, 'Decolonial', 274.
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  28. 'Supercrip' has been used widely in disability activism and cultural critiques of the allegorical functions of disability in mainstream culture, for instance in Jenny Morris's "Pride Against Prejudice" (London: The Women's Press, 1991). The term refers to the character who proves their worth by compensating for or overcoming a disability 'against all odds' and without attention to material advantages.
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  29. Thunberg and Packham identify with the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, which was removed after the 4th edition of the DSM in favor of the umbrella category Autism Spectrum Disorder. Activists, however, prefer to refer to 'autism' because it does not reinforce ableist attitudes.
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  30. Donna Ferguson, "Chris Packham: There's nothing I can do about abuse – I just have to understand it and work harder", Guardian 18 May 2019.
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  31. See, for example, Stuart Murray's Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2008) and James McGrath Naming Adult Autism (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).
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  32. Greta Thunberg, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (London: Penguin, 2019).
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  33. Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, "Preface", All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, edited by Lydia X Brown, E. Ashkenazy and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, x-xxii (Lincoln: DragonBee Press, 2017).
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  34. Diana Tietjens Meyers, "Decentralizing Autonomy: Five Faces of Selfhood", in Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism, edited by John Christman and Joel Anderson 27-55 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
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  35. Milton, Damian, "On the ontological status of autism: the double empathy problem", Disability & Society, 27 (6) 2012. pp. 883-887. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008
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  36. McGrath, Authoring, 17
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  37. McGrath, Authoring, 17.
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  38. Sinclair, "Don't Mourn For Us".
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  39. Stacy Alaimo, "Thinking as the stuff of the world", O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies, Issue 1: Object/Ecology, 2014, 16.
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  40. Alaimo, "Thinking", 17.
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  41. Alaimo, "Thinking", 16.
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  42. Baggs, Mel. "In My Language", first published 2007 www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc.
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  43. Mukhopadhyay 2003 Kindle location 1891.
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  44. 'Autie-biography' is a word originating in the autistic community that describes autobiographical works by autistic authors. See 'Autie-Biographies': Life Writing Genres and Strategies from an Autistic Perspective', Journal of Language, Literature and Culture Volume 64 (2), 2017, 79-95.
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  45. Savarese, personal communication with the author, June 2020.
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  46. Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, Plankton Dreams: What I Learned in Special Ed (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015) 36.
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  47. Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, How Can I Talk If My Lips Don't Move? (Arcade. Kindle Edition, 2008) Kindle location 1891.
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  48. How Can I Talk? 1905
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  49. How Can I Talk? 1921-1925
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  50. Mukhopadhyay, How Can I Talk?, Kindle Location 1900.
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  51. Mukhopadhyay, How Can I Talk?, Kindle Location 1275.
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  52. Mukhopadhyay, How Can I Talk?, Kindle Location 230.
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  53. Mukhopadhyay, How Can I Talk? Kindle Location 161.
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  54. McGrath, Naming Adult Autism, 88.
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  55. Chris Packham, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (London: Ebury Press, 2016) 17. 'Divvy' is a derogatory word in British English for someone who is considered foolish or lacking ability.
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  56. Packham, Fingers, 135.
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  57. Packham, Fingers, 368
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  58. Alaimo, Thinking, 18.
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  59. Figueroa, Robert Melchior, "Autism and Environmental Identity: Environmental Justice and the Chains of Empathy", in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 573-593; Patrick McDonagh, 'Autism in an age of empathy: a cautionary critique', Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference edited by Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) 31-52.
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  60. Agency is a property of semiotic relationships between selves, human and otherwise, as Eduardo Kohn explains: 'Selves, not things, qualify as agents', see How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) 92.
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  61. Steve Silberman, 'Greta Thunberg became a climate activist not in spite of her autism, but because of it', Vox Magazine, Last Modified September 2019 https://www.vox.com/first-person/2019/5/6/18531551/greta-thunberg-autism-aspergers
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  62. Sara Gibbons, "Neurological Diversity and Environmental (In)Justice: The Ecological Other in Popular and Journalist Representations of Autism", in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2017) 531-555.
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  63. Author, "Understanding Empathy Through a Study of Autistic Life Writing: On the Importance of Neurodivergent Morality", in Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm, ed by Hanna Bertilsdotter-Rosqvist, Nick Chown and author (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020) 108-124.
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  64. Silberman, "Greta Thunberg".
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  65. Schiller, Friedrich [1795] "On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry", translated by William F. Wertz, Jr. https://archive.schillerinstitute.com/transl/Schiller_essays/naive_sentimental-1.html
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  66. See also Author, "Understanding Empathy" and Brown et al, All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism (Lincoln: DragonBee Press, 2017).
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  67. Christy Duan, Vasilis K. Pozios and Praveen R. Kambam. "Why The Good Doctor is bad medicine for autism", Hollywood Reporter, 2 April 2018.
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  68. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled", Disability Studies Quarterly 34, no2 (2014). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v34i2.4254
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