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Representing Autism: A Cultural History

Dr Stuart Murray


My current research is working towards a cultural history of autism. It will be based upon a reading of narrative-based representations of autism in literature, film, television and print media, as well as a reading of the place of the condition within the wider cultural context of the modern period. At this moment, research on autism (and Asperger’s syndrome) is almost entirely confined to work within medical, psychological and educational paradigms. There is no book length study of autism as it is culturally represented; indeed there are virtually no articles on the issue at all. And this is despite the presence of autism as a subject across media in the last 5 years especially. It is now calculated that some form of autism spectrum disorder affects 1 in every 110 members of the UK population, and medical practitioners have talked of the rise of diagnoses as an epidemic (in the mid 1970s, the figure was 1 in every 2,500). My research will be the first full study of autism as it has been represented within narrative.

The research at the moment focuses upon those texts I have already identified as having autistic characters, or that use ideas of autistic behaviour, within forms of narrative development. In literature, this has meant a focus upon works by Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, Ken Kesey, Les Murray, Anita Desai, Keri Hulme, Simon Armitage, David Lodge, Pauline Melville, Elizabeth Moon, Mark Haddon and Nick Hornby. It will also examine the fiction, poetry, autobiography and performance work of autistic adults such as Temple Grandin, Wendy Lawson, Donna Williams and Lee Hall. Key films that focus upon autism are Rain Man (1988, d. Barry Levinson), Silent Fall (1994, d. Bruce Beresford), Mercury Rising (1998, d. Harold Becker), I am Sam (2001, d. Jessie Nelson) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002, d. Paul Thomas Anderson). Autistic spectrum disorder characters and narratives concerning autism have featured in numerous television productions. Recent examples include Grange Hill, The West Wing, Trial and Retribution and Waking the Dead. I am also hoping to examine medical archives within psychiatric institutions to gain a sense of the way autism (conceived of as ‘idiot’ behaviour) was written up in the period from 1770 onwards.

Autism is a condition that, by and large, still eludes medical understanding. At a wider cultural level, it is consistently misrepresented, despite its prevalence in the contemporary media. The study of autism involves key questions that have been central in much philosophy and cultural theory: the competing demands of presence, absence and duration, of speech and silence, of dis/abilities and exceptionality, deviancy and normality, of the unitary subject and the place of cognitive reason and perception. Most persistently, autism is figured in narrative as an idea that, in terms of a sense of lack or absence, can reflect back upon a world that is figured as orthodox or standard (what autists themselves often call ‘neurotypical’). The majority of the narratives mentioned in the above paragraph figure autism in these terms. It can be used to rehearse debates about politics, morality, or personal or social responsibility, among others. In wider cultural terms it also often acts as a space of narrative momentum, as in the generic nature of the suspense narrative. The various narratives mentioned here frequently utilise precisely the ways in which autism escapes apprehension, by virtue of its difference, to apprehend it in terms of narrative codes. Seen in terms of lack (albeit an enigmatic and highly suggestive lack), autism nonetheless allows for a variety of presences in narrative. In particular, sentimentality and melodrama seem to flourish in the space autism is perceived to create.

At present I am planning to work towards using the medical literature that exists on autism next to ideas of narrative. Autistic behaviour is best not understood as a narrative in itself, it is too non-durational for this, but its methods and structures can be identified in their own right. In many ways, the presentation of autism in the majority of cultural texts works to silence the actual manifestations of the ways in which autistic individuals experience being in the world. This research will explore the ways in which major cultural movements, methods and institutions (realism, modernism, postcolonialism, the avant garde, Hollywood) create autism as a narrative, and the manner in which individual texts can be read within the internal logic of such systems. It is based on a belief that being autistic is as valid and legitimate way of being human as any other.