Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination

September 4, 2008

For the past two decades or so autism has provided a model that, according to some, has profoundly shaped our under-standing of how we come to know other people as mental beings.

The ability to take the perspective of someone else is said to require the capacity to reflect on mental states, and it is widely accepted that autism is characterised by a specific difficulty in this area. It is with a keen sense of irony, then, that I read the arguments presented by Stuart Murray in his critical examination of the ways in which autism has been framed and discussed across a wide range of (primarily) contemporary cultural narratives, including popular and literary fiction, commercial cinema, the news media and photography.

In essence, Murray asserts that it is us, the non-autistic (neurotypical) majority, who have failed to engage seriously with the perspective of those with autism. Attempts to depict and understand this "condition" in cultural narratives are necessarily distorted by their refraction through the prism created by our current preoccupations and interests - concerns we show a profound inability to detach ourselves from. The central tenet of Murray's book is that any inquiry into autism must start by understanding and respecting the differences embodied by what he terms "autistic presence".

Autistic subjectivities, Murray contends, have their own logic and method that can be understood only from within. In the book's first chapter, he explores a number of "inside" narratives in the form of published autobiographies by the autistic "celebrities" Temple Grandin and Donna Williams, and a video posted on YouTube by Amanda Baggs.

These clearly assert the agency of their authors, show a complex personhood that is continually changing and evolving, as well as presenting a way of being in the world that is different but of equal value. Murray also finds "autistic presence" in certain works of fiction, particularly Herman Melville's 19th-century novel Bartleby the Scrivener and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose main protagonists are presented as complex agents of their own life story.

In subsequent chapters, Murray explores various aspects of autism's presentation in cultural narratives: its synonymy with savantism; the alternations between absence and distorted presence evident in visual depictions of photography and film; the presentation of the child and male as paradigmatic forms of the condition (at the expense of the adult and female); and the predominance of narratives exploring the impact of autism on the family unit. In addition to the tendency of autism to be used as a mechanism for exploring non-autistic issues, Murray comments on the propensity of cultural narratives to present individuals with autism as objects of curiosity and wonder, capable of performing amazing feats. Both, he suggests, work against an appreciation of "autistic presence", marginalising the person with autism and giving rise to inaccurate stereotypes in which one facet of a person is focused on to the exclusion of everything else.

For example, in Barry Levinson's film Rain Man, it was the mathematical and memorisation skills of Raymond Babbitt that captured the public imagination and which are widely seen as being quintessential to autism, even though only about 10 per cent of individuals with autism have such abilities. Murray's arguments have significance for scientific research. Here, too, particular aspects of autism are singled out and the "condition" is used as a vehicle to drive forward various theoretical models of typical development.

This is a thought-provoking, deeply empathetic and engaging book, which is clearly informed by Murray's own experiences of sharing life with his two sons on the autistic spectrum. In my view it is groundbreaking in its contribution to our understanding of autism and how it might function in the world. Its subject matter is important, not least because of the potential for the neurotypical majority view of autism to have an impact on how those on the spectrum make sense of themselves.

The contention that any inquiry into autism must begin with an understanding and respect for "autistic presence" has resonance for the scientific community.

Autism research consists predominantly of quantitative studies, which work with pre-defined variables and assumptions within a positivist epistemology. While this has undoubtedly advanced our knowledge about autism, an unfortunate consequence has been the almost complete exclusion of the voices of those on the spectrum.

I would recommend Murray's book to parents of those on the autism spectrum, educational and clinical practitioners, scientists and academics, film-makers and writers, as well as students and members of the public wanting to know more about autism.

Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination

By Stuart Murray. Liverpool University Press. 288pp, £50.00 and £16.95. ISBN 9781846310911 and 10928. Published 1 June 2008

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