authoring autism

Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism was a bit frustrating to read. It had its moments, but a lot of it was horrible feelings of dehumanization expressed in the most arcane academic language possible. I very much liked the spirit of the book, though.

You know you’re in for something special right at the beginning:

My mother has a set of stories, narratives she wields depending on her mood. One such story involves an infant me, lying in my crib on Saturday mornings. In the first telling, I am a well-behaved child. “You never cried,” she remarks, sipping her coffee. “You’d let me sleep until noon. You were such a quiet baby.” Her words emit a sense of nostalgia as my younger brother tears through the room and bodychecks a friend on the living room floor.

Other days, the narrative starkly changes. “I’d come to your crib on Saturday mornings,” she shudders, “and I’d find you with poop up to your neck. She pauses for dramatic effect. “Up to your neck.” Sometimes, she recounts how I’d grab my feces and lob them at the wall, or smear them on my face, or rub them against the bars of the crib. The story then diverges into toddler-hood, my first forays into kindergarten–how I’d wet myself at school, how I didn’t have friends, how I spent hours in my room memorizing road maps from AAA. There is a solemnity about this story, an absent acknowledgment that there was something about me, something about me that they should have known back then. If only.

Years later, as a young adult, I was diagnosed with autism.

Fuck yes this passage:

The humanization in autism poop talk, of course, is rarely about the human whose poop has been thrust into the spotlight. And, especially in the case of parent blogs and other digitally born life writing, poop talk is often divulged without the full and informed consent of the autistic person being depicted. This isn’t to deny the danger or stresses associated with a loved one’s ingestion of harmful bacteria, or the distress involved in attending to the spread of literal shit, or the community and support a parent might garner from sharing intimate stories online. My point, rather, is that these narratives are shittier than the shit they claim to represent. These are shitty narratives–rhetorical commonplaces that author autistic people as victim-captives of a faulty neurology, as rhetorically degraded and rhetorically suspect. In these constructions, our shit holds more rhetorical power than we do.

While this book is not about literal shit, it is about the figurative shit that contemporary autism discourse has flung upon autistic bodies. These shitty narratives persist, I argue, because their rhetorical power derives from the figure of the autistic as unknowable, as utterly abject and isolated and tragic, as a figure whose actions are construed less like actions and more like neuronally willed middle fingers. At root, these shitty narratives are rhetorical projects: they apprehend neuroqueerness as interlocking series of socially complex impairments, impairments that impact the domains of relatedness, intent, feeling, sexuality, gender identity, and sensation–indeed,all of that which might be used to call oneself properly a person.

The best parts of the book are autobiographical, not theoretical, and they illustrate the point vividly. Compare this scene from Netflix’s Atypical with the anecdote from the book that follows.

In this story, I obliviously engaged with peers who sought to trap me in rhetoricisms, as though their words were flypaper. Unable to discern intention, I strategically (mis)apprehended these kinds of conversations at face value. In one such exchange, a group of my classmates cornered me while I awaited my ride home. One boy from the group–it might have been two, but this is a pithy narrative, and character development is such a drag for a lowly asocial autist (sarcasm)–one boy gazed deeply into my eyes, and asked in seeming seriousness, out of nowhere, “Do you experience genital itchiness?”

Were I rhetorically endowed (more sarcasm), I might have processed the ill intent of the question with some immediacy. But I’m autistic–you know, merely breathing and stiltedly perceiving–and the dynamics of this exchange seemed rife with nuance, sensory data that required logicizing. Why was this boy asking about genitalia, and in front of a mass audience of our peers? My initial thought was to regard the question suspiciously. Here, a group of teens had approached me, the echolalic autistic, about something that sounded like diaper rash. Genital itchiness was potentially being proffered as a symbol of queer disability: to admit to it could be to admit to mental defect, to perversion.

But, despite my suspicions, my admission was vested in literality. “Of course I have experienced genital itchiness,” I responded–which was met with riotous laughter. Even days later, I experienced continued harassment and exaggerated groans of disgust whenever I set foot in a room with my peers. The bullying struck me as repugnant not because bullying is repugnant, but because I was the only person to make a truthful admission. The whole gambit seemed to me a trick question. To say anything other than yes would be to lie. Lying was the graver moral error, far graver than a social faux pas. Asociality had ironically fomented within me a kind of moral imperative, a kind of moral outrage. How dare they not admit to genital itching. How dare they pretend they’d never crotch scratched.

Clinical language does, in fact, take your personhood away:

Not only have I divulged experiences of genital itchiness, but in the introduction I identified myself as a childhood feces smearer, as a toddler who routinely mouthed her own shit. The abjection of these narratives, and what might be perceived as my compulsive willingness to share, accrue infinite assumptions about autism’s involuntariness and ever-residual presence. To dwell in shit is to dwell in a bad state. In writing this book, what with all of the big words, I might be assessed as having some rhetorical capacity. But in discussing my bowel movements or employing echolalic profanity (fuck–just like Gerald Ford), I might be assessed as having difficulty with self-control and rhetorical context (this is a fucking academic book), predictive understanding of readers’ mental states and desires (who picks up an academic book and expects to read about shit?), or any number of autism’s many arhetorical symptoms.

She can’t really be autistic, with that kind of self-awareness:

To restate the obvious, clinical rhetorics present serious challenges to disability disclosure. To claim autism is to claim rudeness, silence, tactlessness, nonpersonhood; it is to invite doubting others to lay diagnose or question one’s rhetorical competence. And yet it is precisely these claims and challenges that buttress much of the autistic culture movement’s embrace of public disclosure, of uncloseting one’s autism. Clinicians would have us believe that autistic absence in public life is but a symptom of autism itself: autism prevents us from full participation; should an autistic participate or express desire to participate, the legitimacy of her autism must be called into question. It is this catch-22 that fuels activist desires for personal narrative and declarative positionality around autism.

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