Atomium Culture

Atomium Culture

The Permanent Platform of Atomium Culture brings together some of the most authoritative universities, newspapers and businesses in Europe to increase the movement of knowledge: across borders, across sectors and to the public at large.
La plataforma permanente Atomium Culture reúne a las universidades, periódicos y empresas más prestigiosos de Europa para promover el flujo del conocimiento más allá de fronteras, entre sectores y hacia el público en general.

From a ‘Total Stranger’ to the Superhuman of the 21st Century? The Autistic as Key Figure of Our Times

Por: | 09 de enero de 2014

Novina_image_1 resized
By Novina
Göhlsdorf, Humboldt University of Berlin

Image: For many decades, the autistic child has typically been represented as locked up within a shell (Credit: Frith, Uta, "Autism", in Scientific American 268, 1993, p. 108).

If you are hiring staff for your software company, you might want to contact Specialisterne (Danish for ‘The Specialists’): a global company that places workers with data management skills on the job market. These workers reportedly exhibit outstanding attention to detail and perform extremely well in routine tasks. Nonetheless, in the past, they might not have found employment. Most of them are, supposedly, autistic.

When autism became a diagnostic label 70 years ago, it was seen as a severe and rare psychosis. The autistic was typically understood to be a rigidly closed child, absorbed in odd repetitious activity and incapable of emotional relationships. Today, autism is seen as a neuro-developmental disorder affecting a broad spectrum of individuals, across ages, who differ in their level of impairment but share common traits: repetitive behaviours and deficits in social communication. Often, however, autism is also associated with exceptional capabilities, closer in some cases to sheer ‘genius’. Many recall the phonebook-memorising Rain Man or the socially awkward string theorist who headlines the sitcom Big Bang Theory. Autistic figures are in vogue in the media — a far cry from the days when autism was first identified.

Baltimore, USA, 1943: Leo Kanner authored an article that sealed his status as one of the founders of child psychiatry. He wrote about children whose main symptom was extreme self-sufficiency. Thus, the concept of infantile autism (autos is Greek for ‘self’) entered the clinical arena. At the same time in Vienna, paediatrician Hans Asperger published a study about young patients whose characteristics resembled the ones depicted by Kanner and whom he similarly labelled as ‘autistic psychopaths’. Both men, who reputedly did not know about each other’s work, described children who appeared very much alike. The children seemed not to communicate or interact. They remain, said Kanner, ‘total strangers’. Autism became a diagnostic category the moment the stranger emerged as a subject in novels and sociological treatises. While communication and affective feedback came to be topics in academic studies and literary texts, the autistic child turned up in psychiatric case histories as someone lacking these very faculties.

Our knowledge of autism has changed markedly since then. The history of this knowledge is the focal point of my research. I approach it by examining scientific, literary and popular representations of the autistic. Representations are effective and determine how we perceive the world. Questions that engage me include: How do texts make cases? How do pictures create evidence? To what extent do science and fiction interact to produce and distribute knowledge? I also explore the historical and cultural context that yielded certain images of autism by investigating contemporaneous works in philosophy, the social sciences and the arts. Moreover, I show how concepts of autism themselves have shaped culture. Since it is mostly characterised as a disorder of social behaviour and interpersonal connection, its descriptions influence how we think about the social bond, relationships and communication.

In 1967, Chicago-based psychologist Bruno Bettelheim published a work on autism that framed the autistic as a child locked up and lacking a self. He was one of many who saw autism as the result of emotionally frigid mothers and treated it psychoanalytically. In the same year, near Boston, Clara C. Park finished a book on her autistic daughter. The first account of autism composed by a mother had a huge impact, especially at a time when parents of autistic children were joining forces and promoting research into organic causes. Bettelheim and Park’s narratives are among those I analyse. In different ways both suggest ideals of parenting and childhood and, by depicting autism, touch on topical questions of their time.

Autism went public in the 80s. An enormous rise in diagnoses made it a health policy issue and the subject of countless scientific studies, which thus far have not identified a clear cause or a cure. In science and popular culture, the autistic often serves as negative model of what is conceived as a ‘normal’ human being, equipped with social interest, communication skills and empathy. Yet since the 80s, autistic individuals themselves have increasingly represented autism. Many of them hold it to be a different, not deficient, way of being and insist on their connection to the world, albeit atypical. For decades, the autistic was described as an alien or a computer. Recently, people with autism have taken to seeing themselves as a different species, but as more-than-human rather than sub-human, claiming, for instance, a special affinity with machines, animals or objects. Science-fiction author Gary Westfahl, a self-diagnosed Asperger-autistic, hopes his symptoms ‘may someday be recognized as the characteristics of a new, and superior, form of humanity’.

Representations of the autistic not only reflect and shape understandings of autism but also model and challenge prevailing ideas of the human subject. They mark and question the very bonds and borders of modern societies. The autistic is thus a key figure of our times.


Novina Göhlsdorf
Humboldt University of Berlin

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