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Autism and the Contemporary Sentimental: Fiction and the Narrative Fascination of the Present

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2006
pp. 24-45 | 10.1353/lm.2006.0025

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Autism and the Contemporary Sentimental:
Fiction and the Narrative Fascination of the Present


The increased interest in issues of disability and impairment from a humanities-based perspective, perhaps most apparent in the production of collections such as The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability (1997) and Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (2002), presents a certain irony.1 As scholars of literature, film, and cultural studies have turned their attention to issues of disability and exceptionality, they have largely concentrated on physical disability at the expense of any similar focus on cognitive impairment. And yet, this development within criticism comes at a time when there has been an explosion of contemporary cultural interest in the area of cognitive exceptionality, whether that be the wider understanding of neurological impairment supplied by neuroscientific research or the fascination with the alleged mysteries inherent within neurobehavioral conditions shown in many cultural, and critical, narratives. Perhaps the discrepancy is easy enough to explain. For the nondisabled community, the one debate within the disability rights movement that is readily apprehensible is that of access, and access is traditionally thought of in terms of physical impairment. Equally, the concerns that surround physical disability undoubtedly feed into the theoretical models on the body that have been informing scholars in the humanities for a number of years, and it is interesting to note that another 2002 collection of essays that uses a variety of post-structuralist approaches to the questions [End Page 24] surrounding disability studies, Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare's Disability/Postmodernity, has the phrase Embodying Disability Theory as its subtitle.2 While it is perfectly possible to use these theoretical approaches to frame critical discussions of cognitive impairments (and, indeed, I intend to do so in some of what follows), it is, at the same time, hard not to see such a critical gap in the focus of such theories as a manifestation of that most central of concerns to the study of disability and impairment: visibility. The often hidden nature of cognitive impairment is, possibly, something that even scholars working in the field of disability and cultural narrative, or those utilizing the critical languages of neuroscientific inquiry, have failed to see.

By way of contrast, such concerns are the topic of my analysis here, and my focus is specifically on autism. Autism (including Asperger's syndrome, usually thought of as "high-functioning" autism) currently occupies a place in the public consciousness that is akin to a phenomenon. The increased rate of diagnosis (from one in several thousand in the 1970s to a possible one in one hundred today) has suggested to some that we live in a time of an autism "epidemic."3 In the United States, the publication in 2005 of David Kirby's Evidence of Harm: Mercury Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy ignited intense debate over the "causes" of autism, while in the United Kingdom the concern surrounding the safety of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, and its possible link to autism, has been one of the major media events of the last few years. As diagnosis has become more accurate and the autistic spectrum more fully understood, the figure of the autistic individual has become a narrative marker of fascination for much cultural production across different media. The core questions of humanity and ontology that surround autism remind us that to think about the condition is necessarily to think about the issues of being human; as such, recent interest in the question of "being" autistic reflects our current versions of individual and collective self-analysis in the always narcissistic time of the present.4 What we might term the "narrative appeal" of autism in cultural texts is that it easily signifies possibly the most radical form of personal otherness. Indeed, it is the personification of difference and otherness: a person, just like you or me (so the argument runs), who is in fact nothing like you or me, but rather subject to a condition that supposedly defies logic and understanding. At the most extreme level of its representation then, autism enables, because of what is seen to be its inherently unknown and ambiguous...