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Autism and Gender

From Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks

Jordynn Jack

Publication Year: 2014

The reasons behind the increase in autism diagnoses have become hotly contested in the media as well as within the medical, scholarly, and autistic communities. Jordynn Jack suggests the proliferating number of discussions point to autism as a rhetorical phenomenon that engenders attempts to persuade through arguments, appeals to emotions, and representational strategies. In Autism and Gender: From Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks, Jack focuses on the ways gender influences popular discussion and understanding of autism's causes and effects. She identifies gendered theories like the refrigerator mother theory, for example, which blames emotionally distant mothers for autism, and the extreme male brain theory, which links autism to the modes of systematic thinking found in male computer geeks. Jack's analysis reveals how people employ such highly gendered theories to craft rhetorical narratives around stock characters--fix-it dads, heroic mother warriors rescuing children from autism--that advocate for ends beyond the story itself while also allowing the storyteller to gain authority, understand the disorder, and take part in debates.Autism and Gender reveals the ways we build narratives around controversial topics while offering new insights into the ways rhetorical inquiry can and does contribute to conversations about gender and disability.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-x

This book began in 2009 at the Rhetoric Society of America Summer Institute at Pennsylvania State University, where I joined seminar leaders Lisa Keränen, James Wynn, and an august group of scholars in the “Science and Its Publics” workshop. It was Lisa who suggested...

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Introduction: Autism's Gendered Characters

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pp. 1-32

Autism has become a controversial subject in the past few decades. What was once considered a rare condition is now estimated to affect one in eighty-eight American children,1 with similar rates appearing in other industrialized nations. Scientists, psychologists, and...

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Chapter 1. Interpreting Gender: Refrigerator Mothers

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pp. 33-63

June Francis was a refrigerator mother. When her son was diagnosed with autism in the 1950s, she was told that she “had not connected or bonded with the child because of inability to properly relate to the child.” The doctors she consulted prescribed psychological therapy...

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Chapter 2. Performing Gender: Mother Warriors

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pp. 64-104

In 2008, Hollywood celebrity Jenny McCarthy led a rally in Washington, D.C., to pressure Congress to require the removal of trace amounts of aluminum, mercury, and other elements that McCarthy claimed could trigger autism. Amid a sea of parents—mostly mothers...

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Chapter 3. Presenting Gender: Computer Geeks

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pp. 105-153

In 2010 the film The Social Network premiered to wide critical acclaim. Reviewers praised the central irony of the film—that the founder of Facebook, the most popular social network site, was himself “almost completely bereft of people skills.”1 Soon, suggestions emerged that...

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Chapter 4. Rehearsing Gender: Autism Dads

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pp. 154-180

In 1957 Leon Eisenberg published a study titled “The Fathers of Autistic Children.” In the quest to single out maternal factors in autism causation, Eisenberg argued, “Father has been the forgotten man.”1 He investigated the fathers of 100 children with autism, finding a similar pattern...

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Chapter 5. Inventing Gender: Neurodiverse Characters

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pp. 181-214

As a child, Jane Meyerding found girls confusing. She simply did not understand “girltalk”—the giggling, gossiping, and secret-sharing that marks young girls’ socializing.1 “I was sailing blind,” Meyerding writes, “through a world full of gender signals invisible to my genderless...

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Conclusions: Gender, Character, and Rhetoric

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pp. 215-228

It may seem curious that I have, until now, said relatively little about Temple Grandin, perhaps the most well-known autistic person in the world. It was a portrait of Grandin in Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars that brought autism and Asperger’s syndrome to popular attention...


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pp. 229-254


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pp. 255-286


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pp. 287-306

About the Author. Publisher Notes

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252096259
E-ISBN-10: 0252096258
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252038372

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2014