- Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum by Sonya Freeman Loftis
Despite representations of autism becoming increasingly common in literature, film, and television, there has only been a handful of scholarly works addressing the representation of autism in detail. Stuart Murray's monograph Representing Autism (2008) and Mark Osteen's edited collection Autism and Representation (2008) are the most notable works in this area and both indicate that the topic is ripe for further exploration. As such, Imagining Autism is a welcome addition to this growing body of scholarship. Loftis suggests in her introduction that "although other cultural representations of autism (the media, television, film) hold their own power, the canonical works [of literature] that are taught in the classroom […] hold a special cultural capital and authority" (14). Whilst the book covers a range of literary examples, including best-selling thrillers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), one of the strengths of Loftis's work is that it picks out parts of the literary canon that are often overlooked by disability studies and thematizes them as works that represent autism. Divided into six main chapters, with the first four looking at the canonical works whose power are alluded to above, Loftis interrogates the way in which literature reinforces or disrupts dominant stereotypes around autism.
The first chapter, on "the autistic detective," discusses Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes and his many descendants. This includes not only the contemporary Sherlock Holmes films directed by Guy Ritchie (2009, 2011) and BBC's Sherlock (2010–present), both of which clearly indicate that the protagonist may be on the spectrum, but also the way that the trope persists in other crime procedurals such as Criminal Minds (2005–present) and Bones (2005–present). Importantly, the author not only traces this genealogy of representation but also suggests ways in which it might be problematic—showing how this trope is linked to the idea that people on the spectrum are [End Page 503] asexual, unemotional, and dangerously close to criminality. However, the book does more than simply criticize these prevalent and persistent stereotypes, as the analysis sheds an interesting light on the works themselves.
The second chapter discusses Shaw's Pygmalion (1913) and Saint Joan (1924) and how these works relate to the stereotype of the autistic savant and its connection to the neurodiversity movement. Loftis argues that, like the supercrip trope, savant figures suggest that disabled characters only have worth if they overcome their condition or compensate for it with exceptional ability in another domain. Yet there is a tendency amongst neurodiversity advocates to valorize and celebrate the savant figure in both popular culture and everyday life. Ultimately, she claims, "the autism community's willingness to embrace savant figures such as Joan and Higgins only further perpetuates misconceptions about people on the spectrum" (58). Although the savant stereotype might superficially seem like a positive counterpoint to the deficit model, she argues rather convincingly that it is equally simplistic and that the experience of autism is more complex than that.
The trope of the savant returns in the third chapter's discussion of Flowers for Algernon (1958), where Loftis suggests that the transformation of Charlie moves from one set of stereotypes to another. That is, "shifting from the intellectually disabled childlike innocent to the cold and uncaring genius savant" (76). But importantly, she suggests that the narrative dramatizes ableist attitudes amongst disabled people as Charlie's return to intellectual disability is presented as a personal tragedy akin to death. This analysis, alongside that she offers for Of Mice and Men (1936), is particularly timely given the recent discussion in Anne McGuire's book War on Autism (2016) of the cultural logic of violence against autistic people. As Loftis argues, "Lennie's death is 'authorized' by cultural discourses that depict autistic people as threatening because of a perceived lack of human subjectivity" (64). Similarly, McGuire demonstrates that when autism is depicted as akin to death—or worse than death—then autistic filicide and other unthinkable acts of violence against...