Ever since the first clinical account of autism was published by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, Western culture has tended to mythologise the disorder as impenetrable, non-verbal and characterised by silence. As such, in both medical literature and popular culture, autistic individuals are depicted as incomprehensible and Other, problems to be rectified or puzzles to be solved. In contrast to this view of autism as an inscrutable enigma, Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe
(University of Michigan Press, 2018) by Julia Miele Rodas
explores the expressive, creative potential of the autist by opening up a host of literary texts to the "possibilities of autism." Autistic Disturbances
is therefore a unique contribution to the growing field of disability studies as it does not simply explore autism from the standard clinical or biographical perspective. Instead, this insightful new study sets out to engage with autistic modes of expression from a literary, cultural and semiotic viewpoint.
Undertaking a comprehensive analysis of a wide range of texts, from Charlotte Bronte’s Villette
and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
to Andy Warhol’s autobiographical writings, Rodas unpacks the unique signifiers of autistic language and explores how autism can be articulated textually. In doing so, Autistic Disturbances
seeks to uncover the autistic voice in familiar literary works, emphasising the often overlooked aesthetic and cultural value of autistic modes of communication. In this highly original analysis, Rodas maintains that the aesthetic qualities regularly praised by critics when they manifest in literary texts – repetition, cataloguing, highly-detailed description – are often found in autistic expression, where they are marginalised by clinicians and educators. Rodas, however, demonstrates that these features of autistic expression, these unique cognitive and communicative practices, have also played a major role in shaping some of Western culture’s most treasured literary artifacts.
Over the course of a fascinating interview, Professor Rodas speaks to me about the history of autism, the unique qualities of autistic expression and the intriguing manner in which these expressive forms have manifested in numerous canonical literary texts. Prof. Rodas also discusses the impetus for this revolutionary project and explains how working on this book has shaped not only her research, but also impacted her teaching practice.
Miranda Corcoran received her Ph.D. in 2016 from University College Cork, where she currently teaches American literature. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She has published articles on paranoia, literature, and Cold-War popular culture in
The Boolean, Americana, and
Transverse, and contributed a book chapter on transnational paranoia to the recently published book
Atlantic Crossings: Archaeology, Literature, and Spatial Culture. She blogs about literature and popular culture HERE and can also be found on Twitter.