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Michael Bérubé on Autism Aesthetics

In a review of three new academic texts at the Sydney Review of Books, Michael Bérubé sketches out a guide to reading literature through the lens of “autism aesthetics”:

[In Autistic Disturbances, Julia Miele] Rodas doesn’t just critique how others label and critique autism. Instead, she cheekily borrows the title of Leo Kanner’s 1943 paper, ‘Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact’ (the paper that started all the trouble), in order to suggest that there are “distinctive patterns of expression — narrative, rhetorical, and discursive” — that may be thought of as “autistic disturbances” of the literary text. These are ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation (again turning back on Kanner), discretion, and invention. The first is a clever rereading of “potentially complex relationships between the purposeful and the accidental”; the last is lots of fun stuff, like “I can’t do this orally, only headily”, which (as Rodas notes) is not incomprehensible at all. In other contexts, we call it poetry.

Yet there are subtle problems with the elaboration of an autistic aesthetic. Rodas confronts them explicitly. The first concerns her détournement of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, itself. Reading the DSM-5 as an obsessive, list-making, orderly categorizing of human beings is kind of fun at first, but it leads to a nasty conundrum: “If to undermine the text that reads autism as pathological, one points to the underlying autism of the offending text, the idea of autism as pathology is reinforced.”

The second is that lots and lots of texts employ ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion, and invention.