This is the final post in my "Double Rainbow" guest blog series. I've had a great time with this guest blog, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading it. As part of wrapping up the series, I wanted to leave you with something fun. In the spirit of finding autists in popular fiction, I'm going to speculate about a character whom I almost included in my Valentine's Day post, but who I ultimately decided to save until the end.
I'm talking about Elphaba Thropp, as she appears in Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked.
Yep. I think the Wicked Witch is a little bit autistic.
The history of autism is necessarily woven into the histories of any and all populations effected by autism, yet what one would term "autistic history" is largely treated as monolithic. Overwhelmingly, race is neglected not only in tracing the history of autism, but in contemporary research and coverage.
I originally intended for this to be a companion piece to my previous post about the 2009 film Adam. Mozart and the Whale is a 2006 romantic "dramedy" about a man and a woman with Asperger syndrome and, in many ways, it makes a very neat thematic companion to the other film. In Adam, the protagonists' relationship ultimately fails because the title character's autism prevents him from fulfulling an appropriate "masculine" role. In Mozart and the Whale, the relationship succeeds because both characters are autistic; neither of them can successfully maintain a relationship with a "normal" person but, as the tagline says, "They don't fit in. Except together." The troubling implication is that if autistic people are going to pursue romantic relationships, it's best if we stick with "our own kind."
It was inevitable that I would come down pretty hard on these books, but in my frustration I left out an important point: These guides are not "disgusting" works of bigotry. They're unassuming parenting guides right off the "Children with Special Needs" shelf of a mainstream bookstore. They're meant to help parents of autistic adolescents guide their children through the transition into adulthood, and in that regard they're perfectly well-intentioned.
The problem is that a text doesn't have to be overtly bigoted or hateful to exclude and become complicit in the oppression of gender non-conforming and non-heterosexual people.
In this post and my next one, I'm taking a look at a selection of four parents' guides on autism and Asperger syndrome, to see how sex, sexuality, and gender are addressed. This is not a book review, but an overview of how these topics are presented in literature intended for parents of adolescents. Do these texts contribute to the erasure of autistic sexuality? What do the books have to say about gender?
I've touched upon the construction of autistic masculinity and the construction of autism as inherently masculine a few times already in this series. In this post, I'd like to take a little bit of a closer look at the relationship between autism and masculinity.
I have a pathetic affection for this holiday. Sure, it's a grossly problematic event dedicated to perpetuating the cultural ideal of heterosexual monogamy via capitalistic consumption. But—thanks to social conditioning too relentless and insidious for me to resist—I'm actually a sucker for the popular idea of romantic love. As sheepish as I am to admit it, a holiday dedicated to the idea of "love" (minus the focus on material consumption) is actually okay by me. And of course there is an infinite variety of different kinds of love and relationships to celebrate today: altruistic love for one's fellow human beings, kinship relationships, friendships, platonic romance, self-love, et cetera.
In this case, I'm going to invoke the ideas I brought up in a previous post about "finding autism" in popular fiction, and dedicate a little Valentine's love to a few fictional ladies who might be on the spectrum.
There has been disagreement among researchers and diagnosticians about whether the two diagnostic labels really represent distinct conditions since Asperger syndrome first became its own recognized and "official" diagnostic category. There are multiple sets of diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome, but recently the criteria put forth in the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual have been thrust into the spotlight. A proposed change to the upcoming DSM V would consolidate all of the diagnoses on the autism spectrum under a single diagnostic label, "autism spectrum disorder." In popular discourse and mainstream media outlets, the other conditions on the spectrum—childhood disintegrative disorder and PDD-NOS [pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified]—are completely erased. The focus is solely on "classic" autism and Asperger syndrome, and the proposed consolidation of the two labels has given rise to fierce controversy and even panic.
Snow Cake is a 2006 independent drama starring Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver. Shortly after Rickman's character picks up a young hitch-hiker, he is in a sudden, brutal accident and the girl is killed. Paralyzed by guilt, he tries to reconcile with the girl's mother, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, who happens to be autistic.
That is an intriguing premise. Too bad the film is stunngingly, bafflingly awful.
In popular fiction, savant skills and autism are almost synonymous. Portraying a character as a savant has become a way of driving home the fact that the character is autistic. The savant archetype is glaringly problematic because of the cultural baggage associated with idea of the "savant," because of the roles that autistic savants are relegated to in fiction, and because the stereotype of the autistic savant is enormously misleading. While "autism" and "savant" may go hand-in-hand in popular consciousness, the vast majority of autists are not savants and not all people who have savant skills are autistic.