I’ve been kicking around several thesis ideas lately, and one keeps sticking with me: the concept of narrative voice and linguistic diversity as it relates to the snafu that is “high-functioning” (HFA)/”low-functioning” (LFA) autism politics.
Let me back up.
I’m autistic. I’m also preternaturally competent at writing, and both of my careers-to-date require(d) extraordinary capacities to communicate, often on the spot. How we communicate matters to me.
How we communicate who we are matters at least as much to me as how we communicate. I believe strongly in the capacity of narrative to build, analyze, and share who we are.
So it kills me when I get into conversations that end up going like this:
- Autistic people are divided into two discrete categories: “high-functioning autistics” (HFAs) and “low-functioning autistics” (LFAs).
- These categories are divided based on one criterion: whether a person can produce verbal, organized, original speech responsive to the current rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, tone).
- The discrete categories are defined such that HFAs can produce such speech; LFAs cannot.
- HFAs are then told that because they can produce such speech, they’re “not autistic enough” to communicate authentically on the experience or needs of autistic people, because they’re insufficiently impaired to identify autism-related needs accurately.
- LFAs are then told that because they cannot produce such speech, they’re “too autistic” to communicate authentically on the experience or needs of autistic people, because they’re too impaired to identify their own needs accurately.
This entire structure is, of course, patent crap. Autistic people can’t be divided into discrete groups based on “functioning”; no one criterion accurately reflects an autistic individual’s “functioning”; the capacity for this type of speech is fluid in all human beings; lacking the capacity for the required type of speech is not the same thing as lacking the capacity to communicate; all autistic people know at least enough about their own autism to serve as the authority on their own experiences. But this is, as one Tumblr user put it, the standard playbook on “how to push all autistic people out of the conversation about autism.”
What I think I’m going to do with my thesis, then, is twofold:
- Analyze existing “autism narratives” in which autistic individuals discuss their own experiences (written, interviews, etc.), to expose the above dynamic as patent crap and establish the conventions of the genre,
- Argue in favor of a Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL)-based approach in the teaching of autistic students (both inside and outside special-ed programs) that accommodates not only different dialects (SRTOL’s original aim) but different modes of language as authentic: verbalized organized original speech, writing by hand, typing, use of an AAC device or other communication-assisting tool, etc.
My preliminary research indicates this is solid ground for a thesis. It’s predicated on the work of at least two of my current professors, so I’ll have in-department support. There appears to be a substantial gap in the literature; there’s work on autism narratives in psychiatry, but very little in rhetoric and composition. It’s something I can stay interested in for the amount of time it will take me to write a thesis. And it’s something I’m willing to turn into a dissertation, if the rabbit hole is sufficiently deep. Promising stuff.