Can the (Autistic) Subaltern Speak?

Some months ago, I shelved this paper topic.  I did so for several reasons. I didn’t know quite what I was trying to say; I had a sneaking suspicion I ought to be focusing on something that more clearly related to my law background; and I had several classes for which I needed to do work that had nothing to do with autism narratives or SRTOL.

This week, however, I spent several hours rereading G.C.  Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, and it reopened the box. I am captivated by the concept of a “forced subalternity” (in both directions) created by the insistence that “low-functioning” autistic people can’t speak on their own experience and that “high-functioning” autistic people aren’t even having an autistic experience. Among other things, the latter seems to imply that subalternity can be imposed by the insistence that the object is *not* “other” – Spivak touches on this at the end of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” but doesn’t explain it much.

There’s some work out there on disability narratives and the subaltern, but most of it focuses on narratives written by parents of children with physical disabilities. Which is, I think, how one gets unproductively-baffling statements like this one I found during a Google search this morning, in a parent’s blog post from 2005: “I am subaltern because I am a parent and primary carer of a child with autism.”


Except for Ralph James Savarese’s recently-published book, there is, near as I can tell, very little completed work on “speaking” and autism, and even less literary analysis of narratives by autistic people about autism. Yet every “autism narrative” I’ve read so far (memoir, fiction, even poetry) deals somehow with the subaltern as it relates to autistic understanding, use, and production of language. And I frame that in the singular rather than the plural because as different as our experiences, uses, and productions of language are, every autistic voice I’ve encountered knows in its bones that our language marks us as subaltern and that the recognition of our voice is the battle on which our personhood depends.

As I’ve said before, it is no coincidence that the organization most bent on eliminating the voices of actual autistic people from the discourse on autism calls itself “Autism Speaks.”

The autistic subaltern can speak.  But can the autistic subaltern be heard or read?  Does it matter, as certain organizations keep telling us it does, how the autistic subaltern speaks – or does it not matter, as certain organizations also keep telling us it does, for as long as we are autistic we will be relegated to subalternity regardless of whether/how we speak?  These are things I want to know.


About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series Buy her a coffee:
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One Response to Can the (Autistic) Subaltern Speak?

  1. Hi Dani. Fascinated by this post, as it’s the very question – in the very same words – that’s been going round my head lately.

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