Dissertation for Dr. of Philosophy, Bowling Green State University, 2010 Neil Shepard
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From Introduction: This dissertation explores representations of Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Specifically, it textually analyzes cultural representations with the goal of identifying specific narratives that have become dominant in the public sphere. Beginning in 2001, with Wired magazine’s article by Steve Silberman entitled “The Geek Syndrome” as the starting point, this dissertation demonstrates how certain values have been linked to Asperger’s syndrome: namely the association between this disorder and hyper-intelligent, socially awkward personas.
Narratives about Asperger’s have taken to medicalizing not only genius (as figures such as Newton and Einstein receive speculative posthumous diagnoses) but also to medicalizing a particular brand of new economy, information-age genius. The types of individuals often suggested as representative Asperger’s subjects can be stereotyped as the casual term “geek syndrome” suggests: technologically savvy, successful “nerds.” On the surface, increased public awareness of Asperger’s syndrome combined with the representation has created positive momentum for acceptance of high functioning autism. In a cultural moment that suggests “geek chic,” Asperger’s syndrome has undergone a critical shift in value that seems unimaginable even 10 years ago.
This shift has worked to undo some of the stigma attached to this specific form of autism. The proto-typical Aspergian persona represented dominantly in the media is often both intelligent and successful. At the same time, these personas are also so often masculine, middle/upper class and white. These representations are problematic in the way that they uphold traditional normativity in terms of gender, race and class, as well as reifying stigma toward other points on the autistic spectrum.
Having grown up with a family connection to Asperger’s syndrome, I can say that from my experience the truly challenging difficulties that emerge do so from encounters with the social world. I have never met a person with autism who is, in and of themselves, a “problem.” Problems come in the form of ignorance; the forms of this ignorance vary in range from inadequate educational resources to bullies. The sentiment that the problem is social rather than individual is something that I have seen echoed repeatedly throughout my research, whenever I have read of or spoken with people with autism, their parents, guardians, children, siblings and friends. Whatever Asperger’s or autism may be has, in my experience, been less important thanthe beliefs and practices that comprise it. The work of cultural studies, as I see it, is to interrogate those beliefs and practices. To talk about a condition such as autism as being socially constructed isn’t to deny the reality of the condition, but rather to call attention to those beliefs and practices that shape the consequences of that reality. Understanding Asperger’s syndrome as a social construction is not to deny the clear realities of a condition that is manifested in the body, but to recognize the accountability of culture’s role in that reality. A social model approach to autism means an acute awareness of those impairments and those disabling features that are a result of the surrounding culture.
Citation: Shepard, Neil, “Rewiring Difference and Disability: Narratives of Asperger’s Syndrome in the Twenty-First Century” (2010). American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations. Paper 40.