Sunday, April 15, 2007

Submitted Proposal

So, I finished the proposal yesterday and sent it off to Dr. Osteen. And, here it is... I worry that the discussion on mental impairment and demonizing is done too much, but I wanted to include that because it fits so well with the "suprahuman"--child of God--topic that I wanted to write about. I think, in regard to the dissertation, The God Connection (or Indigo Children, as I've heard, too) would transition well into a discussion on savants and their perceived "superhuman" power.

I think the Christianity aspect of this is pretty interesting, especially considering that autism is considered to be such a Western, upper class condition.

Speaking of which, there was an interesting article out of Arizona about an autistic boy who was refused Communion because he refused to swallow the bread. Autistic children often have sensory issues that make swallowing certain textures and tastes uncomfortable. Instead, the nine year-old would hold the bread in his mouth for a couple seconds and then give it to his father, who would then swallow it. The Catholic church officials determined that the boy was not officially partaking in Communion and, therefore, could not continue to do so in that manner. Quite interesting implications that correspond well with this discussion here.

So, here's my abstract:

The “Suprahuman” and the “Inhuman”:
Identifying Those Of, Beyond, and Without God in Autism Texts

In recent years, autism texts have begun to explore and identify autism in terms of religion, spirituality, damnation, and salvation. For instance, in William Stiller's recent book Autism and the God Connection, Stiller, who has Asperger's Syndrome, proposes that autistic individuals possess unique spiritual qualities that, as blessed children of God, reflect the “purposeful plan to refocus us on the importance of reverence for all of humanity.” Similarly in Chuck Russell's film Bless the Child, autistic five year-old Cody O'Connor exhibits extraordinary abilities that are intended to reflect her designated status as God's crusader against Satan. In both these examples, the autistic individual possesses the unique positions as “special” children of God who are not merely “human” but are “suprahuman.”

While these two examples represent the autistic individual as possessing spiritual qualities that place him or her “closer” to God than those considered neurotypical, other autism texts describe the autistic individual as a sort of “changeling” who was transformed from “a healthy, normal” individual to one lost, cursed, or consumed by some unknown demon or monster. Parents have long described their children possessed or stolen and locked away in a remote and hidden dungeon waiting to be rescued by the perils of autism. Such representations, often reiterated in narratives by parents of autistic children (i.e., Let Me Hear Your Voice, The Sound of a Miracle, and Strange Son), equate autism--to continue to metaphor--to a hell on earth and places the autistic individual as beyond and without God.

This presentation, then, will apply current research in disability rhetoric, including Foucault's discussion on power, discourse, and mental disorder, to textual and cinematic representations of the autistic as of, beyond, and without God to illustrate how such rhetoric positions the autistic individual as “suprahuman” and “inhuman.” Such depictions--even those relatively more favorable--stigmatize the autistic individual, reinforce fears of those with ASD, and justify prejudicial practices and policies that perpetuate inadequate and even inhumane treatment and care.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Proposal in Process

So, I'm sitting at my computer this morning working on a proposal for an Autism panel at SAMLA chaired by Mark Osteen (a notable name in autism circles), and as usual, I'm having trouble getting started. I thought I might come here and blog a bit to get my thoughts down in a less threatening environment.

I was thinking about doing something with criminalization of autistic individuals in film, and using Hinshaw's book as a jumping off point, but this morning, I've been feeling more inclined to do something with autism and the supranatural or suprahuman (rather than superhuman as Dr. T suggested). Specifically, I'm thinking about the ways in which autism is connected with God, salvation, and spirituality. In the 17th and 18th centuries, "autistic-like" children were believed to be without souls and parents were advised by priests and town elders to kill, drown, or abandon their children in wild. See connections here between feral children and autistic children, for instance. This connection between autism and earlier manifestations of the cognitive condition illustrate a history of autism that refutes environmental toxin, mercury, vaccine arguments on autism as a late 20th century condition.

Interestingly, I think contemporary connection between autism, spirituality, and changelings, as discussed in William Stiller's book Autism and the God Connection, correlates in some ways with the neurodiversity movement. Both are based, in part, on an acceptance-based approach to autism cognition. Autistic individuals are not normal people who are flawed, harmed, or with "deformed" brains (or as one grandmother I read noted--"toxic waste dumps"), but rather unique individuals born with unique cognitive abilities and unique neurological functioning. It seems all the more interesting that Stiller is autistic, himself, so his point-of-view is markedly from within or inside, rather than the parent on the outside--which is the most often point of view regarding autism discourses.

I'm also thinking about how metaphor of "changleing" children comes into play here. Children possessed by demons or lost to some monster/devil who endure some kind of metamorphosis changing from "normal, healthy" toddlers to some vacant, apathetic, "lost" child. (Again, metaphor of the feral children--lost in the wildness of their minds might come into play here.)

So, how might I show this rhetoric? Methodology for carrying out my research? I'm thinking of the representation both in film and text--online and print. Films such as Bless the Child, The Wild Child, Change of Habit... Texts such as Stillman's, Grinker's, and online blogs that illustrate this rhetoric of "changeling" and God and spirituality. I'm not sure if this is as good a methodology as I ought to have but I'll work on this more.

If I were to expand this into "something" larger, say a dissertation (who knew, right?), I would link this discussion with one on autism savants as superhumans with superhuman brains. Back to Rainman and the like. But, that's for another time.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Mark of Shame

I've been reading Stephen P. Hinshaw's The Mark of Shame: Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change over the past couple days (damn, Interlibrary Loan gave me a whole 7 days to read the book and get it back to them--needless to say, I have $4 in fines waiting for me tomorrow). So, I'm going to post some important quotations to help me for future reference/discussion. Oh, and I'm working on my abstract for the Autism panel this week and I'll post it here when it's done. I'm pretty much going to beg the chair to let me be on the panel, even if I have to wash his car or something. Whatever it takes.

"Currently, homelessness is fueled by a mental health system that fails to provide even rudimentary care for those formerly housed in institutions. A third or more of the homeless population suffers from severe mental illness, and a lack of systematic care plagues people with mental disorders even if they do find shelter. Isolated in inner-city settings, many current 'community' residences rival earlier institutions as sources of despair and even premature death" (Hinshaw xiii).

"Jails and prisons have become the largest mental facilities in the United States, fueled by the increasing tendency to criminalize mental illness and the closure of most public mental hospitals. Psychological and psychiatric care is woefully inadequate in prisons, and exposure to violent conditions can only worsen the prognosis. Training of police and law enforcement is almost nonexistent" (Hinshaw xiii).

[I see these points important particularly as it relates to the representation of autistic adults in society. One common topic of contention amongst "vaccines cause autism" proponents is that "we" don't see adult autistics walking around in our society. Because we don't see autistic adults like we do autistic children today, autism is a late 20th century-early 21st century phenomena due to vaccination reactions. I argue, however, that perhaps we don't "see" autistic adults because those profoundly autistic are more likely to make up invisible sectors of our society. The homeless, prisoners, immigrants, "mentally retarded."]

"Media portrayals of people with mental disorder continue to feature stereotypes and ridicule, equating mental disorder with incompetence and violence" (Hinshaw xiii).

"In the United States, knowledge of mental illness has improved over the past decades, but stigmatization of the most severe forms of mental disorder has actually increased" (Hinshaw xiii).

For purposes of time and space, I'll just note that Hinshaw provides a thorough definition of "mental disorder" as it relates to stigma based on social, moral, and medical models.

"...aberrant behavior cannot be considered as mentally disordered unless it explicitly violates social norms or induces substantial impairment to the individual in question. That is, the first component of the definition involves harm. As with all definitions incorporating such socially normative perspectives, this component is culturally relative: What might be considered harmful or impairing in one society or culture may not be in another. The point is that social and personal judgments are a necessary component of defining behavior patterns as mentally disordered" (emphasis not mine, Hinshaw 15).

"Yet, this criterion alone is far too relative to constitute a viable definition. Indeed, designations of harm could easily constitute cases of social deviance per se, without the presence of a deeper level of medical or neural problem. The behavior patter in question must also be dysfunctional in an evolutionary sense to qualify as a mental disorder. In other words, there must be an aberration in a naturally selected mental mechanism that is not working as intended (in other words, as naturally selected)" (emphasis not mine, Hinshaw 15).

"If we are not positive as to the nature of functional minds and mental mechanisms, how can we know what is inherently dysfunctional?" (Hinshaw 16).

"Mentally disordered behavior, just like typical behavior, is not static but rather dynamic and fluid" (Hinshaw 16).

DSM-IV states that mental illness includes "personal/social maladjustment plus dysfunction" (Hinshaw 19).

Hinshaw also has an interesting discussion on labeling theory and its modifications in Chapter 2, which might be relevant or useful for my discussion on using "person with autism" or "autistic person."

"A fundamental question is whether conscious experience emanates from physical processes grounded in the body--the brain, in particular--or whether mental life is distinct from chemical, physiological forces, with a source and essence of its own. The latter view, relating to the independence of mental life, is called dualism" (Hinshaw 54).

"Consider the very term mental disorder. It explicitly communicates that a 'mental' disturbance is separate from 'physical' illnesses or processes, with several implications. For instance, if mental disturbances are in the mind but not of the body, they may not be seen as real. Perhaps they are imagined, or their sufferers do not exert enough control over their mental lives. Alternatively, if the mind is conceptualized as occupying a higher plane of existence than mere bodily processes, then mental afflictions would be viewed as evidence of a fundamental lack of reason and moral sense. The deepest human qualities would be seen as absent in the person with mental disturbance, who may be perceived by others as less than fully human" (Hinshaw 54).

[I find this last quotation particularly relevant considering that autistic individuals have difficulty expressing reason and moral sense--and possibly seen as less than fully human. Capable of crimes? Like connecting autism to serial killers? Lack of empathy? Lack of emotion?]

Historically, mental illness connected with demons and lack of moral reasoning, impulse control. "battleground for grand battles between holy and satanic forces" (Hinshaw 61). During the Medieval period, "Through religious doctrine, which was now the official source of societal views, mental afflictions indicated that their bearer was a heretic, one whose religious faith was not sufficiently strong to withstand possession by demonic forces. Note a crucial point in this reasoning: The perceived weakness of the sufferer was believed to set the stage for possession, so that ascriptions to demonology were merged with attributions of responsibility and control" (Hinshaw 60).