Book Review: Autism in a Decentered World (Alice Wexler)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
One of the last groups of people to benefit from the disability rights mantra "Nothing About Us Without Us" are those who medical science has defined as being on the autism spectrum. Fortunately, the last few years have seen the inclusion of the voices of autistic writers themselves, and the addition of their voices is changing the way that autism is viewed. In Autism in a Decentered World, Alice Wexler describes these sea changes and looks at the influence of the words and art of autists themselves on theories of mind that have implications not just for the writers but for the concept of neurodiversity that apply to all human beings.
It is refreshing that in a disabilities climate that seems to split between the anti-essentialism of post-modernism and the reductionist materialism of science that Alice Wexler leaps backward to David Hume, arguably the bane of both, as the starting point for her discussion on mind – specifically as it relates to autism. As Wexler explains, "Hume's argument that the continuity and wholeness of the self is fiction and, therefore, so are our perception of the universe, is the thesis of this book." It is a direct rebuttal to not only common sense notions but also to the view of the majority of the medical establishment that individuals with autism are an aberration whose behavior needs – to the extent possible – to be brought into alignment with what is considered normal. Wexler's thesis is at the same time a plea for and recognition of the neurodiversity.
Autism in a Decentered World takes a two pronged attack. The first is to enlist support from external resources – the fields of neuropsychology and technology. The second comes from the internal experience of those on the autism spectrum themselves. The actual structure of the book, however, reflects Wexler's credentials as Professor Emeritus of Art Education at SUNY, New Paltz. The first three fifths of the book include discussions of theories of mind, issue of autism and language acquisition, descriptions of the history of augmentative communication, and discussions of what writers with autism have said about themselves – all subsumed under the heading "Theories of Self." The book's second part, making up the remaining two fifths of the book, is given over primarily to a description of the Creative Growth Center in Oakland, California and the work of four autistic artists the Center supports.
One of the things that makes Wexler's book enjoyable is a lack of dogmatism and its appeal to curiosity. The author is quite aware that she herself is constructing a story-line and plugging in those swatches of knowledge that lend it credibility. The landscape Wexler creates is one that invites the excitement intellectual projects can trigger.
A personal sidebar. While Descartes may be the favorite whipping boy of late twentieth century philosophy, many of us when we first read his cogito in our youth experienced the feeling of thinking "yes, here is someone who has nailed it." I know I did. And it is precisely the fact that neurotypical individuals like me take our common experience of self as a baseline – as an "I" in our material bodies that cannot be denied - that makes us resistant to the notion that our own sense of self is one among many possible and equally legitimate experiences – of which autism is another.
In unbraiding the notion of the unified ego and making the case for the importance of understanding autistic experience, Wexler returns to Hume's concept of the self as a bundle, refuting Descartes. Paraphrasing Hume, Wexler writes, "There is not one impression of self, but a bundle or collection of impressions that must then remain constant and unchanged throughout the arch of our lives." The journey Wexler takes us through in following out the implications of this position is too rich to do justice to in this review, but two particular strands are worth mentioning. The first is that modern science and technology are unable to locate any place in the human brain (and, presumably, other parts of the body) that can serve as a physical theater for the ego. Increasingly, neuroscience reveals that various aspects of what we experience as a unified self are distributed throughout the brain. The second is that the unified self as a narrative of memory is not a direct memory of perception itself but the assembled representations of experience. (A position also embraced by non-Western thinkers like Nishida and Nishitani.)
If the narrative self is a construct, Wexler asks, then what is the sequence and mechanism of construction? It is a question that brings up a further debate, between those who believe that neurotypical representation of self is an outgrowth of language and those who do not. Since one characteristic identifier of autism is the delayed acquisition of language, and language itself is known to be best acquired during pivotal stages of childhood development, this might well account for the purported lack of self in autists.
It is at this point that access to information about their experiences from autists comes into play. The book divides autistic informers into two categories, those who communicate verbally (i.e. through language) and those who communicate visually through art. In preparing readers to take a look at the world gleaned from those using writing and verbally-based communication, Wexler inserts a chapter on the history and development of the augmentative and alternative communication that makes it possible. While less speculative than the previous chapters, it also reveals the controversy these advances have generated, particularly surrounding the field of facilitated communication.
One of the rewards of reading Autism in a Decentered World is the opportunity to dip into the work of autistic writers themselves. Among the general population, the autistic writer with the most star power is unquestionably Temple Grandin and Wexler gives Grandin her due. However, as Ralph Saverese, who wrote the book's introduction and is widely quoted in its pages, has pointed out in his own work, Grandin is an individual and cannot be taken to represent an entire group. Wexler introduces readers to other writers as well and three, in particular, deserve a much wider reading: blogger Amanda Baggs, memoirist Tito Mukhopadhyay and poet D. J. Savarese. Tito has authored several books and his portraits of his years in special education are scathingly funny. Savararese's ekphrastic poems on the work of autistic artists provide insights of which a neurotypical poet is probably incapable. Amanda Baggs pushes back at all of those who perpetuate negative stereotypes and perceptions saying, "My task here is to scale the cliffs of language and shout up to you the pattern of one or more injustices." A major service Wexler has rendered readers is a comprehensive list of reference and notes at the end of each chapter where they can locate more of these writers' works.
Of course, as with any group of writers, each comes with a different perspective, but there are also some commonalties that can be gleaned from their work as well. One of the most interesting similarities comes in the fact that they all acquired the use of language, and devises to help facilitate their language, much later than neurotypicals and because of that they are in a position to report back, as it were, on the nature of their experiences prior to language. It is a delicate translation because in many cases their use of language reveals a disconnect between their own and conventional use. Nevertheless, their accounts bear on some of the fundamental questions that Wexler posed earlier in the book, including how a centralized ego is developed and the nature of thinking prior to language acquisition. As Wexler notes, "autists report that words are heard or seen in patterns and rhythms without discursive meaning…" Moreover, this thinking in visual patterns bolsters the author's contentions that thinking originates not in language but in a prior capacity to form symbols that are represented in the mind visually.
The final hundred pages of the book, as noted above, are given over to those who do deal with visual representation directly – the artists. The work of four specific artists Gerone Spruill, Dan Miller, William Scott, and R. B., each discussed at length, is framed within an account of outsider art and its movement from institutions into the community. There is a sense, however, in which these pages want to be a separate book. The texture of the writing itself feels different, focusing in finer brush strokes that create individual portraits of the artists involved rather than trying to try to tie them to the overarching theories of the first part of the book or the thesis that Wexler sets out in her introduction as the discussion of the autistic writers does. Still, there is little doubt about the affection that Wexler feels for the work of these artists and she deserves to be commended for bringing their work to the attention of a wider public.
Published as part of the formidable Routledge Advances in Disability Studies series, potential readers of Autism in a Decentered World may at first glance be wary of getting into a thicket of vocabulary and concepts over their heads, but they need not be. While Alice Wexler's book is undeniably intelligently written and shows great command of the field, her style is engaging and she never makes gratuitous displays of her learning. Anyone with an open mind, an interest in autism, and an excitement about new ideas will find it an accessible, rewarding read. Wexler's lists of references, the works of autists that she introduces us to, and her own notes at the end of the chapter, are alone worth the price of the book. The possibilities of new perspectives that it offers are without price.
Title: Autism in a Decentered World