As an adult with autism who loves to read, I oftentimes peruse the shelves of my local library looking for books on the condition. Thanks to the increased awareness of autism, I always have many choices covering a broad range of subjects from personal accounts, neuropsychological theories, medical histories, and treatment options. What stands out about Autism is that the historical, personal, political, and scientific can all be found in one place. Stuart Murray, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Film and Director of Medical Humanities research in the School of English at the University of Leeds in England, draws from his expertise in Cultural and Disability Studies to deliver an engaging and thought-provoking study of autism that enriches an understanding of the condition by approaching it from variety of vantage points.
After exploring an interaction with his autistic son, Murray examines the science behind autism in an attempt to separate “what we know” from “what we don’t know.” In an analysis that poses some provocative questions and challenges some taken-for-granted assumptions, Murray manages to cover recent developments in biomedical research, theories about the etiology of autistic behavior, strategies for education and treatment, and the diagnosing of historical figures. Autism is then placed in a historical context as Murray takes the reader back through the development of psychiatry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the official discovery of autism in the 1940s, the psycho-dynamically driven “refrigerator mother” theory of the 1950s and 60s, the beginnings of grass roots political organizing by parents in the 1960s, the representation of autism in popular culture in the 1980s and 90s, and the rise of the self-advocacy movement in the 1990s. Murray’s history is more than simple summary, however; it is a tour of the concept of autism as it has evolved over the course of the last century.
Murray concludes with a discussion of what autism means in contemporary society. He uncovers the cultural anxieties underneath the fear that environmental toxins or childhood vaccines are to blame for the autism epidemic; and he gives voice to both sides in the debate over whether autism is a disease in need of a cure or a neurological difference in need of acceptance or even celebration. Murray then offers his own perspective on how autism might have much to teach the world about what it means to be human. For those unfamiliar with autism, Murray’s book is an excellent introductory primer. I would definitely recommend it to my neighbors and friends as a comprehensive overview of my condition. For those already well-versed in autism discourse, Murray’s book is a proposal; look at autism in all of its guises—as a political hot-button issue, a medical mystery, a popular culture staple, etc.--then merge these perspectives together and reconsider what you thought you knew.
About the Author
Gyasi Burks-Abbott is a 38-year old African American autistic man who graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota with a BA in English and Psychology in 1996. In 2001, Gyasi received his Masters of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts; since that time he has spoken about his autism at various conferences, both domestically and abroad, and he has been very active in advocacy efforts in Massachusetts. In recognition for his service on the boards of two autism organizations, Gyasi received a Distinguished Citizen Award in 2006. More recently, Gyasi’s critique of Mark Haddon’s autism novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time appeared in an anthology entitled Autism and Representation published by Routledge in 2008. Gyasi lives in Bedford, Massachusetts.