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New book challenges assumptions about autism


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A new book which challenges assumptions that autistic people are gifted at maths but indifferent to fiction, has been published by a Leeds Beckett researcher.

New book challenges assumptions about autism

The book, Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity, has been written by Dr James McGrath, a Senior Lecturer in Literature at Leeds Beckett and is published by Rowman & Littlefield International.

Naming Adult Autism is one of the first critiques of cultural and medical narratives of autism to be authored by an adult diagnosed with this condition.  The book demonstrates the value of the humanities towards developing fuller understandings of autistic adulthood.

As author Dr James McGrath explained: “I passionately feel that there needs to be greater dialogue between the sciences and humanities in seeking to understand autism, at a time when so much about the condition is a mystery. Autism isn’t diagnosed by any blood test or scan. It’s done by language – how you narrate your experiences.  In the book, I decided to apply literary criticism to scientific texts on autism – looking at how the language used affects the diagnosis and even the very definitions of autism. I also examined how power structures, and factors including gender, class and age might influence autism diagnosis. What I found sometimes shocked me.”

The book challenges expectations that autistic people may be good at maths but not at understanding fiction. Such assumptions, as the book details, are scientifically unsound as well as drastically reductive.

Autism is a ‘social disorder’, defined by interactions and lifestyle. Yet, the expectations of normalcy against which autism is defined have too rarely been questioned. After interrogating such clichés in literature, cinema and television, James also explores more radical depictions of autism in five novels by British, Canadian and American authors, as well as in contemporary poetry by Les Murray and Joanne Limburg. 

James added: “There’s this idea that autistic people don’t read fiction. Yet countless novels claim to feature characters ‘on the spectrum’. You can tell which authors have fallen for the ‘autistic people don’t read fiction’ cliché, because their writing is so full of cheap stereotypes about us. They clearly think we’re never going to read these books!  However, there are signs that this pattern is beginning to change – and I wanted to celebrate lesser known but more innovative novels that deal with autism.”

Naming Adult Autism experiments with the academic book as both a scholarly and literary form. One chapter, titled ‘Outsider Science’, extensively reveals a series of oversights in ongoing surveys of autistic traits among the general population.

Another chapter, simply called ‘Title’, experiments with minimalism as an academic tool, and consists only of a three-line poem. 

Speaking about why the book is dedicated “with love and thanks” to the National Health Service, James said: “The government is starving the NHS and its patients of essential funding, prioritising capitalist greed over human life. Meanwhile, parts of the media report on ‘crises’ in the NHS as if these are somehow the fault of the organisation, rather than the government. The staff of the NHS help us into and out of the world, and they are there for all of us along the way. Expressing my personal thanks felt like the most important thing I could do with the book’s dedication page.” 

Professor Rachel Forrest-Jones, Director of the University of Kent’s Tizard Centre, added: “This excellent book rephrases autism from an impairment to a lifelong identity, providing a deeper understanding of it.”

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