Centre for Culture and the Arts

Refiguring adult autism

Dr James McGrath’s research project on Naming Adult Autism passionately argues for greater dialogue between the sciences and humanities towards further understandings of autistic adulthood.

Refiguring adult autism

the challenge

To understand autistic adulthood better, there needs to be greater dialogue between the sciences and humanities. Harmful stereotypes are problematic for autistic adults. For this reason, Dr McGrath’s book, Naming Adult Autism, advocates the critical study of how autism is depicted across literature, film and mass media. 

The Approach

Dr McGrath passionately argues for greater dialogue between the sciences and humanities towards further understandings of autistic adulthood.

His work, including his teaching, also explores further intersections of culture and medicine. Naming Adult Autism explores changing meanings of autism via novels (Forster; Coupland; Atwood), poetry (Murray; Limburg), television (The Office) and popular music (The Who’s Tommy). In a chapter applying literary critical approaches to the leading scientific research on autism, the book uncovers flaws in much-publicized findings and associated questionnaires.

I agree we shouldn’t assume autistic talents only emerge in STEM subjects. According to the hyper-systemising theory, autistic talents can emerge in any field where patterns can be analysed (e.g. history, literature, drama, comedy, film, and arts & crafts)

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen Director, Cambridge University Autism Research Centre

The Impact 

Dr James McGrath’s book Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity is a literary critique of how autism is narrated both in culture and in science. Published by Rowman & Littlefield International in 2017, it is one of the first academic books on the topic to be authored by an adult diagnosed autistic. Naming Adult Autism experiments with the academic book as both a scholarly and literary form. The first chapter, ‘Outsider Science’, uncovers a series of oversights both in diagnostic questionnaires and in ongoing surveys of autistic traits among the general population. The fourth chapter, ‘Title’, experiments with minimalism as an academic tool, and consists of a three-line poem.

Based on his experiences as an adult diagnosed autistic and his research output on autism, McGrath’s impact has led to changes in:

  • Professional awareness within the NHS of obstacles faced by autistic adults in accessing services (GP training films)
  • How psychiatrists, nurses and GPs may better accommodate the needs of autistic patients (conference presentations; Q+A sessions)
  • Public awareness that autistic people may succeed in Arts and Humanities, not just STEM subjects as previously stereotyped (BBC radio broadcasts; The Conversation)
  • Updating content of certified online courses on autism awareness to represent autistic perspectives (High Speed Training UK)

Naming Adult Autism: Dr James McGrath in conversation with Kelly-Anne Watson This conversation was filmed on Thursday 7 November 2017 as part of a programme of events coordinated by our university's Disability Action Group to mark UK Disability History Month. James shares his insights and experiences of autism, covering topics such as the language of disability and portrayals of autism in media and society.

Research Outputs


  • McGrath, James (2019ebook; 2020 hard copy) ‘Doctor I’m damaged: Medical and Cultural Narratives of Nicky Hopkins and the Rolling Stones’ in Russell Reising (ed.) Beggars Banquet and the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Revolution: ‘They Call My Name Disturbance'. London: Routledge. (ADD DOI when available) [Listed in REF 2b]
  • McGrath, James (2019) Not all Autistic People are Good at Maths and Science, Despite the Stereotypes. The Conversation, 3 April, 2019. [Readers: 17,990 Facebook shares: 11.3k Tweets: 205 including Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes (the best-selling autism study to date) and Simon Baron-Cohen. ]
  • McGrath, James (2017 hardback and ebook; 2019 paperback) Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity. London: Rowman and Littlefield. [Listed in REF2b] 


  • Culture and applied social sciences
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