This blog post is part three of the three-part “Teaching Critical Perspectives on Autism” series, in which I share the chapter I wrote for the book Disability Studies in Education (edited by Phil Smith, Gregg Beratan, and Elizabeth J. Grace; to be published by Autonomous Press in late 2016 or early 2017).

The first part of the series“Autism and the Pathology Paradigm,” is here.

The second part of the series“My Autism Course at CIIS,” is here.

Seven Guiding Principles

Early on in my process of designing my Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity course for the undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies, I asked myself the question, “What are the most essential and indispensible guiding principles any course on autism must follow, in order to ensure that the course truly remains grounded in the neurodiversity paradigm and avoids inadvertently reinforcing the attitudes of the pathology paradigm on any level?” I eventually developed a list of seven such guiding principles, which have served me quite well and which are here enumerated in the hope that they will be useful to others in creating similar courses.

1. To Hell with “Balance”

A good course on autism (or, for that matter, a good piece of writing on autism, or good education or journalism on autism in any medium) should not attempt to strike any sort of “balance” between the neurodiversity paradigm and the pathology paradigm. The pathology paradigm is simply an outgrowth of cultural ableism and bigotry. Work based in the pathology paradigm has no more scholarly or “scientific” validity than work based in cultural paradigms of racism, misogyny, or homophobia. Like racism, misogyny, and homophobia, the pathology paradigm is just plain wrong. The fact that at this point in history nearly all mainstream academic and professional writing on autism is based in the pathology paradigm doesn’t make it any less wrong. There was a time that nearly all mainstream academic and professional writing on race was racist, and that didn’t make racism valid or right.

A good educator should seek to expose students to good information while steering them away from ignorance and bigotry. A “balance” between right and wrong isn’t right; a “balance” between good information and ignorant bigotry isn’t superior to good information. So, to hell with “balance.” If you were teaching an African-American Studies course, would you insist that half of the assigned readings consist of racist literature by white supremacists, in the interest of “balance”? I certainly hope not.

Consider also that the pathology paradigm is so dominant and pervasive in academia and in society as a whole that all students in any course on autism have grown up thoroughly steeped in the assumptions of the pathology paradigm, and it’s likely that nearly everything they’ve been taught about autism has been based in the pathology paradigm. Students come into a class on autism already heavily biased toward the pathology paradigm and with heads already full of the bigoted misconceptions about autism engendered by the pathology paradigm, and outside of the class they’ll continue to dwell in a world in which the pathology paradigm is constantly reinforced. Thus, even if “balance” were our priority, courses that are entirely and intentionally weighted toward the neurodiversity paradigm are merely a small step toward restoring balance in a world that’s overwhelmingly biased toward the pathology paradigm.

So a good course on autism should actively and uncompromisingly promote the neurodiversity paradigm, just as a good African-American Studies course is actively and uncompromisingly anti-racist. Work based in the pathology paradigm, if it’s assigned at all, should be assigned only so that the instructor and students can critique it in order to hone the students’ skills at recognizing and critiquing such work.

2. The Instructor Must Be Autistic

The instructor must be autistic. Imagine the outcry that would (rightly) ensue if a college’s courses in Women’s Studies were primarily taught by men, or if a college’s courses on African-American Studies were primarily taught by white people! The fact that it’s still widely regarded as acceptable for courses on autism to be mostly taught by non-autistic people is an indicator of just how deeply the pathology paradigm pervades the mindset of our society. Regardless of the curriculum, every course on autism that isn’t taught by an autistic instructor implicitly reinforces the pathology paradigm and the ableist assumption that non-autistic persons are better qualified to speak for and about autistic persons than autistic persons themselves. There are enough out-of-the-closet autistics in academia these days that any college should be able to find one to teach a course on autism. And given how heavily most hiring processes discriminate against autistics, the autistic academics could certainly use the work.

3. The Instructor Must Be a Participant
in Autistic Culture, Community, and Resistance

When academic institutions do invite an autistic person to have any sort of significant voice in their curriculum on autism, the autistic person in question is nearly always chosen from a short list of well-known autistics whom I have come to think of as the tame autistics. The tame autistics all have certain traits in common: they are white; they are heterosexual, asexual, and/or fairly closeted about their sexuality; they grew up fairly affluent and have never faced extreme poverty or homelessness; they are highly capable of oral speech; they are ableist, and have no problem with pathologizing non-speaking autistics or other autistics who are significantly more disabled than themselves; they regard disability as shameful and tend to avoid describing themselves as disabled; they rarely contradict non-autistic “autism experts” or ableist autism organizations run by non-autistic people; they have few (if any) close autistic friends and have never been deeply involved in the radical activist autistic culture and communities from which the Neurodiversity Movement emerged; they have appropriated the term “neurodiversity” now that it’s becoming a well-known buzzword, but their thinking remains rooted in the pathology paradigm. Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison are probably the best-known of these tame autistics at the time that I write this, but there are many others – in fact, there are a couple of publishing companies, specializing in autism-related books based in the pathology paradigm, that actively seek the work of tame autistic authors.

Autistic though they may be, none of these tame autistics would be equipped to create or teach a curriculum that poses real critical challenges to the pathology paradigm and to the bigotry of the dominant cultural narratives around autism. For a course to be effective in serving those goals, it’s not enough for the instructor to be autistic; the instructor must be an autistic with a substantial history of active participation in autistic culture and community, including autistic rights activism, resistance to oppressive cultural and professional practices based in the pathology paradigm, and celebration of autistic pride.

4. Autistic Voices Must Be Central

The writings and perspectives of actual autistic persons must be central, not peripheral, to the curriculum. At least 80% of the assigned readings should be by autistic authors. Tame autistics don’t count – not that the course can’t include any material by tame autistics, but such material should be approached with the explicit intent of critiquing the internalized oppression of the authors, and the way that the work of such authors tends to perpetuate the pathologizing narratives that the authors have been taught to impose on their lives. A course in which most of the readings by autistics are by tame autistics is a course that reinforces dominant cultural narratives rather than challenging them.

5. Truth Is Where It Is

In the realm of conventional academic literature (e.g., peer-reviewed journals and books from mainstream academic presses) the discourse on autism is dominated by the voices of non-autistic writers whose work is based in the pathology paradigm. Autistic voices and narratives that pose critical challenges to this dominant discourse, and to the host of beliefs and practices around autism that are rooted in the pathology paradigm, are systematically marginalized in this literature – excluded, silenced, disingenuously misinterpreted, or condescendingly dismissed.

To find the autistic voices that challenge the assumptions and practices of the dominant paradigm through various combinations of personal testimony and direct critique, one must therefore look outside the well-guarded walls of mainstream academic literature. Until quite recently, nearly all of the most important work by non-tame autistic authors could only be found on the internet, most often on the blogs created by the authors themselves. This is still largely the case, although some of these authors are finally beginning to gain footholds on the fringes of academic publishing – primarily in journals devoted to Disability Studies, or through the efforts of small independent publishing houses like Autonomous Press that specifically seek to amplify marginalized voices. Given this state of affairs, the list of assigned readings for a course on autism based in the neurodiversity paradigm rather than the pathology paradigm must necessarily consist to a large degree of materials drawn from autistic-owned blogs and other sources outside of the realm of conventional academic literature.

The instructor ought to make a point of explaining all of this on the first day of class, and perhaps also articulate it in the syllabus. It’s good for students to understand the rationale behind an unorthodox reading list; it’s also good for students to understand how the gatekeeping systems of conventional academic literature resist incursions by marginalized voices that pose radical challenges to dominant paradigms – and how such challenges, as a result, tend to emerge outside the borders of mainstream academia and only gradually fight their way inward.

6. The Instructor Must Model
the Accommodation of Neurodivergence

Most academic settings reflect the ableist and neuronormative values of the dominant culture. Students are expected to conform to the dominant neuronormative conventions of learning and participation, and students whose learning and access needs conflict with those conventions are heavily discriminated against in most educational institutions. The instructor must openly and explicitly declare the class a zone of freedom from this sort of discrimination and compulsory neuronormativity, and must clearly and consistently demonstrate the creative accommodation of neurodivergence and individual access needs in her conduct of the class.

An instructor may assign a superb list of readings on the neurodiversity paradigm, and may speak eloquently on the importance of embracing neurodiversity and accommodating the access needs of neurodivergent persons – but if the instructor does not model this embracing and accommodation of neurodivergence in how she actually conducts the class and deals with the students, then the instructor’s hypocrisy will ultimately undermine her message and the course will be a hollow sham. One cannot convincingly challenge a paradigm of compulsory neuronormativity while remaining complicit in the institutionalized enforcement of that same neuronormativity. In the immortal words of Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

It is not sufficient for the instructor to only grant students the accommodations that are mandated for them by the college’s Disability Services department. This is merely compliance with the law (although many instructors and many institutions resist even doing that much). Disability Services departments in the world of higher education reinforce the pathology paradigm by demanding that neurodivergent students subject themselves to the process of being professionally diagnosed, and of having their divergences from neuronormativity pathologized as “disorders,” before accommodations are granted. Thus, any instructor who provides accommodations only when required by the Disability Services department is also implicitly reinforcing and condoning the pathology paradigm.

Instead, on the first day of class, the instructor should explicitly point out the above dynamics, and should invite all students to publicly or privately speak up about any access needs they have that they’re aware of or that they might become aware of during the course of the term. The instructor should do her best to work with the students to accommodate their needs. If there are accommodations that neither the instructor nor the student can provide, and Disability Services and/or other institutional departments must be involved, then the instructor should advocate for the student with those departments if such advocacy can help to expedite the provision of the needed accommodations.

Conflicts between the access needs of different individuals should be negotiated in class as part of the learning process. For instance, I often get students who need to take notes on laptops, tablets, or other electronic devices, because they need the notes in order to retain information but they can’t write quickly enough by hand. Personally, I can’t focus on speaking and listening to the class while someone next to me is noisily tap-tap-tapping away at a keyboard. So, right at the beginning of the first day of class, I tell students that they’re welcome to type during class as long as they don’t sit too close to me – there’s a “no typing zone” around the front of the room where I’m positioned, and a “typing zone” across the room from me. This works for everyone – and more importantly, it immediately provides students with an example of what access needs are and how they can be civilly negotiated.

7. The Instructor Must Model and Invite
the Embodied Expression of Neurodivergence

In the classroom, students must be free to be neurodivergent, to act neurodivergent, to look and sound neurodivergent. Each student must be free to openly engage in whatever forms and styles of embodiment and movement come naturally to them, or meet their (physical, cognitive, and/or emotional) needs, or emerge as spontaneous responses to external or internal circumstances. The classroom must be declared a zone of freedom from the dominant culture’s pervasive requirement that everyone strive to constantly perform neuronormativity. Students must instead be invited to drop the performance of neuronormativity and to freely explore and indulge in the embodied performance of neurodivergence.

It is not sufficient for the instructor to merely tell students that in this class it’s okay for them to give expression to their neurodivergence. Sociocultural pressures to perform neuronormativity are lifelong, pervasive, and insidious. By the time people are old enough to end up in a college classroom, they have almost always internalized these pressures to the point where they habitually police themselves and engage in the performance of neuronormativity even in situations in which it isn’t explicitly required of them by any external authority. That’s how enculturation works, and how internalized oppression works on an embodied level. Internalized normativity is a powerful force, especially when engrained into habits of embodied performance.

Thus, in order for the classroom to actually function as any sort of zone of liberation from compulsory neuronormativity, it is necessary for the instructor to explain all of this – to explain how the dominant culture entrains us all toward the performance of normativity, and how this performance becomes internalized and habituated on a bodily level, and how breaking out of that shell of normative performance is an essential component of self-liberation. It is necessary for the instructor to explicitly declare the classroom a zone for free experimentation with shedding habits of normative performance and actively exploring, practicing, reclaiming, and cultivating non-normative modes of embodiment. And it is necessary for the instructor to personally practice what she preaches: to personally, physically model the embodied expression of neurodivergence. The autistic instructor must move like an autistic person, must freely and visibly follow her natural movement impulses in the classroom. Most students simply will not dare to engage in such exploration in the classroom unless the instructor leads the way. And this means, of course, that in order to be qualified to teach in a way that liberates others, the instructor must do the work of self-liberation on a bodily level.

Conducting the class in this manner is obviously both liberatory and educational (it’s fascinating and edifying to observe the many different forms and styles of movement that gradually emerge in the classroom). What may be less obvious is that this is as much about access as about liberation. To whatever extent they think about access needs in the classroom at all, most people tend to think in terms of eliminating physical barriers (e.g., by providing wheelchair access, captioned videos, or lighting that doesn’t trigger seizures), or accommodating atypical learning styles (e.g., by giving dyslexic students extra time on quizzes). Both of these, of course, are essential forms of accommodation. But freedom of embodiment is also an access need. A student who must constantly exert her energy and attention toward passing for “normal” – i.e., performing neuronormativity rather than allowing their natural neurodivergent styles of movement and embodiment to come to the surface – is a student who has less energy and attention available for the tasks of learning and creative participation. Students can be better students when they’re given the space to move in the ways that are optimal for the functioning of their particular neurologies, rather than the ways that are required for the performance of normativity.

Here, again, conflicting access needs can be openly negotiated in class as part of the learning experience. If one student needs to drum her fingers on the desktop and another needs quiet, then perhaps the drummer can place a folded scarf or other article of clothing on the desktop to create a quieter drumming surface. If one student needs to stand up and make dance-like full-body movements, and others find this visually distracting, perhaps a corner of the room that’s outside of the visual field of the seated students can become the designated dancing space.

Just as intentionally liberating oneself from the culturally ingrained and enforced performance of heteronormativity is sometimes referred to as queering, intentionally liberating oneself from the culturally ingrained and enforced performance of neuronormativity can be thought of as neuroqueering. To invite the embodied expression of neurodivergence in the classroom is a way of neuroqueering the classroom space, and an invitation to students to engage in the practice of neuroqueering. The concept of neuroqueering represents a rich and important intersection of the fields of Disability Studies and Gender Studies, and, on top of its other benefits, introducing the practice of neuroqueering embodiment into the classroom is an excellent way to introduce neuroqueering as a concept.

In Conclusion

The present state of autism-related discourse, theory, and praxis in the academic and professional spheres is deplorable. The discourse and theory reflect a level of ignorance and bigotry that would be regarded as scandalous in most academic circles today if it involved any other social minority group. The praxis generated by this shoddy discourse and theory consistently makes life worse for autistic persons and their families; the situation is so bad that harm, degradation, and trauma suffered at the hands of therapists, educators, and other professionals has become one of the most consistent and pervasive themes in the writings of autistics. This whole sorry state of affairs can be traced directly to the dominance of the pathology paradigm, which assumes as a starting premise that autistic minds and lives are intrinsically defective and inferior. There is simply no way to generate good theory and praxis by clinging to unsound and bigoted assumptions.

Substantial change for the better will only come from abandoning the pathology paradigm and making the shift to the neurodiversity paradigm. For such a shift to happen, the next generation of professionals must be educated on autism from a perspective based solidly in the neurodiversity paradigm, and must be inoculated against the pathology paradigm by being trained to recognize and critique it as a manifestation of cultural prejudice possessing no more scientific validity than any other form of bigotry.

The seven principles I’ve delineated are intended to serve as a foundational set of guidelines for creating college courses that provide this sort of critical education on autism. It is my hope that sharing these ideas will encourage the creation of many other courses in other schools, built upon similar principles and with the same intent to prepare new generations of students to be active participants in creating the much-needed shift from the pathology paradigm to the neurodiversity paradigm in the academic and professional discourse on autism.



My Autism Course at CIIS

June 28, 2016

In May, I wrote a chapter for the book Disability Studies in Education, entitled “Teaching Critical Perspectives on Autism.” Disability Studies in Education (edited by Phil Smith, Gregg Beratan, and Elizabeth J. Grace) will be published by Autonomous Press in late 2016 or early 2017. In the meantime, I’m sharing the whole chapter right here on this blog, in three installments. My previous blog post, Autism and the Pathology Paradigm,” was the first installment. This is the second installment.

An Opportunity

A few years ago I was invited to develop and teach a new elective course on autism for the undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). CIIS is a small private college in San Francisco with a student body of approximately 1500. The undergraduate program at CIIS employs a social-justice-oriented critical pedagogy that explicitly encourages students to question dominant cultural paradigms and systemic social inequalities. Many of the students who graduate from this program end up going into psychology, education, and related fields. Many choose to remain at CIIS and pursue a Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychotherapy, in one of the five different Counseling Psychotherapy concentrations the school offers (Community Mental Health, Expressive Arts Therapy, Somatic Psychology, Integral Counseling Psychology, and Drama Therapy). Graduates of these Counseling Psychotherapy programs at CIIS currently pass the California state licensing exam for psychotherapists at a higher rate than graduates of any other college.

The focus on critical pedagogy and social justice already built into the curriculum made the undergraduate program at CIIS an ideal home for a course intended to promote critique of the dominant pathology paradigm and its oppressive nature and consequences. And because a high percentage of the students were likely to go on to careers in psychology, psychotherapy, education, and related fields, such a course had the potential to ensure that the next generation in those fields would include at least a few professionals who had been inoculated against the pathology paradigm and learned to recognize and deconstruct it, and who had received a grounding in the neurodiversity paradigm and an exposure to autistic voices and autistic truths at a crucial early juncture in their education. Teaching this course was thus a perfect opportunity to make a small contribution to breaking the cycle of ignorance and bigotry and setting in motion some positive change in the realm of autism-related discourse and praxis.

The Program and the Structure of the Course

The specifics of how any given course is structured are going to vary considerably depending on the structural particulars of the school and program in which the course is taught. California Institute of Integral Studies is a unique school, and their Interdisciplinary Studies program a unique program, so no other course in any other program is likely to follow the specific structure of my Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity course. The following outline of my course is offered only as an example of one possible course structure. Vastly different structures are possible, and vastly different structures will no doubt be necessary in different schools.

The Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies is an intensive hybrid B.A. completion program (hybrid meaning a blend of in-person classroom time and online work; B.A. completion meaning that students must complete general education requirements elsewhere before transferring into the program to finish their degrees). Over the course of a year, students attend 18 intensive weekends of in-person classes – Friday evenings and all day Saturdays, plus electives offered on Friday afternoons or Sunday mornings – with two-or-three-week periods of study, writing, and online participation in between those weekends.

I was asked to create my Critical Perspectives on Autism and Neurodiversity course as a two-unit elective course. This means that the class meets in person a total of five times over the course of ten weeks, with each class meeting being three hours long (there are a couple of 15-minute breaks in those three-hour class meetings, fortunately). In between class meetings, students do the readings (which are posted online either as links or downloadable files), and work on papers and other assignments.

First Class Meeting

Sometime in the week before the class first meets in the classroom, I send students an email in which I remind them that our first meeting is coming up, confirm the time and room number, and attach a copy of the syllabus. Apart from the syllabus, I assign no readings before the first meeting.

The Interdisciplinary Studies program at CIIS keeps class sizes small, and there’s a strong emphasis on class discussion as a key part of the learning experience, so students and instructors generally all sit in a circle in the classroom instead of the more conventional arrangement of students sitting in rows all facing the instructor. This class is no exception; all our class meetings are conducted sitting in a circle, with students having explicit permission to leave the circle anytime they need to.

At our first meeting, I introduce myself and we go over the syllabus and the various class rules and guidelines – including an explanation of my policies on accommodation of access needs and my invitation to engage in embodied expression of neurodivergence in the classroom. I let the students know that I’m autistic, and discuss ways in which my neurocognitive style is likely to impact their experience of me as an instructor – for example, the fact that I’ll make less eye contact than most instructors, the bluntness of my verbal communication style, and the possibility that I won’t recognize their faces if I run into them outside of school. Then I invite the students to introduce themselves, and to share anything they want to share about their own neurocognitive styles and access needs, their reasons for taking the course, or in what way the course might relate to their academic, professional, or personal interests.

Having established who we are and what we’re doing here, I dive into an introductory lecture on the neurodiversity paradigm and its essential principles and vocabulary. This leads inevitably to some good questions and class discussion, and then (after a break) I segue into a basic “What Is Autism?” lecture, including a simple overview of what distinguishes autistic neurological functioning from non-autistic neurological functioning.

As part of the “What Is Autism?” discussion, I invite students to share some of the things they’ve learned about autism elsewhere – e.g., in popular culture and news/entertainment media, in books, in other classes, or through personal experience. This is educational for everyone, and gives me a sense of what specific areas of student curiosity and what specific misinformation on autism I might need to address later on. Since the popular and academic discourses on autism alike tend to be characterized by ignorance, bigotry, false stereotypes, egregious misinformation, and sheer absurdity, it generally turns out that much of what my students have heard is wrong. I’ll comment briefly on each thing that’s shared; for instance, I might say, “Yes, that’s a widespread misconception that we’ll be talking about later on in this course.” It’s important never to shame or criticize the students themselves for having picked up bad information – it’s not their fault the overall state of discourse and education on autism is such a mess.

By the time we’ve had the “What Is Autism?” discussion and talked about whatever questions emerge from that discussion, our first class meeting is done.

First Set of Readings and Second Class Meeting

In between the first class meeting and the second class meeting, the students read the first set of readings, which I post online for them in the form of links, downloadable PDF files, and video or audio files, along with brief written commentary by me to provide context for each reading. At the present time, no book exists that would serve as an adequate textbook, especially given that I want the students reading the original writings of multiple autistic authors, rather than the various inadequate interpretations and appropriations of autistic authors’ ideas that have been published by non-autistic authors. Many of the readings I regard as essential to this course are posted on the internet but have never been reprinted in a book, while those few that have seen print are scattered throughout various books – a couple of important readings in one book, a couple of others in another book. Perhaps at some point in the future, I’ll take on the task of creating and publishing a suitable course textbook that compiles the various essential online pieces I assign. Even then, however, I would end up supplementing the textbook with links to whatever new and important autistic work will inevitably appear online after the book is published.

The first set of readings begins with various essential writings on the neurodiversity paradigm, including my own essays, “Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm,” “What Is Autism?” and “Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions.” After this come some historical pieces on autistic community and activism, such as Jim Sinclair’s “Don’t Mourn for Us,” “Why I Dislike ‘Person First’ Language,” and “Autism Network International: The Development of a Community and its Culture.” I supplement the readings with an assortment of videos – the documentary film Spectrum: A Story of the Mind is one of the videos I like to include in this first round of readings.

These readings and videos serve as a launching point for discussion when we gather in the classroom again for our second meeting. In the course of this second class meeting I lecture on topics such as the distinction between the medical and social models of disability, the history and present state of professional and public discourse on autism, the history and present state of autistic community and activism, and key areas of debate and contention. Between all of these topics and the many student questions and responses that inevitably arise, this second meeting of the class tends to be even more full and rich than the first meeting.

Second Set of Readings and Third Class Meeting

There are many people who cling to the pathology paradigm and vehemently oppose and criticize the neurodiversity paradigm. I’ve been listening to these people and reading their criticisms for many years, and what is most striking to me is that not once have I encountered a critique that contains an actual sound and valid argument against any aspect of the neurodiversity paradigm. Every critique I’ve ever encountered has been based entirely in straw man arguments – arguments not against the neurodiversity paradigm, but against absurd and disingenuous misinterpretations of the neurodiversity paradigm – or in false information that the critics seem to have simply made up. The most common of these misinformed arguments is that the neurodiversity paradigm is only supported by those autistics who are adept at oral speech and who score reasonably well on tests that measure intelligence by the cultural standards of affluent non-autistic white people. Devotees of the pathology paradigm refer to such autistics as “high-functioning,” a bigoted term based in the pathology paradigm’s presumption that there’s only one “right” way for humans to function – the neurotypical way – and that autistic people can be ranked as “higher” or “lower” based on how close they can come to performing the appearance of neurotypical functioning.

This is one reason that the second set of readings, which students read in between the second class meeting and the third, includes a variety of pieces by non-speaking autistic pro-neurodiversity activists such as Amy Sequenzia and Mel Baggs, who have a history of being labeled “low-functioning” by ableist professionals operating within the pathology paradigm – in other words, the sort of autistic activists that opponents of the neurodiversity movement like to pretend don’t exist. There are, of course, other reasons that the writings of these particular activists are included in the readings: the writings in question are good and have important things to say, and in some cases occupy an important place in the history of autistic culture (e.g., Mel Baggs’ self-produced video “In My Language”).

This set of readings goes on to explore the diversity of autistic personal and cultural experience (this is another reason to begin this set of readings with the words of non-speaking autistics: non-speaking autistic authors in particular have a history of writing evocatively about the varieties of autistic sensory experience). I include readings about the genre of autistic autoethnography, and a range of samples of autistic autoethnographic writing. I look for readings on the experiences of queer autistics and autistics of color; pieces like Alyssa Hillary’s “On the Erasure of Queer Autistic People,” and Kassiane Sibley’s “Here, Try on Some of My Shoes.”

All of this, of course, provides a wealth of material for discussion in our third class meeting. While the order in which particular topics come up varies each time I teach the course, depending on where student questions and class discussions take us, this third meeting is often the point at which I speak in-depth on two of the most egregious manifestations of bad theory and praxis generated within the pathology paradigm: the widespread canard claiming that autistic persons are deficient in empathy or “theory of mind,” and the widespread use of abusive Behaviorist methodologies like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to coercively train autistic children to perform neuronormativity at the expense of their long-term psychological well-being.

Third Set of Readings, First Paper, and Fourth Class Meeting

The third set of readings deals with the realm of professional theory and praxis around autism. Many of these readings focus on one of the two particular manifestations of bad theory and praxis mentioned above: the “empathy deficit” or “theory of mind” canard, and the use of ABA on autistic children. Melanie Yergeau’s brilliant critical autoethnographic piece “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind” is one of the pieces I always include. On the topic of ABA, there are a growing number of critiques by autistic authors to choose from; I always include Michelle Dawson’s “The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists: Ethical Challenges to the Autism-ABA Industry” and Kassiane Sibley’s “Indistinguishable from Peers – An Introduction,” “Conditioned Eye Contact,” and “Advocacy: Everyone Can Do It.” This set of readings also includes more general advice and insight for professionals working with autistic persons – pieces such as Judy Endow’s “We Are Not in Our Own World” and my own essay, “Neurotypical Psychotherapists and Neurodivergent Clients.”

I assign two papers for this course, and the first of these two papers is due to be emailed to me in between the third and fourth class meetings. Both papers are reflective essays rather than research papers. My choice to assign reflective essays is informed by the context in which I’m teaching this particular course: it’s a two-unit elective in a program in which I know that in their core non-elective courses, the students are already working on substantial research papers. At some point in the future I’m likely to teach an extended three-unit version of this course, perhaps in a graduate program, and in that sort of context I’d most likely make one of the class papers a formal research paper.

For this first paper, the assignment is for each student to reflect on the material we’ve read and discussed in the course so far; on how the material is relevant to the scholarly, professional, and personal interests and concerns of the student; and on how the material might impact the student’s future work. I ask students to bring copies of their papers to the fourth class meeting, and to discuss their papers and share excerpts with their classmates. The fourth class meeting also includes further discussion of professional theory and praxis around autism, and of how professionals can do a better job of working with the autistic population. Obviously, this is a particularly rich and important topic in a program where a high proportion of the students will go on to be therapists, educators, and/or psychology researchers.

Fourth Set of Readings, Second Paper, and Final Class Meeting

The fourth and final set of assigned readings is fairly small compared to the previous sets of readings. It consists of just a few short pieces about the portrayal of autistic characters in fiction (including television, movies, and comics as well as books). In addition to these readings, I provide the students with a long list of movies and television shows that include characters who are either explicitly identified as autistic within the movie or show (e.g., Linda Freeman in Snow Cake, or Abed Nadir on Community) or who are frequently interpreted as being autistic or recognized as autistic by autistic viewers (e.g., Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies, or the modern-day versions of Sherlock Holmes on Sherlock and Elementary). I include portrayals of autistic characters that I think are well done, portrayals that I think are based in negative stereotypes or otherwise problematic, and portrayals that are a mix of good and problematic. I don’t tell the students which ones I like or don’t like – I want the students to be able to judge for themselves, based on what they’ve learned in the class so far. As part of their reading, students are asked to pick a minimum of two or three movies or television shows from the list and watch them (in the case of television shows, they’re asked to watch at least two or three episodes of a given show).

This viewing of movies and shows featuring (canonically or non-canonically) autistic characters serves as groundwork for the second of the two papers I assign in this course. This second paper is a critical reflection on portrayals of autism in popular media and/or in various realms of public discourse, with the portrayals of autistic characters in the movies and shows that the students watched serving as examples (maybe as examples of stereotyping, stigma, or misinformation, or maybe as examples of good portrayals that defy common stereotypes and prejudices).

Once again, I have the students bring copies of their papers to the next class meeting to share. Sharing excerpts from the papers and discussing all the various movies and shows that students watched makes for a fun and relaxing way to wrap up the class in our fifth and final meeting.




Autism and the Pathology Paradigm

June 23, 2016

It’s the Summer of 2016, and it’s been exactly five years since I wrote “Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm,” which has since become one of the foundational pieces of literature on the neurodiversity paradigm. “Throw Away the Master’s Tools” first saw publication in the Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking anthology in January 2012, […]

Read the full article →

Calvin and Clay, the Protective Manipulations of the Unconscious, and Friends of Ambiguous Ontological Status

March 29, 2016

Today’s post, “Calvin and Clay, the Protective Manipulations of the Unconscious, and Friends of Ambiguous Ontological Status” is the afterword that I wrote for Michael Scott Monje’s novel Imaginary Friends. Imaginary Friends (complete with this afterword) was published this month under the new Autonomous Press imprint, NeuroQueer Books. My copy just arrived in the mail, along […]

Read the full article →

Kelly’s Blackbird: A Spoon Knife Preview

March 14, 2016

The Spoon Knife Anthology: Thoughts on Compliance, Defiance, and Resistance, is the first literary anthology from Autonomous Press, the independent publishing house I co-founded. Edited by Michael Scott Monje and Ian Nicholson, The Spoon Knife Anthology is also one of the first books to be published under Autonomous Press’ new NeuroQueer Books imprint.  So what’s a spoon […]

Read the full article →

My Foreword to The Real Experts

November 6, 2015

The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children is a great little anthology of short and accessible writings by autistic authors, assembled by editor Michelle Sutton for the benefit of families of autistic children and also for educators, therapists, and other professionals.  The Real Experts is published by Autonomous Press, the independent publishing house I co-founded.  The Real […]

Read the full article →

Autistic Musicking

June 23, 2015

Musicologist Andrew Dell’Antonio and disability & education scholar Elizabeth J. “Ibby” Grace (who is one of my fellow editors at Autonomous Press) are collaborating on a project (will it be a paper? a monograph? a book? an action movie?) about autism and musicking, and I’m one of the autistic people they interviewed as part of their research. And what is musicking? According […]

Read the full article →

Foreword to Defiant

May 30, 2015

Below is the foreword that I wrote for Michael Scott Monje Jr.’s novel Defiant. Defiant is one of the first titles to be published by Autonomous Press, the independent publishing house I co-founded with Monje, Elizabeth “Ibby” Grace, Bridget Allen, and Corbett O’Toole. It’s part of the same epic series-in-progress as Monje’s earlier novel Nothing Is Right […]

Read the full article →

PTSD on Fury Road

May 26, 2015

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road yesterday. It’s every bit as good as all the most positive reviews imply. Quite simply the best action movie I’ve ever seen. And yes, overtly feminist. And yes, amazing badass disabled woman heroine. One other amazing thing I haven’t yet seen mentioned in any review is the explicit and […]

Read the full article →

Neuroqueer: An Introduction

May 2, 2015

The term neuroqueer was coined independently and more or less simultaneously by Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace, Michael Scott Monje Jr., and myself. Having coined it, all three of us managed to spend a few years not getting around to using it in any published work, even though the set of concepts and practices represented by the term came […]

Read the full article →