Title

Rewiring Difference and Disability: Narratives of Asperger's Syndrome in the Twenty-First Century

Date of Award

2010

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Department

American Culture Studies/Ethnic Studies

First Advisor

Vivian Patraka, PhD (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Ellen Berry, PhD (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Victoria Ekstrand, PhD (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Geoff Howes, PhD (Committee Member)

Abstract

This dissertation explores representations of Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Specifically, it textually analyzes cultural representations with the goal of identifying specific narratives that have become dominant in the public sphere. Beginning in 2001, with Wired magazine’s article by Steve Silberman entitled “The Geek Syndrome” as the starting point, this dissertation demonstrates how certain values have been linked to Asperger’s syndrome: namely the association between this disorder and hyper-intelligent, socially awkward personas. Narratives about Asperger’s have taken to medicalizing not only genius (as figures such as Newton and Einstein receive speculative posthumous diagnoses) but also to medicalizing a particular brand of new economy, information-age genius. The types of individuals often suggested as representative Asperger’s subjects can be stereotyped as the casual term “geek syndrome” suggests: technologically savvy, successful “nerds.” On the surface, increased public awareness of Asperger’s syndrome combined with the representation has created positive momentum for acceptance of high functioning autism. In a cultural moment that suggests “geek chic,” Asperger’s syndrome has undergone a critical shift in value that seems unimaginable even 10 years ago. This shift has worked to undo some of the stigma attached to this specific form of autism. The proto-typical Aspergian persona represented dominantly in the media is often both intelligent and successful. At the same time, these personas are also so often masculine, middle/upper class and white. These representations are problematic in the way that they uphold traditional normativity in terms of gender, race and class, as well as reifying stigma toward other points on the autistic spectrum.