Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

Book and Media


Review by Sarah Cavar, University of California: Davis, Email: cavarsarah@gmail.com

Keywords: queerness; autism; neurodivergence

M. Remi Yergeau’s Authoring Autism (Duke UP, 2018) is many things: it is the story of Yergeau’s own autistic coming-to-consciousness and of the entwining narratives that produce their autistic subjectivity. It is also the story of contradictory and often warring discourses that invent “the autistic,” whether as a futureless child, an epidemic, a subhuman, or an earth-alien. Key among these is the image of the autistic person as “demi-rhetor,” either too autistic to signify or not autistic enough to signify autism. Into the latter category falls autistic scholars such as Yergeau and myself. Into the former, the much-maligned “shit-smearing” autistic, whose fecal matter(s) constitute a recurring theme of the text, whose project, as we will see, concerns the neuroqueering of rhetoric. In this work, autism does more than speak. It dances, cries, shits, and slings it –– and, according to M. Remi Yergeau, it’s time to start listening.

Authoring Autism is divided into six alliterative sections: involution, intention, intervention, invitation, invention, and indexicality. These sections, Yergeau writes, are “circuitous and unfolding in their design, each [section] serving as a queering of the chapter proceeding it” (31). Reminiscent of Yergeau’s dream of an autistic rhetoric –– one in which the autistic rhetor is not dehumanized –– the book’s rhetoric is one perpetually in-motion, fleeing the grasp of hegemonic theories about autism and autistic people through neuroqueering practices. In the introductory section, “involution,” Yergeau opens autie-ethnographically (24), introducing their own journey to adult autism diagnosis, and in doing so intertextually weaving medical, familial, and personal stories to form the basis of their autistic “discursive framework” (1). These assertions preface and undergird their primary argument, that autistic people constitute the “residues of rhetoricity” (7): narrated as perpetually-lacking, as always acting involuntarily and symptomatically rather than agentially, we as autistic people lack “narrative capabilities [and] narrative value,” and basic humanity (7; 11). That is, “autism speaks,” but we cannot speak for ourselves.

First in “intention,” and then in “intervention,” Yergeau describes the ways in which “rhetoric builds spaces that occlude [and intentionally exclude] the autistic” (37). Traditional emphases on both collectivity and intentionality in rhetoric, they note, are diametrically opposed to notions of autism as paradigmatically anti-social, lacking a “theory of mind” –– that is, the ability to understand the desires and motivations of others, and thus the ability to function as a human among other humans. Also, most famously by behaviorist Ole Oscar Lovaas, autistic and/or gender-nonconforming people were, and continue to be, subjected to abusive normalizing techniques designated as “therapy” designed to stamp out difference; today, such practices continue as “Applied Behavioral Analysis” (ABA). Such ongoing histories serve to deny autistic people rhetorical wholeness, leaving us perpetually open to clinical rehabilitation (and even marginally rhetorically capable), yet simultaneously unable to achieve full humanity (40). Fortunately, there exists an antidote: neuroqueerness, an internet-birthed term referring to those “‘whose identity has in some way been shaped by their engagement in practices of neuroqueering’” (Nick Walker, quoted in Yergeau, 27). While, as Yergeau notes, the characteristic queerness of autistic rhetoric contributes to a “demi-rhetorical,” or “not-quite-rhetorical” status, it opens up alternative communicative possibilities and neuroqueer ways of living and loving.

In “invitation,” Yergeau extends an invitation for readers to engage with the rhetorical “cunning” (134) of autistic scholars and activists, telling their own story of  “paradoxical” self-disclosure. After all, how might the demi-rhetor accurately self-disclose their own condition? Yergeau’s answer can be found in Margaret Price’s notion of “counter-diagnosis,” that is, in the bending of diagnostic terminology to “queer the contours of [in this case, autistic] rhetorical containment” (140). Yergeau examines the role of the neuroqueer bodymind in the face of the diagnostic gaze, one that simultaneously delegitimizes the neuroqueer speaker and attempts to unclothe the nature of their difference. Neuroqueers have a variety of counter diagnostic options, including self-diagnosis, a mode of joining autistic communities without incurring the stigma and cost of professionally-gatekept diagnosis.     

Further, neuroqueer itself may be figured as a counter diagnosis, a reclamation of entangled “failures” to abide by abled/straight social, temporal, and relational norms, often through practices like autie-ethnography (Yergeau, 156). Yet it is in these failures that neuroqueers –– and in this specific case, autistic rhetors –– might serve as crucial rhetorical lessons for a scholarly landscape that still reduces disabled speech either to nonsense or “confession,” or elides it entirely in favor of so-called “autism parent” perspectives (Yergeau, 173).

Yergeau opens “invention” viscerally, daringly; indeed, Authoring Autism is a book whose chapters gather a sort of neuroqueer momentum as one reads. Describing one of their meltdowns –– “one of autism’s oldest and rhetorical patron saints” that “[defies] Cartesian logic” –– Yergeau dispenses with the notion that they are somehow unlike the figurative shit-smearing autistic child they defend (176). They further dispense with the stigmatizing and classificatory (il)logics of “functioning labels,” instead expanding their notion of the autistic “demi-rhetor” to include not only persons rhetorically “diminished,” but instead, rhetorically queered (178). Citing examples like “Deaf Gain,” in which D/deafness is regarded not as a lack of hearing but as a positive addition of language and culture, Yergeau notes that embodied modes of communication, long targeted by ableist interventionist practices, may be understood as queer alternatives to speech rather than degraded versions of it (182). The prefix “demi-” as Yergeau uses it, is fundamentally queer; they further elaborate on demigender and demisexual identities, which refuse the fixity that other genders and (a)sexualities rely on (187). Demisexual and demigender people, like and as autistic people, live in in-between spaces, in the cracks between here and otherwise: Yergeau’s demi-pansexual identity indicates a queerness “yet-to-be,” just as their autism signposts a salubriously ambiguous relationship to gender (189). Autism, Yergeau concludes, is a “[queer] negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds,” an embodiment with room both for the red-faced meltdown and the scholarly monograph. Upon rereading this chapter, autism, too, emerged to me as a queer act of collaboration –– one between my autistic bodymind and those around it, between the social conditions that produce neuro(a)typicality and our gloriously incomplete demi-negotiations with them. 

In “indexicality,” Yergeau, we might say, comes back stimming. Like the in-motion pinwheels they rhetorically animate, Yergeau concludes the book with a series of flashes, openings, and places for the curious to push. While somewhat brief given the extensive detail of the rest of the text, “indexicality” encourages readers to think autism and (neuro)queerness as directional, orientational forces; to query “our” use of pronouns in relation to the act of gazing, and to radically consider “our” own ways of knowing. The autie-ethnography, which Yergeau models throughout the text, is but one way of doing so; in the text’s unambiguous affinity for collaboration across discipline, medium, and location (internet blogs were cited alongside scholarly texts and shit-smeared memories), we see the inherent collaborativity of “autism” itself. The autistic person is not an island, but a community member and carrier of alternative and (neuro)divergent rhetorical possibilities. 

With Authoring Autism, Yergeau radically reconfigures autistic, neuroqueer subjectivity, transforming us from a terrain to be mapped upon to flexible rhetorical agents, whose steaming, stimming, and shit-covered stories demand residence in a larger neuroqueer oeuvre. Yergeau’s work is transportive and thick with movement, they engage in, to paraphrase McRuer, critically queer and severely autistic scholarly text that renders the study of autistic rhetoric in an autistic rhetorical style. That is, as an autistic, neuroqueer person, I find myself in (conversation with) Authoring Autism, a book which shies neither from high-theoretical gestures nor shitty, shitty puns. A crucial intervention into queer and trans disability studies, Mad studies, and rhetoric and a notable example of autie-ethnography and perhaps autie-theory, Authoring Autism blends personal intimacy and academic rigor to neuroqueer the very architecture of critical disability conversations.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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