PhD Abstract Dr Helen Ainslie

Abstract PhD Thesis Dr Helen Ainslie

Congratulations to CIRCL PhD student Helen Ainslie for passing her PhD viva on 27-03-2009 with her thesis ‘Why Autism? Perspectives, Communication, Community’ (Supervisor: Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein; External examiner: Professor Erica Burman; Internal examiner: Professor Peter Stoneley).

(Abstract of thesis)

I take as my point of departure for this thesis Michel Foucault’s seminal text Madness and Civilization which argues that madness is always constructed as a social category from the point of view of non-madness. Therefore, I consider autism not as an essential or transcendent medical or psychological diagnosis, nor as a “condition”. Rather, I analyse autisms as constructions in relation to reading perspective and narration. To do this I follow an interdisciplinary approach and engage with fictional, autobiographical, philosophical, literary, communication studies and cultural studies texts. This thesis does not set out to find an answer to the problems it raises. Rather, I am interested in what is at stake in the desire to understand the autistic. I argue that my critique in this thesis brings to bear a way of questioning the underpinnings of material practice for health workers, doctors, education practitioners and others in the fields of medical practice, critical psychology, critical anthropology, disability studies, law and social policy. Whilst I am interested in the investment that I read in other critics’ analyses of writing in the field of autism, I also accept that through this thesis I am involved in and contribute to that field and so have to think through my own investment in this thesis.

My critical framework is also based on Shoshana Felman’s book Writing and Madness which addresses ideas of what it means to claim to write (about) madness. Arguments in this thesis are also informed by Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan: or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction in which Rose argues that childhood is a construction which relies on a maintenance of the relation adult/child. I make connections between reading constructions of the identity: Child and the identity: Autistic.

I analyse a recent text by Stuart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination, and examine this text’s claim that representation is thought to encompass autism itself and also, at the same time, portray a pre-textual autism. I analyse Murray’s critique of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and compare this with my own critique of Bartleby.

I analyse Amit Pinchevski’s deconstructive reading which posits autism as a discursive phenomenon. I critique Pinchevski’s reading of Derrida and also his analysis of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and I argue that Pinchevski’s argument recovers a residual real. I then undertake analyses of fiction, in particular Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and then autism and the animal, specifically in the writings of Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince-Hughes.

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