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Excerpt: Autism and Affordances of Achievement

Excerpted from Olga Solomon’s “Autism and Affordances of Achievement: Narrative Genres and Parenting Practices,” in The Social Life of Achievement

Edited by Nicholas J. Long and Henrietta Moore
Vol. 2, Wyse Series in Social Anthropology
What happens when people “achieve”? Why do reactions to “achievement” vary so profoundly? And how might an anthropological study of achievement and its consequences allow us to develop a more nuanced model of the motivated agency that operates in the social world? These questions lie at the heart of this volume. Drawing on research from Southeast Asia, Europe, the United States, and Latin America, this collection develops an innovative framework for explaining achievement’s multiple effects—one which brings together cutting-edge theoretical insights into politics, psychology, ethics, materiality, aurality, embodiment, affect and narrative. In doing so, the volume advances a new agenda for the study of achievement within anthropology, emphasizing the significance of achievement as a moment of cultural invention, and the complexity of “the achiever” as a subject position.

Available in eBook and paperback

Autism and Achievement: The Narrative Genres

From a constructionist perspective, ‘achievement’ is a kind of narrative, one that provides an interpretive framework for categorising certain kinds of people who carry out certain kind of actions (D’Andrade 1992). Narratives of ‘achievement’ can be described, following Yanow (1999: 31), as ‘“an ensemble of texts” that display and enact cultural meanings and that the anthropologist seeks to read over the shoulders … of those engaged in them’. An analysis of narrative genres illuminates the relation between narrative text and social action, or, as Hanks (1987: 670) writes, between ‘the linguistic form of such texts and the broader social and cultural world in which they are produced’. The relation of the ‘thematic, stylistic and compositional elements’ of a text and the ‘historically specific conventions and ideals according to which authors compose discourse and audiences receive it’, makes visible the ‘orienting frameworks, interpretive procedures, and sets of expectations’ occasioned by these discourse genres (Hanks 1987: 670; see also Ochs and Capps 2001).

In the contemporary United States, children’s ‘achievement’ has come to be associated with a certain kind of activity called ‘learning’. The narratives of ‘achievement’ are constitutive of institutional constraints that organise learning, and even of institutions themselves. Arguing for a situated understanding of this process – that is, for a ‘theory of situated genius’ – Ray McDermott offers a powerful critique of theories of learning, knowledge and accomplishment that put:

learning and achievement in individual heads far from conditions of its use. This way, individuals and groups can be celebrated for learning more than enough, degraded for not learning enough, and, the key to the system, destroyed for learning too much … A theory of situated genius … demands that conditions of practice become the focus of any ascription of learning. (McDermott 2006: 299)

In McDermott’s view, it follows that procedures for ascribing genius should be problematised, as the ascription can do ‘more harm than good’ (ibid.: 299).

Some adults diagnosed with ASD later in life may agree. Consider the recollections of Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic and a university professor diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in late adulthood, about his childhood experience with the ascription of ‘genius’:

From early childhood, my memory was so acute and my wit so bleak that I was described a genius – by my parents, by my neighbors, and even, on occasion, by the same teachers who handed me failing marks. I wrapped myself in this mantle, of course, as a poetic justification for behavior that might otherwise have been judged unhinged, and I did my best to believe in it. But the explanation made no sense. A genius at what? Were other ‘geniuses’ so oblivious that they needed mnemonic devices to tell right from left, and idly wet their pants into adolescence? What accounted for my rages and frustrations, for the imperious contempt I showed to people who were in a position to do me harm? (Page 2009: 3)

Page’s unique account is a peering back through memory, with the hindsight of post-diagnosis and the self-understanding and self-forgiveness that it brought, to the childhood and youth fraught with, as he writes, ‘an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness’, and a relentless pursuit of ‘something around which to construct a life’ (ibid.: 4, 6). Besides the challenges of self- and other understanding that have become a familiar theme in personal accounts of the high-functioning autism experience, and the story of achievement ‘perhaps not despite Asperger’s but because of it’ (as the anonymous writer of the text on the cover of Page’s book put it), the other important part of Page’s narrative of achievement is his family. His ‘patrician mother’ saved everything that originated from her son’s penmanship beginning from the time he held a crayon in his hand, creating an archive that became the material for his book. She took the twelve-year-old Page to the original New York Metropolitan Opera House to hear Madama Butterfly before the building was demolished, an event that Page remembers as a transformative experience of his childhood. This trip, and his mother’s keen attentiveness to Page’s infatuation with classical music, made it possible for him to ‘visit the place where so much musical history had been made’ (ibid.: 44), and to recognise what that musical history meant for him. Page remembers his father being similarly involved. He served as a patient and understanding scribe who typed the ‘doom-laden narratives’ Page wrote as a child, as well as Page’s advocate and defender who protested his school suspension in a four-thousand-word letter to the school principal. The prodigious classical music record collection the family had at home became Olga Solomon Page’s personal, passionately experienced, life-world, something around which he did ‘construct a life’.

Kamran Nazeer, a policy advisor to the British government who was diagnosed with autism as a child, also reflects on the ascription of ‘genius’ in his memoir Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism, providing a counter-argument to Asperger’s ([1944] 1991: 56) observation that ‘the autistic individual needs to create everything out of his own thought and experience’:

Sometimes our use of the term ‘genius’ implies that we believe that there is a group of people with some fantastic natural capability to produce thoughts and objects out of thin air … Genius has to work hard too. Our conception of the privileges of genius is a false one … The term ‘genius’ may be one element of our broader view in which progress relies on the series of daring leaps made by great individual minds. However, this view neglects to consider how it is that great individual minds come to the point at which they can make a leap, and the extent to which other people and institutions are involved in that. (Nazeer 2006: 83–84)

Such writings of adults with ASD have altered the landscape of possibilities for children diagnosed with this condition and their families. Perhaps to a lesser degree, these writings have also altered the language of science used to describe ASD. Far from taxonomies of deficits or deficit-related savant abilities, these first-person accounts described a way of being, a world as perceived and experienced, the people and other important actors – some animate, some not – with whom the world was shared, and the opportunities for action that engagement with these existential companions offered. Most importantly, these narratives plotted ‘stories to be in’ (Mattingly 1998), pathways to achievement that, at least in imagination, others with ASD and their families could travel as well.

These narrative accounts also set precedents for autism and achievement coexisting, contradictorily and often unfathomably, in the lives of real people. Achievement may have uniquely personal, multifaceted and yet ordinary meanings for these authors with ASD, from marriage and parenthood to education and professional success (e.g., Prince-Hughes 2004, 2005; Prince 2010; Perner 2012). This is an important development because until recently autism and achievement have been a relatively rare and unlikely pairing in the social science and education research. Examining autism and achievement together may have appeared questionable: autism is a life-long pervasive developmental disorder that is highly heterogeneous, which makes developmental trajectories difficult to predict (e.g., Lord and Spence 2006). Nevertheless, autism often presents a barrier to the achievement of adult autonomy, let alone to the achievement of financial independence through participation in a market-based economy. With the exception of hypothetical, after-the-fact diagnoses of famous, usually deceased, scientists, musicians and others (Fitzgerald 2004; James 2005), and the assignment of autistic cognitive profiles to the ‘extreme male brain’ (Baron-Cohen 2003, 2004) or other cognitive differences (Happé and Frith 2009; Happé and Vital 2009), autism and achievement are usually not discussed as relevant to each other. Public figures who have an autism diagnosis are often portrayed ambivalently in the media, as anomalies whose achievement exists in spite of, but possibly also because of, autism.

Such ambivalence has not always been the case. In his original article ‘Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood’, Hans Asperger, who first described what is now called ‘Asperger’s disorder’ (APA 2000), writes:

To our own amazement, we have seen that autistic individuals, as long as they are intellectually intact, can almost always achieve professional success, usually in highly specialized academic professions, often in very high positions, with a preference for abstract content … The superficially surprising fact that such difficult and abnormal children can achieve a tolerable, or even excellent, degree of social integration can be explained if one considers it a little further. A good professional attitude involves single-mindedness as well as the decision to give up a large number of other interests … With collected energy and obvious confidence, and yes, with a blinkered attitude towards life’s rich rewards, they go their own way, the way to which their talents have directed them from childhood. Thus, the truth of the old adage is proved again: good and bad in every character are just two sides of the same coin. It is simply not possible to separate them, to opt for the positive and get rid of the negative. (Asperger [1944] 1991: 89)

This hopeful view has since been considered more as an oddity – there is an opinion that Asperger himself was ‘on the spectrum’ – than as a call to action. Notably, some individuals, such as artists Jessica Park and Stephen Wiltshire, who would not have been considered ‘high-functioning’ or ‘intellectually intact’ by Asperger, have nevertheless achieved a high level of professional success. Missing in Asperger’s account is what Kamran Nazeer emphasises in the above quote: the transactional nature of achievement and the role of other people and institutions in autistic individuals’ professional success. This is conveyed by Clara Claiborne Park who writes about her daughter Jessica in an interview format chapter co-authored by them both and titled ‘Living with Autism: A Collaboration’, “It is something more than a joke when I say that Jessy is the lowest-functioning high-functioning person with autism I have ever seen” (Park and Park 2006: 83).