Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Streaks (Part 1)

When we describe autism in terms of binaries, discourse communities, or circles, we construct a very unreal, [very black and white,] very us/them reality. […]

The typical autism essay, ironically, often proclaims that autism cannot be placed in a box, all the while concurrently placing autistics in boxes – LFA, HFA, mild, severe, verbal, nonverbal, etc.

And, I would also posit that autism should not be (because it cannot be) contained within tidied-up circles, which, despite being round, are themselves boxlike.

Discourse community theories fail to account for how these circles get created, get named, get claimed, get dismantled. In effect, discourse communities largely render their users passive.

In “Hybrid,” Bizzell claims,

These elements [discourse conventions] are so powerful that the discourse could be said to take on a life of its own, independent of individual participants; it could be said, even, to ‘create’ the participants that suit its conventions by allowing individuals no other options if they wish to be counted as participants.

Per this logic, I have been passively constructed into autism – by discourse. I have been passively constructed into aspiedom – by discourse. My other autistic commonplaces – or identity markers – have also been shaped or spawned by discourses: stimdom, speechdom, lack-of-eye-contactdom, patterndom, take-everything-literally-and-then-somedom.

But discourse alone can’t name these things, can’t claim these things. These facets of me, the diverse facets of other autistic individuals, of human individuals – autistic cousins or not – only fit within these circles because someone has squished them there, has proclaimed generalization as the new world order.

Low-functioning autism exists because the people who write the typical autism essay say it does: they make the circles; the circles themselves don’t independently create themselves; the circles aren’t material objects that exist or breathe or birth or contain people, all neatly sorted; the circles have human help. While I like to objectify humans and categorize stuff [very much], circles alone just don’t do the trick.

Melanie Yergeau


There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. […]

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at.

So for many of us – nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. […]

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language.

Mel Baggs


‘Autism steals their voices.’

The idea of “voicelessness” presents itself as a convenient vehicle to get from autism to (living) death.

Voicelessness, here, does not refer primarily to literal variations of mutism […]

To be a voiceless autistic person does not entail an incapability of using language, but rather, an all-encompassing credibility gap.

Are autistic people, after all, expressing themselves, or merely their symptoms? Are they themselves expressing, or is autism? […]

When autism speaks, autistic people do not.

Voices here are only reserved for native speakers of a particular kind of symbolic language.

This language assumes and creates a normative, human subject, one who both comprehends and is comprehensible to other humans.

The faith […] is put in a shared, normative language, as a tool to fathom oneself and other people […]

This mechanism, while steeped in hyperbolic doubt, is intertwined with an essentialist humanism.

If the symbolic connects all humans to a network of intelligibility, the subjects who fall outside of this network must not be fully human.

Anna N. de Hooge