I've noticed this trend for a while --- the trend of speaking and writing about autism like it's a place or a container that you can be inside or outside of --- and have long been planning to write about it, so I figure I might as well (start to) do that now.
The philosopher Ian Hacking mentioned this as well in the talk he gave at a 2008 conference on cognitive disability and moral philosophy, which has now been rewritten as an article in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, on autistic autobiographies, parents' stories of raising their autistic children, works of fiction featuring autistic characters, and the media and journalistic commentary about all of these, and about autism in general.
My own list of autistic fictions has approximately 200 books, and counting. Especially important are the stories for children, some for autistic children, some for non-autistic children, and some for all children. They take great pains to describe behaviour and thereby serve as role models. The young adult category is also influential in determining what autism is like and in some sense should be like. They illustrate 'the norm' and thereby help stabilize what the norm should be. Detective stories, spy thrillers, science fiction, gothic horror and Harlequin romances all help to reinforce a way of talking about autism.
(The article, as it appears in print, is titled "Autistic autobiography"; in lecture format, it was called "How We Have Been Learning to Talk About Autism." I think the latter title is more accurate, since Hacking deals with conceptions of autism in non-autobiographical writing as well, even though he does spend lots of time on autistic autobiography and award it special significance).
The story-tellers learn from autobiographies how to tell their tales. But that is a two-way street. Temple Grandin's Emergence was written before the genre got underway, so her self-descriptions are unaffected. Today's autistic child, brought up on children's stories about autistic children, and who in later years goes on to write an autobiography, will give accounts that are textured by the early exposure to role models.Hacking goes on to list examples of one particular metaphor that recurs throughout autism autobiographies, and especially in the text used to describe them: the back-cover snippets, the capsule summaries, reviewers' summation, etc. --- the expression of going 'inside' autism. Sometimes autism might be a container or vessel, with mysterious contents that are only now being revealed and made accessible to us, the readers; sometimes it's a place we can visit.
In his foreword to Grandin (2005) [link], Oliver Sacks wrote that her previous book, Emergence, wasEven before we dip into these books, we find that word 'inside' over and over again --- on their covers. On the back cover of a current paperback of Grandin's (2005) Emergence:Unprecedented because there had never before been an 'inside narrative' of autism; unthinkable because it had been medical dogma for forty years or more that there was no 'inside,' no inner life, in the autistic. (Sacks, foreword in Grandin 2005, p. 11)
A remarkable story ... uniquely valuable in helping us to see autism from the 'inside'.A quotation from People magazine on a paperback of [Donna] Williams' Nobody Nowhere [link]:
By turns fascinating and harrowing ... a riveting autobiography that describes how autism feels like from the inside.The subtitle of Mukhopadhyay's (2008) [link] is:
Inside my Autistic Mind.The subtitle of the American edition of Tammet (2006) [link] is:
Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant.'Inside autism', in such phrasings, tends to be used more or less interchangeably with 'inside [Individual Autistic Person]'s mind', which Hacking finds terribly problematic:
When 'inside' connotes written or spoken by a person with autism, and 'outside' connotes written or spoken by an observer, parent, clinician or friend, then the metaphor is benign. But it is also, once the point has been made, rather banal, and hardly worth the constant repetition we have encountered.I have more to add to Hacking's cursory listing of examples of the 'inside autism' metaphor:
Aside from such benign uses, I am cautious about 'inside the mind', for reasons presented in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. This is not the occasion to argue the case or even sketch what is at issue, but it does motivate my approach. It is certainly not a hankering after behaviourism.
A first danger of the 'inside' metaphor needs only be stated to be scotched. It is the idea of 'a unique insight into the autistic mind': as if 'the autistic mind' were a species of mind. Our four autists [Temple Grandin, Donna Williams, Daniel Tammet and Tito Mukhopadhyay] have very different minds! Grandin described herself as thinking in pictures. Mukhopadhyay is dominated by sounds. Tammet sees abstract objects in colour. Hence Williams' (2005) metaphor of autistic spectrum 'fruit salads'. To quote a common adage: 'If you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person.'
Talk of getting inside the mind of another is apt in its place, but unreflective use out of context often suggests a misleading picture of mental life. It suggests that looking inside is much like looking outside, in the way that looking inside a cardboard box after opening it is no different from looking at it from the outside, except for a change in point of view. This goes along with the sense that our own minds are transparent to us (subject to Freudian reservations). We look inside them all the time. That generates the question of how we ever know what is going on in the mind of another person.
There can always arise particular difficulties in understanding another person. But the puff writers who talk of getting into the mind of an autistic person do not, for a moment, think that there is the same general question for most people, as there is for autists. I cannot recall an 'inside the mind' (or any variant thereof) being written on the cover of any non-autistic autobiography that I have examined lately. It could certainly occur, of course, with a biography. 'Finally we have got inside the inscrutable mind of Vladimir Putin.' But that is not the norm.
The subtitle of the anthology Women from Another Planet? is "Our Lives in the Universe of Autism".
The synopsis on the back of my copy of Judy and Sean Barron's There's a Boy In Here (Simon & Schuster, 1992; hardcover) says, "Autism From the Outside In... / ... And From the Inside Out"; on the front cover there's the text "A mother and her son tell the story of his emergence from autism." The jacket text of There's a Boy In Here is especially full of in/out metaphors:
[T]hough nothing seemed to work, [Sean's parents] sometimes caught fleeting glimpses of the helpless child inside the stranger who shared their home. They were determined to free him, and somehow their love, their rage, their patience, their sheer humanness reached him at last ... [H]e remembers ... the terrifying isolation, the desperate desire to reach out ... until his family's indomitable and courageous resolve finally released him. ... [T]he poignant self-portrait of a boy trapped in a maze of compulsion and obsession.In Nobody Nowhere, Donna Williams talk about living in "[her] own world" as a child; she draws a distinction between her world and The World, which is outside her, around her and mutually exclusive with her world. In a poem that acts as an epigraph to the book, she writes of "a world under glass" where sensations are dulled, and you think nothing can reach you, but where you're utterly alone:
In a world under glass, you can watch the world pass,
And nobody can touch you, you think you are safe.
But the wind can blow cold, in the depths of your soul,
Where you think nothing can hurt you till it is too late.
The titles of a lot of books, too, reflect a spatial metaphor: There's a Boy In Here; Emergence; The Siege --- all of these rely on a metaphorical understanding of autism as something that people become trapped in and have to be rescued, or rescue themselves, by a heroic effort (their own, someone else's or both); autism is not only a place, it's a place that's very hard either to get into from outside or to get out once you're inside. Autism as Death Star.
A later edition of There's a Boy In Here has the subtitle "Emerging from the Bonds of Autism."
Finally, all the images I have included in this post appeared when I did a Google Image search for "autism" --- all were illustrations for (sometimes mis-)informational websites on autism. I chose ones that I felt reflected the metaphor in a visual way: metaphors are not just for verbal thinkers!
Particularly, I feel there are subspecies within this category of metaphor that are worth identifying more precisely. Right now, I can think of three:
(1) Autism as prison cell/container
(2) Autism as (very large) distance between people
(3) Autism as unknown territory
I would also date the usage of the parent metaphor to all three of these --- autism as a discrete part of physical space --- earlier than the earliest autiebiographies; there was writing about autism for some decades before Temple Grandin wrote her first book, Emergence. While this earlier writing may or may not have influenced her way of thinking about her autism, it had certainly been informing the larger culture into which her story has become assimilated.
Even the title she chose for this work partakes of the metaphor whose ancestry I'm trying to trace here --- what is she emerging from? Is it autism in general, or one particular aspect of it she had to transcend to come into herself?
(This latter possibility occurs in Dawn Prince-Hughes' much-later autiebiography, Songs of the Gorilla Nation, in which she describes herself moving within the metaphorical terrain of autism, from its dark regions into its "beauty." So that's another possibility for the autism-as-geography subtype of autism-as-place/container: movement occurring within "autism". It also raises the possibility that "autism" is not a flat, uniform piece of terrain, and that different autistic people might inhabit different parts of that vast country).
Anyway, before Grandin wrote her hugely influential works, there was already a body of literature on autism: books written for popular consumption by clinicians, and personal narratives by parents of autistic children, of which the oldest is (as far as I know) Clara Claiborne Park's 1967 book The Siege: A Family's Journey into the World of an Autistic Child. Both the title and subtitle suggest that Jessy Park's autism is a physical place to be ventured into; calling that process a "siege" implies that this hidden realm has walls that its besiegers have to breach, and defenses they have to overpower; that autism is not always an inert landscape -- however forbidding --- but sometimes actively resists exploration.
One thing the autism-as-container metaphor tends to leave muddled is where the autistic person dwells in this metaphorical space. It's quite eloquent on the position of the parents, peers and teachers struggling to relate to this strange being --- we're given to understand quite clearly that they feel locked out and exhausted from battering at the door --- but what's not always clear is whether the autistic person is in the metaphorical Fortress of Solitude, or whether they are it.
Judy and Sean Barron's 1992 book There's a Boy in Here makes it unusually clear: Sean is inside his autism, his thoughts, feelings, desires and self obscured from his mother's sight by his intense anger, his tantrums, his reckless, aggressive and often-destructive behaviors. But in other books, like The Siege (which I haven't read) or Bruno Bettelheim's mother-blaming opus The Empty Fortress (which I likewise haven't read), it's not clear whether the walls that the authors advocate tearing down imprison the child, or whether they constitute a part of hir, like a protective cocoon or exoskeleton. The act of trying to "break through" to an autistic child becomes a violent one if the latter construction is implied, but, for Bettelheim at least, it would be logically impossible --- a bad metaphor, to say the least --- for anything to be in the "empty fortress", so it looks to me like the only way to interpret that one is that the autistic child's mind is the fortress, and Bettelheim was trying to tear it down and rebuild it to his liking.
Sometimes autism might be spoken of metaphorically as distance; I listed this as a third subtype of the autism-as-place metaphor, since in this case autism is not where the autistic person is so much as it the space between the autistic person and everyone around hir who isn't autistic, but now that I think about it more I've decided it functions more or less identically to the autism-as-container subtype. In both, autism is the barrier between the autistic person and the people seeking to understand or relate to hir; in both, the barrier must be overcome.
The autism-as-distance and autism-as-container subtypes of the autism-as-place metaphor also seem to me to be related to the larger, implicit metaphor described by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By: the "complex metaphor" of communication as sending bits of meaning packaged in language along a conduit to another person. If communication is thought of as analogous to sending things through space, it makes sense that anything that makes communication harder (like a difference in neurotypes between sender and receiver) will be translated into this metaphor as a physical barrier.