Friday, February 26, 2010

In or Out? Using Spatial Metaphors to Describe Autism

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: People often use spatial metaphors to talk about autism. Ian Hacking, in his article "Autistic Autobiographies," points out that autistic autobiographies are often described (sometimes even in their own titles) as attempts to "go inside the mind" of their autistic authors. That expression compares "the autistic mind", which is usually considered interchangeable with the author's own mind, to an exotic foreign country rarely visited by outsiders. I would add a few other categories of spatial metaphor to Hacking's observation: first, autism (not "the autistic mind," but Autism itself, whatever the speaker imagines that to be) as foreign country; second, autism as fortress, prison cell or container --- the autistic person is "inside" while the world is kept "out" --- and third, autism as vast, uncrossable distance between people. I think all of these metaphors can be seen as outgrowths of a larger metaphor that linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss in their book Metaphors We Live By: that metaphor compares communication to sending physical objects from one person to another through physical space.

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, was
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)

Even 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:

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.

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.
I have more to add to Hacking's cursory listing of examples of the 'inside autism' metaphor:

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.


Anemone said...

This is interesting. Now I'm thinking in terms of "Inside the mind of . . . " except that I suspect in many cases the public really isn't all that interested in what's inside the mind of the average celebrity. Assumption: not much?

Also, I found myself thinking that I never really got to feel separate enough from other people, rather than feeling too separate. Isolated from people outside my family, sure, but besieged by people at home, too. It can go both ways when communication isn't working well.

Unknown said...

It's interesting that you mention this, because in a youth group art therapy session many years ago ( before I got any diagnosis ), I drew a picture of me as a lone figure encircled by a crowd of people all with their backs turned to me. Compared to many of the metaphors created by psychologists, there's a key difference-- the other people in that picture were making a conscious choice to avoid me.

Ed said...

I've thought about this a lot too Lindsay. I can't specify the categories very well though and what you've done helps me to conceptualize that better.

I think it's real important to question what is included in how we are labeled and challenge the common perceptions. Especially when the perception is used to encourage the opposite of how we're seen as being better or best.

Being anti-social (or social interactions that can't be categorized conveniently for the encouragement of main stream obedience) is seen as a threat to many decision makers so social differences and different ways of relating are just stigma.

I think the burden of communication gaps being on what and who isn't typical serves to narrow our opportunities. Blame always serves that convenience.

Bettelheim's theory was marketable during his time because psychological therapy was then sold mainly to adults who could afford it so they could better understand their social inadequacies.

They couldn't consider autism genetic at that time or blame it on environmental factors. There was no president for that.The only ones who really needed to buy Bettelheim's theory were psychologists who typically bought research that stimatised people.

When the autism industry challenged the "blame the parents" model they had no intention of hearing how we viewed our experience. Their product just wasn't marketable any other way.

The reason why what you've written here (and the fact that you've written it) is so important is that provides options for better communication and acceptance without the agenda of needing to conveniently place autistics in a box.

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Along the lines of these other comments, these "fortress" and "other world" metaphors strike me as having a bit of blame the victim about them. And they imply there is a victim rather than just a difference in thinking.

While some autistic tendencies do cause a lot of daily life problems. others are just extensions of NT or human needs for solitude or creative out of the box thinking.

But in American culture I think solitude and out of the box (interesting that this phrase came to mind in this context) thinking is both worshipped (when done by socially sactioned people like Tim Burton) and reviled (when done by those labelled as not normal and who are not socially sanctioned).

In short NT people are afraid of these things in themselves. So they like putting them on the "other", in this case AS people, to escape the idea they have solitude and weirdness in themselves. When all is said and done we are all, AS and NT alike, alone in our own worlds to the extent that metaphor is relevent.

Apologies for the obscure long winded comment. This is an interesting and potentially deep topic, especially for me as I am a very visual thinker.

Lili Marlene said...

The cliche of autism being something that one is trapped inside is alive and thriving in Australia. Late the other night, when public service adverts often appear on the telly, I saw an ad for some autism association which had a catchphrase something like "Help break the bubble" and it showed a boy inside a bubble. I've discovered that last year an Australian autism charity held its first "Bubble Day", so named because blowing bubbles is thought to be a form of therapy for autistic kids (as though autism is a muscle disease), and "many suffering from ASDs feel they are ‘living in a bubble’."

Spatial metaphors were well-represented in my list of popular autism-related cliches, stereotypes and offensive nonsense which I published on my blog in February 2008.

I personally feel that people like myself, who are somewhat autistic, are more naked in the social world than neurotypical people, which is quite the opposite from the cliche of the bubble of autism that needs to be opened. Autistic people do often come across as rude because of a lack of self-censorship and often there is much less self-packaging and fancy manners. It seems as though the majority of people are enveloped in a layer of glossy insincerity, and the real person is carefully concealed.

drbrocktagon said...

Thanks. This is a great read. I have to admit that I've used that "Boy in the Bubble" picture on a couple of occasions, mainly because I really like the light in the photograph. Generally, I think the problem is that, because people with autism are so diverse, there's never going to be a decent one-size-fits-all metaphor for autism. Perhaps a spatial / barrier metaphor makes sense in some cases, particularly from the parents' POV, because it's always going to be a mistake to generalise too much.

Lindsay said...

Hi, Jon!

I'm glad you liked the post. And, like Ian Hacking, I don't think *all* spatial metaphors are bad --- I was just trying to catalogue and characterize all the ones I've seen used.

To me, the autism-as-distance metaphor makes a lot of intuitive sense, in that failures of communication *are* like attempting to deliver a package across a vast expanse of rough terrain. It's just that in my conception of the metaphor, my autism isn't represented by the yawning chasm --- the chasm represents the difference between my own and the other person's ways of thinking, understanding and communicating.

I do think the metaphor becomes malign in one instance I've mentioned in the post: autism-as-prison, where the person's autism is seen as a shell around them that needs to be forcibly broken open --- that, I said in the post and I feel strongly enough about that I'll repeat it, is a violent attitude toward autism that I suspect underlies a lot of rationalizations for abusive treatment of autistic people.

(The Boy in the Bubble photograph is beautiful; it's my favorite of all the pictures I included.)

Anyway, welcome to the blog! Hope you stick around.

Neuroskeptic said...

Very interesting. Especially the question of whether the autistic is in a fortress or is one.

You mention Bettelheim's The Empty Fortress.

There's actually a puff quote on the back of my copy from The Chicago Tribune praising Bettelheim's insight into the autistic child "alone in an empty fortress"!

As you say - that's a contradiction, if you read it literally. I'd never realized that before.

I also assumed that the autistic child was inside The Empty Fortress - that it was empty except for the child. Rather like you might "live on an uninhabited island" - clearly, it is inhabited, by you, but the point is, no-one else lives there.