Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Schaeffer, John D.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of English


Rhetoric; American literature; Autism--Research; Autism in literature--Research; People with disabilities; Writings of--Research; Literature and society--Research


In this dissertation, I illustrated how throughout the 20th and 21st centuries the science community has officially identified and objectified autism: first, by connecting it with psychoanalysis through schizophrenia; second, by creating other categories such as infantile autism and Asperger syndrome that focused on psychological and medical factors; third, by pointing to Theory of Mind applications that emphasized brain chemistry; and finally, by tracing recent theories of morphology relating to mirror neurons and rapid early brain growth. Despite attempts to define autism as a diagnostic term imbued with empirical qualities, the process of writing about it also created autism as a rhetorical phenomenon. As the rhetoric of science became more aware of its reliance on empiricism and as autism morphed into various spectrum characteristics with unknown causes, writing about autism has moved from the self-admitted objective to the subjective. The latter process was helped along by rhetoricians of science who questioned the empirical nature of psychology and even medical writing about the disorder. As the 20 th century progressed, autism diagnoses proliferated, becoming ubiquitous throughout the United States. Autistics started appearing in movies and novels, coincident with autism's increased subject position.;I argue that scientists and American writers both examined autism from a frame separate from traditional scientific analysis, thus forwarding more than the object of some disorder. In fact, many autistics saw themselves as special subjects with special skills and abilities, a fact buttressed by scientific research on savants with autism. Autistics began to write autobiographies and take a firmer position on the scientific diagnosis than before. As a result, definitions of autism changed from psychoanalytic deficiency to include a potential area for creative dialogue, from the primacy of medical and scientific inquiry to the subject of books, movies, television shows, and the like. This switch has created a movement in the direction of autism as subject corresponding with investigations in the human sciences taking a self-admitted rhetorical turn. Since literature and the humanities have always been rhetorical to a large degree, the recent blending of the language of literature and science texts acknowledges their rhetorical nature. Consequently, I argue for the growing interdependence between texts about autism (science texts) and autistic texts (literature dealing with autistic characters). In addition, I examine whether, as science has adopted a different rhetoric to explain autism, literature accounts for these same rhetorical changes in representing it.


Advisors: John Schaeffer.||Committee members: Ibis Gomez-Vega; John V. Knapp.


339 pages




Northern Illinois University

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