Published in  
April 8, 2023

A Hundred Other Names for Autism

In a recent conversation with the fabulous author Katherine May on her podcast, How We Live Now, we surmised that there are a hundred other names for "autism" we'd prefer to Eugene Bleuler's troubled designation.

Of course, in 1908, when Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler, responsible for contributing a significant number of terms to our modern stories about mental illness, gave the name "autism" to the curious condition that seemed to be characterized by a withdrawal into the self, he couldn't have anticipated how sticky and resilient that name would become.

Bleuler wrote in 'Dementia Praecox' about a schizophrenic condition defined by a "detachment from reality" and the "predominance of inner life". The name "autism", from autos, or self, materialized Bleuler's presuppositions about the condition: the autistic 'person' had an inability to connect with the world, and exhibited a failure to become a proper self. The autistic was an unfeeling soulless automaton, marked by a self-ism disconnected from reality.

Today, popular images of the autistic promote the figure of the wooden automaton, an unfeeling specimen trapped in a cold bubble. May, who thinks of herself as autistic, remembers feeling the world intensely as a child, wondering why everyone else seemed dead to it. My son, Kyah, doesn't feel "detached" from reality; indeed, in contrast to him, it would seem everyone else is. Kyah is a connoisseur of exotic affective intensities too nuanced for my neurotypical posture to detect. Kyah feels...and he feels intensely.

For Eugene Bleuler, the soul was inside the body. For Kyah and Katherine, the 'soul' is everywhere, a desirous, preindividual force that shapes, convenes, travels, and melts between and through membranous borders, creating reality in its wake. Perhaps this is one reason why Kyah performs a queer visuality, one that prefers the sides of the eyes, the peri-feral, to the convenient frontality of 'white sight'. So, when Katherine and I began to think of depathologized, alternative terms for autism, we played with names like "mycelialism" and "rhizomism", a clunky attempt to connect plant life, fungal inquiries, and ecological goings-on to human minds. After the interview, many other candidates knocked on my door: there was the politically potent "diss/human"; the Blytonesque "crab-walker" (which celebrates how my son often walks "sideways" in public); the playful "coddiwomplism" and "tippie-toes", as well as the Delignian 'arachneanism". Then there was the Lovecraftian "Cthulhu", the archetypally charged "Herculism" (after Hercules, who has in some quarters become an embodiment of autism, since Hercules was an awkward amalgam of the divine and the mundane) and Hecatoncheirism, as well as many others I met on that long snaking line outside my door.

But my favourite of the lot was the silence that came afterwards, waiting at the end of the feverish proceedings of names. This wasn't an empty silence: it was a silence that gently applauded these names but also reminded me that none of them quite worked. Every name is a risk, you see, an image that cuts something out. Within the spaciousness of that silence, I recognize that even pathology has its uses, and that in the strategic attempt to think differently about Bleuler's term, we risk romanticizing "autism", decontextualizing it, or propping it within a hero narrative that feels stifling and violently normative.

Perhaps a hundred names are not enough. Perhaps one name is too much already. But we must keep navigating these tensions without hope for neat arrivals. I remain vulnerably convinced that something else is happening "here", and that this Unknown God we immortalize with the name "autism" marks a dense, undulating spot in the city...a thin place where the exquisite presses on the membrane that divides it from the familiar.

I think there is a politics here, a pedagogy here, a praxis here, that doesn't want to be thought out in terms of rehabilitation, pathology, and baseline realities - perhaps just in the same way it seems to me that the intensity of psychedelics as an introduction of pixelated individuals to their larger bodies, their diasporic soul, doesn't want to be instrumentalized as cures or reduced to trauma-speak. In any case, I am now writing a story about a gardener who is maddened by the attempt to name a flowering plant that doesn't fit his classificatory system. I've called it "The Asylum for the Sane".

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