Friday, January 29, 2010

Autism as adverb

As I've mentioned, I'm currently reading Lev Grossman's latest book, The Magicians. I'm bringing it up again because in the last couple of chapters, I've twice come upon adverbs that made me stop reading and start thinking.

Here they are in context:

"Penny could be defensive when he was under attack, but he was so autistically focused right now that even direct mockery bounced off him." (249)

"Penny was nodding and rocking his whole body forward and backward semi-autistically." (260)

It should be noted that the character Penny is not, in fact, autistic - or, at least, is not identified as such.

I keep re-reading these sentences, because I'm not sure what I think of them - I'm not sure how I feel about "autistically" being used as an adverb to describe something other than autism. I don't think these adverbs are being used in a way that denigrates the character Penny - Grossman is not using "autistically" to mean "inappropriate" or "inadequate." In the first sentence, he is simply characterizing the kind of focus one often sees in a person with autism. In the second, he is characterizing a kind of movement. (Though "semi" autistically? I'm not even sure what that means.)

Part of me feels like this is okay - perhaps even good - as it simply conveys the message that acting "autistically" is just one of many ways of acting - not inherently good or inherently bad. Just one of many options.

Another part of me is unsettled by the use of the word in this way, and I'm not even sure why.

I am reminded, though, of Grossman's earlier book, Codex, in which there was a supporting character who was autistic. He was smart and technologically savvy, and I spent the book waiting for his autism to emerge as a critical plot point. It never did. He just happened to be a character who happened to be autistic.

The character in Codex and the incidental nature of his autism was reassuring to me. But the "autisticallys" in The Magicians are throwing me.

I'm curious to hear what the rest of you think about them.


Ange said...

I'm on the fence too... it's using a stereotype of what "autism" is to conject an image. But since the author isn't pushing it as a negative stereotype, I don't feel repulsed, but it's still a stereotype...

neil said...

I remember reading a piece on a well known movie star a few years ago and one of his behaviours was described as autistic. Like you, it stopped me in my tracks for a while, but on reflection felt it was mainstream acceptance - that someone could have an autistic trait, but without an infered negative connotation, sort of, it is what it is, let's get on with it.

Personally, I think it's a positive thing, autistically is like a bridge between two worlds.

Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

Thing is Autistic was invented by Eugene Bleuler as a pejorative in the first place, so let's not get autistically het up about autistifying the language necessarily.

Returning the word to the common language might be a way of essentially declaring the normality of autism as a set of traits that belong squarely in the general gene pool not as some exception to be treated as sub human.

Words are coined because they signify something there is a need to signify, that is how language develops.

Disabled as a term when it first entered the language had nothing to do with people's physical or mental capacity.

Likewise to speak of being blind to something is no reflection on the subset of the population who are visually impaired (don't get me going on impairment, I wrote a whole paper about that) it is a metaphor just as much as run is a metaphor when applied to elections.

Language is essentially metaphor, the extension of terms beyond there original significance to something else as the need demands, and one can therise that all language comes originally from straightforward physical descriptors, indeed quite possibly this is how the brain sees it, as indistinguishable from certain categories of physical activity, but I have gone off the point here (yes another metaphor, nothing actually spiky here)

Kent Adams said...

I personally do not like autistic or autism used as an adverb. It tends to demean the autistic person because it gives one dimensional meaning to autistic traits, as if they have only one meaning. However, I often come around to Larry's view if given enough time to understand it and in this case he isn't against the use of the word. However, at the present, whenever the adverb is used, its often used by someone unconnected in anyway to autism personally and perhaps this is why many who are connected to autism object to the use of it as an adverb.

Brenda Rothman (Mama Be Good) said...

I don't like it. Not one bit. He's trying to be original, for sure. It's lazy. He doesn't mean autistic. He means "intensely focused." He doesn't mean "semi-autistic" (huh?) He means "rythmically" He's trying to paint a picture using an image that may be frightening, an emotional touchstone. And after how some with autism have been portrayed in film and media, he's hit on a shortcut.

But I think it's too much like using the r-word to mean intellectually disabled. If you substitute the r-word as his adverbs, are you offended? Yes, because bringing it into the common vernacular to describe certain traits is riding the slippery slope. People will use it to conjure frightening, insulting images.

Ms. TK said...

I smell one of ours in his immediate circle, or family.

Don't like it. Propagating stereotypes.

I think the author, for reasons unknown, is fascinated with autism and is testing the waters.


telemommie said...

I've noticed lately that people are using "Autism" where they used to used "Retarded." I think it is very interesting to watch the word migration. I think it is a mistake to make a word forbidden. It just makes it so much more powerful when it is used in a hurtful way. I predict we will see another word replace "Autism" in about 20 years.

Ms. TK said...

EXACTLY, telemommie...i hear "autistic" used like the R word ALL the time now.

As I told my co-worker, "Aspergers" is the word du jour.

As I've always maintained, Autism is the new black.

Anonymous said...

Over the past year or so, I've seen "autistic" used several times, in several different places in the blogosphere, to mean "sociopathic," which I really don't like, for obvious reasons.

Ohio Mom

Anonymous said...

After I left this site I did a few other things, then went back to bopping around the blogosphere. Over at Talking Points Memo, there's a post by Bernard Avishai on Israel that I agree with 101%, but then there's this line (in the second paragraph):
"...the ethical autism Israelis in Jerusalem have suffered from..."

If I can only figure out how to register to make a comment/correction.

Ohio Mom

Island Mom said...

I read "The Magicians", and i remember those scenes, and i don't recall remarking the adjective use as inappropriate in the context. It's worth noting that the story is told in a first person narrative by a young man at severe loose ends -- i was way more disturbed by the self destruction, thoughtless sex and random cruelties the characters indulged in, and the narrator's inability to access his own emotions and compassion.

I think i remember the adjective was used in both cases to describe a character's response to trauma -- the way Grossman used it seemed meant to be evocative of self-protection and turning inward, which it did, and i don't recall any ill intent in the context of the scene. I'm also guess that he has it in the family based on his use of it in his previous book.

That said, If i do ever hear it used as a pejorative, I'm sure I'll get royally pissed off. But if the word is going to change in that direction, something needs to emerge from the community to replace it -- where I live, "spectrum" is rapidly replacing it as a clinical descriptive. As in "she's got a son on the spectrum" or "2 of the boys in the class are spectrum". Or can we batter back a turn in the use of lanugage to prevent it being co-opted -- i don't know if that's possible.
By the way, the book is fantastic. Sad, disturbing, and fantastic.

In related weirdness worth noting, when i took my son to register him for services at the state Department of Developmental Services in October, the huge sign hanging over the door at the Hyannis office STILL reads "DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL RETARDATION". It was like time-warping back to the '70's, a surreal and dreadful moment. I thought you couldn't even say that anymore. It was like the opening to a Saturday Night LIve sketch.

MOM-NOS said...

Island Mom, the story follows the main character, Quentin, so closely that it can feel like a first-person narrative, but it's actually written in the third person. So the use of "autistically" is not in Quentin's voice, but in the invisible narrator's (i.e., Grossman's).

I completely agree about the disturbing elements of the plot! It's such an odd blending of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter, and Less Than Zero.

It's interesting - I'm not sure if I like the book or not. I had the same reaction to Codex: I'm too interested in finding out what happens to stop reading, but I'm not sure that I'm enjoying it. And not just because of the autisticallys.

Island Mom said...

Thanks for the correction -- oops. I read it months ago -- that was a mis-rememberance.

And p.s. thanks for letting me join the conversation -- reading your posts and everyone's responses has been really helpful. We live on a rock in the middle of the ocean so the internet is the best means of info available.

I agree with you, Grossman manages to be compelling without being necessarily enjoyable -- great parallel to Less than Zero.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Two separate comments:

Drama Mama mentioned the varying uses of the labels "autism", "aspergers", and "retarded". Has anyone heard that the new DSM-5 is proposing dropping Asperger's (and PDD-NOS) as a diagnosis and lumping them all together as "ASD"? News article is here:

Second: It seems like no matter what neutral, descriptive, or even positive word we use to describe people or conditions, that word ends up being seen as/used as a pejorative, which then must be replaced. For example, "lame" just meant "can't walk normally" (like you would say "My horse went lame"). But that was deemed insulting (and indeed, is used as an insult--"a lame idea"). So I remember when the polite term to use became "handicapped". Then at some point, that became an unacceptable word--one was supposed to say "disabled". Now I hear "differently-abled" and "physically challenged".

Same way with the word "retarded". To retard something literally means to slow it down--therefore "mentally retarded" was a technical way of saying that someone's mental development was slowed, or arrested at some point. It was considered a neutral, polite term, much better than the words it replaced (like "idiot"). But then it got used as an insult, and now it's such a bad word that we aren't even supposed to talk about it--we're supposed to say "the r-word". I agree with Telemommie--I think it's a mistake to make a word forbidden.

California Girl