Autism History and Identity and Why We Need It

Filed Under (Autism History, Book Reviews) by Estee on 06-09-2012

I’m back at York U and have taken it upon myself to persue my M.A. in Critical Disability Studies and focusing on autism in every context I have time for. Outside of general readings, I noticed two books I’ve pre-ordered and eagerly await to devour:

Far From The Tree: Parents, Children & The Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon and Autism: A Social and Medical History by Mitzi Waltz.

“Disabilty” is a relatively new word in our language set to describe the social barriers that render some people unable to participate. It isn’t a word that we will find in historical records about disability. Rather, we find words like “lunatic, idiot, leper, cripple,” to name a few historical references to disability. While the history of disability is a burgeoning subject now, my generation never studied it in school. Some of us may not have even studied civil rights history. While we can locate histories in texts, records, art, and now through oral histories, we are just beginning to recognize that uncovering history is a very important aspect to identity. All of our histories are important and so many of them go unrecognized and untold. I remember learning British History in elementary school, and feeling valueless because my history was ignored, not validated, and considered not worthy of digging into. So many immigrants or different ethnicities feel the same way, although we have growing bodies of history that are now being taught in schools.

While autism memoirs are a way of telling our history now, we can do more to reach back and find autism in history. Uta Frith and Harlan Lane are two authors that come to mind who have written about specific autistic individuals in history.

Autism in history is a subject that requires much more attention. I’m hoping that the simple binary of “medical versus social model” of autism history will be avoided in the books about to be released. “Rethinking this polarity is what historical research and methodologies has to offer disability studies.” (Anderson and Arden Coyne).

In terms of identity, autistic identity or the identity of families with an autistic member, it is important to avoid the stereotypes of this binary that we encounter, especially in autism “advocacy,” although it would be an important a study unto itself of how we view autism today.

Our identities are complex, located within race, gender, income, nationality, culture, and so much more. We need to challenge ourselves to move away from the idea that all experiences of people with disablities, or their family members, are “conflated.” (Anderson & Coyne). History must also be viewed through the prevalent views of the time period, and we cannot impose of modern views upon it, for our interrpretations would be skewed. It’s more enlightening to look at history and compare it to our views today and in how we might improve as a society.

I hope for more literature on autism and history. I’m not of the belief that we all need to be autistic to write histories about autism but the practice of locating ourselves in any research must be something we undertake more rigorously, upfront, by stating our own views, considering our bias, and offering our biographies. I’d like to see this not only in social research, but also in medical research. We need to promote further studies to help define autistic identity. If we do it carefully and ethically, we could assisst with the rights of the autistic person in our society.


Julie Anderson and Ana Arden Coyne, “Enabling The Past: New Perspectives in the History of Disability,” European Review of History 14:4 (December, 2007), pp. 447-57.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.