What Might Derrida Say About Autism and Language?

Filed Under (Activism, autism, Communication, Community) by Estee on 16-11-2013

Adam types, mostly independently, and also with various modes of assistance. Of late, he has developed his grammatically perfect sentences and I have to wonder about teaching the system of language. To most, this should be a heralded moment when Adam has joined us, society, in the shared system of social reciprocity. Yet I wonder about that term reciprocity. Is it reciprocal when we are a dominant group of language users? What of Adam’s own communication is considered valid? With learning our system of signs and signifiers, he will be able to join classrooms and other groups. I wonder about the validation of his body, his movements as asserting his being in society. I wonder if he will not lose his, for lack of a better way of putting it, metaphorical ways of speaking. This to me was representative of communicating a pattern of thought, perhaps translation, and perhaps a pattern of sensory experience; meagerly conveyed through our dominant language. In order to think this through, we have to consider how we limit experience by insisting on a form of contemporary autistic “oralism” (a term used for the Deaf/deaf, when they were force to speak instead of sign).

Adam also sometimes speaks. Sometimes he finds it hard to use words and “speaks” better through his body. This discontinuity, as it is often called, is referred to in the medical system as impairment or a problem. Speech in our society, we must remember, is also denotative of “rationality” which I continue to problematize. Derrida might not consider his speech discontinuous any less than language and rationality are (Simons, 88). Derrida says that without any gap between pages and letters, there would be no language or communication. So language is in itself discontinuous.

Adam’s meaning must be considered similarly. Without considering his whole being in the moment I could not weave a meaning. (And it should be noted that this should not be executed by only myself. I recognize I am a dominanat language user/speaker and I have to ask for various clarifications in a translation process but also have to be patient and simply watch and listen). Meaning is co-constructed, but the most important part of this that I want to convey is that often parents ignore this complex aspect of communication and maintain a level of expectation that no one autistic person will ever accomplish without a feeling of self-loss. Inasmuch as people should be praised for achievements, they should be praised for who they are. I also consider how this interactive view contributes to the feelings of impairment; that is, every interaction with others, mostly those fluent in speech (and who may consider themselves superior or normal as a result of being a political majority of talkers), contribute to feelings of impairment. There are a number of issues here, too long for a mere blog post, but let me continue.

If I follow Derrida’s line of thinking about language, there is no easy translation. I consider Adam’s typing a way of translating his thoughts into a system; I have to recognize that language limits the expanse of his thoughts, experiences and sensations. Like science, which is a system of thought and signs, we learn to frame a “problem.” We understand science by learning its language and it is primarily an encapsulated system which speaks among itself. It is here that I will reiterate a need to move away from science as “truth” as there are other valid modes of inquiry, much of which is already produced by those who are non-speaking. I am concerned also when fellow allies and autistics revert to this form of absolutism which has only oppressed them for many years. There are ways to take back the research and inquiry and IMFAR (among other science orgs) needs to respond to them too. I am reticent, as much as I support, a specific “autistic” advocacy as we know that language and labels change with time. How do autistic people keep their needed culture while at the same time co-organize across the many disabilities who share the need for respect, acceptance and inclusion (the latter word needs clarification but I will not do so here)? Many people labeled with autism prior to 1993 were placarded with dementia praecox, schizophrenia, mental retardation, to name a few. Labels are socially constructed, temporal. They are as diachronic and responsive to society as much as the rehabilitative and treatment methods seek to “recover” them. Yet they do share one characteristic which is political and social exclusion. Here, language as a system has played a huge role in how we regard and treat autism.

To continue with Derrida, discourse and meanings are shared and malleable (my word). Meaning is assembled across spacing/timing and interactive contexts. A text is like a textile, “produced only in the transformation of another text” (Writing and Difference, 279-80). The problem occurs in the behavioural and the sciences, Derrida would argue, when “provisional meanings are taken for definitive ones” (Simons, p. 90). Isn’t this what we’ve done? Isn’t this the way we continue to respond to organizations like Autism Speaks? In a Sausserean sense, we react to the constructed meaning, signifier of autism and we continue to validate it. In other words, by reacting, we also support the dominant system. In a political sense, I think this is important to remember when we respond. It’s not that we should not do so, but we must also think of ways of moving beyond this discourse as I fear we may only be continuing to support the current infrastructure that oppresses many people who do not fit the normal paradigm.

Derrida, Jacques. (1978) Writing and Difference. Pp.279-80
Simons, Jon. Contemporary Critical Theorists from Lacan to Said. p. 90.

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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 (www.taaproject.com), 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.