“become all but autistic”

I am almost finished with a mystery that I borrowed from my local library. After a string of poorly chosen books that I couldn’t bring myself to finish, I was relieved that this novel was an adequate summer read. It wasn’t a wow-I-can’t-wait-to-find-out-what-happens story nor was it a book that I’ll be recommending to all my book-loving friends. Yet, I have been willing to finish the story without feeling like I’m wasting precious reading time.

This book is the fourth in a series of mysteries, so I felt a bit lost when I started it. I realize I’m getting lazy as I age: I don’t want to have to keep track of this many characters. So far, three different people have been arrested for the murder at the center of the plot. And I’m fairly certain that none of them are actually guilty of the crime.

I wanted to finish the book so that I can return it to the library this evening. I was on page 248 out of 275 when I came to a halt. One of the three men arrested for the murder has confessed to the crime to protect his daughter. The detective in charge is reflecting on the facts of the case as he knows them. The author shares the investigator’s thoughts about the moody daughter as follows:

[She] had taken her repudiation hard, dwindling noticeably; already a taciturn young lady, she had become all but autistic . . .

Excuse me, what?

I’m not naming the book or its author because I don’t want this post to be a diatribe against this one writer. When the book was published in 2000, his editors didn’t see any reason to change the passage. Had I read the book as a new release, I wouldn’t have been offended. Back then, I would have finished the book and moved onto the next without a second thought. I don’t feel good confessing that, but it is the truth.

The timing of my encounter with this sentence could not have been more apt. Earlier this month,  there was quite a backlash to an offensive tweet made by 50 Cent in which he told a fan “you look autistic.” Holly Robinson Peete posted an eloquent open letter in response on her foundation’s website.  Other bloggers responded with their own images of What Autistic Looks Like.

More recently, I have been learning more about the conflict between autistic self-advocates and parents of autistic children. This blog post is one of the items that I recently read that raised my awareness of this issue. All of this is relatively new to me, but it is my understanding that self-advocates feel many parents, doctors and the media demonize autism. Karla Fisher, an autistic woman who manages an autism advocacy Facebook page and website, encourages parents and others to focus on supporting versus fixing autism.

As much as I might want to rail against the author of the book I’m reading, I know I don’t have the right. My first reaction is, “How offensive!” Upon reflection, I realize the sentence was composed and published in ignorance. I recognize his ignorance in myself. If others were to go through my blog archive, I’m sure they could find many examples of my own ignorance about autism. Others might point to statements in my posts that offended them.

Even though I can’t claim to have never made a verbal misstep in relation to autism, I believe I still need to analyze this sentence. Can someone “become all but autistic”? No. Autism is either part of your neurology or it isn’t. If it is, autism will manifest itself in a unique way for each person. I think the author, by describing her as “all but autistic” was trying to imply that the character was withdrawn from the world around her. Maybe there are people with autism that behave this way, but they certainly didn’t become autistic because some guy rejected them.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The lesson I hope to take from this is to not be too lazy of a reader. I need to stay a critical reader and a cautious consumer. I also need to remember to not be too lazy a writer.  Jess at Diary of a Mom suggests autism parents who blog be “thoughtful, not scrubbed.


4 thoughts on ““become all but autistic”

  1. I was researching Autism for a speech I gave for my summer oral communications class and found this on the Web MD page relating to Autism:

    The word “autism,” which has been in use for about 100 years, comes from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self.” The term describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction — hence, an isolated self.

    Maybe the author/editors had that in mind? I admit they could definitely have made a different choice of words especially considering the book was published in 2000. This, and the 50 Cent issue, is yet another reason why Autism awareness is so crucial right now.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing the word origin. That alters my reaction to the passage. It goes to show that one’s personal experience shapes one’s interpretation of a text.


  2. You raised a lot of interesting points. Its interesting how our world’s changed and our perceptions changed once Autism entered our lives.


  3. So true. After my son was diagnosed, I “saw” Autism everywhere. In t.v. shows, movies, books, people, you name it. Once you are really made aware of it, it is difficult to ignore.


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