Signs and signifiers: Flexible categorizations of autism
This dissertation explores how autism is a culturally constructed experience. This argument does not preclude biological symptoms and causes, but rather illustrates that autism is a flexible category that people interpret and use differently. I examine these experiences through two primary areas of focus: the categorization process and text making. The categorization process and the language of autism have connections to larger political and educational frameworks. They are tied to the proclivities of Western Biomedicine, education, Standard English and law. These systems privilege the mind/body dualism of Western Biomedicine as well as the class, race, and language biases of standardized testing. These privileges introduce institutional barriers, which each family and set of educators negotiated, based on criteria such as education, socio-economic status, ideas of success and normal, and attitudes toward medical and educational professionals. One site of this privileging occurs through professionals often considering the language of autism "dysfunctional." I am taking one of the first steps toward a hitherto unrealized egalitarian goal: to show that children with autism have a desire to communicate and that this desire drives text making. Thus, we need to stop classifying their text making as dysfunctional, and start examining what they are trying to communicate. I found that text making was connected to their worldview and used to help add control and order their experiences. The categorization process and how these children's text making is devalued in the classroom are based on hegemonic institutions and social processes that had the result of devaluing the child categorized as autistic. There are certainly exceptional teachers who are able to individualize education and help to maintain these children's voices regardless of their categorization. However, there are also barriers that ensure a difference in type and quality of service based on factors such as parental education and socio-economic level. Thus, while the most recent education Act, Leave No Child Behind, focuses on a top down model of reform, my work illustrates the need for a model of reform that begins with the child.