"'No One Who Minds Is Here': Redesigning the 'Social Norms of Cognition' for the Contemporary Autism Novel" by Péter Kristóf Makai
Péter Kristóf Makai is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, and review editor at AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary. Email:
In his 2007 survey of the history of Victorian reading practices and physiological novel theory (which is a forerunner of current cognitive literary theory), Nicholas Dames devised the concept of the “social norms of cognition” to investigate the novel’s diametrically opposing role in Victorian and contemporary discourse. In the former, it is pictured as a force shattering the attention and cognitive alertness of the reader, whereas in the latter, it is perceived as a tool fostering empathy and civic virtue in an age of electronic media antithetical to prolonged attention. His “social norms of cognition” is used to contextualize the social values of cognitive terms like the readers’ attention or the duration of the novel, highlighting their historical shifts in meaning (19-20). Dames dedicates separate chapters to the analysis of diegetic references to and examples of attention in the period’s fiction, to temporal experience, duration and music’s relationship to the Victorian novel, to “units of consciousness” as theorised by nineteenth century psychophysics and its connection to organic wholes and fragmentation, and finally, to the accelerated comprehension of texts by virtue of speed-reading with an emphasis on eye-tracking studies of reading. These topics might seem disparate at first and devoid of ethico-political concerns about novel reading, but Dames cogently argues that Victorian attitudes towards the realist novel stem from early novel theorists’ appropriation of the era’s physiological research to draw conclusions about the novel’s effect on the consciousness of the reader.
Although this convincing account of the neuroethical relationship between reading and contemporary scientific discourses on attention was aimed at providing a prehistory of novel theory, I believe the complexity and the analytical foci of Dames’ book are inspiring and probing enough to apply it to a rather different bundle of works: early twenty-first century novels which feature people on the autistic spectrum. Besides the obvious centenary leap, I find our era’s anxieties about information technology, our ethical dilemmas in dealing with neurological difference, and the rise of cognitive neuroscience to be a particularly fruitful matrix in which Dames’ research into the critical categories of physiological novel theory could be revamped to create a framework for an ethicognitive literary reading of autism fiction. I coin this term to suggest a way of adjusting cognitive literary criticism to attend more to ethical issues, in this specific case, the portrayal of the neuroatypical mind in contemporary English-language autism novels. For the purposes of my research, I define the autism novel as a literary work of art which has at least one prominently focalised autist character, whose perceptions of the storyworld are profoundly (but not exclusively) shaped by their neurological difference, and a plot in which these characters’ autism plays a formative role in developing the novels’ action and themes.
Taking Elizabeth Moon’s Nebula award-winning Speed of Dark (2002) as my case study, I argue that there are profound affinities between the physiological novel theory’s interest in attention, units of consciousness in perception, and the speed of comprehension on the one hand, and the way the novel’s protagonist, Lou Arrendale’s attention is described (the way in which his hypersensitivity to sensory data and ability to analyse patterns are woven into a master figure) on the other. This master figure foregrounds what Dames called the “social norms of cognition” which, in my use, describes not the shared historical assumptions about the values of novel-reading, but a set of cultural standards about what is appropriate to perceive and communicate in a given society ― a kind of cognitive manners. My intention here is to focus on how these norms define the autistic character’s fictional life, and how the mutual misperception, indeed, miscognition of neurotypicals (or NT) and autists along the lines of the social norms of cognition (SNC) contribute to two of the central themes of the novel: cognition as pattern recognition in data and a shared but bridgeable mindblindness towards the other neurotype.
To better evaluate the social norms of cognition operating at heart of the novel, a little summary is in order. With a name singularly fit for writing science fiction, Moon set her novel in the near future of the continental United States. Crucially, what makes this novel science fiction is the biomedical novum that researchers have found a cure for autism, a method of treating potentially autistic foeti in utero and thus eliminating autistic infants. The story follows the life of Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autist (HFA) born before the cure, who is able to lead a productive but still disabled life, thanks to effective early intervention therapies that taught him daily living skills and enough pragmatic language use to work in the data analysis department of a pharmaceutical company. His department, called “Section A” is notable for exclusively employing a number of autists, about 16-20 people trained in pattern recognition necessary for the evaluation and creation of new, highly complex biochemical formulae that will eventually produce medicine. The reason for setting up “Section A” in the first place is that their stellar skills in manipulating data allows these people to perform substantially better than neurotypical employees, plus the company gets a tax break for employing them. On the downside, these autistic Lasts of the Mohicans can only operate under working conditions which upper management considers to be severe fiscal burdens: an environment that soothes their senses and provides the necessary kind of distraction to help them focus: playing classical music to aid in their work, and a private gym with a trampoline set up so they can ease the stress that comes with ‘passing’ as normal at the workplace (see Goffman 1963; for the application of stigmatised identity in autism, see Gurig 1996, 123-150) and the fatigue brought on by hard cognitive labour. It is the contention of Gene Crenshaw, a manager in the higher echelons of the company, that these are superfluous costs, and by “cutting the fat, getting back to the lean, tough, productive machine” (Moon 18), “Section A” has to be scrapped and its employees have to undergo a new, experimental treatment that would reorganise their neural pathways ― in effect turning them into NTs, eliminating their need for large private spaces and disability perks.
Laying aside the problem of the actual ‘perks’ of “Section A” being at best negligible financial burdens on the company, the novel adeptly demonstrates the tensions between a profit-oriented private company and its employees with cognitive disability. The pressure to conform to basic standards of functioning provides the narrative the ‘thrust’ that jostles the current status quo. In the words of Crenshaw: “Things cannot go on like this, Lou. Change happens” (Moon 27). Even in its very narrative configuration, Speed of Dark activates a fundamental antagonism between an autistic preference for sameness and what Jerome Bruner calls “a deviation from a canonical cultural pattern” (49-50); in this instance, a company restructuring and a radical neuromedical transformation.
Autism itself is a condition heterogeneous and complex enough to warrant a reasonable discussion before analysing its impact on the narrative portrayals of SNC. First of all, taking my cue from current scientific discourse, in its most accurate, least clinical formulation, the autism spectrum condition (ASC) is described as a human developmental variety, in contrast to earlier or wider, explicitly diagnostic literature, where it was/is markedly labelled as a psychological disorder, a term still present in some corners of autism research. The atypical development of the autistic mind starts from early infancy and affects autists throughout their whole life, but the general tendency veers towards amelioration in most or all behavioural aspects of the condition during the course of one’s life. According to the newly revised DSM-5 (the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), ASC is characterised by
1. persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts […], including deficits in social-emotional reciprocity […], deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction […], deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships
2. restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities […], including stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech […], insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior […], highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus […], hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.” (American Psychological Association 2013, 50)
These two (formerly, three) prongs are behavioural criteria used primarily for diagnostic purposes, while a substantial segment of clinical psychologists are immersed in research dedicated to finding both the etiological causes of autism and the specific mechanisms explaining how the human mind is shaped by this atypical developmental trajectory.
In effect, there are three major, sometimes competing, sometimes consilient accounts as to what is affected in the mind when we talk about autism. Each has vied to be a contender for the supposed “core deficit” in autism, but investigations to date are yet to agree on whether there is one in the first place (Schreibman 2007, 109-131). Executive dysfunction is the umbrella term for behaviours that betray an impaired ability to plan and execute goal-directed actions, to inhibit dispreferred actions or to attend to the environment or one’s own actions, as well as potential problems with working memory or impulse control. Explanations involving executive dysfunction in autism point towards the observed rigidity of daily schedule or problem solving, the restricted or repetitive actions coupled with a preference for sameness and routines in the condition (along with demonstrable frontal lobe failure) as signs that executive functions are impaired. What this means is that autistic individuals are more likely to persevere with the already tried and failed method of achieving a goal, or would on occasion experience a breakdown if a personally meaningful but otherwise insignificant object or action in their environment is altered in any fashion. Even so, researchers note that despite the intuitively convincing case for executive dysfunctions in the condition, negative findings crop up every now and then in the studies, and continued effort is needed to further solidify or discard this as a theory for the working of the autistic mind (Hill 2004). Furthermore, executive dysfunction is not specific to ASC, therefore it cannot be interpreted as the core deficit. With this in sight, executive dysfunction is still considered to be a useful hypothesis about some of the more puzzling behavioural phenomena related to autism.
Another candidate for the elusive core deficit is what was usually known in the specific literature as “weak central coherence”, albeit researchers these days have switched to using “detail-focused cognitive style” or a “local bias” in perception at the suggestion of Francesca Happé and Uta Frith; it is illustrated by such colourful skills in the autistic population as identifying vacuum cleaner models from the sound they make, or delivering pitch-perfect phonetic imitations of foreign language features barely perceptible to language learners (Happé and Frith 2006). These abilities are occasionally referred to as splinter skills by popular science writers, whose writing elevates even lower-functioning autists into the wunderkind sphere, like the case of Stephen Wiltshire (blessed with and eidetic memory and a prodigious skill in draughtsmanship) as drawn in loving but sensational detail by Oliver Sacks on the pages of An Anthropologist on Mars (179-232), a book also famous for introducing a later poster-autist to a wider audience, Temple Grandin. Detail-oriented processing involves the atypical tendency of the mind to not organise sensory data and cognitive information into wholes or Gestalts, but preferring instead to treat said information in synecdochic chunks (with parts standing for the whole). This can help us understand the diverse traits in ASCs as an increased cocktail-party deafness, that is, a reduced ability in separating one’s speech (or other relevant sensory information) as “figure” from the “ground” of sensations (in the auditory case, background noise), an extraordinary hyper- and hyposensitivity to sounds and smells in the life-world of the person, or their joyfully embraced skill in solving visuospatial puzzles, such as assembling a large picture from small building blocks (Plaisted et al. 2003). This skill is even used as one of the symbols of the autism advocacy/awareness movement, either appearing in the form of a coloured jigsaw puzzle piece, or a multi-coloured assembly of several pieces, implying a need to acknowledge neurodiversity and drawing attention to the strengths of minds with a sharp eye for detail. As investigations into visuospatial and auditory processing progressed, researchers have noted some difficulties with separating performance differences in terms of the two rival hypotheses of executive dysfunction and detail-oriented bias (Booth et al. 2003), and alternative accounts of this cognitive profile have been offered, including the “hierarchization deficit model” or the “cortical underconnectivity theory” (Kumar 2013). At this date, we still have no knock-down argument in favour of detail-focused processing as the ultimate core deficit, and investigating autistic cognition based on accounts of sense-making are yet to agree upon a common model or theory for how this cognitive style manifests itself on the neurocognitive level.
For students dealing with autism in the humanities (especially those educated in current issues in gender studies or cognitive literary theory), perhaps the most powerful(ly contested) evidence towards autistic cognitive difference comes from research done on the psychological construct known as Theory of Mind (or ToM), and a dedicated hypothetical module postulated by Alan Leslie (1992; 2000), the ToM-mechanism (or ToMM). Briefly stated, ToM denotes the human mind’s ability to employ the intentional stance (Dennett 1989) towards other humans and living beings, treating them as having beliefs, desires, goals, agency and mental content: when the intentional stance is projected onto non-sentient objects, like dolls or props, we enter the realm of pretence, make-believe and ultimately, fiction. ToM is thought to harness several modular components of the brain, such as the Intentionality Detector, the Eye-direction Detector, and the Shared Attention Mechanism (Baron-Cohen 1995) to facilitate understanding other minds in the natural context of the real world (as opposed to, say, written narrative). Prompted by Dennett (1978), Baron-Cohen and other researchers in the field point toward the performance of people with autism on so-called false belief tasks. The task involves the experimenters playing a scenario out with dolls. In this scene, one of the dolls, Sally, is being deceived by another one, Anne: Sally puts a toy back in its place and leaves the room, while her cheeky companion hides the toy in another box; when Sally comes back, the child is asked to name the place where Sally will go to look for the toy. Most neurotypical children by age 4-5 will invariably arrive at the correct solution of Sally looking at the box in which she put the toy back, whereas most autists predominantly answer that she will look for the toy in the box where Anne hid it, unbeknownst to Sally. Psychologists argue that children who point towards the actual location of the doll do not take into account the beliefs and thoughts other people have when interacting with the world at large.
Baron-Cohen coined a phrase for this habit of thought that has had strong consequences on how we think about autism: he called it mindblindness. ToM impairment is undoubtedly the candidate that has drawn the most scholarly and lay attention, because it produces an attitude to social interactions in the ASC community that is readily perceived as disabling by the NT population. In popular accounts of high-functioning autism (like Sacks’ book or Grandin’s autobiography), ToM impairment is thrust into the limelight as the defining trait that sets ASC people apart from the rest of the world, making them treat people and objects alike, creating a diminished interest in expressing and sharing emotions with others, as well as manifesting in a lack of pretend play and that of appreciating fiction. Even so, mindblindness does not explain the sensory integration issues many autists face, nor the perceptual strengths they have — actually, none of the widely held hypotheses about autism alone can sum up the condition via a “core deficit” — nor is it seen as a fruitful pursuit any more. Summarising research conducted until the mid-nineties, Laura Schreibman writes: “there have been no definitive studies showing a causal relationship between brain structure or function and a specific deficit” (131).
There is one more comment worth making here: writers on ASC often pay token respect to autism as a heterogeneous condition, echoing the common sentiment that if you know a person with autism, you know precisely only one person with autism from the entire spectrum. This heterogeneity gave rise to the idea of autism advocacy by promoting “neurodiversity” the same way as biologists who raise awareness about endangered species and shrinking biological niches promote biodiversity. In suggesting this, they speak out against the almost Manichean separation between AS people and NTs. In its most radical form, Simon Cushing tells us that we keep using the word “autism” as a collective term, but he does not think it means the same thing we think it means. For him, “autism” as such is a problematic paradigm, forging the condition into a uniform whole that is deceiving: in his reading of the science, research proves that there is no one thing that could be labelled autism in people, and the concept is used not so much for acquiring new knowledge about the condition, but to help secure research grants and set up (potentially false) expectations about people known as autists today (see Anderson and Cushing 2013, 17-46). Despite some valid philosophical scepticism, Ian Hacking’s view about the correlation of autism diagnoses and an underlying neurobiological profile feels immediately more useful to recognising neurodiversity. He writes: “We need not argue that nearly all children diagnosed with autism today have exactly one and the same biological disorder. We need only hold possible that there are a few (possibly just one) basic fundamental biological disorders that produce the symptoms currently classified as autistic” (116). For the sake of convenience, and since I will be working with fictional representations of autism by NT writers rather than real people, I acknowledge the difficulties contemporary nominalists see in defining autism, but I shall pragmatically keep using the term that conjures up the fascination which inspired writers to create memorable characters like Lou Arrendale, whose atypical perceptions of the storyworld are the main draw of autism novels.
Mindblindness, however, is a powerful, taken-for-granted metaphor, one that has implications beyond scientific conceptions of neurological impairment. It links cognitive disability with a perceptual one, in a sense doubly weaving autists into the fabric of disability, conjuring up an emotionally striking image of helpless people who have lost one of their senses. What is more, it suggests that autists are somehow devoid of or deficient in empathy, a concept that has been scrutinised by rhetoricians (Jurecic 2006) and scholars in the medical humanities (Dinishak and Akhtar 2013), only to find it severely wanting. The most withering critique came from disability studies. John Duffy and Rebecca Horner summarise their review of ToM narratives circulating in psychology by saying: “while ToM literature purports to explain autism, it ultimately attenuates the humanity of autistic people by representing autistics as evolutionary deviant, hypothetical beings, and, ultimately, as tragic figures. The result is a novelistic, poetically intensified account of sadness — we call this a rhetoric of scientific sadness — in which autistic people are mourned even as they are apparently explained” (202). One needs to take this with a pinch of salt, but every scholar working with autism has to note the high stakes involved in this characterisation of the autistic mind as ‘blind’ in some sense.
Take the image of mindblindess seriously, and you end up seeing a population as entirely unable to navigate the social world, completely at the mercy of cunning fellows who take advantage of the powerless wherever they see them, and more caring people, who can exercise benevolent agency and defend them by speaking/caring for others who cannot or will not do it for themselves. Conversely, should we refuse to take into consideration the profound difficulties the majority of autists have in managing social information, most of which is based on mental content like desires, plans, expectations — not to mention false beliefs — and instead opt for a utopian reconceptualisation of autism, we run the risk of establishing an idealised ‘autism’ as an aesthetic category that can be speculatively applied to works which are not the products of either diagnosed ASC artists or NT artists explicitly dealing with autism. This is the approach Tobin Siebers’ espouses in Disability Aesthetics (2010), a book that romanticises the grotesque and the fragmentary and claims them in the name of disability, stating that “by putting into question the art object’s relation to perfection, […] the beauty reflected in the broken mirror grows more beautiful as a result” (135). While Siebers’ move is to connect physical, rather than cognitive disability to a remade aesthetics which often takes disability and fragmentation metaphorically, the mantle of reconstructing an autistic canon has been taken up by quite a few scholars writing about literary disability, including several attempts to posthumously diagnose autism either in writers of canonised literature (see Fitzgerald 2004, 2005; Fitzgerald and Walker 2006; Brown 2009) or the fabric of the text itself, as in Pride and Prejudice (Bottomer 2007), and scholars are usually trying to prove both by hypothetically reinterpreting an authorial biography that reinforces a disabled reading of the text or vice versa. The tendency to create an autistic canon is a courageous pursuit, but one fraught with danger, as practitioners seem to be overzealous in their inclusiveness. In my essay, I have chosen to deal with a neurotypical writer’s work, Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark, a novel which represents characters who are definitely identified as autists in the narrative, mostly to avoid confusion.
As used in the philosophical and psychological literature, “mind-reading” is a handy concept that travels well into the discipline of literary studies: cognitive studies of literature welcome the concept of mindblindness and recruit it to their own ends. Scholars in the field discuss the impact of our evolved Theory of Mind on the aesthetic joy of empathising with fictional characters by referring to autistic impairment. Following Baron-Cohen’s opening thought experiment in Mindblindness, writers like Lisa Zunshine (2006) or Blakey Vermeule (2010) wield the image of the anthropologist from Mars as an illustrative weapon that grounds their own interest in literary character by defamiliarising our capacity to read other minds. Taking the phrase literally, narratologists in the vein of Alan Palmer have shifted the focus of analysis from character — interpreting judgements and revisions of habitual actions and temperament — and consciousness — suggesting a psychological commitment to representing “lonely self-communion” in inner speech (Cohn 1999, 84) — to minds-in-(inter)action, that is, embedded in a social context, with special attention given to how minds negotiate the world of asymmetric social information (Palmer 2004, 130-169). Discussing our experience of others as continuously minded beings despite our gappy interactions with them, Palmer writes: “Our real-world cognitive frame enables us to construct a continuing consciousness for the absent person unless we suffer from an abnormal condition such as autism that causes ‘mindblindness’” (199). Here and elsewhere, references to autism and mindblindness in particular are tactically used in cognitive narratology as a scholarly version of step two in the narrative prosthesis thesis: “a narrative [in this case, of the normated mindreading of fictional minds] consolidates the need for its own existence by calling for an explanation of the deviation’s origins and formative consequences” (Mitchell and Snyder 2000, 53). In this instance, autism is routinely used to legitimate cognitive narratology’s interest in fictional minds, as if to say: imagine what it would be like not to be able to do that which we are so good at; now, we need a good explanation for our emotional responses to fictional characters. Carefully caveating away some of the implications for this act of disqualification that would be met with criticism from scholars in disability studies, Zunshine explicitly uses autism fiction to justify her interest in theory of mind and mind-reading on the pages of Why We Read Fiction (2006, 10-12). To her credit, Zunshine then teamed up with disability studies scholar Ralph James Savarese, produced an article in an interview format that is essentially an extended mea culpa (by Zunshine), in which she apologises for her use of autists and the mindblindness trope (Zunshine and Savarese 2014, forthcoming).
More intriguingly, after setting the mindblindness scene as a backdrop to her investigations, Blakey Vermeule fleshes out the concept of situational mindblindness to denote a “a trope of dehumanization, albeit a very complex one: the point of it is to deny other people the perspective of rational agency by turning them into animals, machines, or anything without a mind” (195). This notion interacts nicely with Duffy and Dorner’s observation about the scientific sadness of narratives about mindblindness; characters with HFA/Asperger’s, being the interstitial, tragic mind-mulattoes they are, are uniquely situated to pose questions about the dehumanisation involved in a disabling method of doing scientific research on mind-reading and about the enabling work environment in the world of Speed of Dark that is still coded as costly and ineffective by upper management, as typified by Crenshaw. In Moon’s novel, it also suggests a tension between government regulation and private industry’s willingness to maximise utility whenever the option is available. Incentivising to employ neurominorities in order to extract better data for scientific research, the government of the near-future USA is using the enlightened template of ‘affirmative action’ to exploit the unique make-up of the autistic mind. Lou Arrendale’s eventual choice to undergo neuromedical therapy after all workplace pressures have been relieved implies at the very least that this exploitation is a two-way road: by being able to evade pressure and make it his own choice, fulfilling his dream to work in space, a well-inhabitated and therefore social space by the diegetic present of the novel, he proves to be adept in manipulating circumstances to his ends. Whether this end of autotelic self-fulfilment is in agreement or conflict with the ideals of the contemporary academic left and its notions of collective liberty is another matter I shall not pursue here in greater depth.
In terms of the tragic awareness and critical potential of Lou’s mind-reading and his second-guessing of ideological explanations that are detectable in Moon’s book, we can safely say that Lou gradually becomes aware of the shenanigans involved in maintaining the neurological standard of normate cognition that informs the curative treatment, and this works as a narrative dynamo of the novel. Contrary to clinical psychologists, who see autism primarily as a condition that is crippling rather than enabling, disability scholars have been rightfully wary and apprehensive of any devalorisation of ASC skills by scientific discourse as ‘isolated’ or ‘splinter’ skills. Still, the concept allows us to see Crenshaw situationally mindblinding himself to Section A, a conscious strategy that makes his employees little more than expensive machines, a source of additional costs that could be remedied with neurological repair. Cognitive narratologists, on the other hand, would like to see autism as a case of meeting unreadable minds, especially in the case of third-person narration in older works like Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener (Abbott 2008), a short story which has recently been discussed as a case of a neuroatypical mind entering the fictional fencing piste and fighting for recognition both in the social and narratological sphere (Murray 2008, Pinchevski 2011, Savarese 2013).
As rhetorically usual, my own approach for this essay lies somewhere in the middle between disability studies scholars’ motive for acting as advocates and exegetes for neuroatypical behaviour and cognitive narratologists’ interest in shedding light on NT abilities of storytelling and comprehension. Here, I accept the challenge given by these two extant fields and instead of “wandering along incommunicability,” to use Pinchevski’s phrase, I shall try to find my way on the no-man’s-land between autism fiction, narratology and ethical concerns, presenting Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark as a case study for the representation of autistic consciousness and a narrative text implicated in the discourses of cognitive neuroscience and disability studies. In my analysis of Lou Arrendale’s idiosyncratic perception and understanding of the storyworld, I seek to draw attention to cognitive narratology’s ability to deftly handle autism narratives by curating the novel as a literary drama of mindreading that retains its edge through keeping the kinds of dilemmas about cognitive difference and neuroethics in its purview. Dames’ “social norms of cognition” will enable us to point toward double standards in ASC vs. NT cognition, which affect descriptions of Lou’s surroundings, his bodily sensorium and his understanding of the social world he shapes and is shaped by.
Speed of Dark wears its interest badge in its asymmetrical mind-reading proudly on its chest. We, the readers get our first glimpse of Lou in the psychiatrist’s office, where his psychological state is assessed four times a year to see that he is fit for work. Setting the scene as a clash between normate scientific knowledge and autistic cognition, Lou states: “I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand. What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals” (2, emphasis in original). Here in the office, Lou’s abilities are largely framed by the deficit model of autism, one that describes him in terms of what he cannot do or know. At the same time, even a deficit model grants Lou an increased awareness of the differences between what is expected of him and how he navigates the world. Writing about their young daughter, Lula, an anthropologist couple indicates the dynamics of how a diagnosis interpellates an autistic subject (and the people who care for them): “Emotionally, the diagnosis gives us a useful discursive framework, a way of making sense. […] It’s nice, this autism thing. [It] is a free pass. […] Because Lula has autism, she lacks responsibility and so do we. It’s liberating. It is a costly liberation, however. Her lack means that Lula is officially and categorically difficult to handle. [Autism as a discourse of lack is] a crazy, painful, useful discourse” (Haldane and Crawford 2010, 24). Understanding how he is perceived by near-future neuroscience, Lou gets to have a hermeneutic handhold on normate cognition, but he is interested in turning the tables on neurotypicals and describe their cognition as a lack, too, the same kind of lack that is attributed to autism, which would balance the power asymmetry of mind-reading that favours normate culture. In Lou’s words: “If normal people really can do all the things that are claimed for them, it would be helpful to have that ability… but I am not sure they do. They do not always understand why other people act as they do. […] I have been oblivious like that, so I recognize it in others” (315, emphasis mine). It is worth stressing that Lou’s awareness of his ToM deficit becomes a source of identification with NTs, calling attention to neurotypical obliviousness or mindblindness, thereby striking it out as somehow constitutive of autism and simultaneously showing that he is capable of empathetically shifting perspective. When Dr. Fornum, the psychiatrist advises Lou in the evaluation sessions about normal behaviour and social customs, it is Lou’s autism that allows him to see through the acceptance of an idealised set of customs as an illusionary norm that few people actually follow perfectly: “She has told me that Everyone knows this, and Everyone does that, but I am not blind, just autistic, and I know that they know and do different things” (4, emphasis added). Mindblindness is strongly implicated in this, since Lou refuses the labels of both visual and cognitive blindness towards other people. Additionally, he produces a counterdiscourse in which NT people become blind by ignoring individuality in favour of legitimated categorical thinking, applying normate assumptions to heterogeneous groups of people. In fact, autism in this passage and in the novel as a whole becomes a strength not just because of superior pattern recognition skills, but due to Lou’s ability to see through the commonsense notions of what the SNC would dictate as accepted and expected behaviour, recognising contradictory evidence when he sees it. As a quick way to prove how foundational the societal norms are in Speed of Dark, the words “appropriate” and “inappropriate” crop up 20 times in the book, but “polite” and “impolite” do them one better, and appear 21 times and “should” a whopping 163 times.
Even so, Lou has quite severe difficulties with interpreting beliefs and behaviour. The text is littered with “I don’t know”s and “I don’t understand”s when discussing various social situations. On one occasion, for example, Lou is fishing for social information from Marjory, another fencer, about how the fencing group he trains with feels towards Don, an erratic, brash member: “ ‘Tom and Lucia both sounded angry with Don,’ I say. She gives me a quick sideways glance. I am supposed to understand it, but I don’t know what it means” (37). After a vandal (as we find out, Don) wrecks Lou’s car, Miss Kimberly, the neighbour thinks she will have to move; the reader picks up on the idea that she feels unsafe when crimes are happening in the neighbourhood. In contrast, Lou asks to himself: “why does she have to move because my tires were slashed? No one could slash her tires, because she has no tires. She does not have a car.” (151), missing the wider social context and Miss Kimberly’s state of mind. Narration in the few sections that feature an NT point-of-view character, on the other hand, is one level higher in the complexity of cognition it shows and it betrays fewer signs of uncertainty. In the short interlude between two Lou-focalised sections, where Tom is observing how the fencing group manages tension built-up in the wake of Don’s hissy fit at Lou, the first ominous sign of later aggression: Marjory “sounded prissy, which meant she was more than just annoyed […]. Tom could tell Marjory wanted to yell at Don. […] Tom listened without joining in. He knew the signs: any moment now Lucia would tackle Marjory about her feelings for Lou and for Don, and he wanted to be far away when that happened” (63-64, emphasis added). Short passages such as this serve to remind the readers that mindreading confidence can go up radically in a text where neurotypical assumptions about cognition are easily available as an interpretative framework.
Still, the author is adept at showing that the difference in mind-reading abilities is never an all-or-nothing affair. When later on Don is revealed to be the person behind an attempt on Lou’s life, the whole fencing group is appalled by the turn of events. Lucia in particular is in a state of shock, and upon expressing her vengeful sentiments, Lou is taken aback by Lucia’s flare-up. He gives voice to his consternation: “Should I have known about her, the way she thinks she should have known about Don? If normal people expect to know all about one another, all the hidden things, how can they stand it? Doesn’t it make them dizzy? ‘You can’t read minds, Lucia,’ Marjory says. ‘I know that.’” Lucia replies (292). This textual moment is important for two reasons. Firstly, because it acknowledges what all critics of mindblindness highlight, namely that despite autists’ marked impairment, the NT population can just as easily fall wide of the mark every now and then when it comes to empathic accuracy. Secondly, Lou also feels that the social norms of cognition are vertigo-inducing, since they suggest that people will be relatively accurate mind-readers most of the time, thus they can expect adequate performance by default, but mountebanks like Don occasionally conceal their minds with hostile intent. Lou is caught in the double bind of aspiring to rise to the level of mind-reading NT characters while knowing full well that it can never protect him from such villains. If we compare Lou’s turmoil with the quote from pages 63-64 above, we can detect another handy function of mind-reading, too. It enables people to gauge whether social interactions are going well to evade unpleasant, dizzying instances where expectations to manage “group intermental thinking” (Palmer 218-239) would require more cognitive effort than the individual is willing to handle. In this instance, it would take Tom too much effort to understand everyone’s feelings and thoughts on the conflict between Don and Lou and to make the right decision that would dissolve tension among the fencers.
Tom can use his mind-reading skills to identify what is at best a minor squabble between two odd characters and ignore it by metarepresentationally storing everyone’s opinions “under advisement” (Zunshine 132) but Lou has a harder time protecting himself from the maelstrom of confusing NT behaviour, nor can he suspect that Don’s actions are questionable even within NT social norms. “Knowing the signs” means a world of difference between directing the course of social interactions and being caught up in them, powerless. This is why Lou is particularly proud when he can exercise his improving sociocognitive skills to his own ends in the midst of her row with Emmy, a fellow autist (and later on, by becoming a suspicious reader of the biomedical research team’s lead scientist): “[Emmy’s] voice is hostile. I can tell she thinks this is what I think and that she thinks I am wrong, that Marjory is not in love with me. I am […] happy that I can understand all that in what she says and how she says it. Years ago I would not have understood” (88). So, as with autism, mind-reading skills are distributed along a spectrum, and Lou is constantly getting better at assessing social situations, whereas neurotypical characters’ failures bring the point home that “even when [cognitive adaptations] function properly, at no point do they guarantee a smooth sailing through concrete complicated situations or the instinctive knowing of the exact origins of every aspect of our personal memories” (Zunshine 60, emphasis in original).
Minding others is so essential in Speed of Dark that Lou revels in the moments when he can break free from the bewildering landscape of illegible minds. Having accepted to undergo the treatment that will rearrange his brain until he is no longer impaired, he takes one final walk around Harper Falls, a natural preserve. In relief, he comments: “I can feel myself relaxing. Trees do not care if I am normal or not. Rocks and moss do not care. […] I do not have to think about myself at all. […] No one who minds is here” (397-398). Lonely self-communion and a desire for a mind-less world propel Lou towards his goal of working in outer space, but employment on a space station is based on a requirement of neurotypicality, so paradoxically, Lou is cured of autism to do the kind of work that would suit him the most, thereby showcasing the disabling legal background which, in its blindness towards the virtues of autism, enforces the social norms of cognition and invites neurominorities to assimilate. While he can, Lou also directs the reader’s gaze towards NTs default tendency of attributing mindedness even to inanimate phenomena: “Water has no mind, water cannot think, but people — normal people —do write about raging rivers and angry floodwaters as if they did not believe in that inability” (399). Literal-minded Lou hits the nail right on its head; while autists are seen as mindblind by some in the scientific community, NT people can be quite fallible and become victims of their own inclination towards minding others when attributing intentionality and psychology to things that are not sentient. Seen from this perspective, it would not be entirely out of place to call neurotypicals mind-hallucinators, using the language of abnormal psychology to underscore the labelling function mindblindness serves to disqualify autistic thinking even in cases when there is evidence of minded (or properly literal) thinking in autism.
Since neuroatypical people are characteristically hypo- or hypersensitive to certain classes of stimuli, Moon chose to represent this in the narrative text so that readers get a better sense of the “raw feel” of inhabiting an autist’s body and consciousness, to show them “what it’s like” to be one. As David Herman points out, from a cognitive-discursive standpoint: “narrative affords a discourse environment optimally suited for the world-picturing process, since that environment shares crucial elements of structure with raw feels. Hence stories point beyond […] the impossibility of inspecting the very mechanisms by which inspection […] is made possible. Enacting and not just representing ways of experiencing […], stories capture and sustain our interest because of how their structure maps on to the mind’s own engagement with the world” (Herman 2009a, 157). Definitely, the autism novel as a subgenre of middlebrow literature makes for a particularly engaging reading mostly because of the general premise and promise that readers will be granted an “inside-out” view of autism, to borrow Donna Williams’ term; readers report a heightened narrative empathy towards relatives and other real-world people on the spectrum after reading autism novels (Caracciolo, forthcoming), and psychonarratologically speaking, focalisation is a storytelling technique designed to create just that effect (empirically proven in the case of film by Bálint 2012).
One instructive way in which that qualitative mental simulation of being autistic is brought to life in the text is the focalised descriptions of Lou’s Umwelt. Cognitive narratology can capture some of the attention to detail involved in this process by focusing on the degree of granularity, in other words, the amount of detail within descriptions (Herman 2009b). In a notable echo, research conducted in atypical cognitive granularity in autism implies that due to the relatively smaller size of microcolumns and larger brain volume of people on the spectrum, autists’ detail-oriented processing style results in a granularity mismatch between ASC/NT populations, therefore individuals with ASC “would have difficulty and inefficiency in learning and using the language of the standard granularity. This would also be applicable to virtually all artifacts, such as architecture and social conventions. [… B]ecause of the granularity mismatch they fail to connect their motivation with what they microscopically perceive from the surroundings” (Kozima 2013). I propose that we are seeing the SNC at work when we observe narrative instances of this granularity mismatch. In addition, whenever other social processes (such as awareness-raising programmes, individual therapy and education for autists, etc.) do not compensate for the cognitive gap between ASC and NT thinking that produces disabling results for neuroatypical people, these social norms of cognition become barriers to the kind of neurocosmopolitanism that Savarese indicates as pivotal to the integration of neurominorities (Savarese and Zunshine 2014, forthcoming).
In Speed of Dark, Moon’s storytelling attempts at representing a finer-grained sense of perception is borne out by the painstakingly precise detailing of the diegetic world. In an instructive example at the beginning of the novel, sitting in the psychologist’s office, Lou vividly conjures up the olfactory atmosphere of the room in a rare example of what we could call concentrated naricularisation (cf. ocularisation and auricularisation in filmic focalisation): “Her office has a strange blend of smells, not just the paper and ink and book smell, and the carpet glue and the plastic smell of the chair frames, but something else that I keep thinking must be chocolate” (3). Later on, when he returns to work and someone calls for an order of pizza, another array of sensation is triggered: “I can suddenly smell everything in the office: the paper, the workstation, the carpet, the metal/plastic/dust/cleaning solution… myself” (8). Descriptions like these do not necessarily facilitate a sensory immersion of the reader into the story world (although it can do that), their function is leaning much more towards representing how someone with a peculiarly keen sense of smell is able to register minute olfactory traces. The onslaught of detail in everything from smells to sounds or images in Speed of Dark is a testament to the perceptual refinement enabled by a higher cortical density. For example, this description of a room that evokes the best (or at least, most memorable) of nouveau roman writing: “The floor in the hall is tile, each tile streaked with two shades of green on beige. The tiles are twelve-inch squares; the hall is five squares wide and forty-five and a half squares long. The person who laid the tiles laid them so that the streaks are crosswise to each other—each tile is laid so that the streaks are facing ninety degrees to the tile next to it. Most of the tiles are laid in one of two ways, but eight of them are laid upside down to the other tiles in the same orientation” (154). These descriptions also contribute to the heightened awareness of Lou’s material surroundings and his all-encompassing interest in patterns, which reinforce the “cognitive estrangement” that Darko Suvin regards as the hallmark of science fiction (Suvin 4). In this case, by ratcheting the degree of granularity up in Lou’s descriptions way further than NT readers are used to, Moon convinces the audience that, in a perceptual world so inundated with sensory data, it is no wonder that autists try to find ways of negotiating the mental burden that comes with so many details vying for attention.
This granularity mismatch is also a viable explanation for another feature of Lou’s thinking: his impaired ability to read emotions from other people’s faces. When looking at someone’s eye, even his own, the amount of detail Lou encounters is just strikingly richer than the neurotypical categories distinguished by law. As he puts it: “When I first went to get my state ID card, the form asked for eye color. I tried to write in all the colors in my own eyes, but the blank space wasn’t big enough. They told me to put “brown.” I put “brown,” but that is not the only color in my eyes. It is just the color that people see because they do not really look at other people’s eyes” (86). Typically, this difference in detail processing can become an obstacle to NT socialisation when judging other people’s emotional states based on their facial expressions, including that tell-tale region, the eye. Indeed, the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” is one such method for gauging a specific form of social intelligence, which is used in experiments to provide insights into the workings of autists’ and typically developing people’s emotion-reading skills (Baron-Cohen et al 2001). In the novel, facial expressions are brought very much to the fore to showcase Lou’s perception of them: “Her face is shiny. That used to bother me, when people were very happy and their faces got shiny, because angry people also get shiny faces and I could not be sure which it was. My parents tried to show me the difference, with the position of eyebrows and so on, but I finally figured out that the best way to tell was the outside corners of the eyes” (30). Owing to the author’s intentionally restricted vocabulary when putting this into Lou’s mouth, we as readers can notice that Lou picks a minor detail to differentiate between the two basic emotions, which are easily separated by NTs from their biosemiotic context; he compensates for the lack of an immediately apparent higher Gestalt. In spite of a compensatory strategy that works for one particular problem, Lou fares worse in the fluid emotional landscape of socialisation, prone to stumble at ambiguity: “The man behind her has an odd expression on his face; I can’t tell if he agrees with her or not” (90). This does not mean that he cannot recognise any emotions, rather that it is an achievement for him to piece together all the little bits to form a coherent whole: “I look at [Emmy’s] face, with the physical signs of anger all over it—the flushed skin, the bright eyes between tense lids, the square-shaped mouth, the teeth almost together” (158). Of course, Lou has his particular strengths in face-based emotion recognition, too. His social history allows him to recognise some quite complex emotional states: “His face crinkles into an expression that is supposed to convince me he believes it, but false sincerity is an expression I know from childhood. Every therapist, every teacher, every counselor has had that expression in their repertoire, the worried/ caring look” (334). Lou’s ideological situatedness in the institutional framework of disability informs his particular strengths which, narrated thus, are perhaps the softest form of indictment against the care workers who support people with autism — additionally, it shows that Lou can identify a facial expression related to the concealing of minds, false sincerity, meaning that he is far from gullible or naive. But then why does he not perceive Don as a troublemaker, as someone enmious towards him, who intends to do him substantial harm? A likely explanation is that he is more able to generalise his suspicions toward people in an unequal power relationship with him (Gene Crenshaw, the scientists involved in his neurotherapy) than toward those whom he identifies as ‘friends’ based on shared interests, like Don, which to Lou is a solid category term with little granularity, whose boundaries cannot change unless proven violently otherwise, such as when Don assaults Lou and plants an explosive device in his car.
I have already hinted at how much more this granularity mismatch is than pure cognitive difference, but in the novel, as in the real world, it is inextricably tied up with the social norms of cognition when those with ASC are marked as mentally deficient, exhibiting a form of profound intellectual disability. During a conversation with Tom, Lou himself muses about the differences in perception between autists and NTs, that Tom “is easy in his body, that he sees and hears and tastes and smells and feels what others do, so his reality matches theirs” (380) and if there is one thing Lou disprefers, it is asymmetry. His final decision to undergo neurological treatment when he is no longer pressured by the company (thanks to the deus ex machina of an employee’s whistleblowing), then, can be chalked up to how the social norms of cognition that inform the neuromajority’s standards percolate down to Lou’s judgement of self-worth.
His yearning to join the rest of the world is more than a case of eliminating a granularity mismatch; it is Lou joining a shared sensory and social experience of humankind — an understandable desire, if one that disability scholars and advocates who are suspicious about rehabilitation would disapprove of, and see it as a technique of enforcing compulsory able(-bodied)ness (McRuer in Davis 301-308), producing an “image of the disabled as beings to be rehabilitated [versus assisted]”, which “signifies that society sees itself as a single order to be maintained; it sees itself as having the duty, the mission, the task of voiding disparities into its norm” (Stiker 121). As Moon wrote it, Lou’s ultimate decision stems not from a neuroconformism towards an idealised, and-everything-will-be-fine-once-I’m-normal kind of pining for able-mindedness, but an act of agency (granted, in an individualist framework) to wrestle a bit of neuropower from those who wield it: “They do not want us stupid and helpless. They do not want to destroy our minds; they want to use them. I do not want to be used. I want to use my own mind, myself, for what I want to do” (378). This connects back to the framing device of questions that the novel opens and closes with, the torrent of questions hurled at Lou at the psychiatrist’s office in a fit of dire unknowing, an exercise of power, and the questions Lou will pose in the end: “It bothered Lou-before that the speed of dark was greater than the speed of light. Now I am glad of it, because it means I will never come to the end, chasing the light. Now I get to ask the questions” (426). Regrettably, Lou’s brain functions have to be normalised before he can come into full bloom as he turns from an autistic into an autotelic personality, a move that will surely not score extra points with disability studies scholars (why not learn more about the agenda behind the neuroscientific research and its relationship to space exploration? — there is a lot of speculation going on in “Section A” before the treatment but it is never explored in detail). Still, Lou is written to be motivated by the granularity mismatch that he experiences and by his aspirations for a life less limited by the social norms of cognition. Seen from an anti-rehabilitationist angle, it is a lamentable choice, one that does not transform a society’s attitudes towards neurominorities for the better, but it is a novelist’s choice I opt to respect.
Questions concerning the granularity of cognitive processing are fuelled by the same curiosity that electrified Victorian medical discourse about whether consciousness can be broken down to discrete units. Surveying the physiologically inflected criticism of George Lewes and Alexander Bain, Nicholas Dames argues that such units of consciousness on the felt, phenomenological level were linked to a perceptual threshold of “just noticeable differences” that physiologists eagerly wanted to quantify (Dames 178-182). The quest to find the threshold amount of information that our minds register as difference is a normative amount, and it is because of establishing this social norm of what counts as acceptable sensitivity that we can speak about a hyper- or hyposensitivity to certain classes of stimuli in autism. For example, Lou comments on his olfactory sensitivity by saying that “[n]oticing smells is not appropriate” (3) after the rich description of fragrances he gives that adds texture to an otherwise drab psychiatrist’s office.
Descriptions of faces and expressions, too, take on an ideological charge when an autist’s staring meets the medical gaze: “When she […] looks at me, her face has that look. I don’t know what most people would call it, but I call it the I AM REAL look. […] She is real, she thinks, so she know what I need and don’t need. It means she is real, […] and I am […] not completely real, even though I can feel the nubbly texture of the office chair right through my slacks” (Moon 4). In this excerpt, Dr. Fornum’s normative “I AM REAL”-ity is Lou’s expression for the superiority of an embodied representative of power/knowledge in a medical context, but I would claim that when Lou narrates the office chair’s coarse fabric, he intends to undercut this ideological inscription by that “even though”, which reveals the dynamics of narratological detail in Speed of Dark — the normative realism of broad brush strokes, the “Everyone knows this, and Everyone does that” mentality is pitted against the perceptive realism of finer, detail-oriented descriptions. If it is a normativised mind of Lou-after that triumphs in terms of character development, then stylistically speaking, the more memorable, more original narrative strategies are those of Lou-before’s perceptive realism. We can therefore note that this strong affinity between physiological novel criticism’s interest in dealing with the units of consciousness and cognitive narratology’s approach to investigate the granularity of the descriptions is not a matter of coincidence, but a result of a sustained inquiry into the social norms of cognition, albeit with different theoretical investments, and that is why I believe Dames’ term can become a travelling concept, migrating into the field of cognitive disability studies.
It would give a clearer picture of how deeply ingrained physiological themes are in the neuroethics and narratological choices of Speed of Dark if I methodically went through each of the four categories in Dames’ book, but I shall restrict myself to one more line of inquiry addressed by Victorian physiological criticism: attention. Specifically, Dames browses Thackeray’s work for instances when either rapt attention, absorption or its opposite, inattention, distraction, or even obliviousness appears in the text, establishing its relationship to Victorian attitudes toward work. In his chapter on “distraction’s negative liberty” (Dames 73-122), Dames characterises attention as a mental alertness that has productive power, used in learning and reading for edification as a heightened state of receptivity that is taxing on the cognitive faculties of those who attend to a certain class of stimuli. He recognises that “Victorian physiology […] continually stressed the limitations of attention, to such an extent that their picture of attentiveness seems far closer to our contemporary category of ADD: a […] temporally restricted capacity that [easily] becomes distraction. This scientific conceptualization of attention was often spurred on by the conditions of Victorian factory labor, where the perdurability of concentration was so evident: the longer that attention must be paid, the less effectively it will be paid. Victorian physiology’s goal here [is] the explosion of the myth […] that ‘more’ attention was always possible” (82). In this environment, Thackeray portrays idleness and fleeting attention as a source of relief, a respite of the reader from the authorial demands of the text, and describes “alertness as a state of inattention to something else” (Dames 2007, 91).
Contrast this with the world of a data analyst like Lou, who lives and breathes information; for him, attention is linked to pattern recognition. When a concern for patterns appears as a theme in the narrative text, it signals that Lou is paying full attention: “For the project I’m on now, […] Bach is perfect, the complex patterns mirroring the pattern I need. I let the place in my mind that finds and generates patterns sink into the project, and […] all I have to do is pay attention and ensure that the pattern remains symmetrical or asymmetrical or whatever the particular project calls for” (Moon 8). Lou is absorbed by his work, but often it is not so much of a drudgery as being paid to exist is a state of permanent flow. And it is not as if Lou could turn it off and relax by being distracted. His pattern-seeking mind is fully functioning in idleness, as at the restaurant where they go with Section A after work: “I am watching the beer sign blinking in the window. It comes on in three segments, red, green, then blue in the middle, and then goes off all at once. Blink, red. Blink, green, blink blue, then blink red/green/blue, all off, all on, all off, and start over. A very simple pattern, and the colors aren’t that pretty […], but still it’s a pattern to watch” (10). Here, attention manifests itself by an increased granularity of the descriptions, but it points us towards a conception of attention for the autism novel that is constantly operating on the textual level, and becomes a theme of its own.
For Lou’s mind, an unpatterned world is unpredictable, hard to conceive of, a triumph of noise over signal. During his walk in nature before the start of the treatment, the last hurrah scene of his autistic cognition, he gazes into a waterfall, watching the tiny droplets: “ I concentrate on the water, seeing its pattern, the order in chaos and chaos in order” (Moon 400). Distraction is not a negative liberty in Lou’s eyes, not a freedom from the hard, taxing labour of attention, but a default mode of operation, a frantic, heroic, constant effort of trying the make the world a more predictable, intelligible place. If inattention is a saving grace for Lou at any time, it is most useful when he is flooded with sensory stimuli or given redundant information he could get through other means. He talks at length about his perceptional experiences from his childhood, linking attention and duration as parameters of cognitive processing: “my infant nerves needed a stimulus to persist longer before it would bridge the gap. [I was] lucky that techniques were available to provide my neurons this needed duration of signal. Instead of being labeled with an ‘attention deficit’ […], I was simply given stimuli to which I could attend” (49). The use of “simply” in that passage is perhaps the element most critical of our current medical models of disability here, suggesting that instead of branding someone with a diagnosis, a more pragmatic treatment, an early intervention programme can minimise the disabling effect of cognitive differences in attention. But even Lou senses that his intense focus on inanimate patterns and normal people’s obliviousness to the order of objects has a symmetrical counterpart: “I remember things like what percentage of cars in the parking lot are blue because I pay attention to color and number more than most people. They don’t notice, so they don’t care. I wonder what they do notice when they look at a parking lot. What else is there to see besides the rows of vehicles, so many blue and so many tan and so many red? What am I missing, as they miss seeing the beautiful numeric relationships?” (277). As he finds out when he begins to read some neuroscience and becomes involved in the normalising neurosurgery that retrains his brain, it is social stimuli to which he cannot attend, the people in the parking lot, the tangled web of status and relationships we weave from interactions guided by convention that reveal much more for those with an eye for intention-driven patterns. The social norms of cognition, being social, and by definition networked, select a norm that prioritises the cognition of the majority, neurotypical socialisation skills and minded thinking, which help coordinate NTs’ affairs, allowing stronger cooperation among wider groups of people and an improved predictability of NT reactions for those who possess normate mind-reading abilities. Those who fall outside of the norm (the atypically developing population) become mysteries in turn, requiring a substantial interpretative apparatus to facilitate communication between neurotypes.
Autism novels like Speed of Dark latch onto our interpretative interest in other people, our mind hungry for representations of other human and human-like minds. The mindblindness paradigm of understanding autism that presents the condition as an “enigma” in Uta Frith’s words (2003 ) contributed much to the hermeneutical gap that is gaping between autists’ responses to their sensory and social environment, and the neurotypical assumptions derived from their interpretative horizon defined by the social norms of cognition. In this essay, I have ventured to find common ground between scientific accounts of the cognitive difference evidenced in autism and humanists’ curiosity to interpret everyone on their own terms. I have sought to demonstrate that the narrative devices used in Speed of Dark to convey a sense of autism are extensively involved in my redefined version of Dames’ concept of the social norms of cognition, a notion that describes the standards governing our understanding of human behaviour and the limits of what experiences can be politely shared between people.
The study presented here is merely the first step towards developing a more nuanced framework of analysing the narratological techniques of representing the inward and outward landscape of neuroatypical POV characters in the contemporary autism novel. The next step is to extend my interpretation of the novel by importing music and temporality from Dames’ framework, thereby creating a fleshed-out version of the social norms of cognition active in the novel and see its interaction with the central themes of the novel: knowing and unknowing. Further work is needed on identifying the relationship between autistic perception and autism novels’ figure-ground representation of the social sphere, and how the portrayal of Lou’s relationship to the distance between him and different motifs (fencing partners, space and celestial objects, his love interest) create a spatial poetics of sociability for problem characters like him. Finally, to test the implicit hypothesis that the SNC points of analysis would yield substantial explanatory power when dealing with autism novels, new literary works should be investigated with these thematic foci.
It is worth keeping in mind, though, that books like Speed of Dark only provide neurotypical people’s impression of living with autism. Although Moon and other writers research their topics meticulously and their forewords never fail to mention the amount of interviewing they did, nor to thank the autistic first readers who have supplied comments to their work, these do not make the books “authentic” case studies nor should this be taken as a criterion in our analysis of them. Autism novels are merely virtual autism autobiographies, and they cannot be substituted for real self-reported or experimental evidence about how an autist’s mind actually works. Still, the poetic devices themselves are worthy of study for the way they perpetuate or redesign our way of seeing other human beings, even more so in the case of two groups, NTs and people on the spectrum, who have had far many more misunderstandings resulting from good intentions and an inability or unwillingness to find common ground between two cognitive styles. May we always have the patience and courage to listen sympathetically and think otherwise.
The author would like to express his gratitude to the organisers of the 2013 session of the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, especially Michael Berubé’s group on “Narrative, Intellectual Disability and the Boundaries of the Human,” where most of the ideas that constitute this paper originated in discussions with fellow SCTers and suggestions for must-read books. A similarly warm thanks is due to Anna Kérchy and Réka Cristian and for their tireless efforts in reading my paper with a keen eye towards the knowledge of the audience and in ensuring that I end up writing what I mean.
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