Autism Entangled : Controversies over Disability, Sexuality, and Gender in Contemporary Culture

Atkinson, Toby and Morgan, Hannah and Singleton, Vicky and MacKenzie, Adrian (2021) Autism Entangled : Controversies over Disability, Sexuality, and Gender in Contemporary Culture. PhD thesis, Lancaster University.

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Public visibility of autistic people has increased significantly since the early 1990s. Diagnosis rates of autism have risen in Western countries, whilst cultural representations of autistic people have proliferated across various forms of media. This period has also seen the emergence of the neurodiversity movement which views autism in terms of difference rather than defects and politically organises to challenge disablist oppression. This thesis explores the ways in which autistic people have been represented as sexual and gendered subjects in the United Kingdom from the early 1990s to the present day and analyses the implications of such representations for autistic people’s lives. It considers how influential representations of autistic people, for example, pop cultural portrayals of autistic people as male geeks, have been challenged by autistic self-advocates who argue that such framings fail to recognise autistic people’s diverse experiences. Over the course of this thesis, I combine critical theoretical work from across the humanities and social sciences with empirical analysis of a selection of texts in order to develop a multifaceted account of how autistic people are represented as gendered and sexual subjects in the contemporary moment. I analyse a range of texts exploring autistic people’s experiences of gender and sexuality, with my sample including self-help books, academic publications, television shows, and autistic self-advocacy writing. Drawing upon theoretical work from neurodiversity studies, disability studies, feminist theory, and queer theory I intervene in ongoing debates and controversies surrounding representations of autistic people as gendered and sexual subjects, for example, the moral panic over the public visibility of young autistic gender variant people. I demonstrate the complex ways in which framings of autistic experience produced within scientific research inform popular media texts, as pathologising, essentialist, and infantilising medical and psychological terms are troubled and reproduced by such texts. I show how texts produced by autistic people challenge biomedical and psychological framings, offering more inclusive representations which recognise autistic people’s gender and sexual diversity. These texts highlight the role of social factors in shaping autistic people’s lives and provide platforms for the perspectives of autistic women, gender variant people, and LGBTQ people. I argue that these works can inform future academic research within the social sciences and humanities, offering more sociological and critical accounts of autistic people’s experiences, and can encourage alternative representations of autistic people in popular culture. Writing as an autistic scholar concerned with issues of disability, gender, and sexuality, the thesis synthesises existing theoretical and original empirical work in order to develop a sociological analysis of biomedical, psychological, and cultural representations which affect autistic people’s lives. In this way, the thesis contributes to the growing field of neurodiversity scholarship within academic research.

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Thesis (PhD)
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The research of this thesis was made possible by financial support from Lancaster University and the Economic and Social Research Council.
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02 Mar 2021 17:45
Last Modified:
10 Jun 2024 23:31