Autistic Consciousness Represented: Fictional Mental Functioning of a Different Kind

in Explorations of Consciousness in Contemporary Fiction
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Novels about autism have become popular in middlebrow fiction in the early 21st century. With the rise of autism diagnoses and the end of the Decade of the Brain, a once unknown condition has gripped the minds of novelists as well. In this chapter, I analyse several “autism novels,” which explore what it is like to live with an atypically developing brain and mind. I argue that autism is a fundamental part of these works, and the depiction of mental functioning on the spectrum constitutes a unique experiment in the literary display of mind-reading, an essential skill of social cognition.

With the examination of Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark, Claire Morrall’s The Language of Others and Jodi Picoult’s House Rules, I outline how the complexity of consciousness representation creates the illusion of a disabled mind for the reader. I focus on the social interactions between characters to show that autism is constructed in the text as a cross-neurotype biosemiotic underreporting and misreporting of mental dispositions and content. I examine the meticulously and irrelevantly detailed descriptions that issue from the autistic narrators to claim that these demonstrate a different grade of cognitive granularity from those of typically developing minds. I conclude that these techniques represent a less person-oriented mindset that aligns well with Ian Bogost’s concept of “alien phenomenology,” but affirm the inalienable humanity of the autistic community.

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