The discovery of autism spectrum condition (or ‘disorder’ as it is medically deemed) is commonly accredited to Austrian psychologists Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, who both wrote seminal clinical papers about autism in the 1950s. In fact, the term was coined in the early twentieth century by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who used it to describe traits of social withdrawal seen in schizophrenic patients, and the condition was first described a decade later by Russian child psychiatrist Grunya Sukhareva. Her interest sparked by a boy she diagnosed as possessing an ‘autistic proclivity into himself’, Sukhareva closely observed six similarly distinctive children at her Moscow clinic and, in a paper published in 1925, noted in their behaviour a set of traits that map closely onto the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) definition of autism today.
Sukhareva herself termed the condition ‘autistic (pathological avoidant) psychopathy’, and like other early researchers, focuses on white boys. As the current spate of late diagnoses in women, including my own in Dec 2020, has highlighted, for various reasons autism can go unnoticed in girls and women. But though, in Britain, with the public disclosures of autistic celebrities including Chris Packham and Melanie Sykes, a watershed moment has been reached in the history of this hidden disability, many questions remain. It seems relevant to ask: first, if and how autism is a physical condition; second, how and when is autism a disability; and finally, how might people differently-bodied for reasons including sex, skin colour, gender reassignment and (other) disabilities, experience being autistic in significantly different ways?
The answers to these questions are complex, and while I cannot claim to speak definitively on any of them, or indeed for any autistic person apart from myself, they are important questions for everyone to consider. For if autism, as John Duffy and Rebecca Dorner have suggested (2011), is essentially a ‘narrative condition’, it is inextricable from the story of the human species. Over the past year, in coming to terms with my own diagnosis, I have read books by autistic authors including Joanne Limburg, Camilla Pang and Anand Prahlad, and articles on autist-run websites like NeuroClastic and Autism Collaboration. Along the way I have discovered autism, or autistic-like traits, hidden in plain view in history – in the life and work of Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf and Nina Simone; in Indian meditation practices and the European witch trials; in the behavior of characters in myth and legend and scripture. As an autistic person, I have found wise and empowering insights in modern commentary on the Biblical and Qur’anic stories of Yosef/Joseph/Yusuf, reflections that I will weave into this discussion of autism and the body politic, using the various spellings of Yusuf’s name to reflect the rich cultural legacy of this hurt, gifted dreamer and his multicoloured coat.