Activity: Talk or presentation › Invited talk
For the last 17 years Neil and I have been thinking about autism. Our academic work on this topic has taken somewhat different directions but for both of us this has been a form of labour animated by love and sometimes by confronting forms of self-recognition. Strange intimacy, indeed! We have both used an anthropological lens to write about but far more importantly to live alongside our autistic son. In his 2015 book chapter, ‘Dad! You have to be … Autism, Narrative, and Family’, Neil tells the story of the intense energy with which our son engages him in narrative play or ‘pretend’. In 2019 I published a kind of companion piece about our son’s monster drawings. The point we were both trying to make, whittled down, is that autistic imagination has been underestimated and undertheorised with that prejudice compromising our understandings of autistic personhood. In an earlier article, ‘Living with disability: care rights and relational personhood’ (2013), Neil focused on the politics of cure as a site of contestation between Autistic activists, autism experts and parents. As he pointed out, these debates also have important implications for personhood and human rights. In this paper I pick up the thread of that conversation through a discussion of hand-flapping, featured in clinical and therapeutic literature as one form of motor stereotypy often seen in autistic people. Various interpretive frameworks have been used to explain hand stereotypies, including psychoanalytic, behavioral, neurological and sensory approaches. I interrogate the ethical issues posed by these different interpretations and their consequences for therapeutic modalities. The frequently stark division between a politics of autistic neurodiversity and ongoing efforts to regulate and control autistic bodies is played out in the moving image of the flapping hand, which has become a synecdoche for the discomforts, tensions and possibilities generated by competing claims about autism.