This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
English Language and Literature Assistant Professor Melanie Yergeau’s book Authoring Autism aims to turn the page on the stereotypes and assumptions people make about autistic individuals, hoping to convince readers to consider autism as an identity rather than an impairment. Yergeau is autistic, and she knows that her view challenges the historical perspective on autism. Yergeau addressed the historical view of autism and autistic people directly during a lecture in February, where she stood before a projection of a quote from American-Norwegian clinical psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas:
“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child,” Lovaas writes. “You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense . . . You have the raw materials, but you have to build a person.”
Yergeau read the quote aloud, then explained the consequences of this thinking. “Violence is a steady part of my book,” she told the crowd. “Fitting children with electroshock backpacks in the name of therapy. Spraying children in the face with vinegar in the name of therapy. Strapping children into four-point positions for days in the name of therapy. Suggesting that killing children is among the best form of therapy—most especially for families.”
The past is dark. But there is hope, Yergeau says, that as the stories and views, the perspectives and policies touching on autistic people are expanded to actually include autistic people in their creation, things can improve. “I believe in autistic futures,” she writes, “in autistic people’s cunning expertise in rhetorical landscapes that would otherwise render us inhuman.”
More Accessible, More Welcoming
Many people believe autism’s primary impairments involve social interaction and communication—conditions that are, at their base, fundamental to human experience. If autistic people cannot understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, then why would a doctor believe what an autistic patient has to say? In such a situation, Yergeau says, “I am literally unbelievable and unreliable.” There is nothing, Yergeau says, essential to the human experience that perceptions of autism don’t touch.
Yergeau’s work as a researcher and advocate is fighting to change that. Her research includes work on pedagogical diversity, online accessibility, autism studies, and disability studies, and she has also served on the boards of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network as well as that of the Autism National Committee. Her blog, autistext.com, elaborates on matters of rhetoric, autistic culture, and technology, and contains information on her academic work and her experiences as an activist, both of which Yergeau hopes will improve lives and clarify perceptions around autism.
And Yergeau’s work shapes how she approaches the classroom environment. In the classroom, she integrates a variety of multimedia into her courses, always taking students’ diverse and dynamic learning styles into account. “I routinely ask, in what ways can I create a more accessible, welcoming learning environment, one that values and encourages multiple modes and methods of expression rather than suppresses them?”
When speaking about their experiences in Yergeau’s classroom, her students have nothing but praise. “She’s a person whose name should be out there. She does so much in the community,” one student said. Another student, taking his second class with her, spoke to the education he has received and why he chose to return. “She relates autism to many different forms of disability,” he said. “She helped me realize how we silence disabled communities without even realizing it.”