Melanie Yergeau’s “Authoring Autism:” Neuroqueering the Limits of Rhetoricity

In this essay, I both ponder and apply Melanie Yergeau’s theoretical frameworks concerning 1) resonances between autism and queerness and 2) the boundaries of the human created and enforced by the selective parceling out of rhetoricity. However, I also hope to use this essay as a methodological and personal practice in what it might mean to engage with disability studies in critical, generative, and generous ways.

While writing this, I am finding it difficult to position myself as an author,  authoring content about Yergeu’s book, and transitively autism, without talking about shit. If feels socially unacceptable to write about myself and my shit.

To qualify my stuckness with beginning with shit, I want to make clear that Yergeau’s book is more than an academic and theoretical inquiry into rhetoricity in relation to disability studies. Yergeau writes that she comes to this project “equal parts as a rhetorician and autistic activist” (5). Thereby, the book is also a practice of neuroqueering — a term that resists definition, but invokes the “cunning movements” of those that “perform the perversity of their neuroptypes” (26-27). In more words, the message and physical existence of Authoring Autism is a chilling indictment of the material, physical, and epistemological violences that the structures and gatekeepers of “social acceptability” exercise onto neurodivergent, disabled, and queer bodies.

So, instead of saying I am a visually oriented person who loves art, I’ll tell you that while some kids enjoyed identifying the shapes of clouds in the sky, I took even greater joy in identifying the shapes of my first poos — so much so that I made my dad take film (it was the 90s) photos of them. Where I am different from Yergeau is that my shit stories, start and stop where I want them, and as an audience, I imagine most of you are permitting me to make my poo signal and signify what I’m telling you it does — that I like art. For Yergeau, however, her poo stories belong to her mother, and once assimilated into a narrative of autism, “provide a discursive framework, a lens through which others could story [her] life” (1).

The central thrust of Yergeau’s argument is that because rhetoricians “claim that rhetoric is what makes one human” and, “autism is frequently conceived as essentialized involuntarity,” autistic people are thereby not people (8, 2). In this sense, the autistic becomes “unknowable,” relegated to a realm of the “utterly abject and isolated and tragic” (2). The book opens with what reads like a physical tackle of this idea that autistic people lack a capacity for “free will” and “intent” (32). Each following chapter, Yergeau writes, “[serves] as a queering of the chapter preceding it” (31). Chapter two, titled “Intervention,” indexes the “horrific moments of neuroqueer histories” that coalesce around Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Specifically, Yergeau underscores the incongruities between how autism in ABA discourse “resists plasticity;” yet in reality, following Catherine Malabou’s scholarship on plasticity, the autistic embodies the very movement, potentiality, and definitional-resistance that plasticity conjuries.

Chapter three, “Invitation,” brings us to consider a mechanism by which autism authors: it “incite[s] a kind of crip confessionalism, á la Foucault…a self-narrating zoo exhibit” (173). The compelled disclosure, “often culturally read as an invitation,” authorizes neurotypical peoples’ delineations of “what neuroqueerness is” (139).

Taking a sharp turn in chapter three, “Invention,” Yergeau narrates a personal “meltdown,” then “queers” her previous contentions with rhetoricity, writing, “I am caught between a desire to claim [the meltdown’s] rhetoricity and a repulsion toward according them meaning” (176). Yergeau then theorizes, alongside works by Jose Esteban Muñoz, Brenda Brueggemann, and Gloria Anzaldúa, that autism is lived in a state of “betweenity,” life marked by “indeterminacy [and]… potentiality,” and thereby, also invention (177). Ultimately, Yergeau lands on the same argument she made as a graduate student, “that autism is a rhetoric unto itself,” given rhetoric is a way of being in the world that is marked by “invention, structure, and style” (205).

Yergeau’s “autism as rhetoric” is useful for disability and queer studies because it establishes a deviant rhetoricity for these field’s primary subjects, in the forms of neuroqueerness and the betweenity of demi-rhetoricity. These concepts; however, unmistakably echo and build upon theories and experiences of minoritization outside of the realm of queer and autistic identity. Mirroring the ways in which non-autistic people legislate the boundaries of autism and humanity through relegating autistics to demi-rhetoricity, the postcolonial theorist, Dipesh Chakrabarty posited in 1992 that Indian women experienced a similar “betweenity.”

“The model of the ‘modern’ Bengali/Indian woman — educated enough to appreciate the modern regulations of the body and the state but yet ‘modest’ enough to be unselfassertive and unselfish — was tied to the debates on ‘freedom’ (Chakrabarty 14).  

Simply, the ‘modern’ Indian woman was always too modest to be a serious intellectual but also too educated to be entirely unselfish — ‘freedom’ was an always broken promise.  

Paralleling Yergeau’s concerns regarding who has the power to author autism, in 1994, scholar of English Literature and Black Feminisms, Ann duCille, wrote on the bind that Black women faced in attempts at self-representation. DuCille writes:

“We [Black women] become objects of study where we are authorized to be the story but have no special claim to decoding that story. We can be, but someone else gets to tell us what we mean” (606).

Reading through Yergeau’s construction of rhetoricity, duCille is making a claim that Black women are denied rhetoricity, yet their bodies, objectified and studied, are fundamentally important sites of meaning making. This meaning making, I venture, shares what Yergeau claims is Autism’s rhetorical function, “to contrast those who are otherwise presumed to be cognitively and thereby humanly whole” (23).

After excitedly making connective leaps and jumping to understand Yergeau as working within a tradition of theorizing processes of subjugation, I am left, still stuck on Yergeau’s words — “autism is a rhetoric unto itself” (205). Can Yergeau’s theory of neuroqueerness move beyond the lives of queer and autistic people and if it can, should it? Does Yergeau allow for “authoring autistically” to emerge as a type of “category,” something that exists between the formality of a genre and the plasticity of, what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick might term, a “nonce-taxonomy.”

I am hesitant to push these questions, particularly in a public setting; however, as I try to understand Yergeau’s text I can’t help but question my quickness to reach towards the neurotypical intellectuals and artists I am familiar with. Earlier, I used my poo to author myself as a visually oriented person, so that now I could stake authority in and cobble together a level of personal comfort from foraying into these questions through analysis of visual art.

Beginnings are important, and I am already trumped by the question of if I should choose an autistic artist or not. I think of Yergeau’s claim that ,”When authors write through and about autism, they — their very being — become subject to refutation” (172). Is the project of understanding Yergeau’s work through autistic artists an already failed one? I do not know, so I will venture to try.

I also do not know any autistic artists, so I search “list of autistic visual artists.” I click on a few links and the first turns out to be the most useful. I get a page with five names and short bios: Stephen Wiltshire, Peter Howson, Nadia Chomyn, Henriett Seth F., and Gilles Tréhin. Noticeably, there are no images of their work, so I have to do my own digging, navigating to and from the website creating a proliferation of tabs. With time, I also notice that the website I was first directed to was an ABA website — the site of my questioning is already the literal website for what I have learned, through Yergeau, to be a preeminent mechanism for violence, terror, and control over people with autism. But, I’ve already prolifered, and I like some of these artists, so I move on.

Despite my intentions, I feel that I gaze at these artist’s works with the eye of the clinician, which Yergeau describes as having an end goal “to undisclose the disclosed, to clothe the autistic in allism, or nonautism” (172). Particularly, I am struck by the similarities between Wiltshire and Tréhin’s work, immaculately detailed and sprawling cityscapes, rendered in black and white.

Stephen Wiltshire, Philadelphia Skyline, 297 x 210mm (A4)

Gilles Tréhin, La belle ville


In one way, these works align with and justify the homogenization of autistic people as singularly detail oriented, conversely lacking in the empathy and interiority department. This message gets delivered through headlines such as “The World’s Earliest Artists May Have Been Autistic, Scientists Say in a New Study,” a claim that uses the language of science and “exceptionalism” to render autism as a vestigial relic of the past, no longer productive for our “modern” conceptions of art.

To look with the eye of an art historian, these works carry the unique marks of the artist in the form of style and object. Wiltshire uses a heavier line which emphasizes depth and shadow. His cityscapes are for the most part crowded with buildings and people, and a closer look at his works shows that he selectively use color to mark a green swarth of grass or a fire flaring up from the side of a building.

Tréhin’s thin pen line more closely resembles David Hockney’s than it does Wiltshire’s, and his scenes show care for architecture and the urban planning of a space, revealing how people might circulate within it. Wiltshire’s and Tréhin are as similar as Suzanne Valadon and Lilla Cabot Perry (two women who come up when you search “list of five women artists”), in that Wiltshire and Tréhin are skilled draftsman who do cityscapes and Valadon and Perry are figurative painters who depict domestic scenes.

The answer I approach from this analysis is that “authoring austically” means that the product authorizes autism “otherwisely,” not, that the products cohere stylistically or structurally. Yergeau writes, “To author autistically is to author queerly and contrarily” (6). In other words, Wiltshire and Tréhin’s works can be read as examples of non-rhetoricity. However, the work’s actual existence, difference, and invention “fucks up” the positioning of autism as “that which contrasts with language, humanness, empathy, self-knowledge, understanding, and rhetoricity” (2). In another turn, the practice of analyzing these works lay bare the ways in which my perceptions of similarity are the manifestations of my neurotypical social investment in authoring autism as non-rhetoricity.

I also want to highlight that the works of Howson and Seth at first glance rebut a claim that autism as a rhetoric unto itself means that “authoring austically” would cohere as a consistent and contained aesthetic form. In Howson’s work, I’m drawn to his translation of collectivity, pain, action, and nationalism, but also the work’s whispers of homoeroticism. With Seth, I see a colorful abstract expressionism and cubism, where the shapes manage to reach outward towards me. Both of these works, I also read as trafficking in plasticity, in that they threaten to explode.

Peter Howson, Meshuggah, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York

Henriett Seth F.

I’ve run out of time and space and failed to answer my questions. And I am still left with a disquieting desire to work through Yeargeau’s theory with the neurotypical artist Anna Maria Maiolino. Initially, I was drawn to her work because she literally depicts shits that the press insist on calling anything other than shit. Yergeau’s shit is just shit —yet Maiolino’s is “organic parts”, “clay,” “clay forms”, “clay shapes that look like baked goods,” and politely, “excrement.” Reading Maiolino alongside Yergeau, I think of “suspect equipment,” duality, institutional violence, and authoring and narrativization that happens around shit — and by extension, the mundane abjection and involuntarily of the everyday that is humanity.

Anna Maria Maiolio, installation (installation with 2000 kg of modeling clay, vegetation and multimedia), dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany, 2012.


Yergeau, Melanie. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2018.


“5 Acclaimed Visual Artists with Autism.” Applied Behavior Analysis Edu (blog). Accessed February 7, 2019.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations: Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories 37 (Winter 1992): 1–26.

duCille, Ann. “The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies.” Sings: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 19, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 591–629.

Neuendorf, Henri. “The World’s Earliest Artists May Have Been Autistic, Scientists Say in a New Study.” artnet News, May 15, 2018.

Selfe, Lorna. “Nadia Chomyn Obituary.” The Guardian, December 9, 2015, sec. Art and design.

Nadia Chomyn