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USA2007(8.37 min)

This extraordinary short film by autism rights activist, Amanda Baggs, forces its neurotypical spectators out of their comfort zone. After showing her native language in part 1--the repetitive behaviors associated with autism (flapping her hands, playing with water, rubbing her hand on a fabric, rubbing her face on the inside of a book, clicking a stapler, rubbing metal against metal, etc.), which are accompanied by her own wordless humming of a haunting tune, she finally confronts us with the “Translation” in part 2. Using her keyboard voice-box as an augmentative communication device, she tells us in a computerized voice over that she has not presented these images merely to amuse us with a voyeuristic freak show but rather to explain that this is her native language and to ask us unsettling questions. Why is it, that in order to communicate with us, we assume it is only natural for her to learn our language whereas we are unwilling to learn hers? Why do we accuse her and other autistic individuals of refusing to interact with the world, when her native language clearly enables her to interact with everything in her environment? If we are unwilling to accept these repetitive gestures as a language, perhaps we should recall the writings of Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, who claimed in The Dialogic Imagination that whenever we encounter an alien discourse, it leads to “an ideological awakening” that makes us realize our own language is “only one among other cultures and languages,” which prevents us from naturalizing our own or any other single language as “the truth.”

In the epilogue to Nobody Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl (1992), the first of the nine books that have made Australian writer Donna Williams one of the most well-known and highly respected persons with ASD in the world, she presents a list of gestures (similar to those demonstrated by Baggs) that she also considers “the more important language of `my world’.” Describing her own meanings and strategic uses of these gestures, Williams presents them, not as a provocative political stance like Baggs, but as helpful information for neurotypicals who want to understand and reach persons with autism “on their own terms.” As Stuart Murray points out in Representing Autism, “Listening to those with autism has never been a more available option, and it is one that those who are in the business of making cultural representations of the condition need to take up.” There is no better place to start than with Donna Williams’s Nobody Nowhere or Amanda Baggs' In My Language.

Marsha Kinder

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