What’s an “autistic accent”? (#264)

Aside from films about autism like Autism is a World and Come Back Jack, I rarely see any movies, in the theater or on DVD (excepting repeated snippets of Gladiator with my Latin classes and Nanook of the North with my Cultural Anthropology class). But I do read the reviews so I can say, just as my mother-in-law used to, “I haven’t seen it, I just read about it in the paper!” Charlie was asleep before 8pm tonight—he does have a cold, with coughing and congestion, and woke up with both at 3am–and I sat down to look over Friday’s paper while eating a fast dinner.
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And so I noted a brief New York Times review of the movie She’s the Man according to which

“On learning that her high school is dropping its girls’ soccer program, the sassy she-jock Viola Hastings (Amanda Bynes) penetrates the boys team by assuming the identity of her twin brother, Sebastian (James Kirk). With the help of her stylist sidekick (an uncanny dead ringer for Jude Law named Jonathan Sadowski), Viola butches up into an ambiguous creature who blabbers inappropriate dude-speak with an inscrutable accent (yokel? autistic?) and feels no pain when assaulted in the groin [my emphasis]. This befuddles Duke (Channing Tatum), her hunky, monosyllabic teammate, and will vaguely amuse everyone else.

Let me see. The reviewer, Nathan Lee, is equating a so-called “autistic accent” with these terms:

1) “yokel”–i.e., dumb, unsophisticated, uneducated
2) “inscrutable”–i.e., mysterious, unknowable
3) “inappropriate dude-speak”–i.e., using highly uncourteous language reminiscent of the “surfer dude” or other young male archetype
4) “blabber[ing]”–i.e., speaking with incomprehensible sounds like a baby
5) being an “ambiguous creature”–i.e., being uncategorizable, and not really human
6) “[butching] up”–I’ll let this one speak for itself
7) “feeling no pain”–i.e., “autistic persons don’t feel pain, either physical or emotional”

Hey Mr. Dude Reviewer, you seem to be kind of falling victim to and also perpetuating some highly offensive stereotypes about autism!


Based on the brief information offered about the movie She’s the Man, I am led to assume that Mr. Lee, the NYTimes reviewer, understands “autistic” to mean a person with a certain stilted, odd, and not exactly smart sounding way of thinking (and who is an athlete, according to another stereotype, that of the “dumb jock”).

The “autistic accent” that Mr. Lee alludes to seems about as real as the enigmatic, pseudo-Confucian sayings of the Charlie Chan character in a number of 1940s movies whose characteristic utterances included “Role of dead man require very litle acting”; “When weaving nets, all threads counted”; “If strength were all, tiger would not fear scorpion”; “Chinese people interested in all things psychic.” The actor who portrayed Chan, Warner Oland, was not Asian; contemporary Asian American writers regard Charlie Chan as a “fake ‘Asian’ pop icon” on a par with Uncle Tom, as Philippina poet Jessica Hagedorn writes in the introduction to Charlie Chain Is Dead. Charlie Chan’s “Asian accent” is not so much a poor approximation of immigrants’ speech as a collection of fortune cookie pronouncements smacking of Orientalism.

So the “autistic accent” referred to by in the NYTimes review is something like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man? Maybe Sean Penn in Sam I Am?? Or Sigourney Weaver in Snow Cake?
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The only “autistic accent” I would recognize–not that that’s the phrasing I would use–is Charlie’s idiom. There is a certain melody to his sentences, a rising and falling of emphasis, as when he told me “I want MOVE” this evening. He was searching through his photos for the one of “Bar-nee,” which seemed to be a request for my helping him find it. When I offered to look through a stack of photos, I was informed that I should scram, and–after bidding my boy “good night!”–I did. It had been a quiet yet active day for Charlie, including a brisk walk to the local hardware store, a two-hour nap, and a trip to his grandparents’ empty house. Charlie picked at a plate of rice, sure communication that he was not feeling like his usual self (and I had cancelled his verbal behavior session) and, partway through his dinner, tossed it on the floor. And cried.

As if perhaps to say, I did it I didn’t mean to it’s part of a script that you know I do…..

Jim brought the vacuum cleaner up from the basement and Charlie, most assiduously, vaccuumed up every grain of rice. “Showah, ‘jamas on!” he requested, looking me in the eye. And then, “wwlie down, I want photos. Mommy stairs.” “You want Mom to go downstairs?” “Eeyess. Down-stairs, bye bye!”

Charlie’s accent resembles Jim’s and mine’s, a thorough mix of Jersey and a bit of California with a dash of the Midwestern thrown in thanks to his first ABA therapists, most of whom hailed from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

That is, Charlie talks in an accent that reflects the sum of his experiences and for that, lovely boy, you my man.

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Comments
4 Responses to “What’s an “autistic accent”? (#264)”
  1. Bronwyn G says:

    Find the concept of an autistic idiom/accent intriguing, almost against my better judgement, which tells me that it will be further used to stigmatise.

    I would have thought it stood out as a kind of ‘foreignness’ that transcended culture, as other aspects of autistic experience do. But I see that Charlie’s voice is kind of deeply connected and tied to you.

    Maybe it’s more apparent in writing? What do you think?

  2. Eileen says:

    A very ignorant comment for this NY Times reviewer to write!

  3. Julia says:

    Ignorant, yes.

    I’m tempted to try to come up with a parody of the review indicating the reviewer’s ignorance and/or insensitivity. Maybe after lunch.

  4. SquareGirl says:

    “Autistic accent” is a term and accent I have never heard before and probably never will, as I’m quite sure it doesn’t exist…I would love however to one day hear Charlie’s accent.

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