Autism, Culture, and Representation

I have to admit, even after reading the entire first part of Songs of the Gorilla Nation by Dawn Prince-Hughes, my favorite part was still within the first 8 pages. It was this moment, this description of how Prince-Hughes first connected with gorillas. It lasts a mere two paragraphs, yet these two paragraphs are what stood out to me the most.

This moment was the first time that she was able to feel connection that she had never felt before: love. There was a sense of comfort that arose from the situation, one that was entirely new to her. She was overcome by strong sentiments that left her more aware of the unknown.

What’s interesting to me is that this was the beginning of her connection with gorillas, a connection that helped her to cope with her autism. Yet this initial moment occurred before ‘autism’ was even a part of her. Her identity as an autistic had yet to be born, but still this moment was powerful enough to change her perspective. Although the diagnosis of autism certainly changes a person’s identity, autistic aspects can manifest themselves in people without the label.

Prince-Hughes shows how her identity was perpetually evolving. She follows her past, from before her diagnosis to after, and examines how interactions with gorillas changed her. But what is most intriguing is that these changes do not have to be as dramatic as diagnoses. They may be subtle and simple. This moment of touching a gorilla and looking into his eyes may seem like an ordinary event, but it made an impact on the author. And in doing so, it changed who she was.

The evolution of an autistic individual is not merely defined by diagnosis. Their identity changes both before and after they become ‘autistic’. I think that autism is certainly an aspect of their identities, but that it does not necessarily define who they are. I like to think of autism as something that shapes individuals, and it is these characteristics and representations that are continuously changing. The label itself is just a label, but it is the characteristics that create the variety of autistic identities.

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