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Haley’s Exam: “Frankenstein” and the Autistic

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tells the story of a creature persecuted for his difference from ‘humanity’. The novel highlights the question of what is human. Must a human communicate in a ‘normal’ manner? Does a human have to experience the world in the same way as other humans? Do beings need to conform to normality to be considered human? Over the past several decades our culture has been struggling to understand how the autistic fits into society. Because many autistics do not interact or communicate in the same manner as most people, they have often been thought of and treated as non-human. However as scientific data has grown and autistic narratives have accumulated it has been shown that autistics, too, are fully human and hence capable of experiencing emotion, thought, and senses. In Frankenstein the creature is rejected from society, placed firmly in the category of ‘other’ because of his appearance and lack of ability to communicate. The reader, though, is shown some of the creature’s thoughts allowing them to learn just how human he is, despite his differences. Throughout history autistic individuals have often been treated as outcasts, in a very similar manner to the creature they have been pushed to the edges of society and dismissed as non-human beings, or even mutants.

Autistic narratives offer a view into the life of an autistic, as the creature’s description of his own life contained within the book Frankenstein allows readers to understand his perspective on the novel’s events. Through the creature’s narration the reader is better able to understand what struggles he has faced and what has led him to hate humanity with such a passion. In a similar manner, autistic narratives allow the neurotypical to understand the motivations that underlie some autistic actions, such as why they may dislike physical contact or need to self-stimulate through stemming. Author Ian Hacking says of autistic narratives, “They are creating the language in which to describe the experience of autism,” an experience that is “hitherto unknown” (Savarese and Savarese). In Shelley’s novel, the creature is given a voice that allows him to explain just how human he is, just how much emotion he feels. Unlike Frankenstein’s generally misguided understanding of the creature, he is not purely an evil being who enjoys hurting others, but instead a complex person struggling in a world that does not understand or accept him. Throughout the novel, the creature describes his sorrow and longing for human connection, recognition of his humanity. He says of watching the family that lived in the cottage attached to his hideout, “The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures” (Shelley 114). Both the creature and autistic persons are able to use their voices, whether spoken or written, to show just how human they are.

The creature and many autistics experience difficulty integrating and handling their sensory perceptions. Individuals with autism often dislike human touch or too much talking (noise), not because they dislike people, but because they struggle to handle all of this sensory information at one time. Describing his sensory experience in the beginning of his life the creature says, “A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses” (Shelley 86). The ability to feel, integrate, and describe sensations experienced in life is an important way that people relate and communicate. Imagine sitting around a dinner table and being unable to communicate the experience of eating what you were having or being overwhelmed by the collection of colors, textures, and tastes on the plate. It would be seen as odd, abnormal, and strange by most; autistics however often struggle to deal with overwhelming stimuli. Jim Sinclair, an autistic individual involved in autism self-advocacy, “emphasizes that simple, basic skills such as recognizing people or things presuppose even simpler, more basic skills such as knowing to attach meaning to visual stimuli” (Bogdashina 39). Many autistic individuals struggle to do just this, and, as it is innate to the neurotypical, the coping methods used by the autistic, such as stemming, avoiding eye contact, or shrieking when overwhelmed, seem bizarre and unnecessary. Autistic individuals often come into the world, like the creature, unable to integrate sensory stimuli leading to isolation and judgment from neurotypical individuals.

Autistics often face hostility and rejection because they do not experience the world in the way that ‘normal’ people do, as did the creature in Frankenstein. The creature feels so isolated by his differences and sickened by the treatment he receives that he says, “[I] sometimes resolved to quit the world and its miseries for ever” (Shelley 125). People with autism often struggle with depression and anxiety, in part because they feel so isolated, judged, and misunderstood. Neurodiversity advocates attempt to address this problem by supporting the idea of viewing all of humanity in a different light; seeing neural functioning as a spectrum for all, not just the disabled or autistic. Ari Ne’eman argues that there are strengths within autism, such as superior memory, pattern processing, and intelligence capabilities that should be acknowledged as co-occurring with the disabling effects of autism (Savarese and Savarese). As stated by Emily and Ralph Saverese in their piece The Superior Half of Speaking, “There are myriad ways to be present, connected, and alive; myriad ways to have relationships.”  Shelley’s representation of the creature incorporates, although unintentionally, issues that many autistic individuals struggle with and that the neurodiversity movement is working to address.

Written by Haley

December 7th, 2010 at 10:27 pm