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Narrative agency, autism and recognition in the age of neurodiversity

On May 22, Anne Stenning holds her lecture “Narrative agency, autism and recognition in the age of neurodiversity“. The lecture is part of the KU Leuven Health Humanities Lecture Series 2021-2022, which has patient agency as its overall theme.

Dr Stenning’s current project is on life writing (including autobiography, memoir and mixed media) by autistic and otherwise neurodivergent narrators. It explores how literary and visual narratives convey lived experiences of autism or communicate how it feels to live as an autistic person. This project was motivated by everyday conversations about her own autism diagnosis where she struggled to find ways to convey experiences that did not accord with neurobiological or cultural master narratives. As the project developed, she learned that many autistic people – particularly those who are multiply marginalised – describe the distress that comes from being recognised in terms of other people’s stories about gender, sexuality, race or autism. Dr Stenning has come to see this in terms of narrative agency, where many autistic individuals are deprived of the occasion to be recognised as having a story to tell.

In this talk, Dr Stenning explores these ideas in dialogue with The Secret Life of a Black Aspie, by Anand Prahlad, The Autistic Turn, by Ipek Burçak, The Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, and Letters to My Weird Sisters, by Joanne Limburg. These narrators help to explain the social conditions that determine whether we are recognised as a person. They demonstrate how culturally sanctioned ideas of selfhood, subjectivity and personhood – defined in terms of static attributes and personal independence – create a world in which autistic people are unable to appear as complex selves. However, life writing in words and images also shows the contexts in which autistic people can appear as unique selves – specifically those in which autistic personhood is unquestioned. Dr Stenning proposes that communities formed around shared interests in neurodiversity and intersectionality recognise that our lives are never ‘single issue’ stories. Unlike other concepts of agency, narrative agency recognises that we are all, autistic and otherwise, both a relational self and a discrete self, capable of creative action.

Dr Anna Stenning is a Wellcome research fellow based in the School of English at the University of Leeds (UK). Related publications include Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm (co-edited with Hanna Bertilsdotter-Rosqvist and Nick Chown); and ‘Neurodiversity studies: mapping out possibilities of a new critical paradigm’ in Disability and Society (April 2021). Dr Stenning is a co-convenor of the Interdisciplinary Autism Research Festival with Dr Damian Milton and Dr Georgia Pavlopoulou, and a cofounder of the Narratives of Neurodiversity Network.

Date and time: May 22, 2022, 4-5.30 pm CET.
Register here, you will receive the link after registration.