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Autism and GenderFrom Refrigerator Mothers to Computer Geeks$

Jordynn Jack

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038372

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038372.001.0001

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Rehearsing Gender

Rehearsing Gender

Autism Dads

(p.154) Chapter 4 Rehearsing Gender
Autism and Gender

Jordynn Jack

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses “autism dads” who write about their children. By analyzing memoirs written by several fathers of autistic children, it shows how fathers rehearse topoi related to fatherhood, masculinity, the family as an institution, and their professional or disciplinary identities in order to rhetorically constitute roles for themselves. In order to constitute this character, fathers must sometimes reject or revise other characters grounded in the commonplaces of hegemonic masculinity that emphasize male strength, success, and power and adopt new topoi of fatherhood. However, although fathers refigure available characterizations of fatherhood, few reject that role entirely. Whereas narratives written by mothers tend to take on a quest for recovery, narratives written by fathers tend to take on a quest for understanding—not simply of the child in question but of the father's own character and identity.

Keywords:   autism, dads, fatherhood, masculinity, autistic children

In 1957 Leon Eisenberg published a study titled “The Fathers of Autistic Children.” In the quest to single out maternal factors in autism causation, Eisenberg argued, “Father has been the forgotten man.”1 He investigated the fathers of 100 children with autism, finding a similar pattern in 85 cases: most of the fathers he identified ranked high in education and low in emotion. He illustrated this pattern with character sketches, of a surgeon, an accountant, and a would-be PhD who was a few courses shy of a degree in bacteriology. The occupation of the subject seemed relevant in all three cases but especially so in the description of Dr. R, who was “a caricature of the psychiatric stereotype of a surgeon.” Eisenberg wrote that Dr. R “dealt with infected gall bladders, diseased bowels, or tumors, with little or no curiosity about the person in whom these anatomical problems were housed.” His “day was thoroughly organized from the first surgical scrub to the last journal he might glance through while preparing for bed.” He had achieved acclaim in the professional community, but Dr. R had left no room in his tight schedule for family life, which he “kept to the unavoidable minimum inescapable at meals and bedtime.”2 Eisenberg goes on to state that Dr. R’s hobbies, such as fishing and hunting, were solitary, and that his wife was left to deal with his “contemptuous dismissal” of her problems or concerns.

Through this kind of description, Eisenberg generated a character type—fathers of autistic children—who were “obsessive, detached, and (p.155) humorless individuals” and “perfectionistic to the extreme, occupied with detailed minutiae to the exclusion of concern for over-all meanings.”3 In the 1990s, as Chapter 3 showed, male computer geeks, the denizens of Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers, were similarly portrayed as the obsessively career-oriented sires of similarly obsessive children.

In other circles, fathers of autistic children are depicted as deadbeats, failing to cooperate with their wives’ rigorous therapy, research, or diet regimens, to participate in support groups, or to accept their child’s disability. In Louder Than Words, Jenny McCarthy portrays her son’s father in this light, recounting instances when he failed to uphold Evan’s gluten-free, casein-free diet or left her alone in the hospital with her son. McCarthy also notes that “the divorce rate in families with autistic kids is very high.”4 One Huffington Post columnist, Shelley Hendrix Reynolds, writes that divorce rates in the autism community “verg[e] on 70% within the first five years of diagnosis and 90% within the first ten.” These claims, though false, tend to circulate in public discussions of autism, most often in ways that blame the divorce on the father. (Reynolds notes that her husband simply “announced that he was moving out.”)5

Such assertions have led researchers to investigate the actual patterns of divorce in families with autistic children. Some studies show a somewhat higher divorce rate among parents with an autistic child than among parents of children without disabilities; in one study, researchers found a 25.3 percent risk of divorce in the former group versus 13.8 percent in the latter.6 Yet other studies have found no difference in divorce rates between families with and without an autistic child. A study conducted by Brian H. Freedman, Luther G. Kalb, Benjamin Zablotsky, and Elizabeth A. Stuart found that 64 percent of children with an ASD were in families with two married parents, compared with 65.2 percent of children without an ASD.7

Nonetheless, the idea that autism leads to divorce persists. For example, even after these studies were released, Hannah Brown wrote on Today.com that when her son was first diagnosed with autism, her social worker told her that “80 percent of all parents of autistic children get divorced.” Though untrue, this claim seemed to resonate with Brown, who, like many of her friends with autistic children, was divorced.8

Divorced mothers often identify the differing roles assumed by mothers and fathers of autistic children as a factor in a divorce. In a column for the Huffington Post, Elaine Hall writes that, whereas her son’s autism diagnosis turned her into a “Momma Bear,” her husband (p.156) had a different response: “Some days, he tuned it all out and threw himself into his work. On other days, he went into ‘fix-it’ mode, wanting me to find the right tool—therapy, drug, doctor—to get things back to normal.” Although she admits that her marriage had problems before they adopted their son, Neal, she calls herself “the ultimate caretaker, put[ting] everyone’s needs and feelings before my own,” and her husband “extremely critical.”9 Another mother, blogging under the pseudonym “Professor” at the Web site The Thinking Mom’s Revolution, writes that her husband “was jealous of me, because I got to ‘save’ Bryce.”10 In these accounts, we see mothers taking on the mother warrior role described in Chapter 2, while fathers either withdraw or turn into “Mr. Fix-it,” both roles that conflict with that of the mother.

Whether or not divorce enters the picture, it seems that autism presents more of a conflict with the traditional father’s role than with the mother’s role. Whereas the role of the autism mother is an extension of the concept of total motherhood applied to all mothers, that of the autism father seems to require a shift away from traditional concepts of fatherhood and masculinity. Thus, fathers must reconstruct and rehearse new roles in order to come to terms with the changes in their expectations that come after an autism diagnosis.

Perhaps because of these difficulties in assuming a new role, fathers tend to be blamed (alongside the condition itself) for their failure to actively participate in their child’s care and treatment. In one About.com article, for instance, Lisa Jo Rudy offers several reasons for men’s difficulties: they have fewer companions with whom to discuss their situations, they may be disappointed that they cannot relate to their sons, especially in the ways they had expected (namely, through sports), and they might view their children’s behavior as a deliberate rejection of their authority.11 Accordingly, articles about autism and fathers on About.com tend to have titles such as “How to Get Dad More Involved with His Child with Autism” and “Helping Autism Dads Connect.” “By being less involved in the daily interaction with their children,” Rudy states, “fathers tend to have a somewhat longer period of denial about the disability and its implications. When men do express their feelings, they tend to show anger or frustration.”12 These sources paint autism dads in largely negative terms, as individuals of poor character. As a result, fathers may struggle to gain ethos in their everyday lives—to feel confident and invested as authorities about their own children.

Increasingly, though, fathers of autistic children have begun to construct a different character in order to contest these depictions and (p.157) generate authority in public discussions. For instance, in 2010 Adel Tamano offered these reflections on raising his son, Santi, in a column for the Philippine Star:

I am like most men. I had typical father-and-son dreams of teaching Santi basketball (or in my case, volleyball), having him attend my alma mater, even just sharing jokes (eventually teaching him my favorite green ones when he is old enough), and watching movies together. But all these dreams were shattered when we found out that Santi had autism. An autistic child relates very differently from a typical child. So you throw all your preconceptions and expectations out the window…. In the end, you learn patience, sacrifice, and acceptance. In short, you learn how to truly love your child; how to be a real father.13

Today, books written by fathers of autistic children are plentiful. Eschewing the character of the distant father that haunted earlier autism discourse, these men tenderly describe the connections to their children, the effects on their marriages of raising a special needs child, and ultimately the transformations those experiences create in the fathers’ own characters.

In this chapter I examine accounts written by fathers who use autobiographical writing to rehearse new, authoritative characters in their own lives and in public discourse. Kimberly Harrison argues that diaries can help writers work through identity challenges or to “rehearse and construct an effective ethos for turbulent times”;14 I argue here that such narratives take on a similar purpose, functioning as constitutive rhetoric that helps writers rehearse and construct an effective character as a father and to offer that character to readers.

In order to constitute this character, fathers must sometimes reject or revise other characters grounded in the commonplaces of hegemonic masculinity that emphasize male strength, success, and power and adopt new topoi of fatherhood. According to Carolyn R. Miller, there are three sources of common topics: “conventional expectation in rhetorical situations, knowledge and issues available in the institutions and organizations in which those situations occur, and concepts available in specific networks of knowledge (or disciplines).”15 In this chapter, I show how fathers of autistic children draw on topoi related to conventional expectations of fatherhood and masculinity, topoi available within the institution of the family, and topoi available within the networks of knowledge provided by their professions. Whereas narratives written by mothers tend to take on a quest for recovery, narratives (p.158) written by fathers tend to take on a quest for understanding—not simply of the child in question but of the father’s own character and identity.16

In the first section I examine accounts by fathers who portray themselves as characters imbued with hegemonic masculine topoi of inheritance, independence, and athletics. I then discuss accounts written by fathers who drew on topoi related to the family, such as the position of fathers as “fixers” as well as the negotiation of work and family priorities. In the third section I deal with fathers who construct their characters using topoi related to their occupations or disciplines. Finally, I consider the implications of these topoi for science and policy related to autism, especially attempts to recruit fathers to participate in treatment and therapies for their children. Examining pamphlets used to advertise early childhood treatment programs, I consider how design features (fonts, images, text, and colors) may impede attempts to get more fathers engaged in their children’s therapy because they fail to engage the interests and identities of autism fathers.

Rehearsing Hegemonic Masculinity

Fathers constitute their characters in part from topoi of hegemonic masculinity, or the web of concepts and commonplaces that circulate to form idealized images of manhood. As the gender scholars R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt argue, it embodies “the currently most honored way of being a man.”17 Connell and Messerschmidt point out that the particular qualities associated with idealized manhood may change over time. Today, in American culture, we might posit inheritance, independence, and athletics as three of the qualities that make up hegemonic masculinity.

Refiguring Inheritance

In our patriarchal society, the male line of inheritance, especially that extending from grandfathers to fathers to sons, continues to carry special meaning. This line of inheritance does not always transmit the material benefits that it does in a predominantly agricultural society or one in which only sons inherit land or property. Yet fathers still think of their sons, in particular, as inheriting symbolic and genetic materials from them: a last name, personality or appearance, athletic abilities, or special talents. In texts by autism dads, the topos of inheritance or legacy becomes a means by which men interpret the meaning of fatherhood and constitute their characters. In his book Dads and Autism, for (p.159) instance, Emerson B. Donnell III remembers that when he found out his first child would be a son, he “was overwhelmed with the notion of carrying on a legacy.”18 Similarly, Rodney Peete linked his character to that of his father, whom he describes early in the account as an exemplary figure. Peete writes: “I was trying to figure out how my dad was such a great father and take it a step or two further. That’s what each generation wants to do: build on the base that their parents created and make a better life for their own children.”19 For Peete, this vision of fatherhood failed to match up with the reality of raising his son R. J.

Likewise, the blogger Stuart Duncan writes, “A father likely sees things much more clearly [than a mother], whether it is to follow in their footsteps or to do what it is that he’s always dreamed of doing. You see, quarterbacks tend to see their child being big into sports, politicians see their child becoming president one day, scientists picture their child being even smarter than they were…. Fathers have a vision.”20 For Duncan, this vision is “ripped away” when a child receives an autism diagnosis, which, he notes, makes many men distance themselves from their families.21

All of these fathers understand themselves as producing heirs who will follow in their footsteps; this topos forms a key part of a father’s character. These fathers are not inventing the inheritance topos wholesale but instead are drawing on a commonplace in the rhetorical culture. We are exposed to legacies in popular magazines, television shows, books, and movies that feature a son growing up to be like his dad. In politics, Americans are familiar with the stories of the Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Romneys; in sports, those of the Mannings and Longs; in film, those of the Douglases and the Sutherlands. Fathers are encouraged to view their sons as vessels for their own hopes and dreams; sons are encouraged to enter into their fathers’ occupations or to take over the family business. Disabilities challenge these fathers because they challenge the images and ideas surrounding the culturally prevalent topos of a legacy. In their narratives, fathers must rehearse alternative characters that do not fully depend on the idea of legacy or reconfigure that idea to suit the realities of their lives.

Refiguring Independence

Another key element of hegemonic masculinity is independence: the normative man works a steady job to provide for his household and does not require assistance from anybody, financial or otherwise. Fathers often draw upon the topos of independence in their character (p.160) rehearsals. On his blog, Duncan writes that, while some parents of autistic children might hope their child will have savant-like skills, most, like himself, only want their child “to be able to grow up happy, to be able to finish school, have friends, get a good job, have a family of their own and all those good things that many people simply take for granted.”22 For Duncan, the idea that his son Cameron might not meet those goals constitutes the hardest part of autism—harder than the emotional and financial challenges he faces, such as selling his house and moving to a new school district so that his son can attend a good school or eating ramen noodles some weeks so that he can pay for support services. Duncan’s character as a father seems to be built on the topos of independence: success as a man depends on it. For one’s son to fail to achieve independence presents an affront to Duncan’s character, not his son’s.

In his book Breaking Autism’s Barriers, Bill Davis writes that though his hopes for a miracle cure may be improbable, he nonetheless holds out hope that his son eventually will become independent.23 While Davis dismisses concerns about sports, he hopes for a different marker of masculinity.24 Yet he insists that he will not be bothered if his son does not reach those goals: “People always say to be successful you have to live on your own, be married, and hold down a good job. Well, maybe my kid just can’t do that.”25 Thus, Davis’s writing shows a mixture of hope for independence and acknowledgment that it may not be in his son’s future—and an insistence that he would accept that. Yet one gets the sense that these kinds of statements are in part attempts at self-persuasion, rehearsals of a new fatherly character that is not heavily invested in independence as a marker of success.

Similarly, the blogger Joseph Harris admits that he initially thought he had accepted that his son had autism: “I think I felt like he was still going to be able to lead a mostly typical life. I was certain that he would eventually learn to talk and read and that he might have some trouble making friends, but he would manage to have a few, that eventually he would meet a girl and fall in love and start his own family.” An official diagnosis led him to question that assumption: “What if he can never be independent?” he asks.26 Here again, independence functions as a key concern for a father, who seems to identify independence in his son as a marker of masculinity and success.

The struggles these fathers face in thinking about their sons’ futures stem from the fact that independence and masculinity are deeply rooted (p.161) in concepts of the liberal democratic society, one based on the agency and equality of men. The feminist scholar Eva Kittay writes that this concept of society “masks the inevitable dependencies and asymmetries that form part of the human condition—those of children, the aging and the ailing—dependencies that often mark the closest human ties.”27 Perhaps because they are socialized to identify with themselves as independent individuals, men may be challenged when confronted with a loss of independence—either for themselves or for their offspring. Studies of aging men report similar fears about losing independence, as do studies of men with disabilities. In these cases, as well, men must either reaffirm it or reconfigure it using new values.28 A loss of independence, therefore, becomes an affront to the masculine character.

Refiguring Athletic Prowess

Fathers also often rely on the topos of athletics. In a sense, sports symbolize bodily independence and strength—key elements of hegemonic masculinity. The athletics topos circulates in images of a father teaching his son to play catch, coaching his hockey or baseball team, and taking his son to games. Sharing in sports seems to help men develop a father character that they can deploy in their personal lives. Fathers also seem to view sports activity as crucial for their son’s development of a masculine persona, perhaps because, as the sociologist Michael Messner explains, “the rule-bound structure of organized sports” functions as a context in which boys work to construct a masculine identity.29 By taking part in sports with their sons, fathers participate in their sons’ constructions of identity, but they also seem to view that participation as key to their own identities. For fathers of autistic sons, a lack of interest in sports can present a serious challenge both to their role as a father and to their masculine values.

In his book for fathers of autistic boys, Donnell describes his disappointment when his son, also named Emerson, failed to grasp the concept of ball play: “I tried to get him to play for months and months. I rolled, threw and spun softballs, whiffle-balls and kick-balls, but nothing interested him. What a heartbreaker.” Donnell recounts using a system of “hardcore prompting” and “creative linking” that eventually led to ball play with his son, which gave him hope that the younger Emerson might “possibly go into some sports.”30 Here, playing with balls is represented as a natural activity for fathers and sons, coded as a strong desire on the part of the father. For a man who has built up a (p.162) character based on athletic interests, it may be difficult to have a son who does not do so, who is indifferent to which team jersey to wear or which sports hero to root for.

Peete represents a particularly strong case, since his career was in athletics, perhaps the job most strongly associated with masculine identity in America. According to the legal scholar Felice M. Duffy, sports represents one of the few remaining institutions wherein male superiority is upheld without controversy. She notes that football, in particular, “provides the foundation for the ultimate old boy’s network,” or “the last place where men have an ultimate sense of physical superiority.”31 Indeed, successful athletes must cultivate traits of traditional masculinity, including physical strength and a “highly goal-oriented personality.”32 Peete’s sport, football, reigns supreme in America perhaps in part because of the clarity it provides “between the polarities of traditional male power, strength, and violence and the contemporary fears of social feminization.”33

Peete developed these qualities especially early in his life since, as he notes in Not My Boy!, his father was a college football coach. For Peete, masculinity and fatherhood are bound up in memories of his own father, who expected exceptional effort on and off the field, and, as a reward for good behavior, held out to his young son the tantalizing possibility of a visit to the football locker room. Peete went on to become a NFL quarterback, and hoped to pass along the same values to his own son. For Peete, sports build character: “Sports taught me how to work with others and how to deal with the ups and downs of friendship.”34 He believed his son R.J. would learn from team sports such essential life skills as “scheduling, timing, understanding competition, and the ability to work with other kids.”35 Like Emerson’s son, R.J. was not initially interested in ball play, and like Donnell, Peete spent considerable time coaxing R.J. into engaging with sports activities. In fact, Peete provides an entire chapter on tips for encouraging autistic children to take up sports. When R.J. joins a soccer team and, eventually, scores a tie-breaking goal in the last game of the season, Peete swells with pride: “The first thing he did after that triumph, the first person he wanted to say something to, was me.”36 His son’s success reinforces the new character Peete was rehearsing, that of the engaged father who is able to teach his son how to succeed on the playing field. The field seem to provide a literal commonplace, common ground on which fathers and sons can engage, and fathers of autistic boys seem to spend a significant amount of energy laying that groundwork for their relationships with their sons.

(p.163) Rehearsing Family Roles

In addition to the topoi of fathers’ relationships with their sons, fathers also draw on topoi related more specifically to the father’s role in the family in order to rehearse their characters. Using these commonplaces, fathers can construct characters engaged in what the communication scholars John Duckworth and Patrice Buzzanell call “father work,” or the “effort extended to display family prioritization,” a process with material and discursive aspects.37 Father work involves negotiating one’s relation to the rest of the family and to the family as an institution or social construct. Topoi related to the institution of the family include the role of the father as breadwinner and problem-solver and “family prioritization,” or putting family ahead of work. Fathers deploy them to rehearse characters of involved or engaged fathers in order to demonstrate their commitment to themselves and others.

Negotiating Fatherhood

One of the first memoirs written by an autism father is Josh Greenfeld’s three-part series of books about his son Noah. In it, Greenfeld collects journal entries he wrote about his family, beginning with Noah’s birth in 1966. The diary reveals his developing character as a father and a writer. The first entries reflect his ambivalence about fatherhood. “I am not such a good daddy,” he writes the day after Noah is born, when his older son, Karl, breaks a glass while his wife is still in the hospital: “I am not used to the full-time chore of baby-tending.”38 He writes, further, that fatherhood was never part of his life plan, which had previously included a stint in the army, an extended trip to Europe, and a period spent at an artists’ retreat in New Hampshire: “I never dreamt that I would wind up a Westchester resident. A father. A family man with two sons.”39 Yet he wrote two days later that having a second son “pleases the male vanity” and that both of his sons “fill me with kinds of love I never dreamt possible.”40 In his diary entries, Greenfeld gradually comes to terms with his position within an institution toward which he felt ambivalent. Writing in the countercultural moment of the 1960s, he seemed somewhat bewildered at the conventional character he came to adopt.

Greenfeld’s work offered one way for him to rehearse his character. In the introductory material he notes that he shaped his story “not as the professional writer I am, trained to carefully and abstractly plot ahead, but as the amateur parent I also am, thoroughly confused and (p.164) beleaguered every step of the way.”41 Here, he contrasts his shaky identity as a new parent with his more established identity as a writer. However, Greenfeld’s status as a writer must also shift to accommodate his family: as a new father Greenfeld takes a job, writing that he’s had to end his “precarious” freelance existence, since “a family makes a realist out of any man.”42 Later, in a 1967 entry, he calls himself a “father-writer.”43 In these entries, we see Greenfeld turning to the commonplace of his work to define his character, refusing to make “father” his primary identification but instead seeking to blend it with that of “writer.”

Similarly, Harris considers his father role in a post called “What Defines Me (A Discussion About Labels).” He borrows the terms “achieved status” and “ascribed status” from sociology, noting that his achieved statuses (those that result from his own choices) are “Photographer,” “Father,” “Husband,” and “Guy who likes Reggae Music.” Under “ascribed statuses,” he puts “Man,” “Caucasian,” “Guy with a red beard,” and “Father of a Child with Autism.” He also notes that most individuals have a “master status,” one that subsumes the others. After receiving his son’s diagnosis, Harris writes, “‘Father of a child with Autism’ became my master status, an ascribed one, probably because it’s the one that I felt (and still often feel) least suited to handle[;] it’s certainly the one that challenges me the most.”44 Whereas Greenfeld struggled with the role of father—almost seeing it as ascribed—Harris struggles with the ascription “of a child with Autism.” He also wonders whether, by adopting that ascribed role as his master status, he is simultaneously making his son’s primary status “Autistic.”

In these accounts, then, we see the topos of fatherhood being rehearsed and reconfigured, usually by combining it with something else (“writer,” in Greenfeld’s case, or “Father of a child with Autism,” in Harris’s). For these men, autism seems to present a provocation to think differently or more deeply about fatherhood as a role or an institution.

Negotiating Family Work

Duckworth and Buzzanell note that, in addition to the central place of negotiating employment in “family work,” fathers are increasingly expected to also be “involved parents, and nurturing caregivers.”45 Greenfeld negotiates this expectation through conflicting topoi, a kind of topical antithesis. Throughout the early diary entries, Greenfeld alternates between topoi that link fatherhood to joy and annoyance. One morning he might write, “It is always such a joy to see Karl (p.165) and Noah when they first awake, when they smile and start to chatter, happy to discover the miracle of a new day.” On another day, he might grumble that his sons can be “downright drags,” despite their cuteness, and note that his wife has much more patience with the children than he does.46

Gradually, though, Greenfeld’s entries come to shift between the topoi of acceptance and resistance. Some relate his begrudging acceptance of his role and of his prioritization of family: “I refuse to view his condition as a life-searing tragedy. We will do what we have to do. We will take care of him as best we can until we can no longer take care of him. We will have him in our home and find ways to live in joy with him. And when I cannot enjoy him as much as I would like to, I will love him even more.”47 Yet in other entries he admits to his ennui, even hatred for his son, calling Noah “my grim reality” and speculating about what it would mean to kill him.48 Greenfeld’s diary draws on these antithetical topoi to narrate his gradually developing sense of self as a father character.

Indeed, Greenfeld himself uses the metaphor of performance to conceptualize this process when he writes, “If Noah has proven debilitating to our dreams, he has also provided the material for a kind of realization of ourselves. It’s not the realization either of us anticipated or wanted, but then one cannot predetermine the scenario one is destined—or doomed—to act out.”49 Here he confirms that he viewed fatherhood as a character to act out.

Negotiating the Father-as-Fixer

While Greenfeld’s books focus on a gradual acceptance of the traditional father character, other fathers take that character for granted and must revise it, especially the culturally constructed topos of the father as the fixer in the family unit. A man who posted on About.com, Bill K., sums up this tendency well: “This is a common profile among parents with an Autistic child. Successful businessman with three decades of experience in confronting adversity and overcoming it. I was not going to let my first major failure be my first born no matter what.”50 For Bill K., autism represents a failure and an affront to his hegemonic masculine identity. In the guidebook Early Intervention and Autism, James Ball reiterates this idea. Whereas women view dealing with autism as a “collaborative process,” he notes, seeking out specialists, gathering information, and putting together a plan, dads want to fix the problem on their own: “That’s what dads do. They recognize (p.166) a problem, grab the required tools and rectify whatever is wrong. For dads, any situation that can’t be fixed is a personal reflection of inadequacy.”51 Ball alludes to the expectations that are placed on fathers within the institution of the family via culturally constructed topoi. For the fathers featured here, that of father-as-fixer had to be revised or rejected in order for the father to take on a more productive role within the family unit.

In their books, we see Peete and Burns rehearsing or constituting those roles via rhetorical characters they take on in their narratives. In his account, Peete insists that “men want to battle a crisis, to make the plan and go after the goal with everything they have.” Later he writes: “As a man, you want to be able to protect your family. You want to be able to soothe your wife. There was nothing I could say because this so-called expert had just evaluated our kid, but she’d also robbed me of all of my power.”52 Such generalizations evoke commonplaces of manhood and fatherhood; they are commonplaces in that they describe culturally available ideas about fatherhood, not necessarily actual fathers or all fathers.

Peete draws on commonplaces to characterize his actions as those of a typical husband and father. This includes his initial avoidance of his family, which he describes in the opening scene of the book: he is lounging in a leather chair at the posh Club Havana, where he used to go to escape from his wife, with whom he was “barely communicating,” and his twins, including R.J., who had been recently diagnosed with autism. “I convinced myself that the Monte 2 [cigar] and Macallan [Scotch] was Daddy time,” Peete writes, noting further that other fathers have likely faced a similar situation, “a time when you don’t know how to be the dad your family needs.”53 He writes later that he felt an “overwhelming feeling of hopelessness,” that he was a “failure as a parent” due to his inability to fix the problem, which justified his initial detachment from the family.54 This section of the text might be read as an attempt by Peete to persuade his readers (or himself) that his actions were in keeping with those of other fathers, even if they seem selfish. The topos of father-as-fixer allows Peete to shape his character in accordance with dominant ideologies of fatherhood.

The text itself functions as a sort of conversion narrative. When his wife Robin confronts him about his behavior and issues an ultimatum, Peete must decide whether to commit to his family and his son or to leave entirely. After that event, Peete describes himself as a changed (p.167) man, recounting how he had to reject some of the understandings of fatherhood on which he had constructed his character:

[A]t first I’d mourned the vision I’d had of the kind of father I would be to R.J. And I understood that I had to let go of all the images of fatherhood that I’d received from movies and television—everyone from Ward Cleaver to Cliff Huxtable. I wanted to have as loving a relationship with R.J. as I’d enjoyed with my own dad, but I had come to terms with the fact that it couldn’t be exactly the same. I couldn’t simply cut and paste my dad’s style of being a father onto me and my son.55

In other words, the topoi of traditional fatherhood had to be revised.

For Peete, the father as problem solver was replaced by family prioritization, which Duckworth and Buzzanell describe as discourses that “elevated family beyond its typically marginalized status in work-family binaries to a privileged position.”56

Instead of characterizing himself as a fixer, Peete portrays himself as an increasingly involved father who now approaches his role with the same combination of discipline, talent, and perseverance that had earned him a high-profile athletic career. He describes his increasingly active role in his son’s therapy activities, recounts how he used R.J.’s desire for routine to his advantage, and delineates his techniques for persistently engaging his son in new tasks. Making this shift required Peete to give his family’s needs priority over his own and his earlier dreams for his children:

It was only when I got myself out of that comfy leather chair and started to understand our real situation that I also understood that life had handed me an incredible opportunity. My dreams didn’t have to die. In fact, they are bigger and more powerful than anything I could have imagined before. I had to let go of a lot in order to grab on to the reality of my child and of his world. I’m saying this as a man who has been humbled by the raising of his children. And through that humility, I’ve become a better father.57

In this passage Peete completes the conversion narrative, arguing that he has changed from the selfish, unrealistic father that he described in the beginning of the book to one who prioritizes family and has learned to be active and engaged. The text rehearses this role for Peete and for other fathers.

A similar type of conversion appears in Burns’ book Saving Ben. Like Peete, Burns was highly successful in his career, although he achieved (p.168) success as a businessman selling speechwriting software, rather than a football star orchestrating goals. He had built a character for himself around his success and his ability to solve problems. When Ben was diagnosed with autism, Burns writes, “I wanted him fixed as soon as possible.” When the doctors’ efforts failed, he continues, “someone had to act, research, step into the unknown, descend into the dungeon, rescue Ben.”58 Burns describes how he spearheaded a series of intensive treatment plans. In the start of the book, then, Burns constructs himself as a problem-solver, delineating a character in keeping with commonplaces of fatherhood but one that also borrows language from the medieval romance, much as autism mothers like Clara Claiborne Park.

Like Peete, Burns had to revise his character and reject the problem-solving topos for that of family prioritization. As he devoted more time to his son, his marriage suffered and his business foundered. His character, too, shifted: “Ben had changed me,” he writes. “My ambitions had shrunk.” Rather than organizing his character around his identity as a successful businessman and problem solver, he came to reconfigure his identity as a father, recognizing that the sacrifices he made may have limited his career options, but that “there are many kinds of riches, and Ben touched me in a place that cannot be untouched.” Here again we see a discourse of family prioritization: Burns argues (to his readers and himself) that his choice to forgo a more lucrative career has been worth it.59

For some fathers, then, autism offers a way to reconfigure the father role, often leading to emotional and personal growth. A blogger called Lou writes that raising his son Diego “has completely destroyed the wall I had built around my feelings. I now allow myself to experience as well as show others a full range of emotions and I have moved past the notion that I should show indifference or stoicism.”60 Harris states, “Autism has forced me to be a better father, a better person, it has brought some amazing people into my life, it’s given me a new way to define myself.”61 For Lou and Harris, constructing a father character involved revising topoi connected to the role of the father within the family, often by performing rhetorical family work. Negotiating the role of father involved coming to terms with alternative identities, as in Greenfeld’s case, or rejecting the role of problem solver (for Peete and Burns) and embracing a commonplace of family prioritization. In addition, all of the writers considered in this section drew on their professional identities as topoi in their character development. Other writers take this a step further.

(p.169) Refiguring Professional Identity

Given the strong link between identity and career success, fathers often apply not only the drive and dedication they apply to their careers, but often the insights of their occupations, in their encounters with autism. In such narratives, they not only construct their characters using the commonplaces of their professions but also use them to understand autism itself.

For instance, MateiCalinescu, a literary critic, writes about his son’s “interesting type of memory” in a diary entry excerpted in his book Matthew’s Enigma. He notices that Matthew tends to consider the same animal or object to be different when seen from a different angle. Thus, a cat stalking back and forth might lead Matthew to announce “‘Another cat!’ ‘Another cat!’” For Calinescu, this episode evokes Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Funes, el memorioso,” which “could be seen as a detailed analysis (with that strangely rigorous logic of Borges) of infantile perception, so sensitive to issues of identity that any change in space through movement appears as a change of identity.”62 When he notices that Matthew has learned the negative function of language (no) earlier than the positive, Calinescu writes that he feels “tempted to write an essay on the primordial character of ‘No.’” He notes that Matthew prefers to repeat his father’s entire question rather than saying yes; notably, this might be interpreted as an early sign of autism, echolalia, but through Calinescu’s lens as a postmodern literary critic, it instead becomes a philosophical question, wherein yes appears “as a concession, an acceptance, an act of submission.” Later, regarding Matthew’s unusual language, he ponders whether “the strange language or languages he invents may have something to do with that ‘private language’ which Wittgenstein considered an impossibility, given the hypothesis that any language is a channel of communication.”63 In all of these examples, Calinescu is applying his occupational topoi of language and literary theory to autism.

Calinescu recounts how he sought understanding through reading—beginning with the most recent literature, he worked backwards to Kanner’s 1943 article. “Pushed by the demon of inquisitiveness,” he read journal articles, memoirs by Clara Claiborne Park and Donna Williams, even Bettelheim’s work, despite the warnings he received from his son’s psychiatrist of its harmfulness.64 He seeks clues in his son’s language and behavior. He observes, for instance, that his son’s speech was limited to the most frequent elements of daily life, which did not (p.170) require the “apparently simple, but in reality highly complex and subtle expressive-affective grammar” of affection, gesture, or gaze.65 By making these observations, Calinescu reports, he was learning how daily life, despite its apparent simplicity, was actually tremendously complicated. Despite this continued observation and research, though, he finds that his son remains a puzzle to him. In one instance, when Matthew suddenly seems to enter a regressive phase, he writes: “I have racked my mind searching in vain for a more or less plausible cause. I assembled the most circuitous, subtle, speculative-analogic, or far-fetched hypotheses, only to shoot them down as soon as I subjected them to critical attention.”66 In the end, he finds his attempts at interpretation fruitless. The frustration he feels as a result of this failure is palpable—as a literary critic, interpretation is his main mode of understanding; he can unravel the symbolic intricacies of meaning in literary texts, but he cannot easily apply the same hermeneutic practice to his son’s behavior. Calinescu’s work seems to fail him in his efforts to understand his son.

Roy Richard Grinker similarly draws on commonplaces of his discipline, in this case, anthropology. On the second page of his book, Grinker announces that he is “interested in the intersection between culture and illness—that is, how culture affects the way we define and classify illnesses.”67 He naturally turns to a cross-cultural approach, doing ethnographic research in India, South Africa, and South Korea and seeking a greater understanding of autism as both biological in origin and culturally inflected, comprising a group of symptoms that takes on significance in particular times and places.

With regard to his daughter Isabel, Grinker writes as someone who has already reached a point of understanding, rather than someone seeking it: “As time goes by I’m getting more comfortable with Isabel’s disorder, more grateful for who she is and less mournful of the person she might have been without autism.”68 He describes Isabel’s diagnosis and education from the standpoint of someone sharing his experience with readers, but not as someone searching for truth or meaning about autism. The truths he offers stem from his experiences coupled with those of other parents he has met around the world, who have turned “the hardship of raising a child with a disability into something positive, even if it means their futures are different from what they expected, or from what their families and cultures wanted.”69 Learning about other families who have autistic children seems to have helped Grinker gain this perspective. While the ostensible exigence for his book is the widespread discourse of crisis and epidemic that characterizes contemporary (p.171) understandings of autism, the volume nevertheless serves as a narrative of how anthropological insights helped Grinker understand his daughter and come to terms with autism. “Isabel has challenged my assumptions about the world I thought I knew,” he writes. “Through her unique personality, she’s challenged my assumptions about the most elemental aspects of social life.”70 Grinker writes his book from the perspective of a father who has completed his journey of understanding, who has developed a character as a father that accepts his daughter and her condition.

Whereas Grinker seeks out insights in other cultures and settings in the present, Paul Collins approaches autism through a historical and cultural study. His Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism follows along the lines of his other books. An English professor and creative writer, Collins has written several books that profile historical figures, such as Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World (2002), The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (2009), and The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World (2010), all of which detail the author’s quest to find out more about these unique historical figures and their legacies.

Given this professional interest, it is not surprising that Collins takes a similar approach in his book about his son Morgan, using historical accounts of so-called feral children as a lens through which to consider his son. The first chapter begins with a character sketch of Morgan, told through a scene in which Collins and his wife take Morgan to see a doctor, who suggests for the first time that the boy may have developmental delays. Although he could read well and count to twenty at the age of two, Morgan’s doctor noted that he seemed uninterested in people or in conversing with them.71 Collins juxtaposes this scene with a sketch of “Peter the Wild Boy,” an eighteenth-century feral boy found living in the woods in Hannover. Contemplating his notes about Peter, a subject Collins had been researching for years, led him to wonder, for the first time, whether something was wrong with Morgan.72 Collins first relates that Peter seemed “singularly unimpressed with the prospect of fitting into human society” when he was brought before King George and presented with an opulent supper; Peter rejected the “bread and savories, eating only the nuts and beans that he could identify from the forest.”73 This scene is contrasted with Morgan’s first visit to a therapist, when he refuses to respond to the therapist’s attempt to engage him with colorful blocks.74 Similarly, Collins aligns Peter’s baptism in the court of the king—“the first step toward civilization”—with a scene describing his own attempts to get his son to take a shower.75

(p.172) Collins recounts a series of these scenes before revealing the reason why they were important: “I never knew why I had wanted to write about Peter the Wild Boy. I’d become interested a little before Morgan turned two…. [L]ong before going to the doctor, before the diagnosis, before we ever imagined anything—I had been chasing a silent boy through the even greater silence of centuries, when my own boy was in front of me all along…. Something drew me to Peter, something so obvious now.”76 Peter, he learns, is now considered an early case of autism. Thus, the character study of Peter leads to insights for Collins, who seems to use them to better understand his son.

Creative nonfiction often focuses on unusual people or events, so it is not surprising that Collins draws on those topoi, using his character sketches to ask “What does it mean to be a person? To be human?”77 Along similar lines, popular journalism tends to use provocative questions or issues, especially in reporting on science and medicine. In his book, the journalist and producer for BBC Radio Michael Blastland investigates his son’s cognition and understanding in the context of a common topic of popular journalism: what it means to be human. His claim is simple: “Until you know Joe’s unusual life, you won’t fully understand your own.” Blastland notes that his son “is a child possibly lacking almost all the philosopher’s traditional definitions of what it is to be human,” including criteria such as self-awareness, technological sophistication, symbolic language, and advanced reasoning ability.78

As a journalist trained to tease out human interest stories (and sell newspapers), he takes these musings quite far, since casting Joe as something of an alien or outsider offers a more transfixing narrative. His book employs this explanatory framework for his narrative, which centers around Joe’s daily life and his reaction to transitions such as moving to a residential home, a step the Blastlands took when Joe was nine. Blast-land describes Joe’s reaction to this life change as “surprisingly patient bewilderment” despite the “despotic state of affairs,” a reaction that leads him to question how “the rest of us make sense of the human activity raging about us.”79 Throughout, Joe offers a sort of litmus test against which Blastland measures supposedly universal human qualities or attributes; it is against the background of Joe’s condition that these human traits can be identified. The upside is that Joe, according to his father, helps us appreciate “the richness of our own consciousness”—despite his brief nods to Joe’s unique abilities, such as his visual acuity (for instance, being able to pick out a specific video or type of yogurt in a store).80 It is easy to imagine this book as the kind of documentary or extended (p.173) news feature about disabled people that populates the Discovery Channel, the BBC, or 60 Minutes—human interest stories that often end up sensationalizing differences or turning into a twenty-first-century freak show. Unfortunately, Blastland’s book seems to stretch the investigation so far that Joe becomes dehumanized. Autism is portrayed as a condition that renders humans into aliens or automatons, thereby denying the humanity of Joe and other autistic people.

Of course, some mothers also use topoi related to their professional expertise in their memoirs. For instance, Majia Nadesan, a communications scholar and professor at Arizona State University, draws on theories of social construction and cultural studies in Constructing Autism: Unravelling the “Truth” and Understanding the Social (2005). The book’s introduction seems as if it could be the start of a mother warrior narrative. Nadesan describes how, “within a span of three months, my son’s ‘condition’ was explained in terms of my mothering—my ‘over-education’ and excessive ministrations” and how she plunged into scientific and medical literature in attempts to understand his autism diagnosis.81 Rather than viewing those texts through a scientific lens, though, Nadesan brought her training to bear on them, writing: “It became increasingly clear to me that autism, or more specifically, the idea of autism is fundamentally socially constructed.82 In this way the book departs from mother warrior narratives. Instead of describing her own approaches to raising her son, she traces developments in child psychiatry, statistics, epidemiology, and personality that contributed to the very visibility of autism, its construction and performance.

Similarly, Cheri L. Florance brings her professional expertise to bear on her understanding of her son Whitney in A Boy Beyond Reach (2004). As a brain scientist and speech pathologist, Florance viewed her son’s condition primarily through the lens of speech pathology and neurological processing. Refusing an autism diagnosis, she instead theorized that Whitney had a highly visual mind coupled with difficulties processing language. By fixing the language problems, she thought, she could also alleviate the other symptoms associated with autism, namely, social withdrawal and stereotypic behavior. The narrative traces out the implications of this theory in chronological terms, recounting the techniques she developed to work with Whitney and his progress over the course of his elementary school years. In this way, Florance’s narrative mixes the quest for recovery, most common in mother’s accounts, with the quest for understanding, most common in father’s accounts: she is seeking to understand Whitney’s difficulties and to remediate them.

(p.174) For all of these parents, professional or disciplinary topoi serve inventive purposes, both for character formation and for understanding autism itself. It is clear, then, that fathers do not invent their characters with regard to their children, their families, or autism from whole cloth. Instead, they rely on available commonplaces. These may include inheritance, athletics, and independence; work life, family prioritization, or problem-solving; or professional and disciplinary identity and knowledge. The next section considers how they might prove useful for those seeking to involve fathers in autism therapies and care.

Rehearsing Fatherhood in Science and Policy

If we take their autobiographical accounts as representative, we might conclude that fathers of newly diagnosed children often struggle with their roles and may find it difficult to feel actively involved in their child’s growth and development. Part of the reason for this difficulty may be that autism programs for parents draw on a different set of topoi than those that fathers embrace. For instance, Peete comments that the “special education world is run mostly by women, and a woman’s touch is clear in many of the ways the institutions and interactions are organized. Some dads can feel uncomfortable trying to wedge their way into that scene.” The way these programs are presented has important consequences, Peete notes, since men lose out in a big way by failing to get involved with their children’s education: “They lose their position in the world, the love of their child, and a unique chance to make a difference in the lives of the people that matter to them.”83 Similarly, in her dissertation, autism researcher Jamie Winter notes that fathers’ needs have not traditionally been considered in studies of early intervention treatments, perhaps because mothers are assumed to be the main participants. For instance, services may be offered during the standard nine-to-five workday (which excludes fathers and mothers who work during those hours) or they may not include the kinds of play activities fathers enjoy with their children. Winter designed a “father-focused” program for early intervention, which included flexible time arrangements and a recreational component to increase fathers’ motivation.84 Her study found that fathers were more likely to sign up for a father-focused program (as opposed to a standard package), that they were less likely to miss or cancel appointments, and that they reported higher satisfaction with the skills they learned. She cautions (p.175) that autism programs for children may inadvertently discourage fathers from participating, or, at best, fail to engage them.85

Winter’s research indicates that the design and presentation of autism interventions for children involves rhetorical considerations. Choices about what to call a program, how to describe it to parents, and what that program includes all affect whether fathers or mothers may be persuaded to participate. These questions led me to consider whether the materials distributed by intervention services inadvertently dissuade fathers from participating by drawing on topoi that appeal less to fathers than to mothers. I examined twenty brochures from autism agencies that I located by searching for “early intervention autism” and “brochure” on Google. My search yielded brochures from agencies such as Colorado Early Intervention and the National Autism Association.

In order to analyze them, I use the findings from Gloria Moss’s Gender, Design, and Marketing, which highlights some of the gender-specific visual topoi of men’s and women’s design preferences. According to Moss, men prefer straight lines and shapes, fewer or darker colors, regular typography, and images of men. We might consider these elements to be visual topoi of masculinity. In contrast, women prefer rounded lines and shapes, more or brighter colors, irregular typography, and images of women.86 We might consider these visual topoi of femininity. Of course, it is important to note that these understandings are rhetorically and culturally constructed. That is, there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about any of these features, nor are men and women necessarily innately drawn to those features. Instead, we should view those features as recurrent elements that invoke a specific kind of audience. For instance, the same basic shaving cream formulation might be sold in a pink can featuring swirls of pastel colors for women, while the men’s version might be sold in a simpler can in a dark color. Based on these tendencies, I coded each brochure for the following features: lines and shapes, colors, typography, and images.

Moss argues that men tend to prefer straight lines and angular shapes to rounded ones. Of the brochures I examined, 60 percent included rounded designs—borders, circles, and spirals embedded in backgrounds or used as callouts, or rounded logos (such as puzzle pieces or ribbons). For instance, the Early Intervention Center in Southfield, Michigan, features navy blue and yellow circles to highlight headings and key information.

(p.176) Second, since Moss indicates that men tend to be drawn to fewer and darker hues, I coded for bright or primary colors (red, yellow, blue, green, purple, orange), pastels or “baby” hues, dark colors, and neutrals (black, brown, gray, white). In the brochures I examined, bright and pastel colors were common design features. Bright colors were used in 80 percent of the designs, and pastel colors were used in 60 percent. On average, brochures included five colors, excluding black and white. Surely, designers have plenty of reason to feature colorful design elements—the brochures have to do with children, and unisex designs for children often use either primary or pastel multicolor designs. Yet if the intended audience is adults, these design choices make less sense—especially if fathers are included in the target demographic. The designs might hail children, not adults, and especially not men.

Moss finds that men tend to prefer standard fonts to “irregular” ones. I took “irregular fonts” to mean script, cursive, or decorative fonts such as Comic Sans and Papyrus. I did not count italicized fonts if they seemed otherwise to be standard serif or sans serif fonts (such as Arial or Times New Roman). In terms of typography, 25 percent of the brochures featured script or decorative fonts. For instance, the brochure for the Saratoga County Council on Autism early intervention services features the word “Promise” or the phrase “Our Promise” five times, in a cursive font on a red background, as shown in figure 4.1.

In examining the images, I focused on photographs of people. My study yielded 129 images of people, in total. Of those, 97 were pictures of children of both genders, including babies, toddlers, and older children. Of the 32 adults shown, 9 were male and 23 were female. Thus, women represented 71 percent of the adults pictured, and men accounted for 29 percent. In most cases, the adults are implicitly figured as parents: they are shown kissing a child’s cheek, looking down adoringly at a swaddled baby, or posing as in a family portrait (smiling into the camera). Women were also sometimes pictured as early intervention agents or therapists—in these cases, they are posed next to a child and focused on an activity in settings that evoke a classroom context. No men are depicted as therapists in the sample I examined.

These averages do not take into account the fact that twenty-one of the images of adults (seven men and nineteen women in various combinations) appeared in three brochures by a single agency, Early Intervention Colorado. These brochures are notable because they picture various combinations of adults with children—sometimes one parent with a child, sometimes both parents with a child, and, in one (p.177)

Rehearsing GenderAutism Dads

Figure 4.1. Brochure of the Saratoga County Council on Autism for early intervention featuring cursive fonts.

From Saratoga County Council on Autism. Reprinted with permission.

instance, a father with two children. The people shown also represent different races, including people who appear to be African American, Caucasian, Latino or Latina, and Asian American. Only one other brochure featured an image of a male adult.

If, as Moss contends, men prefer designs with photographs of other men, the remaining brochures might subtly discourage men from reading them or participating in the programs they describe. The choice of images to include may also cue men as to the type of program and who is imagined to participate. In short, these designs draw on topoi of femininity and childhood that do not square with the characters that fathers of autistic children may be constructing for themselves.

Although Moss does not discuss men’s and women’s reactions to pictures of children, other research suggests that such images may be more appealing to women. In 1949, Konrad Lorenz identified the features of kindenschema, or cuteness, which included the following:

  1. 1. A large head in proportion to the body

  2. 2. A large, protruding forehead in comparison to the rest of the face

  3. (p.178) 3. Large eyes positioned below the middle line of the head

  4. 4. Short, stumpy limbs; pudgy feet and hands

  5. 5. A plump, rounded body shape

  6. 6. Soft, elastic body surfaces

  7. 7. Round, chubby cheeks

  8. 8. Clumsiness87

Using these qualities, researchers in the past twenty years have employed computer images of babies to judge men’s and women’s responses to cuteness. For instance, Janek Lobmaier et al. found that females were better than males at choosing the cuter baby picture when given a choice of two photographs that had been digitally manipulated to demonstrate a specified level of cuteness.88 In a similar study, Reiner Sprengelmeyer et al. found that younger women outperformed women nearing or past the average age of menopause in a similar task.89 Those who conducted these studies hypothesized that there may be a biological impulse (via hormonal influences) for women, especially young women, to be more adept at judging cuteness in infants. Note that these researchers did not ask whether individuals were drawn to the images in question, nor did they ask what feelings the images evoked. Instead, they used a more easily objectified measure, accuracy—much in the same way that Baron-Cohen employs judgments of empathic accuracy to measure empathy. Thus, these results do not necessarily explain why women would be more drawn to images of babies.

Women are not simply biologically predisposed to find babies and children cute; they are culturally conditioned to do so. Indeed, separating the two seems nearly impossible, given that females are inundated with baby dolls, encouraged to enjoy babies and children, and probably exposed to more images of children in magazines, advertising, and other media than are men. Indeed, Lorenz emphasized that the “cute response” was in part learned and could be mediated by cultural codes. Likewise, it is possible that some individuals have been conditioned to inhibit the cute response—surely, oohing and aahing over a cute baby is not generally considered a paradigmatically “masculine” activity.

When analyzed holistically, many of the brochures featured elements that can only be called juvenile, if not babyish. Take, for example, Early Intervention Colorado’s Guide I: Referral and Eligibility for Colorado Early Intervention Services. The guide features three bright colors (blue, purple, and orange) and four pastels (pale green, lavender, peach, and pale blue). Many of the pages include pastel cartoon images of baby (p.179) bottles, blocks, teddy bears, rattles, and pacifiers—topoi of babyhood. These design elements index the target “audience” for early intervention (children under two years old) but not necessarily the audience for the brochure: parents of those children. Similarly, men might be put off by the colorful puzzle pieces and linked, paperdoll-like icon of children in the brochure from the Saratoga County Council on Autism (see figure 4.1), as well as the irregular fonts.

How might designers of these brochures effectively target men, given these considerations? Moss would encourage designers to include some of the topoi of masculine design: pictures of men, fewer and darker colors, and linear designs. Following the advice of marketers who have considered the issue, they might also consider ways to ascribe gender to the product in question (in this example, early intervention services), perhaps by appealing to fundamental stereotypes about men. In her advice to marketers seeking to “gender” a product or brand, Pamela Alreck warns that crossing gender norms can be done only if “everything else about the person … epitomize[s] the role of someone of that sex.” She uses the example of an aftershave lotion ad featuring a man and a naked baby taking a bath. This type of image could be effective, she claims, but only if the man depicted is especially masculine, such that the connotation would be that “he is so completely secure in his manhood that he can afford to show his love and tenderness for the child.”90 One can imagine, then, depicting stereotypically strong, masculine men with babies and children. Another possibility would be to depict fathers engaging in activities with their children, especially recreational activities such as sports or video games, rather than snuggling a baby, since fathers’ autobiographical accounts suggest that they see those kinds of activities as especially important for their roles as fathers. Images of fathers and children engaged in sports or other male-coded activities might balance the more nurturing images often included of parents holding, cuddling with, or gazing into the faces of babies. Darker, simpler color schemes might likewise balance feminized or childish design features. Admittedly, these choices risk reifying hegemonic masculinity. Not all fathers necessarily prefer these kinds of design features, and using them might reinforce the idea that fathers are only interested in helping their children in the context of sports. Nonetheless, including more images of fathers (or male therapists) working with children, less babyish colors and designs, and more appealing descriptions of activities could help to involve more fathers in their child’s care.

(p.180) In terms of content, such an approach might involve addressing fathers’ feelings and doubts and emphasizing the emotional gains that can come from learning to interact with their autistic children. The brochures I examined tended to speak from the authority position of the sponsoring organization, not from the position of participants (children or parents). Testimony from engaged fathers might help market early intervention programs as rewarding, especially if fathers share the frustrations and disappointments described by Donnell, Peete, and others from my analysis above. These testimonies might draw on the commonplaces of fatherhood I have identified in this chapter, and perhaps explain when and why they might need revising, such as the father-as-problem-solver topos that seems to frustrate many fathers.

More broadly, aside from the research conducted by Winter and a few others, little scholarship addresses ways in which fathers can play an active role in autism programs. This gap opens up possibilities for cooperative research with rhetoric and communication specialists, who might help autism researchers study how best to engage fathers. In addition to brochure design, the design of intervention programs themselves becomes rhetorical. As Winter argues, the assumptions underlying such programs may subtly persuade mothers and fathers to participate or not to participate. These include considerations of timing, location, and the kinds of activities used in the program, as well as how those programs are presented to parents. By labeling her program “father-focused,” Winter may have primed fathers to respond favorably. A program called “Mommy and Me,” in contrast, might discourage fathers, who would not be invoked as a target audience and would need to cross a gender boundary in order to participate.

Admittedly, there’s an assumed heterosexual relationship underlying most of the preceding analysis. Aside from Burns, I encountered few narratives from homosexual fathers and none from fathers raising an autistic child with a male partner. This omission in the available research is striking in part because accounts written by autistic people often include alternative gender identifications and sexual preferences. Chapter 5 considers how autistic people understand gender, identity, and sexuality, often in ways that challenge contemporary gender theory.


(2.) Ibid., 717.

(3.) Ibid., 721. Notably, Eisenberg declares that this perfectionism actually works against the occupational success of the scientists in the group, none of whom he ranked as “a major contributor to his field” (721). This point seems to contradict the now widespread assumption that many scientists and engineers from Albert Einstein to Alan Turing to Bill Gates, can be diagnosed as autistic, given descriptions of their extreme focus and general social ineptitude.

(16.) This is not to say that fathers do not take part in the vaccine movement described in Chapter 2. Indeed, some fathers, including Mark Blaxill and J. P. Handley, have been very active in that movement. Notably, though, these fathers have written books that take on the vaccine issue from an argumentative standpoint and not an autobiographical one. For instance, Blaxill’s book, The Age of Autism (New York: MacMillan, 2010), written with Dan Olmsted, takes a historical approach, tracing previous illnesses caused by mercury and connecting them with the authors’ hypothesis that autism derives from mercury poisoning.

(24.) Ibid., 379.

(25.) Ibid., 394.

(32.) Ibid., 323.

(33.) Ibid., 319.

(35.) Ibid., 176.

(36.) Ibid., 188.

(39.) Ibid., 10.

(40.) Ibid., 10–11.

(41.) Ibid., 6.

(42.) Ibid., 11.

(43.) Ibid., 21.

(46.) Ibid., 26, 22, 32.

(47.) Ibid., 60.

(49.) Ibid., 302.

(53.) Ibid., 2–3.

(54.) Ibid., 33.

(55.) Ibid., 50.

(59.) Ibid., 101, 153.

(63.) Ibid., 5, 18.

(64.) Ibid., 31.

(65.) Ibid., 35.

(66.) Ibid., 61, 57.

(68.) Ibid., 34.

(69.) Ibid., 198.

(70.) Ibid., 284.

(72.) Ibid., 10.

(73.) Ibid., 16.

(74.) Ibid., 17–18.

(p.249) (75.) Ibid., 23.

(76.) Ibid., 58.

(77.) Ibid., 34.

(79.) Ibid., 86.

(80.) Ibid., 194.

(82.) Ibid., 2, emphasis in original.

(85.) Ibid., 82–84.