Leo Kanner, an American psychologist, was one of the first practitioners to differentiate what we know today as “autism” from the field of childhood psychosis. Assessing a variety of characteristics in the behaviour of his autistic patients, he went on to identify two main behavioural categories – aloneness, and sameness. Aloneness is characterised by Kanner as the autistic child’s non-communicability, avoidance of eye contact, and general disinterest in others. Kanner reports that autistic children often spend the day in solitude, ignoring and excluding anything situated outside their closed-off inner world. Sameness is defined by Kanner as the autistic child’s anxious and obsessive preference for order and repetition. Kanner reports that any change in routine can lead the autistics to experience a surge of unbearable anxiety. Thus, in the aim of warding off this anxiety, the autistic child meticulously keeps the world in the same state, situating things in the same place, and in the same order they were discovered in the first place.
In today’s clinic of autism these two diagnostic categories have dissipated into what is defined as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This “spectrum” is demarcated by two diagnostic categories, that of the low functioning and the high functioning autistic. These categories are determined in accordance to a list of behavioural and sensory criteria, accumulating into a person’s exact designation on the spectrum. Be that as it may, the Lacanian clinic of autism refuses to adopt this quantitive approach and offers a variety of qualitatively distinct diagnostic criteria for autism. Taking into account the subject’s relation to language, and accordingly, the way in which the subject utilises language in the mediation and treatment of jouissance.
Jouissance, which could be translated to English as “enjoyment” (yet it shouldn’t), is a well established Lacanian notion, complexifying Freud’s account of the libido, and his economic model in general. For the sake of our discussion today we will just view it as an excess of excitation which is rooted in the subject’s body and mediated by language. Because one of the most basic Lacanian characterisations of autistic subjectivity is a limited access to language, in the Lacanian clinic we say that autistics have a hard time regulating their jouissance. Without access to the signifier, jouissance runs wild, it has no limit, no border; invading the body from the outside, and tormenting the subject with unbearable bursts of excitation. Two strategies autistic subjects employ in order to protect themselves from such invasions of jouissance can be associated with Kanner’s account of aloneness and sameness. First, through their radical division from the outside world (aloneness), and their encapsulation in what Margaret Mahler had defined as the “autistic shell”, autistics protect themselves from the anxiety accompanying their unbridled jouissance. Autistics solely disposed to aloneness are usually diagnosed by clinicians as low functioning autistics, as they barely behave in ways which can be defined by psychologists as “adaptive”. Sameness, on the other hand, can be better discerned in the autistic use of language. Through their use of different signs they pickup from their environment – usually signs entailing a specific and constant patterns – autistics signify their world, providing it with a sense of predictability and order.
Lacan explicitly argues that autistics are “rather verbose”. That is, they are subjects of language. But, lacking access to the domain of the signifier, they are strictly disposed to the logic of sign. Now, the difference between a “sign language” and a language composed of signifiers is accounted for by Lacan, but yet again will not be deliberated today. We can simply say that there’s a big difference between the two. A difference which effects the nature and composition of the language used by autistic subjects, but more than anything, has a big effect on the capacity of language to mediate jouissance. While the signifier “quantifies” jouissance – it gives it meaning, which can be conveyed in words, and transmitted between subjects – the sign does not quantify jouissance, but can only “frame” it. Thus, we see how a language composed of signs can keep jouissance at bay, providing some solace for the autistic child, but cannot attribute transmittable meaning to his or her jouissance. In this sense, Jean-Claude Maleval argues that in autism there is an essential split between jouissance and language.
Nevertheless, there is way for autistics to use sign language in the exploration of their relation to jouissance. Through a language which “frames” jouissance, but cannot transmit it. This would be a “private language”, which “treats” jouissance, without making sense out of it; a language which provides the subject with an immediate access to jouissance, but not with its articulation. Similarly to the phenomena of synethstethia, it intersects emotional and sensory excitation, with a language composed of repetitive movements, sounds, tastes, etc. Through this language, the autistic gains a sense of mastery over jouissance, but is still disposed to a solitary state, as he or she cannot transmit this language to others.
In a very famous and moving youtube video, autistic subject and advocate, Amanda Baggs, attempts to explains her unique relation to language. Making sense of the world under her terms – “in my language” – she provides herself with an access to jouissance which seems alien to the unsuspecting eye. I suggest you spend nine minutes and watch this youtube clip. Try and view it as an utterly inventive language, through which Baggs opens a channel to her internal emotional and sensual world. Constructing a language which “frames” her jouissance, but does so at the price of cutting her from the people she loves as long as she drifts off into it.