Sara Chaney Co-Teaching Across Disciplines: Autism: Science, Story, and Experience

In Spring 2014, Institute for Writing and Rhetoric Lecturer Sara Chaney will be bringing her long-standing research on autism to the COCO course, "Autism: Science, Story, and Experience." The course will be taught with William Hudenko, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences and member of the Geisel Medical School Faculty.   This fascinating interdisciplinary course will provide students the opportunity to consider the intersections between science and rhetoric on the topic of autism.

Chaney's and Hudenko's individual research interests inform the course. Hudenko has been involved with autism research since 2002, when he was a Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt.   His recent research on laughter made the exciting discovery that the laughter of children with autism evoked more positive responses than the socially-driven laughter of non-autistic children. The finding is promising, in that it suggests that autistic children can be taught to use their natural laughter to forge bonds with others.

Chaney's research, on the other hand, is largely rhetorical and archival. For the past few years she has been exploring the Johns Hopkins University archives for twentieth century scholarship on child psychiatry, examining in particular the work of Leo Kanner, who is counted among the first to identify Autism as a distinct syndrome in the United States. Chaney's aim is to analyze how this early rhetoric has shaped our current view of autism. In her essay in progress, "Field Building and the Rhetoric of Autism," Chaney contends that "Autism has only recently been re-defined as neurological, but its 'discovery,' based on early behavioral observation, left us with a rhetorical construct of the 'autistic' that determines what a neurologist would choose to study today."

These new understandings, medical and rhetorical, shape the foundation of the COCO course. The first part of the course will engage Hudenko's scientific expertise, raising the various contested definitions of autism and exploring the reigning theories. The second part will focus on Chaney's rhetorical analysis of this science, asking students to consider how diagnostic language shapes the lived experiences of autistic children and adults. Students will read memoir and poetry from Autistic authors who directly engage the question of how they shape their identity around and through diagnostic labels. The final weeks of the course will be experiential— students will undertake service learning with ASPIRE, a group that organizes play groups for autistic children. Students will also explore autism activism via video conferences with members of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Movement, a group of autistic adults who are fighting for their own voices.

Throughout the class, students will be engaged in various writing projects, including written analyses of scientific theories of Autism, comparative analyses of the rhetoric of Autism in historical and contemporary texts, and field research on perceptions of Autism in their community.

In discussing her hopes for the class, Chaney notes: "It is no exaggeration to say that in the 'real world,' autism is one of the great issues of the early 21st Century. I hope our course will offer students an opportunity to engage autism as a complex topic that crosses traditional boundaries of knowledge. I also hope to highlight the value of interdisciplinary courses in addressing the most pressing social issues. Rhetorical analysis aids interdisciplinarity by providing analytical tools that work across many contexts and allow for dialogue between them."