Kopelson, Karen. “‘Know thy work and do it’: The Rhetorical-Pedagogical Work of Employment and Workplace Guides for Adults with ‘High-Functioning’ Autism.” College English 77.6 (2015): 553-76. Print.
Karen Kopelson examines workplace advice guides designed to help adults on the autism spectrum enter the workforce. She argues that, in the process of explaining how such adults can reinvent themselves to meet workplace demands, these guides underscore worker traits that fit a capitalist ideal, presenting ASD workers* as perfect embodiments of this ideal; they diverge from disability-rights agendas in advising ASD adults to downplay or even reject their identity as a disabled person; they participate in the American narrative of individual accomplishment and personal responsibility; and they disseminate an implicit but very visible rhetorical education in ways that shed light on tensions between composition and disability studies.
To illustrate these claims, Kopelson draws on Amazon rankings to select recent and/or prominent examples of these texts. With the exceptions of works by Temple Grandin and Kate Duffy, which she includes because of their prominence, she focuses on guidebooks published since 2010 in order to understand how the most recent research and terminology are presented and employed by these books (555-56).
Kopelson notes the disproportionate attention given to children with autism-spectrum disorders, suggesting that a recent proliferation of workplace guidebooks reflects the fact that once these “children grow up,” their lives will intersect with the larger culture, in particular the job market (553-54). The books, she contends, direct their arguments to multiple audiences: to ASD individuals and their health-care communities but also to employers, who may not recognize that the supposed deficits that accompany an ASD diagnosis are actually the kinds of qualities employers should value (554). Among these traits are the ability to focus, to be absorbed and satisfied by repetitive tasks, to concentrate on work rather than social interaction (558-60), to work long hours and accept “internal motivation” (560) in lieu of high wages, to remain loyal to an employer: in fact, to define themselves, as Grandin does, by the work they do (561).
In Kopelson’s view, the worker thus constructed is the capitalist “fantasy worker in possession of qualities valued most by contemporary workplaces” (571). At the same time, she illustrates through examples from several texts that in order to succeed in workplaces that continue to be structured around neurotypical expectations, ASD individuals must remake themselves, taking it upon themselves to “adapt” and “fit in” (564).
Kopelson includes examples from many of the texts under study that demonstrate the ways in which this adaptation is predicated on attention to the rhetorical principles of “imitation, delivery, invention, and, especially, to audience and context” (564). Foregrounding books by Barbara Bissonnette, Kopelson detects a pedagogic focus on eliminating the “hermeneutic deficiency” that makes autistic individuals struggle to “objective[ly] and accurate[ly] . . . interpret” situations and people (Bissonnette, qtd. in Kopelson 567-68). This exhortation to read workplace audiences accurately and objectively, Kopelson writes, seems at odds with Bissonnette’s insistence that “meaning comes from context” (qtd. in Kopelson 566). Bissonnette’s pedagogy involves providing examples and heuristics that ASD individuals can use to gauge audience and context as they work to overcome the “mindblindness” that dominant depictions ascribe to them and that reportedly prevents them from understanding others’ perspectives (559. 567-69).
In Kopelson’s view, larger issues emerge from her study of how rhetorical principles in line with much implicit composition pedagogy are used in the workplace guides. Among her questions is whether rhetoric is “inherently normative” (566), imposing pressure to match external standards of propriety, in the process engaging in the “the manipulation of subjectivity itself” (566). Kopelson, citing Paul Heilker and Melanie Yergeau, sees in this function a tension with a view more in line with those expressed in disability studies that “autism is its own ‘way of being in the world through language'” (qtd. in Kopelson 571). Kopelson compares this view of autistics’ methods of intersubjective interaction with other examples of difference in language and with efforts within composition studies to both expand students’ linguistic capacity and value their home languages (572). Kopelson further considers competing views as to whether mainstream rhetorical pedagogy like that practiced in the workplace guides can in fact transform ASD individuals in the ways Bissonnette and others envision or whether entirely new methods of rhetorical education must be invented to meet the needs of autistic students (570-71). Ultimately, Kopelson calls for more study and analysis to understand the intersections of ASD individuals with the larger culture, while urging composition scholars to recognize the realities that have fueled the proliferation of guides like Grandin’s and Bissonnette’s:
And so, while our field may be invested in such notions as “rhetorical accommodation” ([Jenell] Johnson 476, [qtd. in Kopelson 572]), or a “revised” and “expanded understanding of rhetoricity” ([Cynthia] Lewiecki-Wilson 157, [qtd. in Kopelson 572]), and while we may be committed to . . . facilitating access to languages of power while valuing languages of culture or nature, we need to be aware that pedagogies far more public and powerful than those of writing studies, or of higher education at large . . , conspire to ensure that neurotypical and other monolithic norms of language and selfhood are sustained. (572)
*Kopelson notes that the preferred choice of major disabilities-rights groups like ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network) is “identity-first” language rather than the “people with” language often used by the guidebooks (556-57; emphasis original).