A Closer Look: The Lacanian Registers in Autism
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Autism provides an opportunity to observe the ideas of Jacques Lacan about human development more thoroughly than in a typically developing child. The developmental delays experienced with autism allow each stage, or register, as Lacan sometimes calls them, to be seen in “slow” motion. At the same time, connections between the developmental process of those with disabilities like autism and the typically developing child show that while development may take place at different rates, autistic persons do experience the same developmental stages as other children and thus, are not categorically different and need not be perceived as the Other.
The “three registers of human reality” noted by Lacan are the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. According to Lacan, a unified sense of self, reflected in the usage of the first-person “I,” does not form until the stage following the Real, which is alternately called the Mirror Stage and the Imaginary due to its dependence on the child’s identification with his or her own image reflected in the mirror. Lacan posits in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function”:
The jubilant assumption [assomption] of his specular image by the kind of
being—still trapped in his motor impotence and nursling dependence—the little man is [sic] at the infans stage thus seems to me to manifest in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject. (76)
Lacan believes that the Real is a holdover from the neonatal condition, which he attributes to the birth of the child before it is completely physically developed. Lacan explains,
In man, however, this relationship to nature is altered by a certain dehiscence at the very heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of malaise and motor uncoordination of the neonatal months. The objective notions of the anatomical incompleteness of the pyramidal tracts and of certain humoral residues of the maternal organism in the newborn confirm my view that we find in man a veritable specific prematurity of birth. (78)
Lacan associates the child’s initial lack of bodily cohesiveness with the incomplete period of physical formation in the mother’s womb.
Given the developmental delays involved in autism and the inherent resistance by the inwardly oriented child to re-position himself or herself outwardly toward the world, the symbiotic connection between mother and child maybe more difficult than usual to sever, and the autistic child may take longer to detach from his or her empathetic mother. When questioned by her meddling mother-in-law, Melanie Marsh, the protagonist in Marti Leimbach’s Daniel Isn’t Talking, responds with a pithy retort:
“Why don’t you put that child down?” says Daphne now, looking with mild disapproval at her sleeping grandson.
“He’s attached to me,” I whisper, at which she gasps. (28)
Melanie’s relationship with Daniel and his sister, Emily, are the most fulfilling ones in her life, and in the beginning, she has difficulty setting boundaries that would create space between her children and herself, “I took pleasure in the sanguine, parasitic, and entirely innocent fashion with which my children enveloped me” (53). The intrinsic bond in breast-feeding is particularly hard for Melanie to disrupt. Initially unaware that Daniel is autistic, Melanie explains, “He is nearly weaned, but not quite. I have tried—believe me I have—but among my weaknesses are children’s tears” (36).
The problems that Temple Grandin mentions in her personal narrative about life with autism, Thinking in Pictures, intuitively feeling where her body begins and ends, are reminiscent of the “primordial Discord,” which Lacan describes in the Real. Grandin explains, “People with autism sometimes have body boundary problems. They are unable to judge by feel where their body ends and the chair they are sitting on or the object they are holding begins, much like what happens when a person loses a limb but still experiences the feeling of the limb being there” (41). Dawn Prince-Hughes describes similar difficulties knowing her physical limits as a child in her first-person account of Asperger’s Syndrome, Songs of the Gorilla Nation:
my parents were often frustrated with me because I would “walk through” or “look through” people as if they weren’t there. This phenomenon had more to do with my unawareness of where my body began and ended than with awareness of other people’s boundaries. It was as if I understood the edges of other people—disjointed as they sometimes were—but I myself had no such edges. (29)
Prince-Hughes has established a respected career as an anthropologist, researching biological and cultural evolution in gorillas with whom she feels more comfortable than with other people. The enclosures in which the gorillas are kept remind her of her “physical boundaries—never solid and always in danger of disappearing—and [keep her] safe from the sensory onslaught of the outside world” (127).
Sensory-processing difficulties, inherent in autism, can also result in fragmented forms of perception. Temple Grandin cites another high-functioning autistic autobiographer, Donna Williams, in Thinking in Pictures who “describes a fractured perception of her body in which she could perceive only one part at a time. Similar fracturing occurred when she looked at things around her. She could only look at one small part of an object at a time” (66). Dawn Prince-Hughes attempts to capture the confusing (but sometimes beautiful) swirl of colors and shapes that she experienced during childhood in Songs of the Gorilla Nation: “I lived in a kaleidoscope those years. I was looking down a narrow tunnel at broken, colored fragments of people and dreams, turned toward a too-bright sun as I rolled from place to place, one eye blind” (67). This fracturing reached new levels of intensity for her during times of stress. She partially remembers an incident involving an insensitive teacher:
I often couldn’t take in people as whole entities, even when I was relatively relaxed. Now the threatening and disembodied pieces of my teacher swirled around me, attacking from every angle. I was caught in a whirlwind of horrible sensory information and unrelenting criticism. I needed my mother and knew that this demon, in the form of flying, taunting parts, had the power to keep her from me. I don’t remember how it ended. (43)
Some school subjects were harder than others for Prince-Hughes because of her fragmented sensibilities. She recalls, “Math did not describe anything to me,” explaining “if people themselves were often disconnected parts—sometimes one, sometimes many—how could I hope to quantify the rest of the world” (46).
The absence of a coherent selfhood is suggestive of the difficulties mastering use of the pronoun “I” experienced by many autistic children. This confusion over the first-person pronoun can persist even after rudimentary language skills begin to emerge. In his collection of medical narratives An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks describes how Temple Grandin “mixed all her pronouns up, not able to grasp the different meanings of ‘you’ and ‘I,’ depending on context” as a child (271). In Cammie McGovern’s murder mystery Eye Contact, when Adam, the autistic son of Cara, the main character, is under stress, he loses the ability to use pronouns in the proper context. Cara says of Adam, “Nine years old and in a panic, he still reverses his pronouns, still echoes words of comfort exactly as they’ve been given to him” (9). Progress is measured for Natalie Flanagan in Gennifer Choldenko’s adolescent novel Al Capone Does My Shirts with her usage of the first-person pronoun. Natalie’s brother, Moose, relates, “We’re working on pronouns. My mom said this. Pronouns. Natalie, who never called herself anything but Natalie my whole life, just called herself ‘I’” (170). Natalie’s use of the second-person pronoun, “you,” also improves when her mother finds a therapist who is able to reach through to her. This breakthrough is particularly important when she uses it to refer to her mother if viewed as indication that Natalie is separating psychologically from her. Mrs. Flanagan exclaims, “But never you—not Mommy—you, a pronoun. I’ve been trying to get Natalie to use pronouns her whole life. And feelings. . . she said something she felt. Natalie is communicating with us. . . this is so important!” (157).
Lacan argues that an integrated notion of self, represented by the use of the first-person pronoun, develops during the Mirror Stage in the Imaginary, when the child first recognizes his or her own reflection as belonging to himself or herself. Lacan sets the scene for this primal drama by describing the child’s first encounter with himself or herself in the mirror:
a nursling in front of a mirror who has not yet mastered walking, or even standing, but who—though held tightly by some prop, human or artificial (what, in France, we call a trotte-bébé [a sort of walker])—overcomes, in a flutter of jubilant activity, the constraints of his prop in order to adopt a slightly leaning-forward position and take in an instantaneous view of the image in order to fix it in his mind. (75-6)
Barry Neil Kaufman’s memoir Son-Rise chronicles the progress of his son Raun as a therapeutic program to meet his autistic needs is created and implemented. Kaufman portrays a meaningful encounter between Raun and his reflection in a mirror in his parent’s bedroom, which resembles Lacan’s description of the child’s induction into the Imaginary:
He surveyed his image cautiously. He moved back and forth from left to right. He walked directly to the mirror and touched his reflection nose to nose. His eyes beamed like electric lights. He moved out of the path of the mirror, then slowly looked back into it. As he did, he met his own face, saw his own eyes. He moved directly forward again, touched his belly to the belly of the child in the mirror, then tipped his head to the mirror as the twin facing him duplicated his movement with absolute precision. Suddenly, he emitted a wild, unfamiliar shout—a cry of incredible excitement and joy. He began to grunt and laugh with elation. Raun Kahlil had discovered himself. (95-6)
Although Raun’s verbal abilities do not explode immediately following this first meeting with his mirror image, he does exhibit a higher degree of mastery over his body and a more unified sense of purpose in his therapeutic work.
Cammie McGovern’s crime novel Eye Contact includes an extraordinary depiction of the mirror stage, which is a pivotal moment in the plot. Having witnessed the death of a classmate who was murdered in the woods behind their school, Adam, an autistic child, is expected to serve as a witness for the police. However, this traumatic experience has caused Adam to regress and to lose temporarily his already limited verbal abilities. While the police attempt to question him, Adam’s mother, Cara, watches from behind a two-way mirror:
She would stop this now, but his face is serene, intrigued by this strange rectangle, this mirror that isn’t really a mirror. She leans in; if he can see through this thing, her face is right here, so close he could touch it. Maybe he smells her, or hears her heart beat. She almost whispers, Adam, and then his mouth opens. “Hair,” he says. (157)
As Adam stares into the mirror, he is able to collect his thoughts, and with the uttering of a single word, he breaks the silence. Because the mirror serves as a barrier between mother and child, severing the symbiotic bond, Adam is able to gather himself and offer a long-awaited clue.
Beginning to develop a subjective sense of self, the remaining register after the Imaginary, according to Lacan’s framework, is the Symbolic, the order in which language acquisition expands. In “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,“ Lacan briefly addresses “the role imputed to the index finger pointing to an object as an infant learns its mother tongue, or in the use of so-called concrete academic methods in the study of foreign languages [langues]” (415). The absence of pointing is one of the first signals in many autism texts that something is different about a child’s development. Karyn Seroussi questions in her personal narrative Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder about life with her autistic son Miles: “Just what was it about pointing that was so special? I recognized that it was a child’s request for shared attention, his way of saying ‘I want you to see what I’m seeing.’ Miles did not seem to care about things like that. . . . What I didn’t realize at the time was that the absence of pointing is one of the defining characteristics of autism” (30). Barry Neil Kaufman notes similar concerns after his son, Raun, experiences a mysterious illness, “Instead of acquiring language, he had become mute. Even his prelinguistic pointing or gesturing ceased to exist” (14). Like Seroussi, Kaufman’s real “concern was not simply that he did not use the spoken word, but that he offered no communication by sound or gesture, no expressed wants, likes, or dislikes. He never pointed toward anything he desired” (17). Kaufman perceives his uncommunicative son to be withdrawing deep inside himself: “Raun Kahlil slid often behind an invisible veil; though only inches separated us, he seemed a thousand miles away. And still no prelinguistic language—no pointing or gesturing to indicate desires—developed” (74).
While pointing is typically a “naturally” developing pre-cursor to language acquisition, parents in both fictional and non-fictional accounts of autism purposefully try to teach their children how to point in order to trigger further attempts at communication. Karyn Seroussi describes the efforts of her husband Alan, which initially only produce superficial results, as well as the moment when Miles seems to understand the purpose of pointing for the first time:
“Imitating our pointing isn’t really pointing, though,” I remarked. Alan had started telling people that Miles could point, but we spent weeks saying “Point to the cup!” without an appropriate response.
Then one day Miles was riding in a shopping cart and spotted a toy cow, then pointed to it excitedly. Alan was so happy, he bought the cow for Miles without thinking twice. (53)
Melanie Marsh also tries to teach her son, Daniel, how to point in Marti Leimbach’s novel Daniel Isn’t Talking. For extra motivation, Melanie uses the only real toy in which Daniel has any interest, his train. She explains, “I put the train up on the curtain rail and take Daniel’s hand, arrange it into a pointing shape, and get him to point at the train himself. As soon as he points, I give him the train. It works every time. Soon he’s pointing for biscuits, milk, his disc-shaped objects, which I plant all over the house in high places” (118). Daniel’s attempts to point are his first real developmental gains after the autism diagnosis is made. They provide much needed hope for Melanie during an overwhelming time: “Right now, this second, I’d say we are the happiest we’ve been in a long time. Because Daniel is pointing. Or trying to” (90).
Difficulty displacing the gaze from the end of a parent or caregiver’s finger to the object to which that person is attempting to call attention parallels the problems many autistic children have making the symbolic leap from the words that they hear spoken around them to the items they are meant to identify. Temple Grandin claims, “Unlike normal children, who naturally connect language to the things in their lives at a remarkable rate, autistic children have to learn that objects have names. They have to learn that words communicate” (54-5). Grandin refers to Jim Sinclair, who maintains in his own book, High-Functioning Individuals with Autism, that “speech therapy was just a lot of meaningless drills in repeating meaningless sounds for incomprehensible reasons. I had no idea that this could be a way to exchange meaning with other minds.” (72) Even after Dawn Prince-Hughes learned to speak, she did not always understand that words could be used in different contexts and for a variety of purposes. She recalls an incident in Songs of the Gorilla Nation in which she was bullied as a child: “I never told my parents about it. It didn’t occur to me that I could communicate about things that happened. I simply wasn’t able to understand that use of words” (43).
Autism texts allow the Lacanian registers to be observed more closely as they unfold over an extended period of time in the lives of individuals with developmental delays. Following the advancement of children with autism as they emerge to varying degrees from stages suggestive of the undefined Real, experience the Mirror Stage, and then potentially make the Symbolic leap into language also shows that while autism may present obstacles that slow their progress, autistic persons are on the same developmental path as other human beings as they journey through life.
Choldenko, Gennifer. Al Capone Does My Shirts. New York: Puffin, 2004.
Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Kaufman, Barry Neil. Son-Rise: The Miracle Continues. Novato: H.J. Kramer, 1994.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason since Freud.” Trans.
Bruce Fink. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 412-41.
- - -. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Trans. Bruce Fink. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 75-81.
Leimbach, Marti. Daniel Isn’t Talking. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2006.
McGovern, Cammie. Eye Contact. New York: Viking, 2006.
Prince-Hughes, Dawn. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism. New
York: Three Rivers, 2004.
Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Seroussi, Karyn. Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental
Disorder: A Mother’s Story of Research and Recovery. New York: Broadway, 2000.