Building Mechanical Boys: A Raced and Gendered History of Autism in the United States from 1930-1980
Elizabeth Maher

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Illinois-Chicago

Primary Discipline

This project brings together analytical frameworks from critical disability studies, disability justice, neurodiversity studies, and critical race theory to examine how discourse around autism served as a means of expressing anxiety about changing views on race, gender, class, disability, intelligence, productivity, potential, educability and ultimately the definition of humanity in the mid to late 20th century United States. Beginning in the 1940s with the earliest writing on autism as a discrete diagnosis and continuing to the eve of the purported “autism epidemic” in the 1990s this project traces how autism became known as a white male middle-class disorder associated with technocratic intelligence in both the clinical and popular imagination. The history of autism provides insight into the critical role that psy-disciplines (psychiatry, psychology etc.) played in the (re)construction of notions of racial and gender difference in the mid-20th century United States. Psy professionals, educators, middle-class white parents and autistic advocates used discussions about autism to develop new, and seemingly scientific and objective, ways of discussing white masculinity and proper gender roles for white middle-class men and women. Autism became associated with new raced and gendered ideals which I refer to as white technocratic masculinity and white technocratic domesticity. These ideals framed the privileges of whiteness as the results of a supposed cultural or biological affinity for/ability to adapt to the technocratic, scientific, world of the “machine age.” In building this argument I draw on variety of sources including academic articles, archival materials from parent advocates/educators, and life-writing by autistic self-advocates.
About Elizabeth Maher
Elizabeth Maher is a PhD candidate in U.S. history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research draws on ideas of disability justice, and neurodiversity to explore how various actors have reified, or challenged existing ideologies about race, gender, and class in making claims about disability. She is passionate about making history accessible to diverse communities and is interested in developing disability history resources for undergraduates and K-12 students. Her writing has appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly and on disability blogs including Crip Crap and Rooted in Rights. She has presented her work at various venues including the Society for Disability Studies Conference, the Feminist Perspectives on Neurodiversity and Neuronormativity Symposium, and the Desiring Autism and Neurodivergence in Education: Critical, Creative and Decolonial Perspectives Symposium. She has previously served as an intern and volunteer with Access Living an Independent Living Center in Chicago, including as a mentor with their Disability Justice Youth Mentorship Collective. Her approach to her research is shaped by her experience as a neurodivergent scholar and the support she has received from her participation in various disability communities including the Chicago Coalition of Autistic and Neurodivergent Students(CANS). She has an undergraduate degree in History from The Ohio State University. When not working on her dissertation she enjoys reading, cooking, spending time with her wife and dog and engaging in mutual aid networks.

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