‘Total Strangers’? The Figure of the Autistic in Science and Literature

The word autism was coined in 1910 by the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a symptom of schizophrenia. In the 1940s it became the term used for an entire syndrome that afflicted children. It took some time before it gradually became disassociated from madness. Today, autism is understood in a new light as a complex »developmental disorder«. Not only is it the subject of intense research in psychiatry, but also in biology and the neurosciences, among other disciplines. Furthermore, autism has gained the attention of the public sphere in many countries around the globe. It frequently makes headlines in newspapers and is widely discussed in online forums. In fact, today people with autism are considered ideal candidates for employment in the IT sector, and it is not uncommon to find autistic protagonists in films and novels.

The project aims to analyze concepts of autism in their cultural-historical context as driving forces behind and expressions of significant cultural debates in the 20th and 21st centuries. Conceptions of autism always involve negotiating models of subjectivity, communication, or empathy, and of childhood and family. Representations of autism, which often portray it as an interpersonal disorder per se, elucidate historically variable understandings of the ›social‹. It is precisely through its constitutive intangibility that the figure of the autistic often makes visible that which it is not – and thus often occupies a position in the vacuous center of social self-descriptions. This project will culminate in a history of knowledge that sheds light on a range of historical conceptions of autism with the aid of scientific, literary, and popular sources. It also posits the question of which epistemic effects various methods of representation (in texts, films, and images) have on specific concepts of autism and how interactions between different discourses impact them as well.

From 2014 to 2015 this project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the framework of the research collaborative Cultures of Madness, and from 2011 to 2014 it was funded with a scholarship by the PhD-Net Das Wissen der Literatur.

Ill. above: »For many decades, the autistic child has typically been represented as locked up within a shell« (Uta Frith, »Autism«, in Scientific American 268, 1993, p. 108).

Dissertation project 2017–2019
Head researcher(s): Novina Göhlsdorf


  • Der seelenlose Cyborg. Wenn Philosophen hassen, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 11. August 2019, S. 34.
  • Autismus. Diagnose der Gegenwart, in: Kinder- und Jugendlichen-Psychotherapie. Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und Tiefenpsychologie, Heft 182, 50. Jg., 2/2019, 277-303.
  • Epidemie der Kindheit. Die Poetik der infantia in Silent History, in: Davide Giuriato/Philipp Hubmann/Mareike Schildmann (Hg.), Kindheit und Literatur. Konzepte – Poetik – Wissen, Freiburg i.Br.: Rombach, 2018, 309-335.
  • Empathie, in: Falko Schmieder und Georg Töpfer (Hg.), Wörter aus der Fremde. Begriffsgeschichte als Übersetzungsgeschichte, Berlin: Kadmos Verlag 2018, 88-95.
  • Digital Curation in the Age of Semantic Technology, mit Jing He, in: Kultur und Informatik, Glückstadt: Verlag Werner Hülsbusch 2017, 193-208.
  • Knowledge of Childhood: Materiality, Text, and the History of Science – an Interdisciplinary Round Table Discussion, mit: Felix Rietmann, Mareike Schildmann, Caroline Arni, Daniel Thomas Cook, Davide Giuriato und Wangui Muigai, in: The British Journal for the History of Science, 50 (1), März 2017, 111-141.
  • Wie man aufschreibt, was sich nicht zeigt. Autismus als Widerstand und Anreiz früher kinderpsychiatrischer Aufzeichnungen, in: Cornelius Bock und Armin Schäfer (Hg.): Das psychiatrische Aufzeichnungssystem. Notieren, Ordnen, Schreiben in der Psychiatrie, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2015, 225-244.
  • Immer in Beziehung. Der Handschuh, in: Christine Kutschbach und Falko Schmieder (Hg.), Von Kopf bis Fuß. Bausteine zu einer Kulturgeschichte der Kleidung, Berlin: Kadmos Verlag 2015, 278-286.
  • Störung der Gemeinschaft, Grenzen der Erzählung. Die Figur des autistischen Kindes, in: Jahrbuch der Psychoanalyse. Beiträge zur Theorie, Praxis und Geschichte, Band 68: Autistische und autistoide Störungen, März 2014, 17–34.
  • From a ‘Total Stranger’ to the Superhuman of the 21st Century? The Autistic as Key Figure of Our Times, Atomium Culture (Dissemination European Research Project/Best Young Researchers)
  • Von Wegen. Fernand Deligny und sein Leben mit Autisten, zusammen mit Sascha Lehnartz, in: Dummy Magazin, No. 30, März 2011, 77–84.
  • Narben tragen, in: Eugen Blume, Annemarie Hürlimann, Thomas Schnalke, Daniel Tyradellis (Hrsg.), Schmerz: Kunst + Wissenschaft, Köln: DuMont 2007, 233–240.


31 Oct 2019 · 8.00 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Von einer ›tiefgreifenden Störung‹ zur ›Superkraft‹? Autismus-Bilder im Wandel

Goldstein Galerie, Schweizer Str. 84, 60594 Frankfurt a.M.

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06 Sep 2019 · 8.00 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Tiefgreifende Störung oder Existenzweise der Zukunft? Autismus zwischen Pathologisierung und Idealisierung

C.G. Jung-Institut Berlin, Hauptstr. 19, 10827 Berlin

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02 Nov 2018 · 11.45 am

Novina Göhlsdorf: Empathy. Between Human Nature and Self-Optimization

Centro Cultural Paco Urondo, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras - Universidad de Buenos Aires. 25 de mayo 201, Buenos Aires (Argentina)

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09 Jul 2018 · 5.30 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Autismus in Literatur und Film

Universität Koblenz-Landau, Campus Koblenz, Universitätsstraße 1, 56070 Koblenz

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04 May 2018 · 9.40 am

Novina Göhlsdorf: The Magical Device. Temple Gardins »Umarmungsmaschine«

Medizinhistorisches Museum Hamburg, Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf, Fritz Schumacher-Haus (Haus N30.b), Martinistr. 52, 20246 Hamburg

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Keynote lecture at the 65th annual conference of the VAKJP
28 Apr 2018 · 8.00 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Autismus. Diagnose der Gegenwart

Freie Universität Berlin, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin, Hörsaal 1b der Rost- und Silberlaube

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