ARC Fellows: Neurodiversity, Autistic Semiosis and Acts of Translation


Neurodiversity, Autistic Semiosis and Acts of Translation

Submitted by our 2016 ARC Fellow Team:
Shari Paladino (Art Practice) and Laura Sterponi (Graduate School of Education)

Theresa Cha, “Repetitive Pattern”, 1975. Courtesy of UC Berkeley Art Museum

Against the backdrop of dominant medical characterization of autism as disease and increasingly alarmist discourses on autism as a crisis and an epidemic, our project advances a view of autism as neurodiversity. Paralleling terms like biodiversity and cultural diversity, which are considered as valuable societal pursuits, neurodiversity promotes the recognition of different forms of brain wiring, which manifest in different ways or perceiving the world and others, none necessarily defective or inferior.

Significant effort of neurodiversity activists and scholars has been devoted to affirming autistic semiosis. Autistic semiosis is an embodied mode of experiencing and relating to the world. For instance stimming–repetitive body movements such as hand flapping, rocking, spinning–which in the mainstream interpretation is framed as automatic and perseverative reaction which withdraws the individual from the environment, is affirmed as an expression of focused engagement with a textured sensory event. And echolalia, which is typically understood as the rote, automatic repetition of the word of others, most frequently devoid of comprehension and communicative intention, is affirmed as ventriloquation, in a Bakhtinian sense, that is as voicing and double-voicing.

This project aims to engage with autistic semiosis through acts of translation. As simple as the practice of translation can seem, it carries assumptions that are actually quite radical with respect to mainstream understanding of autistic behaviors, verbal and motor. Translation implies the presence of a system of signification (in the semiotic materials to be translated) and places languages (the translating and the translated) on equal footings. Thus, acts of translation of autistic semiosis are predicated on the assumption that the idiosyncratic uses of language (verbal and nonverbal) by individuals with autism are not defective uses of standard forms but a different language altogether.

The task of translation, however, is not devoid of peril. Indeed it is a practice vulnerable of mistakes that risk to displace the autistic voice. In designing acts of translation we draw on Walter Benjamin’s work on this subject. Benjamin acknowledges that translation is only a provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages. He invites us to think of translation as a mode of mutual adaptation and transformation of languages, which does not erase the elements of foreignness and incommunicability between them.

The interaction with individuals with autism represents an ultimate encounter with foreignness and alterity. This project resorts to the rich repertoire of representational resources of art practice to design acts of translation that foster mutual understanding between autistic semiosis and neurotypical languages.


Laura Sterponi: Merging her background in psychology and linguistics Professor Sterponi’s research focuses on communicative practices in autism as well as in neurotypical development. Her work challenges deficit perspectives and uncovers communicative capacities and interactional sensibility previously unrecognized in individuals with autism.

Shari Lyn Paladino is a first year MFA student, whose works are presented as large-scale installations, existing at the intersection of social practice and sculptural work, with a focus on collaborative process. Shari received her BA from UC Berkeley in Interdisciplinary Field Studies in 2014, researching Disability, Education, and Art Practice. More info, see here:


Note: Over the course of the spring semester, each 2016 ARC Fellows team will submit a short blog post about their project and findings. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! The Fellows Program advances interdisciplinary research in the arts at UC Berkeley by supporting self-nominated pairs of graduate students and faculty members as they pursue semester-long collaborative projects of their own design. To learn more about the program, click here.