Volume 25, Issue 3, 2021
Rua M. Williams
Empty Fortresses, Social Robots, and Peculiar Relations in Autism Research
I draw upon Critical Disability Studies and Race Critical Code Studies to apply an oppositional reading of applied robotics in autism intervention. Roboticists identify care work as a prime legitimizing application for their creations. Popular imagination of robotics in therapeutic or rehabilitative contexts figures the robot as nurse or orderly. Likewise, the dominant narrative tropes of autism are robotic—misfit androids, denizens of the uncanny valley. Diagnostic measures reinforce tropes of autistic uncanniness: monotonous speech, jerky movements, and systematic, over-logical minds. Today, robots are pitched as therapeutic tools to intervene in the social (under)development of autistic children; robots with monotonous voices, jerky, dis-coordinated movements, unsettling affect, and behavior predicated on a system of finite state logic. I present eerie and uneasy connections between the discredited works on autism and selfhood by Bettelheim and contemporary rehabilitative robotics research and imagine possibilities for robotics to divest from legacies of enslavement and policing.