APPI Clinical Seminar Series: ‘Autism – The Case of Donna Williams, Part II’

Saturday 12 April 2014. 10:00 – 12:30

Carmelite Centre, Clarendon St. Dublin 2
Price: €20 (full member); €25 (non-member); €15 (student w/id)
Location: Carmelite Centre, St. Teresa’s, Clarendon Street, Dublin 2 (entrance opposite Brown Thomas car park)

Lieven Jonckheere Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, lecturer in psychology at the University of Ghent and a psychoanalyst in private practice. He is a member of the Kring voor Psychoanalyse van de New Lacanian School and a frequent contributor to iNWiT, the Dutch Journal of the NLS.

Lieven Jonckheere first introduced the case of Donna Williams in his APPI Clinical Seminar of 2013 when he spoke about the Australian writer, artist, singer-songwriter, teacher, international public speaker and autism consultant who has made a ‘life’s work’ out of the treatment of her own autism. The child of an aloof, bipolar father and an abusive, alcoholic mother, Donna Williams was first assessed in 1965 at the age of two as psychotic and ‘disturbed.’ By the age of nine she had developed two alternate personalities – Willie, the ‘tough guy,’ who represented her rebellious, disruptive and bad-mannered side and Carol, the ‘foolish chick,’ who was kind, polite and socially acceptable. Williams left home aged fifteen, experiencing homelessness and a succession of abusive relationships. Through the intervention of a psychiatric social worker she was able finish her secondary education, eventually graduating in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts and Diploma in Education. In 1991 she was diagnosed autistic by the Australian psychologist and autism expert, Lawrence Bartak. Based on her extensive autobiographical output, Jonckheere developed the thesis that Donna Williams’ efforts to understand and treat her own autism have progressed through a series of three distinct stages. Remarkably, each of these three ‘treatments’ is based on three radically different conceptions of autism, each producing its own specifically unique solution or ‘cure’.

Phase One, the first of Donna Williams’ treatments, was a course of psychotherapy undertaken during her early twenties. Williams’ therapist subscribed to the post-Freudian idea that autism is psychogenic in origin, the result of inadequate input from one or both parents – the so-called ‘refrigerator mother’ phenomenon. The treatment was directed towards dismantling this introjected object by way of an identification with the ‘good enough parent’ embodied by Mary, her therapist. Williams’ real fear during the therapy was that she would be diagnosed as schizophrenic, as it was not her, but ‘Willie’ and ‘Carol’ who identified with the therapist. As far as this ideal identification was concerned it wasn’t possible for Donna to become a woman just like Mary. Donna could not be ‘educated’, but her ‘characters’ could. The solution that ‘Willie’ would become a psychologist like Mary, introduced a period of stability into her life.

Phase Two saw Williams, aged twenty five, ‘psycho-socially patched up’ and in love with a man for the first time. For her they were ‘one body, one language’ and had ‘parallel speech.’ Unfortunately, her partner was both schizophrenic and alcoholic and the relationship failed. Williams decided to die by suicide but first wrote a farewell letter to ‘understand’. Her suicide letter formed the beginning of her ‘autibiography’ [sic], a neologism that for the first time allowed for an engagement with an other. While looking for a definition of schizophrenia in her medical textbooks she had a revelation that ‘autism is not to be confused with schizophrenia.’ Jonckheere posited that this was the new signifier that gave sense to her life. In place of the neurotic’s signifier of ‘father,’ Williams used ‘autism’ as the linking pin, or fundamental operation that allowed her to connect with the other. This unique discovery, a ‘new expertise in autism,’ allowed for identification and engagement with other autists.
Williams was diagnosed autistic in 1991 by Lawrence Bartak, a proponent of the bio-physical origin of autism, who saw autism as a brain handicap, an information processing and integration difficulty to which psycho-education is the preferred solution. His ‘educative’ approach of non-ambiguous explanation and reassurance alleviated the distress caused by a ‘problem with meaning.’ Jonckheere commented that this attitude puts the autist in the position of ‘the other of the other’ and not as lacking. Her multiple personalities protect her autistic being by mediating with the outside world. They also protect against the ‘lights in her head’, or the un-extracted gaze. Through the mediation of her characters, Williams sees that she ‘does something’ and observes a difference between ‘herself’ and ‘neurotypicals’. For the first time, she has acquired an ‘inner body sense’ and engages in a quest to contact and connect with others who are autistic ‘just like her.’

Jonckheere contests that if Donna Williams’ first treatment was based on a classical post-Freudian model and her second on an academic psychological view, then her third and final treatment relates to a contemporary Lacanian psychoanalytic conception of autism, which maintains that nobody can do without a symptom. Because the autist does not possess a symptom, at least in the neurotic sense of word, they are compelled to invent a radically singular substitute – a sinthome. Williams comes to the realization that because her partner at this time has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, he is not a real autist. This third stage is marked by a change in status of the word autism. As a term or statement it can only be equal to itself, a master signifier around which her sinthome is organized. For Donna, to be autistic is to own the signifier and to be able to use it in any way she wants. In this ‘fruit-salad’ version of meaning, the sinthome becomes a flexible solution where anything goes, allowing for combinations of elements which would otherwise have no similarity. This scenario allows each individual autist their own singularly private version of autism which is separate to any collective definition of the term. This is a subjectivity of sorts which allows the autist to remain a ‘work in progress’ – an antidote to the ‘big black nothing’ where no meaning exists.