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A Closer Look at Autism

The numbers are staggering. From 1992 to 2000, the U.S. Department of Education reported a 544 percent increase in diagnoses of autism. While some may be crying epidemic, author and anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker argues in Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism (Basic Books, 2007) that the high rates are actually an achievement. Today, Grinker says, we are correctly diagnosing autism cases and allowing children to receive the social and educational services that they need.

“People with autism in the past weren’t called autistic. They were diagnosed with schizophrenia or mental retardation or something else,” says Grinker, professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for Ethnographic Research at GW.

Now, he explains, improved, broader diagnostic criteria and greater public awareness are making case numbers rise.

For Grinker, the autism research is personal. When his daughter Isabel was diagnosed with autism in 1994, it was still considered a rare disorder. Thirsty for information, Grinker set out to talk with parents, physicians, advocates, and scientists about the developmental disability. He traveled around the country and to Korea, South Africa, and other parts of the globe that have only recently begun to learn about autism to explore the cultural influences. What he found was simple: “No matter where you are in the world, people with a disability have more social support and more opportunities when the public knows and understands the word for that disability,” Grinker says.

The book, a blend of research and personal experience, is striking a chord with both parents and scientists who want to highlight the complexity of the issue. Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Center at Cambridge University, writes that Unstrange Minds “conveys deep parental concern, and reminds us of the unmet needs of such children.”

With a rate of one in every 166 children being diagnosed with the disability, Grinker shows us that autism is no longer an anomaly. It is, in fact, “unstrange.”

Grinker is author of four other books, including In The Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull. He is also the editor-in-chief of Anthropological Quarterly.

Rethinking Rock and Roll

She inspired Elvis. She influenced Little Richard. Johnny Cash said she was a star.

While her sound helped pioneer a new genre, gospel singer Rosetta Tharpe is still largely unrecognized for her early contributions to popular music. In Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock and Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Beacon Press, 2007), GW English Professor Gayle F. Wald offers the first biography of Tharpe, detailing how she overcame racism and sexism to create rock’s original roots.

The book, which chronicles Tharpe’s 35-year career, weaves together interviews with more than 150 people who knew or worked with Tharpe during a time when she navigated complicated social and cultural worlds.

A gospel superstar and guitar virtuoso, Tharpe cut her chords playing the Pentecostal circuit with her preacher mother, later graduating to such venues as the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. Tharpe, Wald writes, flirted with blues and swing in a decision to cross over to secular music in the mid-1950s.

Wald writes that Tharpe, a woman of confidence and conviction, broke all barriers—black and white, North and South, male and female, gospel and secular— to set standards for the basic tenets of 20th-century rock.

“Men even played like her,” Wald writes. “Few of Rosetta’s male peers, in gospel or any other field, would have cared to admit the fact, however, especially in an age when masculinity and guitar skills were inextricably linked.”

American blues-R&B singer Bonnie Raitt writes that Tharpe “blazed the trail for the rest of us women…[and] has long been deserving of wider recognition.”

Shout, Sister, Shout! does just that by going beyond biography. It suggests that we rethink our American music history.

Wald also wrote Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth Century U.S. Literature and Culture. In 2003, she penned the liner notes for a Rosetta Tharpe tribute album.

Deconstructing the Katrina Disaster

The hurricane that pummeled the Gulf Coast in 2005—destroying homes, flooding communities, and shattering families—was the impetus for a larger social calamity, argues Gregory D. Squires, professor of sociology and of public policy and public administration. In the book There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster (Routledge, 2006), co-editors Squires and Chester Hartman, adjunct professor of sociology, detail the deeper forces of structural racism and social inequality that turned these Southern cities upside down.

Nature, they say, had little to do with it.

“Inequities associated with race, class, gender, and other socially constructed markers are not inevitable,” Squires and Hartman write. “They reflect the conscious choices made by political and economic decision-makers and implemented by public and private institutions.”

The book, a collection of essays by scholars and policy activists, tackles the historical context of disaster in urban America, post-Katrina housing policy, education policy, urban planning, politics, and the future of New Orleans’ economic development.

With a broad-brush picture of the impact of Katrina, the book lingers on how and why the poor and people of color suffered disproportionably.

Squires explains that the challenges of rebuilding New Orleans often reflect those in metropolitan areas around the nation, where many communities are struggling to provide decent housing, create family-supporting jobs, build and maintain decent schools, and more.

“The citizens of New Orleans seem prepared to face these challenges,” he and Hartman write. “Hopefully, the public, private, and nonprofit institutions will be up to the task.”

Jaime Ciavarra