The Ethos and Identity Formation of Autistic Writers: A Rhetorical Analysis of Online Advocacy Narratives

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


Literature and Languages

Date of Award

Summer 2015


In this dissertation, I examine the persuasive strategies that advocacy groups, individual activists, and self-advocates use to establish ethos, or authority, on the subject of autism. Particularly, the purpose of this project is to examine how the words and symbols of online discourse impact the ethos of autistic citizens. A second objective of this project is to examine how autistic speakers and writers call upon rhetoric to argue for an understanding of autism that is different from or incompatible with mainstream or popular beliefs about the condition. I draw from critical discussions of ethos in both the classical and contemporary rhetorical traditions to inform my discussion of the challenges autistic rhetors face when attempting to define for themselves what autism means or what it means to be autistic.Without denying the neurobiological factors that play a role in determining what it means to be autistic, my aim is to investigate the ways in which the autistic subject is situated and positioned within cultural constructions of power. Rhetorical artifacts are collected from activism blogs and other autism discussion forums maintained online. I argue that the predominant cultural script of defectiveness in autism advocacy rhetoric casts individuals with autism as problems rather than problem-solvers, constructing their ethos as dismissible and their opinions unworthy of consideration.


Donna Dunbar-Odom

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Rhetoric and Composition