Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic

Williams, Donna

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Annotated by:
Garden, Rebecca
  • Date of entry: Mar-22-2007
  • Last revised: Mar-07-2007


This is the first of several autobiographies written by Donna Williams. In this she describes her earliest memories and experiences of being autistic through to her late twenties and the writing of the autobiography itself. Her account begins with descriptions of personality characteristics understood to be typical of people with autism. Contrasting her highly visual nature--a fascination with patterns and color and seen or imagined spots of light--with her difficulty understanding language and formulating it, Williams’s narrative is an account of neurological difference within a family that responded to it with impatience, anger, and violence.

She describes her fear of other people and how she learned to communicate primarily through objects, attaching to things and their symbolic meanings more easily than to people and language. As a means of managing her fear of people and her encounters with sometimes abusive family members and partners, Williams developed alternative personalities. She would perform those different personalities when she wanted to socialize or if she needed to protect herself. Williams develops relationships, some exploitative and some comforting to her, and finds ways to do well in aspects of school and work. The autobiography ends with a discussion of her first draft of the narrative itself providing a means for diagnosis. Initially thinking she has schizophrenia, Williams experiences a revelation when she realizes she is autistic.


This autobiography begins with a foreword written by a PhD who directs an autism research center and an introduction written by a psychologist, also an expert in autism, both of which testify to the authenticity of the account that follows and to its uniqueness. It is a detailed verbal account of autism, a diagnosis that is often associated with limited communication. These introductory texts, which at once undermine and reinforce the voice of the autistic woman that follows, characterize the paradox of a written account of a condition that is for many significantly if not completely nonverbal as well as the paradox of the authority of experience that must also be verified by experts in the field.

Further complicating the authority of experience and the unity of self suggested by autobiography is Williams’s account of alternative personalities, which she relies on in challenging social situations. Culminating in a self-diagnosis that organizes experiences previously understood as “crazy” or “retarded,” Nobody Nowhere ultimately performs an autistic subjectivity, one that typically (with the notable exception of Temple Grandin’s writings) evades the self-narration that in Western humanism defines personhood. Nobody Nowhere defines Williams as an expert in autism both experientially as a woman with autism and non-experientially as someone with autism who is “high functioning” and thus capable of studying and writing on the subject. This complication of expertise and experience and the destabilization of the subject--not only through Williams’s development from practically nonverbal to highly verbal but also through her use of alternative personalities--make this a particularly good book to teach alongside other narratives of illness and disability.


First published: 1992


HarperCollins: Perennial

Place Published

New York



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