|Literary Autism by Literary Autistics:
Beyond the Destructive Presumption and Paternalism of Neurotypicals
Ralph James Savarese
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The notion of an obdurate literality in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) persists in the scientific literature. The inability to comprehend figurative language, particularly metaphor, is often cited as a debilitating aspect of this condition, and it is presumed to be especially severe in those labeled “low functioning.” In her essay “Understanding Minds and Metaphors: Insights from the Study of Figurative Language in Autism,” Francesca Happe lays out the case, linking the problem with metaphoric comprehension to impaired theory of mind. In her view, autistics suffer from an inability to relate to objects or people and to understand the value of relation. This view has become so prominent that a popular novel—The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime—makes metaphoric bafflement a central aspect of the protagonist’s characterization. Even literary scholars in the field of disability studies have reproduced this stereotype. As Ato Quayson, in his recent book Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation, puts it, following Simon Baron Cohen, “In lower functioning autism the autist understands almost no metaphors, so everything is taken literally” (152).
In tension with the claim of an obdurate literality is the much less common claim that autistics might have a special talent for figurative language. Olga Bogdashina, for example, speaks of the “original metaphorical and poetic expressions so typical of autistic writers” (110) and Karen Zelan, a former protégé of Bruno Bettelheim, asks, “Why do autists use language the way they do? Many of their utterances seem essentially poetic” (48). In what follows, I cite some recent scholarship that moves beyond sweeping declarations of poetic and imaginative impairment in autism. I then summarize my own work in this area before concluding with two exemplary poems by autistics. My aim is to counter neurotypical presumption and to help to establish the idea of a literary autism by literary autistics.
Let me begin with Kristina Chew who has called attention to the prominence of metonymy in autistic discourse, arguing that we should “read autistic language as we read poetry, with attention to its tropes and the system behind seemingly unusual combinations of elements and images and to the music of language” (142). Doing so, she argues, “can offer some clues for understanding and, most of all, for communication” (142). Though not addressing the issue of figurative language specifically, Bruce Mills suggests that a “different way of knowing would produce symbol structures…not easily understood though not less inflected with the very human yearning to give shape to vast but uniquely experienced sensations and distinctively rendered memories” (125). “What if we were to define imagination with…more attention to preferences for…different types of information processing” (125)? he asks, noting that a method of local, as opposed to central, coherence “can produce striking artistic works” (128).
Ilona Roth has systematically analyzed the published poetry of several prominent autistics, at least one of whom would be described by the medical community as “severely autistic,” and she questions the “belief that creativity and other forms of imagination are difficult or impossible for the person on the spectrum” (161). “Comparisons between autistic and comparable non-autistic poets in terms of indices of literary and imaginative content,” she maintains, “do not clearly support this claim: the autistic poets used all the poetic techniques that non-autistic poets used” (161). Even Beate Hermelin, champion of the autism-as-devastating-disorder perspective, devotes an entire chapter of Bright Splinters of the Mind to a young woman named Kate who not only communicates poetically but actually writes poems. Although consistently pathologizing and patronizing her research subject, Hermelin begrudgingly concedes that “in a minor, modest way and in spite of her poems’ limitations” (62), Kate succeeds as a poet.
While an important advance over declarations of profound creative impairment, work by Chew, Mills, Roth, and Hermelin unnecessarily reinscribes autistic limitation. Chew, for example, constructs a rigid dichotomy--with autistics confused by metaphor but delighted by metonymy. She provides the following example involving her son: “sushi” and “bike ride” came to be synonymous for Charlie because he had eaten the former after having taken the later. Such a random temporal relation takes precedence, she contends, over metaphorical meaning, which relies, however fresh and surprising the comparison, on likeness. As her own blog makes clear, however, sushi is Charlie’s favorite food and he rides his bike with his father, of whom he is quite fond. At the very least, these so called random associations are inflected by emotion, by selection. More important, what Chew is calling metonymy might arise as much from a proclivity for visual patterning as from any inability to understand deep relation. When Happe tested a young male autist’s ability to name objects, he responded, “This is a blanket and this is a sheet” (Hermelin 47). When she pointed to a frilled pillow, he replied, “This is a piece of ravioli” (Hermelin 47). Though Chew discounts the “resemblance between the wheels of [Charlie’s] bike and the seaweed-edged rounds of sushi” (134), the similarity is striking—at once utterly apt and, at least for neurotypicals, decidedly over- or, rather, under-looked. Loaded with affect, the visual figure very much functions like a metaphor in a poem.
Chew’s other examples of autistics who prefer metonymy to metaphor are equally questionable. If anything, Tito Mukhopadhyay and Larry Bissonnette practice a kind of metaphoric abandon, language so rich in analogy that it makes your average poem by a neurotypical seem figuratively barren. For example, there is nothing metonymic about these two statements by Bissonnette: “Fastening labels on people is like leasing cars with destinations beforehand” (Savarese 2007, 414); “Without art, wafting smells of earth’s pleasures would kite away to land of inanimate objects, so it’s past point of personal hobby” (Savarese 2007, 413). The first statement employs a surprising comparison in the interest of making an abstract political point about how we ought to conceive of the difference that is cognitive disability—what we ought to imagine is possible for PWDs. The second attempts to convey, through the metaphor of a tether-less kite, the importance of art in capturing the sensuous pleasures of existence and, as well, Bissonnette’s own intense commitment to painting. Or consider a third example: “All of my paintings,” writes Bissonnette, “require wooden frames which are put together like ordered, partly prepared salads, created assembly line fashion in gourmet food stores ending up elegantly presented at art show openings. I preach precision when lassoing wood pieces together” (My Classic Life as an Artist). The simile of a gourmet salad maker is followed in quick succession by the implied metaphor of a rodeo cowboy.
In How Can I Talk if My Lips Don’t Move? Mukhopadhyay usefully hints at what might account for those instances in which metonymy does seem to be the prevailing figure: namely, the profound sensory dislocations of autism--the way that the senses function in an uncoordinated manner and at times under- or over-perform. As a boy, Mukhopadhyay “form[ed] wrong associations between words and objects” (214). “When I heard the word banana while I was looking at a cloud, I labeled the cloud “banana’” (214), he says. Education, though, “helped me settle my dispute with nouns” (214). That education included pinning down the relationship between not only signifier and signified but also hearing and vision so as to facilitate the apprehension of a whole environment. In other words, what Chew calls an autistic predilection for metonymy can, through teaching, be not so much corrected as sensorially contextualized.
Mills also constructs a starkly rigid binary, positing two mutually exclusive operating systems: either central or local coherence. Subscribing to the theory that autistics obsessively focus on details, he simply discovers value in what others pathologize, failing to consider a figure like Amanda Baggs, whose YouTube sensation,“ In My Language,” reveals both autistic and non-autistic competencies. Baggs’ recent essay in my co-edited special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, “Autism and the Concept of Neurodiversity,” further deconstructs any simple autistics-can-do-this and neurotypicals-can-do-that dichotomy. Entitled “Up in the Clouds, Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours,” the essay evinces a clear preference for non-symbolic processing while showing a great talent for argument and literary language. Indeed, Baggs speaks of having, in some sort of bilingualism of the sensing mind, to shuttle back and forth between two spaces of perception that she tropes as sky (neurotypical) and valley (autistic).
Although Roth critiques all manner of stereotypes about autism, she repeatedly attempts to reconcile her study’s findings with the field’s prevailing wisdom. If the experts are wrong about figurative incapacity, what else might they be wrong about? Why undermine autistic achievement by locating the deficit elsewhere, as she does in the following passage?
Poetry may be particularly suited to the autistic cognitive style. To write
successfully in prose may require cognitive capacities that are impaired
in people with autism: for instance, sustaining control over sentence
structure and over the continuity and unity of narrative may require
efficient executive function and/or a cognitive processing bias toward
wholes rather than parts. Both of these are thought to be compromised
in autism (Pennington and Ozoff; Happe and Frith). (162)
Finally, Beate Hermelin seems determined to discount the astonishing talent that she has discovered. She writes of Kate’s “limited grasp and ability to search consciously for  representations” (61) of her feelings, and she refers to her poems as a “means of self-expression rather than communication” (62). She laments that the poems seem more like early drafts than “fully finished productions” (61), failing to recognize that the compulsion to revise must generally be taught to young poets and that Kate has not enjoyed such an education. “There is no aim for the greatest possible perfection” (62), Hermelin says dismissively.
My own work has tried to pursue the concept of neurodiversity without privileging neurotypicality and without assuming that autistics cannot learn a different way of thinking. My 2007 book, Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption (On the Meaning of Family and the Politics of Neurological Difference), recounts the story of adopting from foster care a badly abused, non-speaking six-year-old boy with autism, a boy who was said to be profoundly retarded but who is now a straight “A” honor-roll student at our local high school and on his way to college. As his teachers will tell you, he is as good at English, particularly creative writing, as he is at chemistry. My 2008 essay, “The Lobes of Autobiography: Poetry and Autism,” documents in my son and other classical autistics who have been taught to read and to type a penchant for poetic communication, and it explores the neurological basis of figurative language, finding that the right cerebral hemisphere is especially active when a person writes or reads poetry. Unlike most neurotypicals, classical autistics do not appear to lateralize to the left when they begin to understand oral language and later learn to read, which perhaps accounts for the poetic proclivity I just mentioned and suggests a kind of potential literary advantage.
My 2010 interview with Tito Mukhopadhyay, “More than a Thing to Ignore,” develops the difference-as-strength argument, whether that difference is right hemispheric dominance, under or over inclusion of details in the apprehension of the environment, word finding difficulties, a drive to associate, a persistent animism, or synesthesia. With a rigorous education in literature and creative writing, a person with autism can exploit these challenges as enabling mechanisms of aesthetic defamiliarization. As a result of my interview with Mukhopadhyay, I began, at his request, to Skype him into my creative writing classes at Grinnell. “My school is the doubt in your eyes” (Biklen 135), he remarked once in an interview, having never been allowed in a real classroom. The experience of inclusion has shown that, contrary to the pronouncements of Oliver Sacks and others (Silberman), there is nothing inherently static about autistic talent.
My 2010 essay, “Toward a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay and a New Geo-poetics of the Body,” further explores the impact of an alternative embodiment on language production while refusing to traffic in rigid binaries or to presume definitive impairments. Indeed, it proposes the ideal of neuro-cosmopolitanism—for autistics and non-autistics alike. How might each neurological type learn the other’s way of experiencing the world? We certainly expect this of autistics; why not of ourselves? An essay I am currently drafting uses the Deleuzo-Guattarian notion of a “minor literature” to capture the relatively recent emergence of literary autism, particularly at the so-called “low-functioning” end of the spectrum. I want to elaborate on this essay’s argument because it brings together many of the things that I have been talking about here.
For Deleuze and Guattari, the modifier “minor” is not at all pejorative; rather, it suggests both a relationship to the dominant culture—“That which a minority constructs within a major language” (Falling Into Theory, 170)—and the only chance at a major literature’s revitalization—“Since the language is arid, make it vibrate with a new intensity” (170). “How to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one’s own language?” Deleuze and Guattari ask, emphasizing the need for an outsider perspective and helping to lay the groundwork for my own concept of neuro-cosmopolitanism. Their model is Kafka and the plight of Prague Jews who by writing in German “turn their literature into something impossible—the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise” (167). A minor literature, Delueze and Guattari contend, deterritorializes the major language, and they explicitly cite “what Blacks in America…are able to do with the English language” (168) as an example.
Of course, the concept of a “minor literature” has to be adapted to reflect the predicament of classical autistics, for whom the problem is no so much writing in a foreign language as using language at all. Autistics “live in the sensory,” as Donna Williams puts it, “which,” she adds, “is the art in life itself” (17). For her, as for Baggs, the “switch from sensing to interpretation” (29), to mastering the world with language and meaning, betrays experience and often leaves the autist feeling alienated. “Although I eventually and progressively took interpretation on board, the system of interpretation remained alien and disconnected to my self identity” (46), Williams reports. Poetry, I suggest, might serve as a kind of neuro-cosmopolitan compromise, indeed a linguistic meeting place, for what is a poem but patterned language whose embodied pleasures exceed that language’s symbolic or representative function? Said another way, however much poetry is a verbal art, it does not, in Williams’s phrase, “interpret beyond the sensory” (14.) Indeed, it is much more akin to what she calls “physically-based sensing or mapping” (62). “I developed physically-based mapping,” Williams writes, “which involved knowing things not through their visual shape but through their shape experienced through my own physical movement. So, for example, if I felt a glass with my hands or gripped it in my teeth, my concept of that glass had nothing to do with the word ‘glass’ or with how it looked or what it was used for, it had to do with the pattern of movement involved in feeling its form” (62).
The pattern of movement involved in feeling its form--I can’t think of a better definition of a poem, especially if we conceive of that movement as rhythm and that form as both the object under investigation and the shape that the carefully strung together words—one might even say the mesmerizingly strung together words—give it. In Telling Rhythm: Body and Meaning in Poetry, Amittai Aviram speaks of the “power of a poem’s own rhythm to bring about a physical response—to engage the reader’s or listener’s body, and thus to disrupt the orderly process of meaning” (5). Aviram “views [poetry] as a structured relation between the knowable—images, ideas, the meaningful of the poem—and the unknowable—the effect of rhythm in relation to the reader’s body” (10). “Poetry,” Aviram continues, “is not meaningless language—far from it. But the surface features of the signifiers in poetry demand a great deal of attention, more or less as much attention as the meaning that they signify. It is this tension between opposing forces, between the transparent and the opaque, between sense and mere sound, between the meaningful and the meaningless, that characterizes poetry” (50).
As a form of communication that offers interpretation with the sensory, poetry might serve to lure more classical autistics into language. Accounts by Baggs, Mukhopadhyay, and my son suggest as much. At the same time, it might remind neurotypicals of their initial engagement with the world—before an increasingly abstract language, in the words of Michel Serres, “anaesthetizes all five senses” (89). “If you form…words through the senses,” Serres writes, “amidst the hawthorn and primrose, if rose, in all its declensions, can be related to the exploding, fragrant bouquet of shapes and hues, if you build…language through the given, then anything can happen. Even a poet…. Even a philosopher mathematician, free to laugh at the mechanical, fossilized rigidity of intellect” (192). Though any number of classical autistics has learned to use language prosaically, poetry seems a more hospitable medium for many on the spectrum, as Kate suggests when she laments, “I lost the me/It got under everything/That was not poems” (Hermelin 62).
Let us now try to observe this process of feeling the world’s form through movement. Here is a poem by Kate entitled “The Fish Had No Water.” Notice how attuned it is to the sensory—to the point that it forges idiosyncratic locutions, rich in metaphor, to evoke the strangeness of having a body. Notice, too, the poem’s oscillating rhythm, which frames the comparison of human and fish.
Here I give a finger: its got no hand.
I’ve got a face: I never saw it.
I touch a leg: didn’t see the rest.
Here I be: must have gone somewhere.
Gave a daisy: nothing else.
Got lost in clothes but not the body.
Sent my eyes into what I do.
Feet tip-a-toe: quick I was then not.
I sat in Heaven: the ground went.
Sing come in: a sound got shouts.
Screaming holes got no edges.
I’m a something where fog lingers somewhere.
No one comes where I go.
I saw death when help came faster.
The fish had no water. (Hermelin 53)
The phrase “sent my eyes into what I do” does for vision what “sing come in: a sound got
shouts” does for hearing: namely, estrange us from the familiar, the settled—one might
even say, the mastered. Call it a “becoming minor” on the level of sensation. In Kate’s hands
language seems utterly plastic, ready to rediscover itself. “I saw death when help came
faster”—how Theodore Roethke-like the lyrical refraction, the way that narrative has been
compressed, made to serve perception. Is Kate, that “something where fog lingers
somewhere,” as out of place in an oppressively neurotypical world as the fish she
And here is a villanelle by Tito Mukhopadhyay, a form that he first encountered in
my class. It’s entitled “Those Birds”:
Those birds, three and thirty-five,
Sat on electric cables
Beneath a cloudy sky,
Chirping day and night.
I tried to guess their words—
More than three and thirty-five!
They ignored me outright.
I stood looking up with everything else
That looked up beneath a cloudy sky.
Their little shapes and little size
Formed calligraphy on the wires—
A cursive “three and thirty-five”!
There was no rain yet—the earth was dry,
And the wind was gentle on the trees
As it blew beneath a cloudy sky.
The electric cables made checks and stripes.
The trees hung their branches
For the three and thirty-five,
Which sat on cables beneath a cloudy sky. (Mukhopadhyay, “Four Poems”)
Deceptively simple, the poem offers a complex—and witty—meditation on the classic tension between humans and nature. According to a romantic calculus, the birds ought to prefer the trees but, as techno-cosmopolitans of a sort, they don’t, and they simply refuse to budge, even though the trees in a gesture of personification “hang their branches for them.” The villanelle as technology, a conceit buttressed by the image of the wires/cables and the speaker’s fastidious counting of “3 and 35,” attempts to keep humans and nature in their respective places, but a more complicated picture emerges. The birds are talking, and their very appearance is suggestive of writing, albeit a kind of writing whose material flourishes trump symbolic utility. Moreover, the form pits the pleasure of patterned perseveration against straightforward enunciation, much as the description of the wires/cables as “checks and stripes” vies with their literal function as lines of communication. The obstinacy of the birds, like that of the form itself, seems almost a figure for autism, and the birds’ placement on those cursive cables evokes the kind of meeting place for different neurological types that I have argued poetry to be.
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