A “Neurodiverse” View of Poetry

By Ashley Mooney

Why is an English professor working with brain scientists? To change our understanding of the interaction between autism and poetry.

Autism spectrum disorder is often characterized by an inability to comprehend figurative language, especially metaphors. But poet Ralph Savarese, an associate professor of English at Grinnell College currently doing a residency with the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences as a Mellon Humanities Writ Large Fellow, has found the exact opposite to be true in his interactions with people who have autism.

“One of the supposed symptoms of autism is an inability to deal with figurative language—metaphor, simile, irony, jokes—and what I can tell you is, it is not true about certain autistic subtypes, particularly literate classical autistics,” he said.

Literate classical autistics are the most severely autistic, and often nonspeaking. Savarese, who also teaches creative writing workshops to people with autism, noted that although it often takes years to teach these people how to read, once learned “there is absolutely no failure of figurative knowledge, indeed just the opposite is enormous sensitivity to metaphor [and] simile.”

Poetry is not abstract, but rather is about the concrete particulars of life, Savarese said, which lines up nicely with an autistic neurology. He noted that poetry or lyrical language could serve as a neurocosmopolitan meeting place. Neurocosmopolitanism means to be comfortable with various neurologies.

“What would [neurocosmopolitanism] mean as a doctor or as an English professor who might have somebody with autism in his classroom?” he asked. “It’s not just that I’m demanding that autistics learn how we do things, it’s that we learn how they do things.”

What would it mean to be comfortable with all matter of neurologies, what would it mean to find common ground or talk or find a way to communicate respectfully with somebody whose brain is different, he added.

Rather than seeing disability as “an occasion for pity or demonization,” Savarese instead reframes autism as a type of neurodiversity—a neurological difference.

“For the last 30 years we’ve had this notion of diversity drilled into us, why not neurodiversity,” he said. “It’s true that autistics can do some things better than us and some things worse than us.”

Unlike 30 years ago, there are now many people who have autism across the spectrum who have written about their experiences, he said. With a large volume of literature at hand, people can now familiarize themselves with both the traditional medical view from an outsider’s perspective and insider accounts. He added that people should familiarize themselves with both because they generate different notions of the world.

Savarese has a personal connection to autism. His adopted son DJ is nonspeaking autistic who types to communicate. DJ, who started school at Oberlin College three weeks ago, is also the first nonspeaking autistic person to ever get into a highly selective college, he said.

“It’s not that I’m unrealistic—I’ve lived with the challenges of autism for 14 years,” Savarese says. “I’m not saying there aren’t significant challenges with autism, but I refuse to describe autism in the way that it has been typically described.”

He noted that although his son has significant motor and communication challenges, his memory and pattern recognition are astonishing. “His memory is photographic, and he’s just like, ‘are you kidding me, you all are retarded.’”

Savarese noted that the struggle in how to treat people with autism was exemplified in an interview that his son did. In the interview, he was asked if autism should be treated, and DJ typed in response, “yes, treated with respect.”

Although the most famous disability rights adage is “nothing about us without us,” he said, adding that there is a division between the literature written by autistics and scientific research that rarely makes an appeal to those with autism.

“What you see is somebody a lot like you or me going to some other culture that is very different from our own and insisting that culture operate the way that ours does,” he said. “Almost everything that I stand for is in opposition to many of the ideas [of what autism is] and the ways in which the ideas have been propagated. There is this idea autistics have no awareness of the self or others…. I just don’t buy it.”


This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 at 9:46 am and is filed under Behavior/Psychology, Faculty, Science Communication & Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 thoughts on “A “Neurodiverse” View of Poetry

  1. Maybe Savarese should visit the non verbal classic autistic persons living in institutional care before he goes about trivializing what is a very seriously limiting disorder for many, including my son, who suffer from classic autistic disorder. For the purpose of this discussion, here in New Brunswick, Canada I have, as an autism advocate visited autistic adults living in psychiatric hospitals. Some others have lived in 24/7 monitored hotel rooms, on the grounds of correctional facilities and some have been shipped out of Canada to facilities in nearby Maine, specifically at Spurwink.

    I am happy for Savarese and his son. But it does a great and serious disservice to try and brush over the harsher challenges facing so many with classic autism who do not share his son’s cognitive abilities, non verbal or not.

    • I’m autistic. I have also worked with autistics who are far more disabled than myself–what you call “classic autism”. The kinds of communication technology that is alluded to in this article is showing us that nonverbal autistics in general aren’t as cognitively impaired as they have previously been assumed to be. It’s not a small sample of a lucky few. This is not brushing over a harsher reality–it’s correcting a very old and very wrong presumption made of autistics’ cognitive potential that has caused untold suffering and diminished quality of life for countless autistics, in particular nonverbal individuals.

      As a verbal autistic and special education tutor, this is not surprising to me. I have long noticed a tremendous amount of potential in nonverbal autistics that we were failing to help them develop. So many students who I felt we could be doing more for, to help them have better, less isolated lives. And I am very excited that we now have technology to help many of these autistics tell us what they need us to do for them. Will it help all autistics in such an immediate way? No. Will they all go to college like the author’s son? No. But the potential there is far more than I think you’re seeing, especially in terms of better understanding how autism relates to cognitive development which could help us improve the lives of even more autisitcs, including those more cognitive impaired.

      So forgive me for saying that your anger at this does surprise me. I do not know your son or you, and I do not know what you have been through in caring for your son. But I can tell you this is not as limited as you seem to think it is nor is the number of autistics this can helps as small as you suggest. I further would not presume that this cannot lead to something that would help your son too, whatever his cognitive abilities may be. Yes, the living situations for far too many autistics are deplorable and this is a real issue. Yes, there are a lot of families who are struggling to care for a severely disabled autistic family member who will always be dependent on others for care. Yes, I wish we could do something right now to improves these people’s lives. But please do not be so cynical toward real advances that do not seem to immediately address these problems. We autistics deserve a chance to show the world we’re not as hopeless as we’re so often presumed to be.

    • It’s not a lucky few non-speaking classic autistic people who can do this, it’s a lucky few who people even try to give the needed supports to do this because of the assumption that they can’t. Plenty of non-speaking autistic people are presumed cognitively impaired, then get access to a device they can use completely by chance, and then it turns out that oh, wait, no, they do know what’s going on around them and we just never figured out what supports were needed before. We’re not painting over a harsh reality (yes, some of the autistic poets he’s almost certainly read if he’s been reading half as much as it sounds like he has have been the “non verbal classic autistic persons living in institutional care” you describe and were mostly just lucky to get access at all), but rather showing that as long as the supports needed for actual communication are given (that’s more support than for survival, which is why it’s often not going to happen in budget-strained institutions) the kind of result his son has is pretty doable.

    • I have known DJ Savarese for several years, since he started learning to communicate. Before his parents adopted him he would have appeared just like the classic autistic persons you describe. His mother is an expert in this area and has seen many of the non-verbal classic autistic persons you describe. They worked with DJ many years to communicate, first with pictures, with sign language, and eventually with the computer technology that he uses now. Ralph Savarese has a full comprehension of the challenges faced by classically nonverbal autistics and their parents because he has experienced those challenges and seen DJ struggle with those challenges – he is not trivializing them or brushing over them. But, he and DJ’s mother also can now fully appreciate, as I can, the wonderful personality and intelligence DJ has, and the poetic way that he seems to instinctively express himself. I understand your angry reaction. If all this is true of DJ, it could also be true of your son, yet your son has not had the help to develop his communication abilities. I’m sure you long ago gave up on the possibility. Where would that leave you? But, perhaps instead of staying angry and denying the possibility, you could explore the possibility for your son.

  2. Have you heard about the research that people with autism can have a “disorder” / +/- adopting or eliminating following: Ca3(PO4)2, KCI, K2SO4, Na3PO4.

    Marianne Kandelin

  3. I really enjoyed this article! I have 4 children on the Autism spectrum. Non of them are non-speaking, but have an array of other typical Autistic characteristics. They are all very unique, talented and intelligent in their own ways. I like the term neurodiverse. Autistic children really are very diverse in their abilities.

  4. I also loved this article. I have a son on the Autism spectrum, who is very high functioning. He is extremely creative. I know how difficult it can be to raise a neurodiverse child. We should not write off individuals who are on the Autism spectrum — they can contribute significantly to society when given the proper support and tools. Our goal should be to ensure that appropriate tools and support are provided to this growing portion of the population, instead of warehousing them.

  5. Pingback: A “Neurodiverse” View of Poetry | Duke Research Blog | Autistic Information

  6. Thank you for the article. I received my Doctorate in Educational Leadership and work nationally to raise expectations and supports for students in poverty. At 2 1/2, my Juliette was diagnosed with autism. I feel I have read enough to have a second doctorate in autism. My biggest fight hands down is OTHER people’s LOW EXPECTATIONS. I believe there is unlimited potential when you teach to the individual’s learning style. When you provide the supports needed. I only want people who believe that around my daughter.

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