Autism Aesthetics

About 10 years ago, I began to get impatient with disability studies. The field was still relatively young, but it seemed devoted almost entirely to analyzing how disability was represented—in art ...

About 10 years ago, I began to get impatient with disability studies. The field was still relatively young, but it seemed devoted almost entirely to analyzing how disability was represented—in art, in culture, in politics, et cetera—especially in the case of physical disability. This, I thought, fell short of the field’s promise for literary studies. Where, I wondered, was the field’s equivalent of Epistemology of the Closet, the book in which Eve Sedgwick showed us how to “queer” texts, such that we will never read a narrative silence or lacuna the same way again? Put another way: I wanted a book that showed how an understanding of disability changes the way we read.

Melanie Yergeau and Julia Miele Rodas have written that book I dreamed of a decade ago, but they’ve written it independently, as two books. Both writers start by challenging the premise that autism—as an intellectual concept and as a personal diagnosis—is antithetical to speech, rhetoric, and literature.

“I have, at many junctures,” writes Yergeau, “been told that autism precludes me from being rhetorical, much less a rhetorician.” Autism is allegedly anti-rhetorical: some diagnosed with autism remain verbally silent (in about 20 percent of cases, though some nonspeaking autists can communicate by typing); others employ idiosyncratic forms of speech that do not lend themselves to ordinary conversation.

The illogic runs as follows: if rhetoric is understood to be the social, public form of language, and if autism entails (among its many possible manifestations) the inability to read or perform “proper” social behavior, then there can be no such thing as a rhetorically skilled autistic speaker, an autistic rhetoric, an autistic literature.

Together, Yergeau’s and Rodas’s books upend your entire English department: Yergeau takes rhetoric and composition, Rodas literature and theory. Yergeau’s “neuroqueer”1 project provides much of the scaffolding for Rodas (for whom Yergeau wrote a foreword). Where Yergeau envisions rhetoric such that “autistic conventions can be more capaciously read as a neuroqueer mode of engaging, resisting, claiming, and contrasting the interstices of sociality,” Rodas wants to envision autism “as an aesthetic, a way of seeing and interpreting, a vantage, a mode, a set of expressive practices.”

To imagine an autistic rhetoric or an autistic literature is to struggle, audaciously, against a legacy of neurotypical people failing to imagine autism as anything other than lack. That struggle is joined as well by Ralph Savarese, whose See It Feelingly gives us five extraordinary examples of autistic readers’ responses to literature. It’s like Norman Holland’s classic work of reader-response criticism, 5 Readers Reading … except with autism. But that alone makes it every bit as audacious as the work of Yergeau and Rodas.

A new understanding of literature and rhetoric emerges, as does a new understanding of autism; for as these three books demonstrate in different ways, autistic readers and writers can widen the range and deepen the complexity of human expression.

There may be no other human condition so persistently misunderstood: autism has been blamed on unemotional “refrigerator” mothers (falsely) and on vaccinations (falsely). It has been associated with muteness, except when it has been associated with echolalia, perseverative repetition, inappropriate speech, monologizing, or inordinate devotion to the sensuous texture of words at the expense of their literal meaning. A current theory is that autism impairs a person’s “theory of mind” (ToM), such that an autist cannot imagine what another person is feeling or thinking, except when an autist overidentifies with another person and is inordinately sensitive to their feelings. And when autists collect and order sets of objects—or say mildly odd things like “I can’t do this orally, only headily”—nonautists treat them as if their behavior is utterly incomprehensible. And how fucked up is it that the best-known autism organization—ostensibly a vehicle for advocacy but really a platform for generating hysteria—is called “Autism Speaks”: even though its board includes no people with autism and its public relations campaigns have likened autism to fatal diseases?

Given these misconceptions, perhaps the most important thing about Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances is what it doesn’t do, what it would prefer not to do, what it repeatedly refuses to do. It is not about diagnosing characters. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Bartleby the Scrivener.) Rodas has so little patience with “the surprisingly unself-critical conduct of academically trained literary and culture scholars in ‘diagnosing’ unwitting students or fictional figures” that she devotes a half chapter—no, really, it is numbered chapter 4 ½ (think Harry Potter or Being John Malkovich)—to explaining why Bartleby is not under discussion here. Rodas writes,

The setting apart of character from narrative … encourages readers to consider autism as a purely clinical classification, a diagnostic label keyed to particular human individuals. Such a move obscures the potential for reading autism as an aesthetic, cultural, literary, linguistic, or rhetorical category, a form of being and expression that might emerge not only in personhood but also in art and fashion, in music and architecture, in circuit design or literary poetics.

That, folks, is how you propose a neuroqueer aesthetic. And Rodas has even less patience with pointless, brutally reductive readings that surmise that Herman Melville himself was on the spectrum. This, in microcosm, is the struggle outlined above: to imagine those who are not “neurotypical” to be anything but an other: a stranger lacking something “normal.”

But Rodas doesn’t just critique how others label and critique autism. Instead, she cheekily borrows the title of Leo Kanner’s 1943 paper, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact” (the paper that started all the trouble), in order to suggest that there are “distinctive patterns of expression—narrative, rhetorical, and discursive”—that may be thought of as “autistic disturbances” of the literary text. These are ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation (again turning back on Kanner), discretion, and invention. The first is a clever rereading of “potentially complex relationships between the purposeful and the accidental”; the last is lots of fun stuff, like “I can’t do this orally, only headily,” which (as Rodas notes) is not incomprehensible at all. In other contexts, we call it poetry.


Who Is Sick and Who Is Well?

By Rachel Adams

Yet there are subtle problems with the elaboration of an autistic aesthetic. Rodas confronts them explicitly. The first concerns her détournement of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, itself. Reading the DSM-5 as an obsessive, list-making, orderly categorizing of human beings is kind of fun at first, but it leads to a nasty conundrum: “If to undermine the text that reads autism as pathological, one points to the underlying autism of the offending text, the idea of autism as pathology is reinforced.”

The second is that lots and lots of texts employ ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion, and invention. Rodas’s first example of an autistic text is Mr. Dick’s “Memorial” from David Copperfield, and it is startling to be reminded just how weird and obsessive that “Memorial” is. But over the course of the book, things start to get leaky. If “catalogue poems” by Raymond Carver, David Antin, and George Perec are all examples of an autistic aesthetic, what form of experimental poetry (hell, what form of list, beginning with the ships of the Iliad) is not? If the elusive narrative of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is on the spectrum, what about the elusive narrative of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? If Rodas is right about the structure and texture of Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe, wouldn’t her argument also hold for the structure and texture of Dracula and J. M. Coetzee’s Foe?

Rodas closes her book by upping the ante, suggesting an autistic aesthetic at work in Thomas More’s Utopia, the work of Jorge Luis Borges, a pair of exhibitions/installations, the performance art of Andy Kaufman, and Martha Stewart Living. Acknowledging that her own book has thereby recursively adopted the role of the idiosyncratic collector, Rodas ends by saying, “The project is perilously expansive and unruly and yet I still have before me loose threads of autism poetics hanging everywhere.” But that’s a good task to leave one’s readers: There is so much more material here. Pick up a few threads, won’t you?

“Where does rhetoric lie?” Yergeau asks, deploying as many meanings of “lie” as our language will allow, and promising to scramble the meanings of rhetoric in the process:

In everyday parlance, most people who discuss “other people’s rhetoric” use rhetoric as a stand-in for “fucked-up language and trickery.” … I am invoking ethics, philosophy, cognition, and politics. I am invoking not only the ways in which autism has been figured as lacking in these domains, but also the ways in which autistic people seek to queer those domains, to fuck up that which is already fucked up.

Now that’s fucked up. In a good way.

Authoring Autism is a revolutionary book, a neuroqueer revelation. In many ways it is like other academic books, as Yergeau notes in a rueful footnote: “written for an academic audience—necessary in some ways, but quite exclusionary in most ways.” For instance, it includes sentences like “It is through rehabilitation that we can mete out our potential: elliptic stories suggest that the autistic is an entelechy of prosthesis.”2

But in other ways it is like no other academic book you have ever read. “Storying is my method throughout this book,” Yergeau writes, “a method I’ve engaged for myriad reasons, including and especially my inability not to be self-absorbed.” The sentence is footnoted: “I will let readers decide if I am here being sarcastic. There are many diagnostic tools on narrative competence that might assist you in this matter.” There are (perseverative?) repetitions about the Electric Light Orchestra, about shit-smearing, about Gerald Ford. There is a passage in which Yergeau quotes a science journalist to the effect that “autistics often seem to make no fundamental distinction between humans and inanimate objects, such as tables and chairs,” and attributes the line to “a chaise lounge named John Horgan.” There is a moment when Yergeau apologizes to her “human readers” for her “failure to conceive of your existence,” nine pages after she tells us, “My dearest hope is, upon reading this book, you will come away from it somewhat more impaired than when you began.” (It is entirely possible, therefore, that her apology was really sarcasm. Or just rhetoric.)

To imagine an autistic rhetoric or an autistic literature is to struggle, audaciously, against a legacy of neurotypical people failing to imagine autism as anything other than lack.

You see what kind of autistrickster we are dealing with here. Yergeau is pulling off an extraordinary rhetorical feat. To appreciate the extent of it, check the passage in Autistic Disturbances when Rodas explains why she is not writing about the work of autistic authors: “So much autism memoir presents a strangely nonautistic vibe.” Yergeau could have authored Authoring Autism by “passing” as nonautistic, by leaving out the asides (there are many parenthetical remarks) and the expostulations and the wry admissions of inadequacy, staking a claim to what the field of rhetoric has traditionally been since Aristotle. Or could she? I mean this not in a diagnostic but in a strategic sense: for if one sets out to “neuroqueer” rhetoric, if one writes, “I want a rhetoric that tics, a rhetoric that stims, a rhetoric that faux pas, a rhetoric that averts eye contact, a rhetoric that lobs theories about ToM against the wall,” then how can one not perform the rhetorical neuroqueering one desires?

There is a good deal of repetition in Authoring Autism, and not just about Gerald Ford and shit and the Electric Light Orchestra. On page 78, for example, Yergeau quotes Kenneth Burke: “‘Madness,’ Burke warns us, ‘is but meaning carried to the extreme.’” On page 79 she does it again, word for word. One wonders: Was this intentional? Or just a copyediting mistake? And then one realizes: Don’t ask that question. It’s a trap! This is a book that seeks, among other things, to question the central role of “intention” in the history and theory of rhetoric, to “recoup rhetorics of involuntary acts”—such as arm-flapping, jumping, or other forms of ticcing and stimming—so that “autistic subjects [can] stake and deny rhetoricity by queering what rhetoric is and can mean.”

Which means, among other things, that the project is to neuroqueer rhetoric while nevertheless refusing diagnosis: “What autism presents, then, is an opportunity for readers to diagnose the very form of this book, as though this book were an invitation for symptomatological scrutiny.” It is an opportunity that readers cannot—and nevertheless must—pass up.

Savarese’s See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor is a different project altogether, although it shares with Rodas’s and Yergeau’s a desire to grab us by the lapels and make us understand the wonderful, complex, and neuroqueer relations between autism and literature. It is a qualitative ethnography of five autistic readers and their experiences reading various texts with Savarese (remotely, by phone or Skype). The heart of the book lies in two chapters, one on cyberpunk writer Dora Raymaker and the other on Temple Grandin.

Raymaker’s responses to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are wonderful, and go right to one of the points of Savarese’s experiment: to determine whether autists are capable of empathic and creative responses to literature. (Spoiler alert: they are.) Raymaker even has empathy for Deckard’s electric sheep, something Deckard himself is incapable of. And she is a careful enough reader to see that the initial meeting between Deckard and the android Rachael Rosen is “brilliant … icy and deadly and well-played at both ends.” Indeed it is, precisely because it introduces us to the novel’s vertiginous confusion of the difference between humans and androids. (You’ll recall that in the novel humans have determined that androids cannot feel empathy. That would be the humans who have recently destroyed most of the planet in a global nuclear war.)

With Grandin, the experiment goes awry, yet in a way that brings Savarese to an epiphany. “The Ecstatic Cry” is a story by Midge Raymond about a scientist who goes to Antarctica to study penguins, but also because she is weary of humans. Savarese thought this would resonate for Grandin, particularly with regard to the story’s depiction of celibacy and loneliness. If this sounds presumptuous, well, it is. Savarese admits as much: “I tipped the scales of readerly engagement with Temple.” In fact, in a disarmingly forthright (and dramatic!) moment, he declares, “At this point, I must stop the narrative and cry foul—against myself.”


Oliver’s Body

By Lawrence Cohen

The call will doubtless be upheld upon further review, but Grandin did not take offense. On the contrary, the story moved her to disclose the fact—which we had not known before—that at the Arizona ranch of her childhood, her uncle was a vicious drunk who terrorized her aunt. As Savarese astutely notes, she thereby effectively substituted, for the clinical/neurological explanation for her celibacy, a psychological explanation unrelated to autism. She didn’t read “The Ecstatic Cry” the way Savarese wanted, or expected. Perhaps she did something better.

Savarese’s background is important here. He spent a year on a Mellon Foundation fellowship at Duke University, immersed in the study of neurology at the Institute for Brain Sciences. The experience clearly rewired his brain, such that he is not only willing to entertain controversial accounts of theory of mind, but to argue that “research has demonstrated that reading literary (as opposed to popular) fiction can improve theory-of-mind (or mentalizing) abilities and empathy.” (Yergeau, for her part, isn’t signing up: “I believe all incarnations of ToM to be decidedly inhumane.”) I’m genuinely surprised by this, since Savarese is the one who got cognitive literary theorist Lisa Zunshine to stop using autism, in her own work, as an example of a form of consciousness that lacked ToM. What has changed?

More to the point, the conclusion of See It Feelingly seems to run counter to the results of the experiment. Savarese writes, “If … literature can help to improve theory of mind and to promote prosocial behavior in the nonautistic person … it’s time to think of literature as a reasonable accommodation and, more generally, as a kind of social medicine.” Some literature can do this, and surely does; other literature—for example, in the hands of Savarese’s other readers in his own project—does not. It all depends on what the literature is, and who’s doing the reading. Because when you’ve met one reader with or without autism, you’ve only met … one reader with or without autism.

Still, there is an overwhelming sense in which all three of these brilliant books rest on common ground: all insist, and rightly so, on the need for people without autism to stop pathologizing people with autism, and to understand neurodiversity literally: as an ordinary form of intraspecies variation, some aspects of which are to be valued more highly than nonautistics have imagined thus far.

My half brother, John, 40 years my junior, is a nonspeaking autist who does not type and cannot write or read the books under discussion here; but as Yergeau reminds us, “Autism’s essence is its considered lack of essence.” There must be no performance criteria for being human. Rodas urges us to see that “autism not only speaks but speaks in a voice both familiar and highly valued”; Yergeau urges us to acknowledge that (quoting autistic writer Sarah Kurchak) “we’re facing a massive public health crisis because a disturbing number of people”—these would be anti-vaxxers—“believe that autism is worse than illness or death” (precisely the message of Autism Speaks). And Savarese, the adoptive father of a young nonspeaking autistic man, D. J. (or Deej), who recently graduated from Oberlin, knows that that belief can have murderous consequences: “In 2015 alone, seventy autistics died at the hands of family members.”

These, then, are the stakes of understanding autism and speech, autism and rhetoric, autism and literature: they are literally life and death.


This article was commissioned by Liz Bowen. icon

  1. The neologism “neuroqueer” denotes the intersection of neurodiverse and gender nonconforming identities. It draws some of its power, as Yergeau points out, from the horrible fact that the punitive measures used to “treat” autism, known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), have much in common with, and were codeveloped with, treatments for gay conversion therapy; Yergeau notes also that in recent decades, Didier Houzel and Lesley Maroni have suggested that “autism is a primordial bisexuality.”
  2. For that matter, it includes a substantial discussion of Kenneth Burke’s work on entelechy; it draws equally on José Muñoz’s hopeful vision of queer utopia and Jack Halberstam’s account of queer failure; and it continues a conversation about rhetoric and disability, especially mental disability, begun by Catherine Prendergast, Elizabeth Donaldson, Margaret Price, Jay Dolmage, Alison Kafer, and Shannon Walters, among others.
Featured image: Harmony (2019). Photograph by Qingyang Liu / Unsplash