The idea of reading great literature with people with autism may surprise some, but not Ralph James Savarese. The father of a son with autism, and a professor of English at Grinnell College, Savarese has been doing so for years. And he reports gaining insights into literature and humanity in the process. Savarese describes his experiences in See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor (Duke University Press). He responded via email to questions about his new book.
Q: What has been the prevailing view about literature and people with autism? Was the prevailing view based on any evidence?
A: The prevailing view was that autism’s “triad of impairments” (in communication, imagination and social interaction) made literature, especially fiction, too difficult to understand. Too difficult to understand and too alien to relate to or invest in. There was plenty of scientific evidence of said impairments, and from these impairments literature was assumed to be beyond the reach of autistic people. Literature, after all, depended on things like figurative language and complex theory of mind -- things that autistics were said to be bad at. With the rise of the neurodiversity movement, however, and a new emphasis on difference, not pathology, old truths have fallen away, and a new portrait of autism has emerged. For example, contrary to what scientists thought, many autistics have no trouble with metaphor, and those who do can be taught.
Another example: whereas scientists used to claim that autistics lack empathy altogether, they now claim that they struggle with cognitive and motor, but not emotional, empathy. The latter, of course, is that well of animal feeling we have for people -- we draw on such feeling when reading fiction. Impairments in cognitive empathy, if they are present, can be accommodated by something as simple as giving autistic people more time to discern the mental states of others. In fact, reading fiction may offer practice in this endeavor and, just as important, a more hospitable setting and time scale for figuring things out. But this is true for many nonautistic people, too! The autistic readers in See It Feelingly were exemplary.
Q: How did your son change your view of how literature could be important to people with autism?
A: In June of 1998, I adopted my son, DJ, from foster care. He was a badly abused, nonspeaking 6-year-old with autism. Doctors said that he was “profoundly retarded.” In May of 2017, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College with a double major in anthropology and creative writing. He lived in the dorms with an aide, and he used a text-to-voice synthesizer to communicate with his teachers, classmates and friends.
This past April, Deej, the documentary that he stars in, wrote and co-produced, won a prestigious Peabody Award. The film includes four of DJ’s poems, beautifully set to the live-action, oil-paint animation of Em Cooper. (She and the film are currently up for an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Graphic Design and Art Direction.) All of this is to say that 1) we have no idea what autistic people can do and 2) creative writing has been a part of DJ’s life since he came to live with my wife and me.
He didn’t so much change my view about literature and autism as organically reveal his interest in, and talent for, the former. One of the first things that he typed on his computer was “very great sound, very great sound.” I had been reading Dylan Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill” aloud to my wife. Our house was awash in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, and DJ took note. He loves patterned sound. Even everyday utterances by him have a poetic quality. Take, for example, this gem from a visit to see my mother in Washington, D.C. We had gotten lost on the Beltway, and my wife and I had squabbled. When my mother asked him about the trip, he typed, “Yes, yes. Mom and Dad. Long time very married.” As DJ began to write poems and essays and as I began to acquaint myself with the medical literature on autism, I saw a profound disconnect. I then saw this disconnect with so many other autistic people. The medical literature, with its list of deficits, just didn’t describe them -- what they can do.
Q: How is it different to lead a discussion of literature with students with autism than those without?
A: The readers in See It Feelingly come from across the spectrum. Two of them -- my son and Tito Mukhopadhyay -- are nonspeaking, so discussions with them required a pacing adjustment. I would orally present a question or a comment, and they would type, with one finger, a response. I would have to wait patiently for that response. DJ and I were in the same room. With Tito and three others, I used Skype. Jamie Burke, who learned to speak at age 13, used the sidebar to prime his voice, first typing his answers and then reading them aloud. Dora Raymaker would switch from speaking to typing when she became anxious or overstimulated. Speech -- both finding and making words -- often proved difficult; by conserving resources, she could focus on the question.
Eugenie Belkin, who is autistic and deaf, communicated strictly by typing but with the picture function on Skype turned off. She felt completely fluent, even eloquent, when typing, and she didn’t want the distraction of visual input. Temple Grandin, who travels all over the world and couldn’t manage Skype in an airport, wanted to talk by phone. In this way, conducting discussions -- hospitable discussions -- with autistic readers is different. Or maybe I should say that it looks different at the outset. The discussions themselves -- their intensity, the illumination they offered -- were like the very best classes I have taught at Grinnell. Accommodate, I say, don’t worry about conventional comportment or appearance, eschew stereotypes. In sum, make room for difference. Adapt what you do as a nonautistic person, then assess the abilities of autistic people.
Q: What insights did you gain on Moby-Dick and other classics from readers with autism?
A: With each of my readers, I discussed a different book. With DJ, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; with Tito, Moby-Dick; with Jamie, Ceremony; with Dora, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; with Eugenie, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; and with Temple, two short stories from Among Animals: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction. Tito and I made our way through Melville’s tome two chapters a week for 17 months.
As Ahab ruled the Pequod, so Melville’s novel ruled our ship of days. So many things stand out from this experience, but I’ll mention just one. It concerns Tito’s identification with the phantom cetelogical presence in Moby-Dick. Encountering Ahab, he compared the captain’s obsession with killing the great leviathan to our culture’s obsession with vanquishing autism. Just as Ahab believes that the white whale maliciously took his leg, so people believe that autism maliciously takes their children. The words of the megalomaniacal Ahab -- “To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at three” -- could just as easily be uttered by an autism parent, Tito said.
As a nonspeaking person, he relished Ishmael’s alternative understanding of the whale’s lack of speech: “Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living.” Ahab, in contrast, rails against the creature’s silence. Approaching the severed head of a sperm whale, he issues a deeply sarcastic command: “Speak thou vast and venerable head …; speak … and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.” Precisely because speech is considered the quintessential mark of the human, Tito has despaired of his own inability to speak. In a poem titled “Harpoons,” written as part of his weekly response to Moby-Dick, he mapped the slaughter of whales onto a typical scene with a “severely” autistic child, ghoulishly suggesting that violent death might be a form of speech therapy:
With harpoons they queried -- they lacked finesse.
He voiced no response except some noisy breaths,
Excavating sound from deep in his chest.
What pointed questions! They injured his head!
He breathed to explain how he talks with that head:
Great blubbery words that rise from his chest.
Is there a mind, they wondered, inside that head?
The sound of his answers? Those cumbersome breaths.
Let blood uproot what’s locked in his chest.
Reading Moby-Dick with Tito, I was invited, as never before, to consider the issue of animal intelligence and the speech privilege that lies at the heart of human arrogance. Tito also affirmed a central tenet of reader response theory: that particular readers bring particular things to particular texts. I now can’t imagine teaching Moby-Dick without the input of a nonspeaking person.
Q: What does your experience show about the ability of people with autism to have a more advanced education than has been the norm?
A: I believe that autistic people across the spectrum deserve a chance at an advanced education. But we must be prepared to support them. My son, for example, needed an aide in the classroom and in the dorm; he needed all sorts of accommodations. For example, so as not to take up too much time with his typing, he asked for discussion questions in advance. That way he’d be ready to go when called on. He needed a friendly, difference-appreciating environment; otherwise, his anxiety might get the best of him. (Oberlin shined in this respect.) We have to want to have autistic people on our campuses; we can’t begrudgingly accept and include them. Every one of the book’s readers has experienced debilitating stigma. What I hope for See It Feelingly is that it shows how much autistic people have to offer. And in an area where they were thought to be incapable! I remain astonished by what these readers contributed to my knowledge and enjoyment of classic American fiction.