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.”