Autism in Academia

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

You can find unparalleled wisdom at the Modern Language Association (MLA). Unfortunately, it is usually presented in the type of jargon English professors like to use. “Some autistics, including my son, DJ, have suggested that hearing poetry read aloud helped to lure them into functional language,” Ralph James Savarese told a packed audience in a panel featured at the MLA’s 2013 meeting in Boston.

“The acoustical patterning not only compelled their attention but it also redirected their ‘enhanced discrimination skills,’ allowing them to devote this energy, this auditory focus, to the project of deciphering meaning, though meaning wedded to the musical grammar, the reverberating word strings.” Currently on leave from an English professorship at Grinnell College, Savarese is the author of Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption. His son is now in college.

The current wisdom, loosely described, is that “autistic kids are better at math and science,” Savarese notes, “so they’re moved out of literature classes.” The exodus, he avers, is a mistaken rush to judgment. “Poetry might constitute an ideal meeting place for those who privilege meaning and those who privilege sensuous patterning, for what is a poem but patterned language whose embodied pleasures match that language’s symbolic or representative function?” Savarese observes.

Savarese notes that “for many autistics the ‘switch from sensing to interpretation’ does indeed occur.” Indeed, one thing that autists from across the spectrum have in common is great memories: They forget nothing.

The Grinnell professor actually has useful tips for the parents of autistic children everywhere. For example, it is not unusual for autistic children to answer every question save for the ones that begin with the word “Why.” Savarese suggests starting the sentence with another word. (I’ve tried this tip with my autistic 8-year old daughter: It actually works.)

Regrettably, Savarese does not usually communicate in such plain speaking. His presentation was crowded with the type of lingo MLA attendees crave, such as:

• Post-colonial neurology;
• Neuropostcoloniality;
• Neurocosmopolites;
• Neurotypicals;
• Neuro-ambassadors;
• Subaltern; and
• Reductionist binary.

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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