By Julia Miele Rodas, University of Michigan Press, 2018.
“Autism has a particular language, one that has been extensively recognized, researched, and described by clinical theorists, literary scholars, and autism (self)advocates” Rodas writes in her groundbreaking book on Autistic poetics, Autistic Disturbances. Through discussing the features of Autistic voice and examining various novels, short stories, and even diagnostic literature through the lens of Autistic rhetoric, Rodas illustrates the outsider, outlaw status of Autistic voice and culture. Rodas’ book title is intentionally ironic, playing on the title of a 1943 book by Leo Kanner, Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact, while underlining the ways Autistic voice disturbs the status quo.
Rodas plays literary detective, showing the reader celebrated works of literature unknowingly employing the poetics of Autistic voice, demonstrating that the aesthetic of Autistic voice is highly valued in the undiagnosed while the same lovely structures of language are pathologized in the diagnosed. Autistic Disturbances is an academic book, not a light read. But for those who enjoy digging into philosophy, literature, and poetics (the study of how language is used to create art and meaning) Rodas has created the book of our dreams. I am drinking deeply from Autistic Disturbances in my own academic work, responding to Rodas’ lovely invitation at the conclusion of the book: “I close these pages with an apostrophic call to absent and invisible partners to invent new categories, to add to and rearrange this project, and to explore and challenge its boundaries.” (page 192)
What is an apostrophic call? The apostrophe is one of five categories of speech patterns Rodas has identified and described in loving detail. Since these five categories are at the heart of Rodas’ work in Autistic Disturbances, let me introduce you to these five beautiful, powerful aspects of Autistic voice: ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion, and invention.
Ricochet is Rodas’ new, non-pathologizing term for language patterns clinically identified as echolalia and other repetitive linguistic stereotypies. Ricochet can repeat the same words (like unmitigated echolalia or altered repetition (like mitigated echolalia).
Apostrophe is what clinicians call “monologuing” and Autistics call “infodumping.” This torrent of information, often professorial in nature (even among very young, highly verbal Autistics), is labeled as a “lack” in Autistic people, despite being the stuff from which university lecturers are forged.
Ejaculation is Rodas’ term for the outbursts and interruptions Autists engage in (or indulge in, as we are often judged as intentionally inappropriate in our vocal blurts.) This language is alternately described in violent, explosive terms or described in words reminiscent of low-impulse-control sexuality. Rodas speaks of Autistic ejaculation as “the language of extraordinary elaboration and digression, both often interpreted as abrupt, stilted, staccato, or disjointed, but in their connectedness to one another pointing in the direction of formal poetry” (page 56).
Discretion is Rodas’ term for Autistic traits such as systematizing, ordering, lining things up, list-making. This is the category of Autistic poetics that overlaps with list poems and prose.
Finally, invention, a trait those who stereotype Autists might claim we could never possess. Clinical descriptions claim we have little or no imagination, but Rodas points out the “neologisms and invented language” described by doctors all the way back to Bettelheim’s work in the 1960s.
After identifying these five categories of Autistic voice, Rodas tours different pieces of writing, engaging in deep, thoughtful, philosophical conversation with each piece, seeking and reflecting on Autistic language she finds there. One of my favorite of her analyses is Roda’s meta-analysis of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism, finding that, “It may be a rather crude joke, irrelevant perhaps, even disingenuous, but the DSM, in a beautiful, recursive irony, may be read as the index document of literary autism.” (page 77) I find myself sharing Rodas’ amusement that the document used to diagnose autism is written with autistic voice.
Other works Rodas explores include Andy Warhol’s avant-garde memoir, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. She also weaves many other great writers through the text—including lines of poetry from Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein—illustrating and enlarging the five rhetorical categories of autism she identifies. I particularly enjoyed a short “squeezed in” chapter (actually numbered chapter 4 ½) about why Bartleby the Scrivener doesn’t belong in the discussion of Autistic poetics—because the story is not written in an Autistic voice but is written about a character academic readers have been identifying in print as autistic since at least 1976.
Rodas touches on the problematic nature of identifying fictional characters as Autistic, writing “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. The focus on Bartleby as an autistic figure effectively marginalizes autistic voice to a kind of performance, a caricature, an amplified mimicking of clinically identified discursive features. It is the stereotyping of autistic stereotypies.” (page 120) She lumps Bartleby together with more recent problematic representations such as Sheldon Cooper (of Big Bang Theory) or Christopher Boone (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time).
It is important to come to this book ready to work, because it is an academic book: excellent and rigorous and diving deeply into areas of thought that demand study. But if you think academic books are all drudgery, you’re wrong in this case. Autistic Disturbances is lively, funny, political, outrageous, and just what the Great Conversation of academic thought needed someone to say. Rodas says it with spirit and leaves our perception of the literary landscape forever changed for her readers.