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Amanda Gorman’s Final Exam: On the Limits of ‘Scientific’ Analyses of Autistic Poetry, the Example of Perceived Lack of Analogical Thinking

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In Ilona Roth’s Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets, she sets out to find answers to “one of the most elusive but fundamental questions posed by autistic conditions: what is the mental world of the person with autism like?” through an examination of autistic poetry (145). Whereas understanding other minds, especially those that are neurologically different, is a question of both great interest and importance, Roth unfortunately undertakes this project from a distinctly neurotypical perspective. Amanda Baggs points out in her video In My Own Language that the predominant view is to see autism as an inherently mysterious condition, rather than recognize the roadblocks of neurotypicals to understand autistic perspectives and communication. Though Roth admits that researchers have misjudged many features of autistic imagination and awareness of self, she does little to reverse or even question the framework in which the theories have arisen. In this paper I hope to show that Roth’s approach is a misguided one, through the example of her explanation about her findings on metaphor and simile in autistic poetry. I will contend that the fact that autistic poets use fewer similes does not show their inability to understand or use analogical thinking, but rather, may point to the person with autism’s heightened awareness of all linguistic communication as already functioning only within an analogical space.
Roth frames her project as examining whether or not autistics have an inner life at all, or if they just live in the here and now (145). One of the ways to figure this out, she presumes, is to look at whether or not autistic poets employ “imaginative language” by which she means primarily the use of metaphor and simile. Roth conceives of the research from which she is drawing as a “wide ranging study of autistic poetry” that “sought to integrate a scientific approach to the autistic mental world…with an attempt to understand the autistic poets’ points of view on their work” (152). The study included poetry from only five published autistic spectrum poets, though, and the poems were analyzed not through any kind of literary analysis, but rather through “quantitative content analysis” (152). She was impressed to find that autistic poets make substantial use of metaphor; she found that they use metaphor about as often as non-autistic poets do (155). She takes their sustaining metaphors over the course of multiple lines and stanzas as evidence of the fact that they had a relatively sophisticated grasp of the concept of metaphor. She rather unfairly qualifies this, though, by saying that the autistic poets’ metaphors are less creative since they play on “standard or idiomatic figures of speech” (155). Roth then explains her surprise at finding that given their ability to write metaphors, considering autistic poets employed significantly fewer similes in their writing than the non-autistic poet control group. The reason she is especially surprised at this finding, she tells us, is because in “Happe’s studies of figurative language understanding in people on the spectrum,” it was supposedly demonstrated that simile is the most accessible form of figurative language, whereas metaphor is more difficult, second only to irony. Rather than examine what figurative language might be like from an autistic perspective, Roth rather hastily concludes that when it comes to generating the example oneself, composing a simile must actually be harder and require a tighter control on language than composing a metaphor (155).
If one takes the voices of those with autism, like Amanda Baggs, seriously, it is not hard to see why it is misguided to evaluate autistic mental life by how well a person with autism can use neurotypical ways of communication in a neurotypical fashion. Baggs claims to have her own kind of language in which she directly communicates with her surroundings in a non-symbolic way. To use neurotypical spoken language for her is to restrict the ways she has of communicating into a predefined sphere of shared symbolic meanings. It is clear that Baggs not only has an understanding of how language can function analogically, and notices the necessarily analogical nature of spoken and written language. This is an insight that many theorists from Rousseau to Rorty have arrived upon. Percy Bysshe Shelley also defended the view that language is vitally metaphorical. If persons with autism are more likely to see language as already metaphorical, it would make sense that they would see little need to point out this relation in a simile with “like” or “as”, yet still use plenty of metaphor in their writings. It might also potentially explain a fascination with “standard or idiomatic figures of speech”.
Even if Roth’s research methods were sound, it is clear that there is more than one way to interpret the results. Between a neurotypical perspective on what autistic minds are like and an autistic perspective on what autistic minds are like, we should probably opt for the autistic perspective which we should have no trouble finding to be the truth. Quantitative scientific analyses of autistic poetry can only tell us so much. It would be much more fruitful to look at what autistic poets say about their work and writing process. For example, Tito Mukhopadhyay, one of the poets whose work Roth analyzed expressed the following in an interview:
“Blunt truth is “affective.” But slanted truth is “cognitive.” I expect my readers to understand the truth by linking it to something. When we relate a truth or a perception to some known field through metaphors, it becomes the stepping stone towards better cognition. Otherwise it is a childish — “I feel this and I feel that.” How many people pay heed to childishness?” (Savarese).

Undoubtedly, it is possible for autistic poets to understand metaphor, their neurological make-up may even illuminate make the relationship of language to metaphor. Perhaps it is time to stop trying to figure out people with autism, doing quantitative studies of how many similes they include in their poetry, and start listening to their words themselves.

Works Cited

Baggs, Amanda. In My Own Language.January 14, 2007.

Roth, Ilona. “Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets.” Autism and Representation. Mark Osteen. Psychology Press. 2007.

Savarese, Ralph. “More Than a Thing to Ignore: An Interview with Tito Rajarshi

Written by gormanda

December 8th, 2010 at 2:41 pm