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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

Background Cues in With the Light (Vol. 6)

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In Keiko Tobe manga series, With the Light, one of the major strengths of her narrative style is the perspective in which we see the autistic child, Hikaru.  We follow many characters and hear many thoughts, none of which truly come from Hikaru.  This leads to the question of how this can be an autistic text at all if it does not allow him to voice his thoughts and perceptions.  The answer lies in the medium with which Tobe has decided to tell this story, the graphic novel (in manga style, to be accurate).  Subtle additions to the various scenes and panels give readers a clear insight on what characters are thinking and experiencing, including Hikaru. What at first seems like a character with no voice is suddenly filled with life when analyzing the artwork that Tobe has provided.

As early as page 9, Tobe wants to make clear the way in which we will see the world when we are viewing it through Hikaru’s eyes.  When the spherical time capsule is revealed for the school, Hikaru is fascinated by it.  This is clear through the use of a different shading technique for Hikaru, giving him a sparkling look, and a background filled with stars. As the book continues, the trend for the background to indicate what Hikaru is interested in emerges, but the hatched shading style holds a broader meaning that simple interest.  While pages 9, 74, 390, and 410 express the profound attention that he is giving something, usually associated with something that he really likes, page 13 seems to be showing a more introspective attention than the other scenes.  Page 175 and 347 also have this cross-hatched style which could be considered part of his inner thoughts or happiness, but one could also make the case that these are perceptions that characters around Hikaru are viewing him, with their own fascination.  Other cues that Tobe has placed to draw attention to the same things that Hikaru is can be found on pages 46 and 66 (long hair), 74 (soft “shoulder pad”), 19 (snail bus), and 174 (bells). The most common cues used for this purpose are stars in the background (as earlier on page 9) and soft balls of light (best seen on 46 and 66), though there are a couple exceptions.  Flowers are used on pages 234, 212, and 214, mostly in the presence of food.  One particular subtle background is used on pages 274 and 275 when Hikaru has just gotten off the phone with Nobuaki, a child hood friend.  This soft “stream of stars” seems to indicated his excitement at seeing his friends again, and perhaps connects to the “tingling sensation” that he also just experienced, though it is worthy to note that the “stream of stars” is decidedly faded when Hikaru is trying to get rid of the phone.  Tobe also uses graphical cues to help readers catch when Hikaru is upset, usually by darkening the scene and his face.  Pages 235 and 454 are excellent examples of Hikaru’s distress regarding the situation, whether that be a blank calendar or a too-noisy station. Stepping away from Hikaru for a moment, an Tobe draws an interesting scene on page 230.  As his father, Masato reflects on disability, the background around him seems to be washed out and hard to see.  This is a clear connection to Masato’s detached retina and shows that Tobe is not only interested in other health and disability issues, but also how to portray them so the reader understands what is really happening.

The effort which Keiko Tobe put into this text is phenomenal.  The attention to detail not only in the character’s interactions with each other, but also the backgrounds which they are portrayed in and the dialogue which adds to the way we see the characters, gives readers an excellent experience in living with Hikaru, Sachiko (the mother), Masato, and younger sister Kanon.  Each of these family members have their own concerns and challenges, and Hikaru, despite being largely silent, still has an important role, and voice, in this graphic novel.  The challenge for readers is hearing that voice, as it isn’t necessarily easy to find on the page.  The other characters of the narrative are treated with the same background and facial cues, but these are Hikaru’s only means of communicating to us, and in a book about raising an autistic child, Hikaru is a character to study carefully.  Keiko Tobe’s effort in creating a text about disability is a huge success and should be considered when studying the autistic spectrum.

word count: 764

Written by Spyden

December 8th, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Allison Miller’s Final Exam: With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child

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With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child tells the story about two Japanese parents (Sachicko and Masato) who raise their autistic son Hikaru and their daughter Konan. The manga’s main narrator is Sachiko, a busy, yet calm mother who tells readers about her life as a mom (such as events, feelings, etc). What’s interesting about Sachiko is her perception towards Hikaru’s Autism and how she deals with it. She and her husband try to find ways to work with Hikaru’s Autism rather than struggling with him.  Though they don’t know all about their son’s behavior, they still try to accommodate with him rather than go against him, such as using a schedule so Hikaru has order, using earmuffs to block out the sound when he is in a noisy location, etc. In other words, they do not cave in to other’s perspectives about him. By showing this, Keiko Tobe shows us differences between the perception of autism between Japan and the United States. One can argue that Keiko Tobe creates Japanese parents as more accommodating and empathetic towards Autistic children than American parents in order to prove that  people perceive Autism differently in other cultures. First, one will show the difference between Sachiko’s actions with Hikaru and compare it with the American “I Am Autism” campaign. Next, one will show other people’s perceptions in the manga in comparison to America’s perception.

One way in which Japanese perception empathizes more with Autism is how Hiraku’s parents perceive Autism. They (from previous volumes), seem to be used to making Hikaru’s schedules. However, there are times when new incidents will occur. The question is, how do they deal with it? One incident occurs in episode 2 (page 47) Hiraku touches a woman’s hair on the bus and the woman freaks out. The other people on the bus freaks out by asking what was wrong with Hikaru. Although surprised by this incident, reflects on the experience first. She blames herself by saying, “I shouldn’t have been looking at my notepad.” (52). She apologizes, but quickly transitions to how to accommodate this new habit. She thinks,”He has to push the stop button a little sooner this time. On a day like this, he’ll be in a foul mood if somebody else pushes the button first.” (52) Later, she tries to find a way where Hikaru could keep his hands to himself, which she does by making a fluffy shoulder pad for his backpack (63).  In this episode, rather than thinking about herself and feeling sorry about Hikaru, she tries to find a way to make riding on the bus better without Hikaru acting up again. In other words, she accommodates both the strangers and Hikaru’s need. Compare this with America’s “I am Autism commercial” In this commercial, Autism is as an evil voice where it tells the parents, “…and if you are happily married, I will make sure your marriage fails. Your money will fall into my hands, and I will bankrupt you for my own self gain.” By stating what it will do, the voice’s main focus is on the parents rather than the child. Although parents, friends, and family fight back against “Autism”, Americans still think it’s an evil aura that we must get rid of. However, fail to state how they will accommodate their child’s needs. In other words, this perception dramatizes parents’ “suffering” more while sympathizing with themselves and their autistic child. 

Another thing that’s different between Japan’s and America’s perception is other people’s perception about Autism. Here is where reactions may be universally similar in that strangers know that something is different about an autistic child. For example, when the woman pushes Hikaru away from her on the bus, many people on the bus start to observe Hikaru more closely. In return, Hikaru gets scared as well because he needs order so he will not be afraid and confused when travelling to school. One scene that is different is when Sachiko takes Konan to the first grade induction ceremony. There are a couple of mothers who remembered Hikaru from a birthday party (he accidentally peed in his pants). What’s interesting is that call him rude up until another mother mentions that he’s  “handicapped.” However, they don’t really show sign of pitying Hikaru or Sachiko (467). Her mother in law however gets embarrassed. Compare that with the “I Am Autism” commercial. Not only does it induce fear, but creates viewers’ pity of Autism, which makes viewers want to get involve for “finding a cure” for it.  By pitying a person, they cannot empathize with them, but instead sympathize with them. Perhaps American perceptions are more sympathetic because they focus more on either the equality of Autistic children or trying to help organizations find a cure.

What’s also intersting is the affect of sympathizing. Because American’s perception seems to be more about sympathizing, people either try to help these organizations or try to stay away from that person. However, Sachiko confronts her mother-in-law about Hikaru when she says that she was embarrassed by him. Sachiko states, “I preferred my neighbors to know about Hiraku…In fact, they helped us so many times.” (476). By bringing in neighbors and friends, Tobe creates a community that helps accommodate Hikaru’s needs in order for him to function in the real world. She wants people to know that her son is Autistic so that he can live in the real world when he grows up. She brings up a very good point by saying that now is not the time to be embarrassed, but to help accommodate their child instead of pitying themselves.

Perceptions of Autism will be different in other cultures, but that doesn’t mean one’s perception is better than the other. Japan does empathize more than America, while America sympathizes more than Japan. However, both nations could learn from one another in order to use these two perceptions together to build a better system that will help their children’s needs.

Word Count: 996

Written by library1288

December 8th, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Katherine’s Final Exam: The Refreshingly Truthful and Informative Presentation of Autism within Keiko Tobe’s “With the Light: Raising and Autistic Child – Volume 6”

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Keiko Tobe unapologetically presents autism as one valuable point on the spectrum of human experience.  In her graphic text, With the Light: Raising and Autistic Child – Volume 6, Tobe asserts and demonstrates that autism is not a “curable disease” from which someone “suffers,” but a set of characteristics that form how an individual experiences the world.  Tobe also risks the validity of her text as a whole by offering support and information directly to her audience, not just by implying advice through her characters.  Further, this presentation of autism, in some ways atypical, in other ways emotionally truthful, roots this text firmly within the canon of disability studies in that it offers a unique, truthful, life-like gaze into the tensions and epiphanies of a family who is raising an autistic child.

Tobe creates a believable space within this family by offering the same tensions found in the real world: acceptance against rejection, understanding against ignorance, and hope against doubt.  For example, in juxtaposition against her mother-in-law, Sachiko does not try to change Hikaru’s behaviors or ignore them. Instead, Sachiko accepts Hikaru exactly the way he is, and learns to adapt to how Hikaru experiences his world instead of trying to destroy it.  Although Sachiko does occasionally wonder what life would be like if Hikaru did not have autism, this detail of the text only adds to the multi-dimensional reality of the family.  After witnessing how Sachiko and Masato have learned to adapt themselves to Hikaru’s world, the mother-in-law begins to see that Hikaru is not as “far way” as she had assumed.  These tensions are made even more believable as they are selectively resolved or reinforced in both the familial home, as well as the public setting.

On a more raw, functional level, this text even (possibly only in the English translation) offers tips and reassuring notes to parents and families caring for autistic individuals.  In any other text that takes the form of a graphic novel, this bold risk would completely break the “third wall” between the world of the characters, and the reality of the audience.  Interestingly, this detail only serves to add to the richness of this text.  One of these little notes can be seen on page 444, in a footnote, where Tobe directly addresses the reader and offers them more information about how to acquire earmuffs to help autistic individuals concentrate.  Within the genres of graphic novel and manga, it is remarkably rare for the author to purposefully break this “third wall,” and may even be seen as a flaw in some texts if done by accident; but Tobe’s purposefulness adds to the truthful functionality of this text: not only to give emotions and situations to identify with, but to also inform and act as a resource.

The view of autism found within Keiko Tobe’s With the Light is both highly realistic, and inspiringly optimistic, in that every detail of its presentation functions to form a unified text that may serve as a beacon of light within the dark, conflicted halls of autistic studies.  The family dynamics and genuine acceptance found within this text can serve as a guiding light for families of autistic individuals and those studying autistic theory.

Word count:  547

Written by Katherine Sullivan

December 8th, 2010 at 11:28 am

Sarah S’s final: Neurotypicality in “Curious Incident”

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Because Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is so strongly linked with autism and disability studies, readers see Christopher, the main character, as having many of the responses or “quirks” generally attributed to autistic individuals. We consider many of his theories and fixations to be characteristic of autism, and write them off as being “symptoms” of a “disability.” In reality, many people considered “normal,” or neurotypical, by society possess many of the same characteristics, interests, and issues that Christopher does, making him relatable as a character because he reflects in his disability many traits we consider to be “normal.” (Though the idea of “neurotypical” or “normal” is rife with problems, using this generalization to highlight the social repercussions of Christopher’s behaviors is effective.)

One example is his interest in math. Christopher is very smart, taking advanced maths and even receiving a high score on his maths A-level, which had to be specially arranged because his school did not have the facilities. If you take out the fact that Christopher is autistic, this is impressive but not unusual. Many “normal” children perform far above their grade level, especially in specific subjects, as in Christopher’s case. Outside of the label of autism, this would be considered neurotypical behavior, but with the label, high brain function of this kind is seen as a trait of autistic individuals and not a personal interest, as it very well may be.

Another example is his fear of loud noises and/or hectic environments. Though he handles himself very well when he takes public transportation, he is very disturbed by all of the hustle and bustle, and several times has to retreat into himself and distract his mind to get through it. Many view this as a characteristic of autism, but many individuals who do not share this diagnosis share Christopher’s uncomfortability. Those who suffer from anxiety, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, or other milder disorders would react the same way in a similar situation, but many even more “normal” people simply dislike crowds or crowded areas, and can feel edgy, nervous, or distracted for a variety of reasons. Again we see that Christopher’s “quirks” exist outside of the label of autism, though other autistic individuals may share this characteristic.

Some of Christopher’s ideas are harder to generalize—his dislike of yellow, or penchant for certain foods, or distrust of strangers, etc.—though even here, he applies such straightforward logic that it is hard to say that any of these are irrational. Many of these, in a different situation, are called “personal preference” or “superstition.” Neurotypical people are not usually required to defend even silliest of opinions, and though some might say his system of colors and numbers of cars determining the mood of the day is ridiculous, most people work the same way. Getting up on the wrong side of the bed makes no sense, but if someone believes in this adage, their entire day can be ruined—and the same goes for black cats and walking under ladders. And so we see that even Christopher’s greatest “quirks” could exist unfettered in the neurotypical world, unchallenged and undiagnosed as the fixations they may be.

Some might say that this kind of discussion is useless because autism is such an integral part of Christopher’s identity as Haddon writes it that taking his disability away destroys who he is. The point is not to ignore Christopher’s autism altogether, but merely to examine the traits which we might see as dependent on the disability, considering the possibility that some characteristics correlate, but are not caused by, disability. Rather than trapping someone into a small mold, this way of looking at things frees a disabled person to own their identity, instead of having to always fall back on their disability as a default identity. Now Christopher can say, “I love maths and hate loud noises, and I’m autistic,” instead of, “I’m autistic (and I love maths and hate loud noises).” his interests and characteristics are not made parenthetical by his diagnosis.

Word count:  691

Written by sarahsmile

December 8th, 2010 at 3:00 am

Finally, The Final Project of Sam, Kathleen, Allison, Sarah, and Katherine: “The Sound of Tomorrow”

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What started as a sequel to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, became a more informed, modernized tale inspired by the Compson family.  This project is an attempt to apply current disability theory to the stereotypically dysfunctional family. Within this piece, we ask  the question:  How does the Compson family complicate our ambiguous definition of disability?  Split into five narratives that all take place within a short period of time (no more than a couple weeks), we hope to provide a level of depth to these characters to at least provoke introspection about how we see disability and how it effects our everyday lives.

Finally, we hope you enjoy what has turned into a (very) short novella: “The Sound of Tomorrow”

Benjy Compson

Quentin Compson

Candace Compson

Jason Compson


Written by Katherine Sullivan

November 29th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Rebecca Foust is a best seller!

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While browsing The Poetry Foundation website, I took a look at their best seller lists. They have separate ones for large press contemporary poets, children’s publications, anthologies, and small press contemporary poets. For the week of November 7th, 2010, Rebecca Foust and Lorna Stevens’ book God, Seed: Poetry and Art about the Natural World was #4 on the small press release best seller list.

Rebecca Foust was, of course, one of our poets during our autism poetry unit. I got very excited when I saw that she was on this list because I thought the book might feature some of her work about raising her son, who,  I believe, has Asperger’s. This particular collection doesn’t seem to feature any poetry directly about her son or her experience with him, but it is neat that the voice of an author within the autism community (if not a main part) is getting some attention from the press.

Written by Helen

November 22nd, 2010 at 5:48 pm

max vid link

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in case anybody might want to check it out, for the take-home or just for fun, here is the link michael rasbury provided for his powerpoint videos on max understood :

Go to http://www.michaelrasbury.com/maxunderstood.htm and look at the top of the page in the line that has the links to the script, synopsis, etc.  You’ll see a new “video” link that will take you to a page with a list of all the movies.

Written by cfoss

November 19th, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Posted in autism and 21st-c lit

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Eye-opening Documentary: “Autism is a World”

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This five-part documentary features a twenty-six year old woman named Sue Rubin, and follows her perspective throughout her life with autism. She explains what it is like to live with autism in a non-autistic world, attends college, experiences a transition in primary care, and interviews specialists as she tries to develop her own answer to the enduring question: What is Autism?

The entire series is a bit lengthy at about an hour total, but I highly recommend it to anyone in our class (and outside of our class) who has lingering questions about autism.


Written by Katherine Sullivan

November 14th, 2010 at 11:54 am

Child with Autism Connects with Kinect

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Hey everyone!

I found this interesting article about a child with autism able to play with a  gaming device called Kinect. In the past, he had trouble with other video games because of the controller. I looked up what Kinect was and found that it’s a new gaming device that’s controller free for the Xbox 360. It uses a sensor device with motion, face and word recognition. Players interact using hand, and body motions.

What’s your opinion on the article? What about Kinect and Autism?

Here is the link!

Written by library1288

November 12th, 2010 at 12:57 pm