A professor gains perspective into the minds of autistics by discussing literature.
Savarese (English/Grinnell Univ.; Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption, 2007, etc.), a former neurohumanities fellow at Duke’s Institute for Brain Sciences, is the father of a nonspeaking autistic son, labeled as “low-functioning,” who has earned a 3.9 grade-point average at Oberlin College. Frustrated with such categories as high-functioning and low-functioning, as well as with assumptions about autistics’ intellectual and emotional capabilities, the author devised an investigation centered on reading. He knew that prominent researchers, such as Simon Baron-Cohen, hold that autistics are deficient in both theory of mind (“an awareness of what is in the mind of another person”) and “the apprehension of figurative language.” Those deficiencies should have impeded his autistic subjects from understanding and connecting with literary works. What Savarese discovered, however, were sensitive, responsive readers. In an impassioned and persuasive memoir of his interactions with autistics, he illuminates the diversity of their emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual experiences; the strategies that have enabled them to articulate their thoughts and communicate (even if they are nonspeaking); and their abiding desire to be recognized as fully functioning human beings with capacities that neurotypicals cannot imagine rather than sufferers from a “relentless pathology.” As the author’s son once remarked, “autism sucks, Dad, but I see things that you don’t see.” Focusing on American classics—including Moby-Dick, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—Savarese discovered remarkable evidence of empathic connections, contradicting “perhaps the most destructive and defining idea about autism spectrum disorders”: autistics’ lack of empathy, which “is very much responsible for the stereotype of unfeeling aloneness.” Although three individuals he read with “shared certain challenges with speech,” the challenges were “as different as the way their sensory systems worked or the way they thought.” While the prevalent concept of an autism spectrum “is unfortunately linear and static,” Savarese underscores the need to revise such limiting perceptions.
A fresh and absorbing examination of autism.