The Poetics of Autism

By Travis Chi Wing LauMay 2, 2019

The Poetics of Autism

Authoring Autism by Melanie Yergeau
Autistic Disturbances by Julia Miele Rodas

STEVE SILBERMAN, in the introduction to his NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery, 2015), poses a simple yet provocative question about the state of contemporary autism discourse: “After seventy years of research on autism, why do we still seem to know so little about it?” While clinical psychiatrists, behavioral therapists, neuroscientists, and educational researchers have long attempted to theorize cognitive difference, autism often remains “the unknowable, unnarratable” limit case. Despite promising shifts toward a spectrum model of autism more open to cognitive fluidity, clinical approaches to autism still tend to uphold the medical model of disability wherein autism is reduced to a state of lack or deficiency requiring correction or even elimination. Autistic activists and writers, responding to the shameful legacy of forced institutionalization and sterilization, have worked to resist stigmatizing discourses by reframing autism in terms of neurodiversity. A neurodiverse framework understands autism as part of human variation rather than as pathology. This concept has galvanized international autistic rights movements, challenging ableist ideals by suggesting that cognitive disability might enable new, viable ways of being. Rights-based activism not only led to landmark legislation like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but also ethically restores personhood to cognitively disabled people still maligned and infantilized by caretakers, advocates, and specialists.

Within academic disability studies, the developing interdisciplinary subfield of critical autism studies puts into practice the disability activist commitment of “nothing about us without us” by forwarding language and ideas about neurodiversity originating from disability communities themselves. Most recently, two books of scholarship have focused on the interrelationship between autism and language: Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, and Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. Published within a few months of one another, these two books together make a powerful case for recognizing autism as an identity with its own forms of language. Yergeau and Rodas embrace these autistic forms for their narrative richness, but also for their resistance to ableist assumptions about what gets to count as language and by proxy who gets to count as human. The autistic subject imagined in these projects is powerfully expressive in the face of enduring stereotypes about autistic people as inarticulate, passive, and non-verbal.

In their books, both Yergeau and Rodas counter reductive clinical assumptions about autism. One such assumption is about autism's supposed rhetorical incapacity. The “non-verbal” autistic’s discursive lack is framed as involuntary, like other behaviors coded as autistic from body rocking to the meticulous arrangement of objects. For Melanie Yergeau, these essentialist assumptions about autistic involuntarity dehumanize autistic people to the extent that they are understood both by medical professionals and by the wider public as incapable of credibly narrating their own life experiences. All autistic speech becomes symptomatic of a totalizing condition that eclipses the individual entirely. Furthermore, when autistic identity is defined as antithetical to language, autistic people are denied selfhood on the grounds that they are disconnected from a fundamental human activity.

Yergeau and Rodas also counter reductive arguments about autism and the “theory of mind” (ToM), which refers to the mind’s capacity to recognize that other people bear distinct mental states of their own. For psychopathologists like Simon Baron-Cohen, autistics can only be understood as hopelessly unaware of their very selves because they lack a theory of mind all together. He disturbingly calls this condition “mindblindness” — a term that layers one disability metaphor over another. To oppose a medicalized flattening of autism to a passive embodiment of seemingly autonomic dysfunction, Yergeau makes a powerful case for “autism’s rhetorical potentials” grounded in the resilient ways that autistic people self-consciously “story” their desires for better, more inclusive futures.

Yergeau’s redefinition of autism in terms of narrative and desire also provocatively aligns neurodiversity with queerness. Queer scholars like José Esteban Muñoz have long contemplated how queerness’s marginality and resistance to normative forms of social relation actually imagine new futures. This utopian potential of queer identity resonates with a number of autistic writers like Ibby Grace, who have begun to identify publicly as “neuroqueer.” Neurological queerness frames autistic identity in opposition to normative assumptions about “proper” human cognition. Yergeau emphasizes the historical intersections between the ways that queerness and cognitive difference have been pathologized in the clinic and in society at large. Frequently figured as a condition meriting intense diagnostic scrutiny and “straightening out,” autism is redeemable insofar as clinicians and therapists can “recover whatever neurotypical residuals might lie within the brain, to surface the logics and rhetorics of normalcy by means of early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI).” Treatments of autism, like gay conversion therapies, are premised on a latent normativity (here, ablemindedness) that can potentially be resuscitated through often long-term medical interventions with lasting side effects, as well as behaviorial therapies that police nonnormative behaviors from an early age. The concept of neuroqueerness is not a careless conflation of two distinct categories of identity and experience, then, but a politically useful form of solidarity between autistic and queer communities still cast as threateningly anti-relational and anti-social in their refusals of compulsory ablebodiedness and heterosexuality.

Autism, like queerness, disorients allistic (non-autistic) forms of language and knowing by virtue of its in-betweenness or “not-quite-ness” — what Yergeau calls its “demi-rhetoricity” — which calls into question what gets recognized as rhetorical in the first place. If cognitive science insists on a vision of autism as hopelessly involuntary and passive, recognizing and embracing autistic rhetoric is then a defiant act of crip survival, radically unoriented toward fluent speech and thinking that must be coherent, concise, or clear to be valued. Yergeau ultimately reclaims autism as a narrative condition that bears a uniquely neuroqueer poetics of cognitive deviance — one that dares “to tic into autistic futures” not yet realized in our ableist present. Autistic people, Yergeau reminds us, have always been rhetorical beings. Only by redefining the very definitions and conventions of rhetoric can we begin to attend to these autistic narratives on their own terms.

The deviant poetics of “autistexts,” Yergeau’s neologism for autism’s distinctive literary form, is precisely the focus of Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances. Rodas models an autistic reading method attentive to linguistic features typically denigrated as symptoms of autistic impairment, focusing primarily on works of British and American literature. Building on Yergeau’s project of revaluing autism as a rhetorical identity, Rodas traces the otherwise devalued rhetorical tics of autism as they emerge in prized cultural objects like literary texts. This contrapuntal, neuroqueer approach reveals the surprising omnipresence of autistic forms of expression that pervade everything from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to poems by Raymond Carver and even Andy Warhol’s life writing. In this transhistorical, transgeneric examination of autistic poetics, Rodas invents an autistic literary history that sees disability as fundamental to the development of a Western tradition and canon. Autism thrives in the literary despite its rhetorical silencing by scientific medicine. As Yergeau yearns for “a rhetoric that tics, a rhetoric that stims, a rhetoric that faux pas, a rhetoric that averts eye contact, a rhetoric that lobs theories about ToM against the wall,” Rodas responds to this desire with a rhetorically vibrant conception of autism that flourishes throughout her close readings of literary texts and her theoretical meditations on the effects of autistic poetics.

Rodas’s own strategy of disorientation and defamiliarization involves queering the very terms of allistic communication by attending to how autism is registered in and through language. As opposed to dismissing textual moments that appear non-dialogic or illogical, she insists on inhabiting their disorderly, “unsettling quality” and “deceptively contained instabilities,” which, for Rodas, exemplify a particularly autistic aesthetic. In place of passive autistic silence is a din of ricochets, apostrophes, ejaculations, catalogs, and neologisms. She thus offers an autistic literary key for recognizing our own ableist reading practices — practices that tend to skip over or dismiss odd (read queer) patterns and cadences of language as rhetorical failures. In her book, literary case study after literary case study reveals not only autism’s rhetorical ubiquity but also the troubling ableist tendencies toward disciplining unruly language into more efficient forms. Fully aware of the scholarly norms of academic monographs that value concision, directness, and logical flow, Rodas deliberately eschews this in favor of a form of scholarship that overflows with rhetorical excesses that reproduce her own autistic forms of repetitive language.

If editorial practices can work to discipline neuroqueer forms of expression, Rodas also argues that neurotypicality is rampant in the discourse of poetics itself. If anaphora, for instance, is defined as a repetition of a sequence of words at the beginning of clauses for rhetorical emphasis and for certain pleasurable, predictable patterns in poetry, how does an autistic echolalia (repeating words and phrases), uninvested in meaning, queer this poetic device’s neurotypical application? Similarly, rhetorical “fallacies” like the non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”) are invalidated by their supposed flaw in logic, but a neuroqueer reading might ask why it is necessary to logically “follow” at all or who gets to determine what is logical. Given how cognitively disabled people have long been distrusted and disavowed, allistic rhetoric seems to be most in need of reimagining, if only to subject it and its norms to the same scrutiny as autistic rhetoric. Rodas’s project forces us to consider that “transparent communication is not always the exclusive business of language.”

Rodas refuses to calcify these textual features into monolithic categories comparable to clinical taxonomies; rather, she highlights their “looseness,” which better describes the “plasticity” and playful “pleasure” of neurodiverse rhetoric. Rodas likens her chapters to “proofs” not so much mathematical as they are “dough left to rise, an act of faith rather than a gesture of authority” in encounters with textual arrhythmias, compulsive repetitions, or dense verbosity. Rodas here asks for her readers’ trust not just in her but in the potential of everyday autistic expression to undermine neurotypical norms of regulated and efficient communication toward entirely different neuroqueer ends. Rodas’s schema of autistic poetics takes this provisional form precisely because autism — as a set of conditions, as an identity, as an aesthetic — cunningly (to use Yergeau’s descriptor) evades definition, capture. “Naming there must be, but spills are inevitable,” she admits. If anything, autistic rhetoric reminds us that language is always spillage.

Like Yergeau, Rodas models an intellectual humility and vulnerability that defines disability studies as an interdependent scholarly enterprise. Rodas concludes Autistic Disturbances 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.” Here, Rodas crips the poetic apostrophe, a figurative device usually referring to the address of subjects not present to the speaker. By rhetorically addressing the bodyminds beyond the page, Rodas connects herself to the long legacy of disabled thinkers and activists who have insisted on the value of disabled communities. The stakes, Yergeau makes clear, are about “who gets to author our individual and collective identities, who gets to determine whether we are, in fact, narrative creatures, whether we are living beings in rhetorical bodies, whether we are even allowed to call ourselves human.” Rodas’s invitation for others to participate in this authoring relinquishes ownership of autistic poetics as a literary project and instead imagines futures of crip writers that will collectively build upon and transform her thinking. As disability studies continues to move toward more intersectional scholarship informed by fields like critical race studies and queer studies, what would Rodas’s theory of autistic poetics look like beyond the scope of her primarily white, Euroamerican archive? Is the autistic “fingerprint” she identifies consistent across time and space, bodyminds and texts?

In a reflection on her own experiences of toxicity and accompanying brain fog, Mel Y. Chen argues that academic institutions have become particularly adept at producing “disciplined cognators” who are trained to always be ready, quick, and clear thinkers. This hyperreactive form of cognition comes only at the price of disciplining neuroatypicality that cannot or refuses to keep up the performances of elocution or informational recall. If cognitive disability is, as Chen suggests, the “unthinkable of academia,” autistic scholars like Melanie Yergeau and Julia Miele Rodas model what an undisciplined cognition, with all of its neuroqueer indulgences in pleasure, humor, and idiosyncrasies, might look like.

Yergeau’s theorizing involves a self-conscious writing through her anxieties about the reception of her own scholarship. As an autistic academic, she notes how her prose always becomes an index for her autism, an opportunity to speculatively diagnose her through her deployments of language: it “suggest[s] an interpretive lens through which others feel an impulse to story my life, to story my being. Is autism responsible for my paragraph structure? Did a neuroqueer neuron operationalize my word choice?” Sometimes recursive or meandering, Yergeau’s writing embodies autism’s nonlinear nature. Meanwhile, repeating phrases taken from other source material punctuate Rodas’s chapters in a manner that replicates the kinds of ejaculations and repetitions she examines in novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. Collected into an appendix or “accounting,” these phrases are meant to be “autistically interruptive, ejaculatory, distractive, perserverative, a kind of verbal embroidery that persistently challenges typical verbal intentionality.”

Both Authoring Autism and Autistic Disturbances are exercises in crip time, a term used in disability theory to describe disability’s dislocation from and incompatibility with linear, progressive time, frequently accompanied by narratives of normative development. Engaging with these works requires a patient reading and rereading, but most of all, a willingness to suspend easy skepticism of “autism’s wills and misfires” when it does not deliver neat and concise conclusions. In fact, as both would attest, that is entirely beside the point. Yergeau and Rodas do not rest at identification; they write autism into full rhetorical being to tic its way into neuroqueer futures.


I am deeply indebted to members of the disability studies community and the autism community for their generosity over the years in teaching me about neurodiversity and developing my critical consciousness for my own cognitive difference. Alongside both Melanie Yergeau and Julia Miele Rodas, I want to thank and recognize Mel Y. Chen, Margaret Price, Lydia X. Z. Brown, Alice Wong, Rachel Adams, Cody Jackson, Jay Dolmage, Susan Wendell, and the many contributors to the #actuallyautistic and #neuroqueer hashtags, all of whom have been formative influences.


Travis Chi Wing Lau received his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania (2018) and is currently a postdoctoral teaching fellow at The University of Texas at Austin. He researches and writes on 18th- and 19th-century British literature and culture, disability studies, the history and philosophy of medicine, and medical humanities.

LARB Contributor

Travis Chi Wing Lau received his PhD in English at the University of Pennsylvania and is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in 18th- and 19th-century British literature, the history of medicine, medical humanities, and disability studies. Lau has published in Disability Studies Quarterly, Digital Defoe, and English Language Notes, as well as venues for public scholarship like Public Books and Synapsis. His poetry has appeared in WordgatheringGlassThe New EngagementNat. Brut, Matador ReviewImpossible Archetype, and Rogue Agent. His chapbook, The Bone Setter, was recently published with Damaged Goods Press. He currently serves as an editor for The Deaf Poets Society, a disability-run literary magazine, and reviews poetry for Up the Staircase Quarterly and Tupelo Quarterly.


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