Throughout disability studies, the discussion is often centered around the “abled” or the “disabled,” but is this idea as black and white as it seems? When discussing Autism, in particular, the conversation of the “spectrum” comes into play, bringing along stereotypes of what it means to be autistic, what people with autism “should” look or “should” act like. Melanie Yergeau poses this discussion in “Introduction: Involution,” from Authoring Autism, asking if “there can ever really be an in-between” (Yergeau 2) or if it instead is an absolute dichotomy between those with autism and those without. It is here that I am arguing that autistic writers have set forth to define and demonstrate this dichotomy through their writings and creative discussion of how their autism, particularly their understanding of language and use of language, creates a divide between the two groups when it comes to everyday discussion, as well as the discussion around autism itself.
To begin, it’s important to understand Yergeau’s own discussion and proposition of dichotomy or no. Yergeau argues that “autism is typically characterized by what it contrasts” (Yergeau 2) presenting autism as an “antithesis” to the non-autistic, which she argues is demonstrated by the stories of those who raise autistic children and those who actually have autism as well. Yergeau’s primary examples include the discussion of “poop talk,” as discussed by parents of autistic children, “who have (presumably) never smeared their own [poop]” (Yergeau 3). Yergeau discusses these narratives as seen from the “other” perspective, and then recounts her own experience with remembering her own potty-training experience. She tells that time as more difficult than learning how to read discussing the “decoding of sensations, recognizing the tightness meant which function” (Yergeau 6) as things that have “long eluded” her. This distinct difference Yergeau discusses through “poop talk” is only the beginning of exploring the dichotomy recognized by autistic people between them and those without autism. While Yergeau is able to recognize the difficulties of her own potty-training and the ease that came with learning to read, those neurotypical parents focus more on the “anomaly” of how autistic children respond to feces, and the placement of autistic children as “victim-captives.” It’s through this small narrative the Yergeau presents the subtle beginning to the dichotomy defined by the autistic community itself. Even those who know the child the best, cannot fully understand them, or recognize their abilities in the way that the autistic person can, drawing a line between those with, and those without, autism.
Another autistic creator, DJ Savarese, expresses similar ideas as Mukhopadhyay in his poem “Alaska.” Savarese utilizes the image of winter in Alaska, to bring forth this same idea of separation and divide between Savarese and his non-autistic facilitators. For Savarese, this divide is separated by those who “yearn for freedom,” (people with autism) and those who “live forever” (the non-autistic). In examining other works, this “freedom” that Savarese discusses is brought to light to be communication and understanding. In his essay “Communicate With Me” Savarese expresses his desire for people to talk with him, and not his facilitator, whether it be by waiting patiently, or making direct eye contact to show that they care about what he has to say. In his own process of communicating, Savarese must “free [his] body to respond” (Savarese 5). This discussion of language being “Freedom” is what separates the “you” and the “they” in the poem. Whoever the poetic speaker is addressing is holding onto the leaves, symbolizing Savarese and his desire for the “freedom” of conversation that he seeks, and the stigma that his conversation must be guided by his able-bodied facilitators. Savarese directly speaks out against this in his essay, asking people to “look at and talk to him” (Savarese 7), instead of addressing his facilitator, as if they are the ones having conversation for him.
On the same topic of the differences between how those with and without autism can use and understand language, Amanda Baggs, another author with autism discusses what language presents itself as and how she can understand language differently than the non-autistic. In her commentary piece entitled “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours,” Baggs discusses her relationship with language, recognizing that:
language was built mostly by non-autistic people, with the obvious results, and [her] biggest frustration is this: the most important things about the way [she] perceives and interact with the world around [her] can only be expressed in terms that describe them as the absence of something important. (Baggs 3)
This distinct lack that Baggs’ has to utilize language in the way that is seen as “normal,” along with her argument that “language was built by non-autistic people” demonstrates the difference between those with and without autism, and the consideration that would be needed to truly find a middle ground between the two groups, given their differences in social interactions.
Baggs later goes on to describe how using traditional language “takes place in the clouds” (Baggs 18), with its multiple layers and the need to balance physical language, expressive language, and figurative language. For people with autism, these concepts can be difficult to grasp alone- facial expressions and sarcasm can be daunting and decoding them isn’t a natural process. This line between what society has determined to be “language” has become a recognizable divide in the autistic community. Making “typical” societal discussion between the autistic and the non-autistic creates a divide between interactions of the two groups, without having to learn a new way of speaking.
In terms of disability, the conversation has always been led by the nondisabled. In the autistic community in particular, advocates and activists with this diagnosis have begun to speak about the current language barriers between those with and without autism, which creates a clear dichotomy between the two communities. This divide, however, could be closed and mended, if the non-autistic community could seek to listen, and truly seek to understand the autistic counterparts, instead of just assuming that their “language” is universal.
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