Final: Unkindness of Ghosts and a Neurodivergent Revolution

Bryce Anderson

Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts is the story of the HSS Matilda, a generation ship socially structured like the antebellum United States. For her whole life, the protagonist, Aster, has been berated and abused because of her stature and manner of speaking. An Unkindness of Ghosts’ characters are an expression of neuroqueer and poses a potential revolution for neuroqueer. In this paper, I will focus on the three main characters Aster, Theo, and Giselle and how their actions represent a neuroqueer revolution.

A revolution requires something to revolt against and the Matilda is ripe for change. It functions mainly around class and gender. While there is no reference to why it was setup this way, there is somewhat of a rationalization. The Matilda is run under a sort of Mandate of Heaven with the Sovereign and everything extending outwards from him having divine right. There are heavy references to Christianity’s influence on Matildan culture. Their destination, while unknown, is called the Promised Land, the upper deckers feel that the lower deckers lack spiritual purity and must be where they are as a result of said impurity. To the guards that police the lower decks, the people there are lower than dogs. When Lieutenant becomes Sovereign, he calls, “a four-legged beast with a snout for a nose, that doesn’t bathe itself” more beautiful than the people of the lower decks (Solomon 242). Their distaste and dehumanization of the lowdeckers, specifically lowdeck women, result in frequent sexual assault at the hand of the guards as a form of punishment. The Matilda shares many similarities with our history, and arguably the world we live in today and these make it a perfect launching point for a revolution.

Aster represents the neuroqueer’s struggle in assimilating to neurotypical standards. Her amputation of Flick’s foot shows us her trouble with social queues and a matter-of-fact way of speaking. Flick’s great-grandmother calls her Insiwa or Inside one saying, “you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning” (Solomon 23). Similar to how, in Amanda Baggs’s “Up in the Clouds” her “ability to fit words into familiar patterns outstrips [her] ability to understand the words themselves” (Baggs). Many times within the book, we’re shown Aster cataloguing words. While her lexicon is vast from spending so much time reading Ainy’s dictionaries, she lacks the context to use them in and so must add and relearn it each time. When it comes to speaking Aster, “always thought thrice before talking, having said the wrong thing too many times” (Solomon 189). We’re shown throughout the book that Aster, just from her bulkier physique and oddness has been treated as lesser, not there, too dumb to understand what was said to her, even though she understood clearly. Her struggles match Baggs’s and many other autists’ experience when it comes to communicating. Like Baggs, “typical language takes place in the clouds” coming effortlessly to the people around her, neurotypicals, but for Aster, it is a constant struggle to decode what people mean. Because of this degrading of her value as a person, Aster just wishes to have the dignity of a living being. This comes to a climax in the Bowels with Ty and Seamus. The adrenaline wears off from the confrontation, Aster had to fight like many times in her life and she bursts out saying, “Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive…I’m alive” (Solomon 276). It is her desire to be entitle to basic human decency, the benefit of being alive. Her sister, Giselle, however, performs in a different way.

Giselle performs her neurodivergence in a different way than Aster. It follows more with Dr. Walker’s fifth “definition” of the term. “Being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that “queer” one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity” (Walker). She is much more brash and unfettered by others’ perceptions of her. We are told that “Aster’s mind wasn’t as cursed by voices and visions as Giselle’s, but she knew madness well” (Solomon 63). From this frame, we could interpret any of Giselle’s actions as a reflection of her “madness,” but I would argue it is more an expression of her own neurodivergence as well as an extension of her trauma from the guards. Her actions, like burning down Aster’s botanarium are not involuntary to her. In the midst of doing so, she wonders that “Sometimes it’s like I can’t help it, then I think, no, I could help it, I could hold it back, like a sneeze” (Solomon 319). Her lashing out is a response to, from her perspective, being abandoned by her closest friend and sister, Aster. Because of this, Giselle is put up for execution, the second within several days under Lieutenant’s rule as Sovereign. But the system of the Matilda will not be her death. She takes it into her own hands, denying them of further control over her life by taking her own life. Her death, while not the cause of the lowdeckers’ resentment for the Sovereign and the upper decks, certainly serves to ignite the flames of rebellion within the entire lower deck of the Matilda.

Theo performs Walker’s ninth definition of neuroqueer. He as Heaven’s Hands made Flesh is the one binding agent between the decks. Matildans respect and revere the Surgeon and because of this, he is especially suited to affect change throughout the ship. Walker’s ninth example explains one practice of neuroqueer as follows, “Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged” (Walker). His less masculine presentation when it comes to Matildan upper decker standards makes him the target of ridicule and even sexual advances from his uncle. From his high station and the circumstances of his birth, Theo is particularly posed to set the Matilda and by extension humanity, on a better path as it returns to Earth.

An Unkindness of Ghosts uses its characters as a means of initiating a neuroqueer revolution aboard the Matilda. Their experience on the Matilda has only been defined by the qualities that they lacked. Their journey and the obstacles they encountered brought them to a sense of self-actualization, realizing that there is no absence, only a different kind of richness unique to them.

Katie Blair’s Final Paper

Color in Autism Literature

Without color, the world would be dull, however, color is often taken for granted. Colors can symbolize, contrast, draw attention, and alter perceptions, especially in literature. While reading Jim Sinclair’s “Don’t Mourn for Us,” I was reminded of how much color influences a piece of literature. This gave me reason to explore how color has impacted the literary works during the autism unit. Jim Sinclair’s “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Amanda Baggs’s “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours,” and Rebecca Foust’s “Apologies to my OBGYN” all are examples of how literature is enhanced by color.

Perhaps the most obvious example of color in “Don’t Mourn for Us” is the entire background of the article. The screen is completely made up of rainbow colors, spanning from the left to the right of the screen. At first, I wasn’t sure if the background would relate to the article, but with more analysis, it becomes a strong amplification of Sinclair’s messages. The contrast, joyful symbolization, and constant reminder of color in the background initiate deeper thoughts on its meaning. In the beginning, Sinclair’s article discusses the grief that a parent bears when learning that their child has autism; this grief is described as “the loss of the normal child the parents had hoped and expected to have” (Sinclair). With the content being upsetting and dull, it creates a large contrast between the darker tones in the article and the bright colors in the background; this gives an unconscious sense of hope to parents reading this, who intend to grow past their grieving. A sense that although the parents lost a child that they had expected, the child with autism will still bring light and joy into their lives, even if it’s different than what they had prepared for. Later in his article, Sinclair explains that when parents say they wish their child didn’t have autism, it is the same as saying “I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead” (Sinclair). These few sentences in his article stand out tremendously and contain one of the most strong and meaningful messages in the piece. This idea carries on throughout the rest of the article, reiterating the idea that “autism is a way of being” rather than being an outer shell to be broken through or something that can be taken away. This point that autism is a way of being is shown by the blending of the colors in the background, symbolizing the blending of autism in a person, and how someone with autism cannot be separated from what makes them who they are. At the end of Sinclair’s article, the bright background is then brought full circle with a more upbeat, hopeful ending. After discussing the darkness of grief and loss of the expected, Sinclair wraps up by saying to the parents of autistic children, “come join us, in strength and determination, in hope and joy…the adventure of a lifetime is ahead of you” (Sinclair). This joyful ending creates a parallel with the bright background that has been contrasting the article up until that point and finally gives hope and light at the end. Therefore, the color in this article creates a sense of hope at the end of a tunnel in the way that a parent has to learn to overcome the loss of what was expected and learn to find joy for the child they have. 

Amanda Baggs’ “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” incorporates color to enhance the message that just because autistics don’t speak the same language as most, they shouldn’t be seen as different or not ‘normal.’ One of Baggs’ main critiques is on non-autistics describing autistics as absent and having a “lack of soul” (Baggs). She builds up this critique with the element of color, by relating it to a mountain analogy where autistics are in seen in a valley while non-autistics are up on the mountain, saying, “they call that valley ‘not mountain’ and proclaim it dry, barren, and colorless because that’s how it looks from a distance” (Baggs). I especially like this analogy because it sets forth the idea that non-autistics rarely try to find different ways to connect with autistics because it is too different or unnatural for them. The way that Baggs incorporates color in this analogy gives it more of a lasting impact because it causes the reader to create a colorless image in their heads, causing a deeper understanding of the dullness in the way non-autistics often see autism. The addition of the word colorless creates that deeper meaning because a colorless world is something that many people don’t like, similar to how most people would choose a colored movie over a black and white one. The word also connects to the other ways that autism has been described as an absence and as a lack of a soul. This provides a plain picture for readers of the unfortunate ways that the world looks at autism. Later in the analogy, Baggs’ further explains how the valley has “all kinds of trees, many of which can’t grow in the mountain” and how “each experience is like a new rainbow for every sense,” she contradicts the colorless life that is assumed by most (Baggs). The contrast between the way people perceive autism compared to how autistic people live is explained in a more meaningful and impactful way by creating the large contrast between colorless life and rainbows. 

In Rebecca Foust’s “Apologies to my OB-GYN,” the color that transforms the poem’s influence on readers is blue. From the sad and hopeless tone in the poem to the blue background surrounding the stanzas, the color blue sets the mood for the entire poem. In general, society usually groups words with colors: happiness is more often than not associated with bright yellows, love is represented by pinks and reds, and sadness is matched with blues. With three out of the four stanzas beginning with the word ‘sorry,’ a sad, despairing tone is immediately given off, creating that blue tone. Furthermore, the addition of a dark and dullish-blue background is important in giving off the message that this poem is meant to be hopeless and sad, as it is about parents whose child is having complications in the prenatal nursery. When a parent’s baby is having a difficult time after birth, it is simply sad and blue, just like Foust’s poem. Sometimes the tone of a poem can be hard to read, but the straightforwardness of the blues and sad imagery in “Apologies to my OB-GYN” makes even more of an impact because of its simplicity.

Color in literature is a beautiful and powerful addition to any piece and I am glad that it was added within so many pieces in the autism unit. For someone who didn’t know much about autism before taking this class, I have a much stronger understanding now because of these literary works and the imagery, attention, and contrast that they presented to me with color. 

Word Count: 1186

Autism Studies: Language and Variation

            In Autism studies, language is a widely explored topic that carries a variety of speculations with it.  Within Autism studies, language has many meanings.  Language is not static but is every growing and evolving.  Language is not confined to one manner or another, and differences in language methods should be celebrated and acknowledged.  Specifically, neurodivergent language, the atypical neurological state that encompasses a wide range of differently abled manner of communicating.  In the text “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” by Amanda Baggs and the text “Cultural Commentary: Communicate with Me” by DJ Savarese, the diversity of language in the Autistic community is explored and analyzed.  The texts present obstacles that come with Autistic language as well as some of the common misconceptions about language that comes with being a part of a neurodiverse community.  The texts by Amanda Baggs and DJ Savarese examine and present language in a manner that intersects with Autistic studies, connecting it to real world experiences.   The texts by Baggs and Savarese explore how neurodivergent language presents itself, what neurodivergent language is, and why the presence of neurodivergent language is important to modern day Autism studies.

            The texts “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” by Amanda Baggs and “Cultural Commentary: Communicate with Me” by DJ Savarese expand upon how neurodivergent language appears in the modern day.  Neurodiversity presents itself within the literary texts to explore the capacity in which the language of the autistic community is represented.  Language of the neurodivergent community is often misconstrued when it is first introduced.  Baggs discusses how the languages that are used by the Autistic community are inaccurately portrayed, “Like counters, stairs, and drinking fountains, language was built mostly by non-autistic people, with the obvious results, and my biggest frustration is this: the most important things about the way I perceive and interact with the world around me can only be expressed in terms that describe them as the absence of something important” (Baggs).  The language that is expressed in any way outside of the standard criteria set by neurotypicals is frequently considered strange and abnormal.  As a neurodivergent person herself, Baggs describes how the absence of typical conventional language is often viewed as being improper or wrong is a large part of being neurodivergent.  The lack of words or speech does not equal a lack of perception or understanding.  Baggs argues that the difference in language conventions equals a richness found only with this variety of representation.  This ideal that a verbal or visible language is required for understanding to be acquired is an ableist mindset.  Baggs further dispels this concept, “Colors. Sounds. Textures. Flavors. Smells. Shapes. Tones. These are short words, but the meaning of them is long, involved, and complex…It is hard to explain to another person the patterns of perception that come before the ones they themselves have” (Baggs).  Baggs’ text expresses how many neurotypicals have a difficult time understanding the processes involved in neurodivergent language because it is likely completely different than their own.  According to her article, it is clear that language presents itself in many different forms outside of traditional speech, involving things much more complex than words.  The neurodivergent patterns of language are vast and growing and do not conform to any one manner of occurring. 

            The exploration of what neurodivergent language is continues to be presented in various literary texts and studies.  From DJ Savarese’s “Cultural Commentary”, the meaning of language within the Autistic community is further explored and analyzed.  As a member of the neurodivergent community as well, Savarese presents commentary on language through his experiences.  As opposed to popular belief, language enters and exits the body from all senses.  Language is not merely verbal, and in Savarese’s experience, it consists of full body phenomena, “Yes, I can hear, but getting nervous is ultimately deafening to me…At times like these, I cannot make sense of what you say, but most of the time I do hear and understand real voices” (Savarese).  As expressed by Savarese, language is not confined to one form or another.  All five senses impact how language and communication are displayed.  The lack of traditional conventions in language does not equal a lack of understanding, but instead an alternation method of expression.  Instead, neurodivergent communication utilizes other aspects of the body to output language.  This usage of a variety of methods to communicate enhances the richness in which information is gathered in a controlled manner; Savarese himself suffers from sensation overload, so this widescale usage of language allows him different ways of controlling his intake.  The importance of these bodily signals varies, “First, ignore my involuntary gestures, including my signs for “done” and “break”…Remember these gestures are not voluntary. They are just my body’s way of responding to stimuli” (Savarese).  Neurodivergent language comes in many forms and is used in many different ways to fit the person.  There is no one way to utilize language, as is there only one kind of language.  Whether voluntary or involuntary, language presents itself in numerous ways as a method for exploration and communication from members of the neurodivergent community.  Savarese’s experience with body language represents the different manners in which language can be utilized aside from these traditional verbal forms.

            The presence of neurodivergent languages in the Autistic community is growing in recognition and expression.  Writers and activists like Baggs and Savarese are important primary sources to draw information about language from.  A direct result of the rising number of neurodivergent community members is an increase in misconceptions.  The works of writers like Savarese and Baggs impress upon the education of language and expression within Autism studies.  Expanding upon the definition of language and its relation to the Autistic experience is a large part of understanding that language is not a static form of communication that functions the same for everyone.  Baggs argues for this concept, “Not all of these things communicate everything that typical languages communicate, but I don’t see any reason they should have to. They are rich and varied forms of communication in their own right, not inadequate substitutes for the more standard forms of communication” (Baggs).  Communication, whether verbal or written, has evolved to fit the needs of an individual person.  Just as sign language works for those with hearing impairments, body language and sensational language may work for those of neurodiverse minds.  Expanding our definition of language can impact how we view neurodiverse minds and enhance the experiences we have with others.  Savarese, for example, represents the expanding world of communication and how to approach it, “What can you do to help me? The answer is communicate with me. Boldly reach out to me, and together we will goldenly share our views of the world we long to greet” (Savarese).  Many times, adverse reactions to differences drives away any chance at acquiring something new.  Exploring the concept of language and neurodiversity through minds like Savarese and Baggs will further enrich the world we live in.  The presence of neurodiversity and language is a constant within our communities and acknowledging the role it plays in modern society is the first step towards raising awareness. 

            In conclusion, language is an everchanging and evolving concept that thrives in our modern society.  Within the texts “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” by Amanda Baggs and “Cultural Commentary: Communicate with Me” by DJ Savarese, the concept of language and its wide variation is explored.  Language comes in many forms aside from the traditional conventions of verbal and written language.  Body language using all five of the sense plays an equally important role in communication, especially to neurodivergent minds.  Baggs and Savarese explore how neurodivergence impacts language as we know it, as well as expressing why it is important in today’s modern world.  There is great richness to be found in a variation of language types, especially when drawing from the experiences of the Autistic community and related neurodivergent minds.  Language as we know it is being reassigned meaning before our very eyes, driving home the message that language is meant to be unique to each individual user.

(Word count: 1429)

Works Cited


Baggs, Amanda. “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours.” Disability Studies Quarterly (2010).

Savarese, DJ. “Cultural Commentary: Communicate With Me.” Disability Studies Quarterly (2010).