Lit Crit Meets “Autism”: Transgressing the boundaries with some help from FC

Ralph Savarese’s follow up to Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption is the even more modestly titled See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor. Also common to both books is that much of the content derives from facilitated communication. In Reasonable People, the facilitated individual is Savarese’s adopted son, Deej; in See It Feelingly, Deej is joined by two others who communicate via FC: Tito Mukhopadhyay and Jamie Burke. Three independent communicators—people who are able to produce messages without a designated helper sitting next to them and prompting them—also make appearances: Dora Raymaker, Eugenie Belkin, and Temple Grandin.

Like Reasonable People, See it Feelingly seeks to challenge what Savarese alleges to be the dominant paradigm of autism. As the book’s publisher, Duke University Press, explains:

Since the 1940s researchers have been repeating claims about autistic people’s limited ability to understand language, to partake in imaginative play, and to generate the complex theory of mind necessary to appreciate literature. In See It Feelingly Ralph James Savarese, an English professor whose son is one of the first nonspeaking autistics to graduate from college, challenges this view.

Just as in Reasonable People, however, Savarese’s challenge here depends on our accepting that the increasingly limited language we see along the autism spectrum, as we move out of what was once known as “Asperger’s Syndrome” (Raymaker, Belkin, and Grandin) towards what was once known as “severe autism” (Deej, Mukhopadhyay, and Burke) is only an illusion. The appearance of extremely limited language at the “high needs” end of the autism spectrum goes away, after all, once a facilitator starts facilitating communication. (Savarese, like Biklen, has a field day with the fact that Jamie Burke can speak his sentences after he types them out; like Biklen, Savarese forgets that decoding is a skill that is distinct from comprehension and composition: most of us are capable of reading out loud things we don’t understand and didn’t compose).

Savarese’s challenge also depends on rejecting the long-standing neuropsychological consensus of autism as a socio-cognitive disorder and embracing the not quite as long-standing pro-FC redefinition of autism as a sensory-motor disorder. ““More and more,” he tells us, “scientists are viewing autism as a complex sensorimotor condition and not some innate defect of imagination or sociality.” Savarese’s scientists are the usual suspects: Doug Biklen, Mike Merzenich, Matthew Belmonte, Elizabeth Torres, and Anne Donellan—all of them people who have been taken in by one version or another facilitated communication… and who have revised their conceptions of autism accordingly.

Savarese, who attended a boot camp in neuroscience at Duke University in 2012-2013, waxes scientific himself. He makes much of the fact that the basal ganglia is involved in both complex motor movements and in complex language. He attempts to connect movement in general with what he terms “social motion” and “motor empathy”1. Also connected to movement, per Savarese, is the experience of time: “autistics are beautifully stuck in the present, unable to leverage the past to create an immediate, if less captivating because motorically homogenized, future.” But Savarese fails to notice what these notions, to the extent that they’re even valid, imply about autism. If problems with movement affect language, social experience, and the ability to think beyond the here and now, then autism is not just a sensory-motor disorder. No matter what the underlying causes are—among actual neuroscientists, the jury is still out on that—all those socio-cognitive challenges that Savarese wants to will away via his everything-is-motoric account instead creep right back in.

But besides the sensory-motor differences, the only autism-specific difficulty that Savarese acknowledges is anxiety. Here, too, he follows his pro-FC forebears: anxiety is blamed for difficulties with word retrieval, which in turn purportedly explain poor performance on message-passing tests.

Returning to Savarese’s assault on the Dominant Paradigm, we’re treated to the usual straw men. First there’s that claim that the DP views autistic children as lacking imagination in general–as opposed to being deficient, specifically, in the kind of imagination that’s manifested in social play. Then there’s the claim that the DP views autistic children as lacking in empathy in general–as opposed to being deficient, specifically, in reading facial expressions and in quickly and effortlessly putting themselves in other people’s socio-cognitive shoes. Where empathy is concerned, Savarese specifically targets Simon Baron Cohen—even though a careful look through SBC’s infamous Empathy Quotient test reveals that most of the questions assess personal preferences and introversion vs. extraversion. SBC, however unreliable some of his claims about autism may be, is not saying that autistic people lack basic empathy and are incapable, say, of feeling sorrow when they see someone suffering.

But in See it Feelingly, Savarese wants to take us far beyond basic empathy. Through his literary adventures with his six chosen “autists,” he wants us to see how deeply and meaningfully people with autism engage with literature—via far richer sorts of empathy than neurotypicals are capable of. Having a second field day with what’s been written about sensory sensitivities and enhanced low-level sensory processing in autism (here he cites Uta Frith and Laurent Mottron, as well as first-person testimonials from Temple Grandin and Donna Williams), and claiming as well that autism is a “profoundly visuospatial intelligence” that may involve a “surfeit of emotional empathy,” Savarese explains that autists experience literature in a much more raw and vivid way than non-autists do:

Autistics, who excel at thinking in pictures, sounds, touches, and smells, bring to linguistic comprehension an obdurate attachment to mental imagery. Call it the upside of “liv[ing] in the sensory,” as Donna Williams puts it. Might autistics, in this respect, be the perfect readers of literature?

Some of what Savarese cites as corroboration is actually the opposite: “Autistics,” he tells us, “tend to remember printed letters as though they were shapes and not the phonological symbols that nonautistics immediately take them to be.” But as reading science will tell you, processing letters as shapes rather than as phonological symbols takes you a step away from decoding the words they spell—and so a step away from meaning. The same goes for phonological processing difficulties, which Savarese likewise casts as mere differences, not deficits.

As for Savarese’s particular sources, it’s his facilitated informants—those whose authorship is in doubt—who best fit his thesis. Both Deej and Tito, for example, not only report deep sensory experience, but also synesthesia. Tito’s synesthesia, “which neuroimaging has documented, suggests a complete immersion in the sensory and a further loosening of categorical bonds: as hearing becomes sight, sound becomes silk.” Jamie Burke also reports deeply sensitive, synesthetic, sensory responses: “Laguna chants were ‘harmonies of elevation.’ Human voices ‘carry visual form.’ Ceremonies ‘can structure visual connection with the grounding of the past.’” All this—as Savarese does not bother to remind us—is extracted through facilitated communication.

Those who communicate without facilitation—those whose authorship is not in doubt—reinforce more than they challenge the common stereotypes about autistic readers: a preference for science fiction and for non-fiction, as opposed to literature that centers on everyday interpersonal relationships; a tendency to stick with the literal. Savarese makes much of Grandin’s emotional responses to scenes of suffering and tragedy. But in the end, there’s clearly only so much Grandin gets out of literary fiction, noting as she does that “I think deconstructing literature is just rubbish.”

Interestingly, these independent communicators also report more difficulties with language than their facilitated counterparts do. Both Raymaker and Grandin, for example, say they’ve had trouble using grammatical function words appropriately. As for comprehension issues, Raymaker is stumped by the very first sentence of the sci fi novel she reads with Savarese: “A merry little surge of electricity piped by the automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.” Raymaker’s take:

I see electricity, then an alarm, then a piece of tech, then a bed, then a man, all jumbled and out-of-order, each new element forcing me to retrace the sentence and rebuild it, only to find that I still didn’t get it right because more jumble follows.

It’s interesting that so many of those who want to demolish the Dominant Paradigm  seek out informants from the two ends of the spectrum: the end that was once called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and the end that was once called “severe autism.” At the latter end, of course, is where facilitated communication dominates and where those called on to “discuss” autism are invariably facilitated. The source material that is being used to demolish the DP, in other words, is hardly representative of the autism spectrum.

If Savarese had included my son in his literary adventures, the results would have been quite different. My son is squarely in the middle of the spectrum—I’d call it the neglected middle—having been diagnosed multiple times as what was then called “moderate.” I’m thinking our next book will be Gödel Escher Bach, and I’m pretty darn sure he won’t be seeing it feelingly.


1. “Motor empathy”, a term I’d never heard before, apparently means “motorically executing an expected response”: a great catch-all for all sorts of social, behavioral, and linguistic responses, and therefore a great way to redefine all disorders as motor disorders.

3 thoughts on “Lit Crit Meets “Autism”: Transgressing the boundaries with some help from FC

    1. Tito’s mother is sitting right next to him with her eyes glued to the screen. The possibility of cuing cannot be ruled out. All humans are suspeptible to Clever Hans-type cuing. You can read more about that here:

      In addition, Tito’s responses here are generic enough that they may have been to some extent rehearsed and then prompted by key words in the questions.

      All videos of Tito communicating show his mother nearby, within cuing range.


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