Autism and the Midas of Metaphor

This writing teacher challenges the mistaken view that people on the autism spectrum lack emotion and empathy.


After our writing sessions together, Desmond and I always take a few minutes to talk about the movies. He asks me for a couple suggestions (The Lost Boys, Real Genius) and gives me a few of his own (The Lego Movie, Shawshank Redemption). But on this day, for the first time ever, Desmond had an anti-suggestion: 

“Whatever you do, Chris, you have to promise me you’ll never see The Notebook.”

“Why?” I asked.   

“Because it’s too emotional,” he replied. “It’s so emotional it hurts. I’m protecting you.”

While somewhat amusing, Desmond’s concern was also very touching, and more than that, it was illuminating. As a young man on the autism spectrum, Desmond is used to people assuming he lacks emotion and empathy, that he can’t imagine how another’s experience might feel. So-called mindblindness—the inability to anticipate or understand another’s feelings—has become a blanket term that keeps expectations low for people with autism. In a sadly ironic turn, neurotypical people assume those with autism can’t feel or express, an instance of damaging mindblindness which ensures that those on the spectrum aren’t given the opportunity to demonstrate that they do. In my experience, emotions and empathy often overwhelm students like Desmond, flooding them with a depth of feeling that only touches me at the surface.

And feeling isn’t the only thing that people with autism do very deeply. Many possess a terrific sense of humor and can be impressive satirists. When we write poetry together, Desmond is always quick to spot a good pun or unexpectedly twist a belabored cliché in a new direction. Due to the keen attention autistic writers pay to these often overlooked aspects of language, I call them linguistic materialists, and it makes them natural poets.

While someone else might use the phrase “from the bottom of my heart” to help fill out a terrible love song, the autistic writer immediately reinvigorates this tired metaphor, visualizing its profound strangeness. She might picture an elevator heart, rising and falling in relation to sincerity. Or she might conjure a large open space with a stage at its base where people can express pure or true things, a foundation of feeling.

New studies have shown that despite all the well-documented deficits faced by those with autism, there are some undeniable strengths inherent to the autistic brain. Ralph James Savarese charts how right-hemisphere dominance allows the autistic mind a direct route to metaphor. While the left-brained neurotypical is busy parsing all of language for its social import, the autistic thinker remains grounded in a sensual and even synesthetic experience of language—the roots of all poetic expression. As a professor of English and creative writing at Grinnell College, Savarese has spent years trying to steer aspiring neurotypical writers away from vague abstractions and toward the sensory underpinnings of language. But when it comes to Savarese’s own son, DJ Savarese, a gifted non-verbal autistic poet, he found that DJ’s writing began with that hard-won understanding hard-wired into each line: “My son was like some sort of poetic Midas: everything he touched turned to metaphor or metonymy.” [1]

For Savarese and me, writing poetry is an experience we relish. For DJ and Desmond, thinking poetically is something they do every waking hour of their lives. Unfortunately, thinking poetically doesn’t help one practically navigate the world, and so society has chosen to focus on the difficulties of autism. And while I wouldn’t want to ignore those difficulties, I think we can all agree that the benefits deserve an equal spotlight.

In an after-school writing class I used to teach, I had a very gifted spectrum writer named Ahmed. He utilized a brilliant and idiosyncratic method of punctuation, emblazoning the page with exclamations and asterisks, what others may have called “perseverative thinking.” One day I gave the students a writing exercise that involved “re-mixing” the work of a famous poet. Usually, Ahmed leapt into writing, but this day his pencil hovered over the page tentatively, his brow furrowed with worry. Finally, he raised his hand.

“Yes, Ahmed,” I said. 

“Mr. Chris, can I use my imagination on this one?” he asked. 

“I would never expect anything less,” I replied.

Let’s give people with autism more opportunities to demonstrate what they feel, what they imagine, what comes naturally to them through humor and the language of sensory experience. As we learn more about autism, let’s not forget to learn from those with autism. There are poets walking among you and they have much to teach.

Martin is a teaching-writer at Unrestricted Interest and the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Falling Down Dance (Coffee House Press, 2015). He lives in Minneapolis and will be a visiting assistant professor at Carleton College in 2016.

[1] Ralph James Savarese, Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption, Other Press: New York (2007), 258.

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