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  • Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe by Julia Miele Rodas
  • Rachael Nebraska Lynch (bio)
Julia Miele Rodas, Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2018/ Paperback ISBN: 978-0-472-05394-0. $29.95. 230pp.

Autistic Disturbances thoroughly and engagingly examines what Julia Miele Rodas terms "autism poetics" in the anglophone cultural canon, from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. She determines that "autism has a particular language, one that has been extensively recognized, researched, and described by clinical theorists, literary scholars, and autism (self)advocates" (3). Using this medical-model baseline for the descriptor "autistic language," she builds on pre-existing conceptions of autism poetics. Despite the title's allusion to Leo Kanner's infamous paper that coined the term autism, Rodas focuses on literary autistic language rather than the medical pathologization of autistic language. In doing this, she subverts the idea that autistic language is an ineffective and disagreeable communicative aesthetic. Developing her own framework for categorizing the concept of autistic language, or autism poetics, she re-negotiates the pre-existing diagnostic language of medical researchers both to describe these categories and reclaim the terminology in a manner fitting to disability studies scholarship.

Rodas explicates the primary objective of Autistic Disturbances at the outset: her scholarship seeks "to pursue these resonances between explicitly identified autistic speaking and conventionally approved literary text," all the while exposing the irony that some verbal expressions denigrated as autistic contradictorily enjoy a "prized status" in the canon (3). Accordingly, Rodas strikes a balance between medical research and literary studies in her citations and objects of analysis as the book shifts from a review of clinical literature on autism to the historical reception of classic texts featuring autistic language and to her own interpretation of the narrative value of autism poetics. With her linguistic and literary analysis including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), selections from Andy Warhol's artistic oeuvre, Charlotte Brontë's Villette, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, she describes the visual and literary texts as having a "neuroqueer narrativity," meaning they rely on an autistic narrative voice. This artistic choice, she argues, enhances the narrative and provides an aesthetically [End Page 121] expansive tool for writers, just as the same methods prove effective for autists in terms of the creative possibilities for communication.

By contrast, Rodas argues against historical analyses of Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" that define its central character as autistic to demonstrate the absence of autistic language in a text, concluding that if a "narrative does not speak in autistic terms," then "it does not occupy an autistic aesthetic" (122). Instead, she offers a typology of autistic language to better identify autistic aesthetic in literary analysis. Exploring the bitter irony that language categorized by numerous autism researchers and clinicians is devalued in contemporary rhetoric (Jenny McCarthy's so-called autism activism is particularly and importantly savaged in Rodas's analysis) while valorized through literary canonization, Rodas establishes her analytical framework early in the text with a typology of autistic language. Chapters 1 and 2 (the introduction to clinical literature and Rodas's methodology, respectively) catalogue these categories for autism poetics by listing various clinical descriptors for autistic communication and then grouping these descriptors based on theme. In addition to the original medical category of autistic silence, which is the belief that autists who are silent are devoid of linguistic capacity and sometimes humanity, she posits that ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion, and invention are the five primary modes in which autistic language appears in medical discourse as well as in literary fiction.

Ricochet, she argues, is devalued in clinical literature for its echolalia and repetitive nature while authors rely on ricochet/echolalia/repetition for thematic emphasis, parallelism, and ordering in poetry and prose. Addressing apostrophe, she critiques both the DSM's characterization of this behavior as "indulging in lengthy monologues" and J. M. Baldwin's creation of the term "logorrhea" to simplify and disparage this rhetorical behavior. In this example, she lingers on the strangeness that "figures of speech robustly rooted in literary and rhetorical...


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