Why Some Special Ed Profs are Afraid of Autists: Hint, They Don’t Know Very Much

“It is difficult for nonspeaking people to define their feelings in language which is chiefly made by talkers to express theirs.”

—my paraphrase, Thomas Hardy

Hi. My name is Steve. If this was a twelve step program instead of an essay you’d say “Hello Steve!” (presumably with warmth) and I’d announce: “I’m blind and though I’m a reasonably well known writer (which means I’ve found many nuanced methods to swindle readers) I must make a confession.” Yes. Here it comes. When I type I don’t look at the keys. That’s right: I just peck from inside a cloud of unknowing which some might call memory and others may call serendipity—and soon I’ll explain the difference but not yet—not yet because if you’re a neurotypical sighted person I think you look at your keyboard when you type. You do this not only for help (your knowledge of the keys is incomplete; you really don’t know where the “t” and the “o” are) but also as a means of confirmation. I know you don’t think of your eyes as accommodating agents. I understand you think sight is an autonomic extension of your inmost thoughts. You must believe this for to acknowledge vision’s documented primacy in all your achievements would be too humbling. Yes. Your eyes correct your typing which means you’re not a typist at all. That’s right. And worse for you, your memory is substandard. You couldn’t name where all the letters are on a qwerty keyboard or what’s right now on your bookshelf—not  without your peepers.

I know my keyboard from memory, not by luck or deceit. I’m literate (though the blind have only been viewed as being so since the late 18th century) and what’s more I’ll kick your ass at Scrabble. The difference between mnemonic prowess and serendipity is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug, to borrow an analogy from Mark Twain who used it with more panache though you shouldn’t repeat what he said in mixed company.

I’m a blind high speed typer who knows where everything is on his bookshelf and can find a book in the dark.

I have a dozen autistic friends who type to communicate. They’re frequently attacked by a school of special education professors who believe non speaking people can’t possibly do this. The professors’ thinking goes like this: “If an autistic goes into a forest with Hansel and Gretle and he points at a tree and Gretle supports his elbow so he can touch it, has he really communicated anything? Maybe the hapless autist didn’t want to touch that tree at all. What if Hansel and Gretel forced him to touch that Fagus sylvatica—for Gretle especially loves the beech trees of the Black Forest? (Much worse of course is that Gretle doesn’t even know she has a beech tree bias.) Now in turn, if the autist wanted to point at the beech tree and Hansel took his elbow, well Hansel might conceivably force him to touch a Scotch Pine since Hansel is a variant of “Hans” and Hans means “one who repeatedly rubs pine trees” and yes, Hansel is more than half dishonest, and in any case the poor autist doesn’t know the difference between a beech and a Christmas tree you see.


Divagation #1: wandering off the path, especially in forests…

There are no autists or people with autism. There are no blind people, no deaf people. The terms are meaningless as no two disabled citizens who are categorically believed to have the same disablement will experience it in the same way.

Divagation #2:  Charles Darwin put his finger on it…

Referring to Darwin’s trans-speciesism where use of language is concerned, Elizabeth Grosz writes in her book “Becoming Undone: Darwinian Refections on Life, Politics, and Art”:

“The human represents one branch of an anthropoid line of language, birds an altogether different line, and bees and other insects another line again. Each develops languages, communication systems, forms of articulated becoming, sign-systems, according to its own morphological capacities, its own sexual interests, and its own species-specific affects. Each “speaks” as it can, elaborating a line of movement that brings sound, movement, resonance into being, that composes songs, sound-lines, statements, expressions as complex and rich as each species can bear.”

Clearly autists are human and not cockatoos or bees, but articulated becoming, sign-systems, and individuated morphological capacities are essential to any understanding of what language is.

Sound, movement, resonance, articulated becoming, complexity are all components of languages and work across what we call species but which we might as well call life itself.

Divagation @3: the boy next door has made a whistle from a blade of grass; I’m playing a trumpet…briefly, we make the same note on October 2nd 2002, in Columbus, Ohio…


The professors I allude to in the field of Special Education are proponents of “exceptionality” and believe that a cohort of disabled students can only be taught if identifiable patterns of strengths and needs common to all students can be understood. In parts of Canada and in various places in the US a disabled student can only access special education services if he or she has an exceptionality—that is, they must prove they’re better than the rest of those dumb kids. In these days when neuroscience and assistive technology are changing our understanding of individual needs and competencies the hoary idea that autistic people must fit a neo-Victorian template, a spectrum if you will, with high functioning and low functioning labels trotted out like specimens in 19th century science is still prevalent. Forget that these professors have a stake in waving the flag of science as a red herring—that the majority of special education faculty are ill equipped to engage with contemporary neurological research into the nature of autism—let us just pretend that autists are mannequins, and voila! You’ve got the professors’ favorite “ableist” conspiracy theory. You see: there are no talented, imaginative non-speaking people. The term “facilitated communication” is their rhetorical weapon of choice—an outdated term and one that has zero relevance these days, but it is so easy to paint with an old, stiff, unwashed brush. It’s important to the proponents of exceptionality that the public continue to think nonspeaking people have no thoughts of their own. Moreover the general public should also believe that all inclusive communication techniques are dishonest because, after all, you must always remember Hansel and Gretle and the woods.


Yes, Amy Wallace; I enjoyed your Bus 52 video.

Amy Wallace forwarded this note to me and I’m glad she did.  Take a look at what the folks on Bus 52 are up to.  (Thanks for sharing, Amy.)

Bus 52's Bus

Photo: front of a converted 1984 International School Bus.  It looks to be painted green with a cream colored hood.


My name’s Amy Wallace, I’m part of a nonprofit project called Bus 52. We travel around the country making videos about people who are doing inspiring things for their community.

We made a video about Our Thrift Store in Franklin, Tennessee, which is a nonprofit thrift store that employs people with disabilities and puts back all the profits of the store into employing community members.

I thought you and your readers might enjoy the video we make about it, which can be seen here: http://youtu.be/neF-hekUpKM

Please let me know if you have any questions,

Thanks! Amy

Amy Wallace

Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of “Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir “Planet of the Blind”, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. His second collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Letters to Borges, is scheduled for release in November 2012.  In addition to giving literary readings, Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. www.stephenkuusisto.com

"Reasonable People": On Poetry and the Politics of Breathing

Book Review:
by Stephen Kuusisto

Reasonable People: a Memoir of Autism & Adoption
By Ralph James Savarese
The Other Press

“My name is DJ and I am taking a trip of a lifetime.”

The line above appears in the journal of DJ Savarese who is the co-author of the memoir Reasonable People which has just been published by The Other Press.  The sub-title of the book is as important to culture as the title itself: “On the meaning of family and the politics of neurological difference”.  This timely book is about the Horatian life, “Life” written with a capital “L”.  Accordingly it is about family and the life of the mind; about poetry and the fierce resistance to stereotypes of people with autism.

Assuredly one can think of dozens of additional sub-titles for the book: Living Outside their Boxes; Unraveling the Outworn Tapestry of Academic Autism; A Prayer Wheel by Two Poets; or The Road of Salt and Honey.   

This is a memoir about “hard traveling” as Woody Guthrie would say, and yet it is far more than a narrative of trouble and triumph.  The poet, Ralph James Savarese, skillfully tells the story of his adoptive son DJ’s former life of physical and intellectual abuse and in turn and almost seamlessly tells the story of how he and his wife Emily must grow both intellectually and emotionally and yes, politically, since DJ’s autism is the kind of disability our culture has misunderstood throughout history.   

Continue reading “"Reasonable People": On Poetry and the Politics of Breathing”