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.


Dog Language 101

The utility of language resides in two questions: what’s upwind and what’s the best way to get there?  For all I know dogs may have poetry—sonnets of smell—amusing to think so—but when I took my first solo walk down the subway stairs with guide dog Corky I knew she had a bold and ancient comprehension of our circumstances.  When you feel the language of others, even when its silent, you’re sensing competence.  Some days a silent language is all you need.

Once, riding a train from Helsinki to Tampere, I sat beside three old women.  They knew one another well.  You could see it in their postures, long familiarity.  One was knitting.  One had a book.  The third looked out the window.  Every now and then one of them would say a confirmatory thing—“snowing again” or “coffee?”  It was easy to be in their company.  I was a young man writing poetry and starting to understand the delicacies of language and consciousness.

With a dog you don’t have to be all tricky and wild.  Trouble free words will do.  Heartfelt silence will do.  Walking through the subway with Corky I let her guide me and kept my mouth shut.

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 has just been released. Listen to Steve read “Letter to Borges in His Parlor” in this fireside reading via YouTube. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled What a Dog Can Do. Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

Essay on the Politics of English Clarity and Them Folk with Disabilities


One can read theories about stigma, or about the cultural formations of difference. These are necessary and instructive but as I grow older I can’t help but feel our efforts to understand disability as a marginalized human category cannot fully bear fruit without accessing the politics of clarity–an Orwellian thought to be sure but more evident to me now. Do not misread me: I believe in talking back to “the man” and believe in the ardor of revisioning dominant or pejorative narratives, how could a so called “disability” writer be otherwise? Yet I think that the rhetorics of opposition concentrate and then recaste difference until the one who cries out is nearly exhausted with effort. Here I think of James Baldwin’s assertion: “A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.” That there are those who despise people with disabilities seems evident even some twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That people with disabilities cannot afford to be fooled is a matter for the politics of clarity. 

The post-human age may yet give us some new places to roll or stand. The evolutions of cyborgian prostheses will likely help to break down the “normative-abnormal” dichotomy that has dominated both the theory and reality of disablement. Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorias have redirected the fashion industry which will inevitably embrace the postnormative. This is all too the good. Yet I think it’s a safe bet that while prosthesis may become no different than the brand of automobile one drives, invisible disabilities or those that produce a public misapprehension about intellectual capacity (blindness, apparent deafness) will remain problematic in the town square. While physical difference can become fashionable, disablement as a capacity of mind is more difficult for the public nerve. In Western tradition we tend to believe in the mind as a substance rather than an essence, we cherish thought that is fast and muscular but denigrate neuroatypical thinking. We believe in “mind over matter” and imagine that those with learning disabilities or who are on the autism spectrum are simply not doing enough pushups. 


As I’ve already said, a person with a disability cannot afford to be fooled. The nominative and representational characteristics of invisible disability (or any condition that challenges dominant models of identity and attention) will require fresh language in a new century. Enter Orwell. The politics of language demand precision. In one of the best essays in English on the subject of language and physical difference, Nancy Mairs describes how she arrived at the decision to call herself a cripple: 

 “"Cripple" seems to me a clean word, straightforward and precise. It has an honorable history, having made its first appearance in the Lindisfarne Gospel in the tenth century. As a lover of words, I like the accuracy with which it describes my condition: I have lost the full use of my limbs. "Disabled," by contrast, suggests any incapacity, physical or mental. And I certainly don't like "handicapped," which implies that I have deliberately been put at a disadvantage, by whom I can't imagine (my God is not a Handicapper General), in order to equalize chances in the great race of life. These words seem to me to be moving away from my condition, to be widening the gap between word and reality. Most remote is the recently coined euphemism "differently abled," which partakes of the same semantic hopefulness that transformed countries from "undeveloped" to "underdeveloped," then to "less developed," and finally to "developing" nations. People have continued to starve in those countries during the shift. Some realities do not obey the dictates of language.” 

Mairs writes famously, “as a cripple, I swagger” a position that’s unassailable given the economic abjection in “disability”–that Victorian term still tied to the factories of the Industrial Revolution–it was Karl Marx’s noun for those who lacked the economic utility to be useful workers. Surely “disability” does not swagger. Moreover the word carries no degree or standard of completeness. This is its signature problem for if a cripple is entire, singular, and freed from oppositional enactments with ability, a person with a disability is trapped in a triangle of etceteras–unable, etc; incapable, etc; accordingly, vaguely sub-Cartesian–sans thought, etc. Disability disorganizes conduct and places physicality outside of possibility. So the term has less to do with opposition to normal activity and a good deal to do with a prejudicial conspiracy against the mind. Just as nothing in nature is truly broken, just as evolution defies the normal, there is no proper categorical or taxonomic position that can hypostatize variance or give it a name.    

As I’ve said more than once I prefer “world citizen” to disability. I prefer omnimodal essences and motive power.