Take-Home Final Exam: Autistic Linguicism

Irene Andrade

ENGL 384

Dr. Foss

December 9, 2021

Word Count: 1052

Autistic Linguicism

What is more important, what someone says or what someone does not say? Let us reconceptualize this. What do you imagine when you are asked this question, someone speaking verbally, someone speaking non-verbally, and/or someone not speaking whether verbal or non-verbal? Often times as a society, we place so much emphasis on verbal languages that we forget the importance of non-verbal languages and their meaning. When certain groups like this are shadowed, we find that we start to invalidate experiences they may be subjected to. Many autistic people are identified as non-verbal, meaning they do not verbally speak the predominant language of their home, and this can be the case for a variety of reasons. In this paper, we will examine different works by non-verbal and alternatively-communicating autistic authors, and how autistic people and the linguicism they face are shadowed by the importance society as a whole places on verbally speaking abled bodies.

While linguicism, coined by linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas to describe several forms of discrimination on the basis of language, is usually associated with xenophobia and people who do not speak the predominant language in certain spaces, here I am suggesting that linguicism can extend to oppress non-verbal autistic people and those who “speak” differently than other people would assume. This matter becomes more complex when you have some intersectionality. For example, Ralph James Savarese, in his essay “Toward a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and a New Geo-poetics of the Body” analyzes author Tito Mukhopadhyay’s works in order to explain postcolonial neurology, and its implications of Mukhopadhyay’s identities and writing. Mukhopadhyay is an Indian man who was diagnosed with non-verbal autism when he was young and has written many critically acclaimed books throughout his life. R.J. Savarese pulls on Mukhopadhyay to show the postcolonial perspective of pathologizing certain aspects like his brain and its function (275). Postcolonialism can also be used to understand linguicism and its effects on non-verbal autistic people such as Mukhopadhyay himself:

The sometimes wildly metaphoric language of nonspeaking autistics² makes potential       allies of neurotypical poets, whose common mission is to re-present the world in a way      that resists and reformulates hegemonic expression. In the hands of someone as skilled as Mukhopadhyay, English is at once familiar and unfamiliar: an autistic hybrid of Hindi, Bengali, and British and American English. (275)

Postcolonialism therefore affects Mukhopadhyay’s life through his ethnicity, but also his autism, and all forms of expression whether verbal or non-verbal. Additionally, R.J. Savarese joins Stuart Murray’s argument that Mukhopadhyay was at one point used as a token by the Cure Autism Now (CAN) organization as a person who “overcame” his linguistic “deficits” (276). This tokenism is partly branched from linguicism in the way that CAN is not able to recognize that Mukhopadhyay is instead multi-lingual in verbal and non-verbal ways.

Autistic authors have been known to speak out about the difficulties of being non-verbal or alternatively-communicating in a verbal world. Additionally, part of the rest of this argument is not only how people do not see the importance in communication between verbal and non-verbalness, but also how dehumanized non-verbal autistic people are. The late autistic writer Amelia “Mel” Baggs, expresses in their essay “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” how they feel people have focused on their linguistic “absence” and assumed their life was monotonous because they were non-verbal and autistic. Baggs states, “If I were merely a speaker of a foreign language, then I might be able to find ways to translate between my system of patterns and another’s categories, but as far as language goes, I am something closer to a speaker with a foreign brain,” showing how they perceive themselves as communicating in a completely different way than verbal people would typically assume. Later in the piece Baggs says, “Someone once saw a photograph of me and said that he felt sorry because I would never know the richness of life that he knows. But I wonder if he is capable of looking around and seeing shapes and colors instead of objects and of mapping the patterns of those shapes and colors.” Not holding someone’s life to the standard of someone else’s simply because of an identity or a characteristic is the crux of dehumanization, and linguicism follows this as it is partly also about how Baggs and others cannot “speak their language”. This is one way how non-verbalness has been shadowed by verbal speaking able bodies.

Lastly, we will look into David James “DJ” Savarese’s piece “Communicate With Me” to evaluate other effects of linguicism and microaggressions together. DJ Savarese describes himself as an alternatively-communicating autistic person, so he is identified as such throughout the rest of this essay. DJ Savarese recounts “Most kids choose not to talk to me at all…Recently I surveyed some of my close friends and discovered that most people aren’t sure how to talk freely to me.” His peers choosing not to talk to him is a microaggression, and the way society has not prepared his peers on how to approach him to ask how they can best communicate with him is one systemic effect of ableism and linguicism. His writing shows how much more inclusive our society could be for everyone if we could allow for people to speak for themselves whether through the predominant verbal way of speaking or not.   

As a disclaimer, I want to say that in this essay I am attempting to refocus different autistic people’s experiences with language and as many of these authors state, not any one of their points is meant to attribute to the entire group of autistic people or their community. It goes without saying that I am not autistic nor am I in the autistic community, so I am also not trying to put in my own thoughts as an autistic experience. Additionally, I do not know what causes speaking “deficits” in certain autistic people, but quite frankly, at this point, it does not matter so much. So many autistic people and especially autistic people of color are affected worldwide by ableism and linguicism. It should not matter whether certain children will be able to grow up speaking the predominant spoken language of their home, but rather whether they will be able to grow up safely at all.

I pledge – Irene Andrade

Works Cited

Baggs, Amelia. “Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours” Disability   Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1, 2010. www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/1052/1238. Accessed 9 Dec 2021.

Savarese, David James. “Communicate With Me.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1,     2010. www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/1051/1237. Accessed 9 Dec 2021.

Savarese, Ralph James. “Toward a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and a New Geo-poetics of the Body.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 4       no. 3, 2010, pp. 273-289. www.doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2010.23.