Over the last several years, English scholars have explored rhetorical concepts of autism within a Disability Studies framework, including notable authors such as Melanie Yergeau, Paul Heilker, and Anne McGuire. In Autistic Disturbances, Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe, Julia Miele Rodas furthers the work of scholars in autism theory and rhetorics by combining autism language with literary theory. Rodas identifies autistic language as similar to poetry, something that is prized in literature but is deemed "deficient" in everyday ableist contexts. She notes that "autism interpreters typically fail to register the creative valence of autistic language" (64). Through Autistic Disturbances, readers will gain insights into definitions of autistic language as well as examples of these theories to classic literature, including a controversial medical manual that plays a role in "diagnosing" autism.

Before delving into examples of autistic poetics in mainstream literature, Rodas first carefully works to define autistic language by identifying five categories of language in autistic literature: ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion, and invention, concluding, "Autists, then, are traditionally widely recognized as inventors of language" (65). While Rodas also discusses autistic silence as a sort of subcategory, this could arguably have been added as a sixth main category, although it may have been more difficult to apply to literature as she does throughout the rest of the book. In her defense of applying autistic language to notable works of literature, Rodas writes that "a survey on autistic language—including writing by clinicians, by literary scholars, and by autists, sometimes in overlapping roles—does indicate, contrary to popular notions, that autism may be said to have its own language, its own distinctive forms of verbal expression" (73).

After fully explicating her theories on autistic language, Rodas spends chapters three through seven putting these theories of invention in action, arguing, "The literary studies that follow are intended to demonstrate a profound debt to autistic expression, an autistic manner of speaking, and an autism aesthetic that are elsewhere broadly disparaged as being noncommunicative, without substance or value" (30). In Chapter 3, Rodas discusses the sheer irony behind the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (better known as the DSM-5) because the authors utilize a structured form of language that can sometimes mimic that of autistic language. The problem though, Rodas admits, is that there is resistance to both the form and the content of these types of texts that aim to diagnose and classify neurodiverse individuals (85-86).

In Chapters 4 (and aptly titled 4 ½), Rodas moves towards a discussion of two authors who are often identified for employing autistic language either through their own autism diagnosis (assumed, here) or through fictional autistic characters. In this case, it is Andy Warhol's memoir, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," two widely known literary works readers may perhaps leave with a different take on the authors' techniques that were previously conceived as controversial or problematic.

In Chapter 5, Rodas highlights another form of classic literature, this time focusing on Charlotte Bronte's Villette and its historically "unreliable" and controversial narrator, Lucy Snowe. Rodas explains why Lucy is problematic in an autistic language context: she is quiet, her narrative does not fully disclose details that may be important to the reader, and the movement of her story is slowly paces. She explains how, "Defying rhetorical expectations, these provocative gestures of saying and not-saying all reflect autistic expressive aesthetic, compelling audiences into a discomfortable engagement with surface that sometimes evokes reader hostility" (142).

In Chapter 6, Rodas turns her attention to another classic work of literature: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. She asks readers not to fall into the trap of trying to diagnose the monster as autistic, but instead looking at the dichotomies between space and isolation as a reflection of autistic language used throughout the text. She also focuses on the punctuation techniques Shelley's characters use, including colons, semi-colons, and dashes, sometimes all within the same sentence. To this point, she writes: "Within the text of Frankenstein, such interruptive/connective punctuation is ubiquitous, fully characteristic of the book's rhetorical identity, just as the walls of the Creature's hovel serve both to divide and to join" (156). Rodas also notes how the "resounding silences and unusual flows of language" in Frankenstein show a pattern that "is woven not only into the expressive template of the narrator, but is reproduced in the voices of multiple characters as well as in the larger frame of the novel" (147). On a point of disagreement, I'm not sure how I feel about Rodas's comparison to Victor Frankenstein's silence in the face of opportunity to tell the truth as a method of autistic poetics.

In her final application of autistic language theories in literary contexts, Rodas describes Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in Chapter 7, admitting how this novel is perhaps garners the most critique as having an autistic main character/narrator due to several eccentricities throughout, including a fixation on objects, repetition, and aloneness. She writes, "Crusoe is, in many respects, a book about isolation, about being imprisoned in one's aloneness, a persistent theme popular in representations of autism" (166).

Overall, Rodas's Autistic Disturbances is a valuable book for scholars in Disability Studies and Autism Rhetorics, as well as those who study linguistics and literary cultural theories. Beyond the humanities, this book would also be important for professionals in the disability, mental health, and education sectors, as the viewpoint of autistic language invention could help usurp autistic language as a deficit, thereby bringing new understanding to neurodiverse populations such as autists. On the flipside, while certain chapters are particularly useful for literature courses that look at autistic language, there's an inherent caution against the venture of trying to diagnose authors and/or their characters are neurodiverse. However, this is certainly a risk Rodas understands well and she artfully acknowledges that making progress in neurodiverse language may require missteps as we continue to learn and constantly do better.

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Copyright (c) 2020 Kristeen E. Cherney

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