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What Poetry Can Teach Us About the Autistic Brain

A professor of English teaches neurobiologists at Duke a thing or two about the brains of people with autism.

By Stephanie Soucheray

Metaphor, meter and Moby Dick.

That’s where Ralph Savarese’s PhD expertise lies. But this year the English professor from Grinnell College found himself studying neuroscience and conducting research on the link between poetry, classical autism and writing at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS).

Ralph Savarese

Ralph Savarese

“I’m not a scientist, I’m a humanist,” said Savarese, who’s the first visiting humanities professor at DIBS.  “But I think what I’m doing can help inform how scientists, and neuroscientists in particular, think about autism and shape research.”

Last week, DIBS hosted events for Brain Awareness Week, highlighting some of the collaborative research that’s taking place at the five-year-old institute, which houses 153 Duke faculty members working on collaborative research projects to advance understanding of the brain.

Savarese gave a talk entitled “Poetic Potential in Autism: Neurodiversity’s Unexpected Boon” at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham as part of the Brain Awareness Week.

“It used to be assumed that autistics lack empathy,” said Savarese. “Scientific tools for reading emotions can and have been wrong. It could just be that some people with autism engage on a different level.”

He said dozens of people showed up for the hour-and-a-half talk where Savarese explained some of his novel research and insight into classical autism.

“We’re trying to foster ways to engage problem-solving and seek innovative solutions to brain problems,” said Elizabeth Johnson, assistant director of DIBS. “We give these researchers incubator awards and pilot grants for high-risk but high-gain collaborative projects.”

Johnson said Savarese’s work on neurodiversity and classical autism is exactly the type of work that fosters new understandings of brain disease.

Rethinking the classic

images of brain scans

Researchers performing brain scans report changes in the activation of some brain regions in people with autism, possible evidence of alternative brain organization. In this image, blue regions represent areas activated in control subjects and yellow areas in subjects with autism who looked at the same pictures. From Powell K (2004), “Opening a window to the autistic brain,” PLoS Biol 2 (8): E267

Classical autism, the type of autism Leo Kanner  described in the 1940s, is called “classical” because these people display traditional hallmarks of the disease: an inability to speak, a perceived lack of empathy, sensory motor issues and what Savarese calls the “flapping arms in the mirror” type of autism.

But Savarese is challenging that understanding.

“The claim historically was that these people were illiterate and had no feel at all for metaphors, for figurative language,” he said. “But we’ve so demonized those aspects of autism. We have not fully apprehended what the skills are.”

One of those skills may be an extraordinary ability to write and manipulate language, often in a way that helps “neurotypicals” better understand why creative writing “works” or it doesn’t.

“What is it about poetry as a kind of language that venerates? What do you need to do to be said to be writing poetry?” said Savarese. “It tends to be concrete sensory images, images grounded in senses and details.”

In Savarese’s experience, literate people with classical autistism can tap into the world of detail, embody feeling and use metaphor more naturally than their neurotypical peers because of the way their brains are wired.

Savarese said brain scans show that some people with classical autism have synesthisa, meaning more than one part of their brain pathways “light up” when one of their senses is used. This is the same idea that writers try to tap into when they employ metaphor.

“Think about saying, ‘Your voice sounds so smooth,’” said Savarese. “You’re describing something by using one sense modality with another.” A person with classical autism may be able to connect these feelings more easily than someone who is neurotypical, something Savarese has seen in the classroom when he’s paired people with autism with undergrads.

Understanding autism helps everyone

“I’m not teaching autistics because I’m a good liberal,” said Savarese. “It’s mutually beneficial for the neurotypical students.”

Savarese is quick to point out that his insight into how autism could be beneficial when it comes to comprehending poetic expression is not Pollyanna-ish. He knows firsthand that some people with autism will never be taught to read or write, and may not be capable of all the skills he tries to foster in his work; but some may. Savarese said traditional medicine and neuroscience has pigeonholed these people and limited their abilities.

In fact, Savarese points to his son as an example of what pigeonholing can do.

Savarese was volunteering in a Big Brother program 20 years ago when he met a 6-year-old boy with autism. The boy, named DJ, couldn’t talk, was said to be severely delayed, was in diapers and was the victim of sexual abuse. Now, 20 years later, DJ is Savarese and his wife’s adopted son and the first non-speaking student with autism to be attending Oberlin College.

“It took my wife and I two years to teach our son to point to a word on a board,” said Savarese. “Not everyone is going to have those resources.”

At Duke, Savarese is working on a qualitative study of language and metaphor with Tito Mukhopadhyay, a poet who has autism. He’s also collaborating with peers in the psychology department on understanding empathy.

“Ralph has been an incredible resource for us at Duke,” said Johnson. “He shows us what’s unknown about autism. He’s a leader in the neurodiversity movement, and makes it possible to understand the condition and provide novel therapies to better accommodate people with autism.

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