Ralph James Savarese


On his book See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

Cover Interview of March 13, 2019


I want readers to consider the advantages of a “difference” model (not a “deficit” one) when approaching autism generally and reading fiction specifically. In an opinion piece, I once wrote, “It’s early in the 21st century, and we still have no idea what autistic people can do.” By that I meant: we’re only now beginning to see autistic strengths by discarding the deeply pathological “all-deficits-all-the-time” lens, and we’re only now beginning to recognize how plastic autistic brains are—as plastic as non-autistic ones. Both neurotypes are capable of growing and changing in dynamic ways. The danger of the autistics-are-good-at-math stereotype is that it encourages us to exclude autistic young people from language arts classrooms and, later, to steer them toward jobs in engineering, say, or computers. We don’t have a narrow sense of nonautistic talent or potential. We don’t categorically recommend that every nonautistic person head for one sort of field and stay away from all others. Yes, students have natural predispositions or proclivities, but our job as educators is not to foster them exclusively. Rather, it is to expose students to a wide range of subjects in the hope that they might discover an unlikely or improbable passion. When reading short stories with Temple Grandin, I learned that her favorite course in college was a literature course, a course that she was certain she would hate and do poorly in. Fifty years after that class, she was still able to talk articulately about Dante’s Inferno and to recite, from memory, lines of poetry by William Wordsworth. Who knew? I hope that my book, which I purposefully wrote in an accessible style, will persuade educators to think differently about autism and literature.