Poetry is a unique expression of what it is to be alive. So is neurodiversity.
Recently the neurodiversity movement has encouraged a celebration of difference as fundamentally human. Neurodiversity is “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population” (see: Oxford dictionary definition). This is a definition that calls us to acknowledge, as Katherine Berko put it, that “we all fall somewhere different on the spectrum of human difference.” In education, as our questions around differentiation and inclusion expand to keep up with the variety of diverse learners we are lucky enough to encounter, the neurodiversity movement flips the model for us: what if the question is not how diverse learners can fit into the classroom such as it is, what if neurodiversity can teach us how learning together could be?
With this question in mind, literacy classrooms may have a particular advantage for exploring new ways of living and learning together. The study of poetry, for example, overlaps easily in its goals and ways of thinking with neurodiverse perception.
Ralph Savarese, an English Professor at Grinell College in Iowa, has thought a lot about “the poetic potential of autism”, as he puts it, since he and his wife adopted a 6-year-old boy with autism 20 years ago. At the time their son, DJ, could not speak and was said to be severely delayed. DJ has since become the first non-speaking person with Autism to attend Oberlin College, has published several volumes of poetry, and has produced a Peabody-award winning documentary, Deej, about his life.
Through observing his son’s connection with poetry, Ralph Savarese has pushed back on many common assumptions about autism, and has begun to explore its affordances for poetic thought. “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.” Savarese challenges the assumption that classical autism is characterized by illiteracy and a lack of receptivity to metaphor or figurative language. He points out that often what makes poetry work is sensory images, grounded in details of sensory experience. He describes autism as a world of detail and feeling, able to embody poetry particularly well. Savarese has observed these affordances when he conducts workshops in which he pairs people with autism with undergraduate students to write poetry together.
For example, the poet Tito Mukhopadhyay, who has been described as “severely autistic” and uses a computer to communicate, shared this observation with Savarese about what a typical school feels like for him:
“I long ago gave up on the terrestrial world of an inclusive classroom because I was unwelcome and because I was too proud to beg. To the principals of the various schools who closed their doors to me, I was a sea mammoth. They could not recognize anything but typical; their zoos were spilling over with typical students.” When Mukhopadhyay is asked what it would take for him to feel included in a typical classroom, he is insistent: “I don’t know how to belong in a tank of fish.” (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PamjosXYiKo)
Savarese notes the use of metaphorical language and sensory detail in Mukhopadhyay’s writing, not to mention the sharp humor. Mukhopadhyay has never attended a traditional school, and is the author of 4 books.
What neurodiversity can teach us about poetry, and what neurodiversity can teach us about teaching poetry, is perhaps a question of untanking our thinking, as Mukhopadhyay suggests. Because Mukhopadhyay is nonspeaking in the traditional sense, his relationship with language has been cultivated by other means and therefore was at risk of being overlooked. To notice the gestures of what is not being said may sound like a challenge pedagogically, but it is also the exact work of literary analysis or poetry explication: the sensitivity we cultivate between the lines.
Neurodiversity may teach us to notice other gestures of sensory experience. Isn’t that what poetry teaches us to do? Savarese describes great poetry as being grounded in sensory detail, attuned to embodied experience. And isn’t that what great teaching should do, as well? To notice the poetry in a student’s body, whether they can already articulate it or not?
In this sense, neurodiversity, poetry, and pedagogy are all the same thing: a world of detail and feeling.
Where do we begin, as ELA practitioners who want to incorporate the mutual benefits between poetry and neurodiversity, in our instruction?
What if we bring neurodiverse poets, such as DJ Savarese and Tito Mukhopadhyay, into our repertoires, so that we can learn from and model the relationships with sensory detail present in their poetry?
We can do this even if all of our students are more classically “neurotypical”, so that we can all learn from and encourage a more neurodiverse world. We can also pair our students strategically to facilitate neurodiverse and “neurotypical” alliances in a shared poetry practice, as Ralph Savarese has done. And as for the ongoing work of being able to notice the poetry in a student’s body, and to be curious about the possible ways of languaging that poetry and how it could emerge, this is essentially the same pedagogical work we are always doing as we try to become sensitive to how learning works for a particular student.
To understand and learn from the ways of languaging and learning of our neurodiverse students, Ralph Savarese has a familiar suggestion: to talk to their parents as we are getting to know them (see:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PamjosXYiKo).