Review: Michelle Sutton’s THE REAL EXPERTS

When autistic people speak, who listens?

Simon Baron-Cohen has built an entire career on his theory that autistic people cannot predict or interpret other people’s mental states – or, as he puts it, that we have no Theory of Mind (ToM).

Because we have no idea that other people have minds, ToM argues, we have no concept of audience.  Without a concept of audience, we can’t speak to persuade others.  What others?  We live in a perpetual echo chamber full of babbling; there are no others.  If we cannot speak to persuade others, we literally cannot participate in rhetoric or exist as rhetorical subjects.*  We’re the lone creature shrieking into the abyss, except even that image has no emotional content, because we have no concept of lone or into or abyss.

We can’t fathom audience, and this is SBC’s excuse not to give us an audience.  Because if I’m not “really” talking to you, if I cannot understand that there is an “I” who can talk “to” “you,” why should you listen?  I’m shrieking into an abyss.  Why bother?

The image gets attention because it’s heart-wrenching.**  The wrenching of the heart neatly covers for the fact that the game is rigged.

Rhetoric – that is, speaking to persuade – takes two.  I can’t speak to persuade, or speak to anything, if I don’t have an audience.  It’s the presence of the listener that transforms my shrieking into a void into a rant, a sermon, an accolade.

SBC’s Theory of Mind logic is impenetrable because it simultaneously absolves SBC (or any of you so-called “non-mindblindeys”) of the obligation to listen while blaming the results of sidestepping that obligation on the autistic speaker.  It refuses autistic speakers their rhetoricity and then blames them for not having it.  It is exactly like holding your kid’s basketball just out of reach and then mocking them for not having dunked on anyone.  They can’t dunk on anyone without anyone to dunk on.

Only in this case, the basketball is our humanity.

Events like Autistics Speaking Day and books like Typed Words, Loud Voices from Autonomous Press (which you can order at the link) knock the basketball out of our tormentors’ hands.  They’re an active taking-back of our humanity, an opportunity: we’re here.  Who wants to play ball?  But they’re only a first step.  The audience has to be willing to play ball with us – and in this case, we’re facing an audience that has been told for decades to deprive us of basketballs for our own good, because we wouldn’t know what to do with the ball if we had it.  How to solve that problem?

Michelle Sutton offers us a very neat answer.

The Real Experts (which you can pre-order at the link) has parents, teachers, and caregivers playing ball before they know it.  Subversively subtitled “Readings for Parents of Autistic Children” (have your person-first identity-first cake and eat it too!), the book represents editor Michelle Sutton’s efforts in collecting the sources that she found most helpful in her early days as the parent of an autistic child.  Sources that are all – every one of them – written by autistic people.

The essays collected in the book have tones and approaches as varied as their authors.  As someone who’s proud to call herself a personal friend to nearly every one of them, I can say: they all sound like their writers, as varied and layered as the people who wrote them.  I can also say this: more than one essay in this book has helped me when I’ve struggled to convey in words what I know beneath them (Nick Walker’s “What is Autism?”), or when I’ve been speechless with outrage at the discrimination and bullshit I too face (Michael Scott Monje, Jr’s “Not That Autistic”), or when I just plain needed to know I wasn’t crazy (Cynthia Kim’s “Socially Inappropriate”).  They’ve helped me empathize with fear-eyed parents whose lives are utterly different from my own (Ally Grace’s “Autism Mama”).  And they have, literally and without hyperbole, saved my life when I was certain I couldn’t reveal I’m autistic and I couldn’t go on faking anything else (Kassiane Sibley’s “The Cost of Indistinguishability is Unreasonable”).

But The Real Experts isn’t about me, even though it is about autistic people.  It is a book for parents, mostly non-autistic parents, who are entering our world for the very first time and who, as Nick puts it in the Foreword, are asking one question: How do I help my child to thrive?  And it’s a book that introduces these parents to us, their child’s community, by sidestepping all the nasty stereotypes about our inability to think or empathize or communicate and simply says: Here.  Here’s who you should listen to.

Let’s play ball.

* The best read in the solar system on this subject is Melanie Yergeau’s “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind.”

** The best read in the solar system on this subject is John Duffy and Rebecca Dorner’s “The Pathos of ‘Mindblindness’: Autism, Science, and Sadness in ‘Theory of Mind’ Narratives.”

(#AutisticsSpeakingDay was actually Sunday, November 1.  But as migraines are no respecters of calendars, here it is today instead.)

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Morally Ambiguous Hogwarts Houses: A Serious Critical Inquiry

I propose that the most morally ambiguous House isn’t Slytherin.  It’s Ravenclaw.


  • Slytherins are notoriously cunning and ambitious – both qualities that require a power structure to exist and for that structure to have clear, well-known rules (that can be thus subverted for the power ends of the Slytherin doing the subverting).  Thus, Slytherins are forced to acknowledge and work within the existing power structure in one way or another.  It’s not cunning or ambitious if no one can figure out wtf it is.
  • Hufflepuffs, being kind, loyal, and able to see the core of a person, will always act for the right reasons – even if they do the wrong thing.
  • Gryffindors, being courageous, honorable, and daring, will always do the right thing – even if it is for the wrong reasons.

Ravenclaws, however, neither need the power structure nor have a driving sense of decency or daring.  They’re driven by knowledge, learning, and understanding.  Thus, Ravenclaws occupy the position not only of being able to work just as well outside the power structure, but to question the structure itself.

Take heart: no Slytherin is going to take over the world any time soon.  Unless they team up with a Ravenclaw.

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Giving Constructive Feedback to Students

…Is the unofficial title of the presentation I’ll be giving the new English department GAs in a matter of weeks.  (Does the planning committee know what it’s gotten itself into?)

The one idea thrown out to me was the one we were given when I went through the same training a few years ago: “sandwich” a critical comment between two positive ones.  Which sounds great to me, in theory, and I do practice a form of it.  But I find it problematic for two reasons:

  1.  It’s really easy to be, or to come across as, passive-aggressive, and
  2. It’s even easier for your constructive criticism to be ignored.

When we spend time providing comments on student drafts, we want those comments to be heeded.  We want our students to use them, not to skip, miss, or disregard.  Feedback that isn’t concrete as well as constructive simply gets overlooked by busy students, who then find themselves frustrated when they don’t manage to land the grade they want.

Here’s the advice I’ve found more useful than sandwich-building:

  1.  Know what you, the instructor, want.  “Great writing” is too damn vague.  Do you want to see students employing concrete sensory details?  Building tension through dialogue?  Employing the whole of Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle of doom?  Citing their sources correctly?
  2. Limit your wants.  It’s the exceptional student – and the one who doesn’t need your class in the first place – who can give you everything your instructional heart desires in a single paper.  Prioritize.
  3. Front-load your comments.  My method is to provide comments for every student on the rough draft only.  These comments align with each section of my rubric, along with a “grade so far” – an estimate of the number of points they would earn for each section if the rough draft were the “final” draft.  I give comments on final drafts only to students who specifically request them.  Students only specifically request them if they are (a) superhumanly motivated and/or (b) planning to do a rewrite.
  4. Give concrete examples.  Find one really good thing and one “thing that could use improvement” in each focus area, and point it out concretely: “I’ve never eaten a fresh fig, but your description of “the crisp skin and sweet tang” made me feel as if I had.  Good job!” or “I was a little confused by your statement that polar bears are responsible for global warming.  What’s the connection?”
  5. Use “I” statements.  I’ve been told not to do this, because it underlines that students are writing to you, not to some amorphous “audience.”  I call bollocks for two reasons.  (a) they are writing to you.  (b) that’s not a bad thing.  For the purposes of the comments, you are their reader.  You can speak most concretely and constructively from your own experience.  Adopting a distant tone that insists “the reader” doesn’t understand this or can’t follow that just makes you sound like a pompous blowhard and makes writing sound like a fart-in-the-sky endeavor.  The goal is to help your students grasp writing as a tool, not run screaming from it.

(I’m almost certain that is the correct term for the rhetorical triangle.)

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School Writing Vs. Authentic Writing

Dani Alexis:

My first-day lesson could benefit from incorporating some of these ideas more explicitly….

Originally posted on Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care:

by Ken Lindblom

Many students dislike writing in school, and it’s no wonder.  Five-paragraph essay formats, predictable essay questions on books they didn’t choose to read, all written for a teacher (or faceless exam scorer) who knows more about the subject than they do.  Who would find this “schoolish writing”–as Anne Elrod Whitney has called it–appealing? Certainly not Tim Dewar’s daughter, who has “better writing to do”! No where in the world outside school is writing expected to be formulaically written without a real purpose and without a real audience.  As noted educator, Grant Wiggins, has put it:

The point of writing is to have something to say and to make a difference in saying it. Rarely, however, is impact the focus in writing instruction in English class. (29)

While many students claim to dislike writing, according to a PEW Report, today’s young people actually write…

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Silence Starts With “P”: A Research Project

Silence, for me, has always started with P.

Since I was eleven months old, lying on the shag carpeting of my great-aunt’s living room and listening to The Grownups talk about me with no inkling that I understood them, silence has been a Problem.  Even after I learned to talk, silence was a Pathology.  The Pressure to speak, and to keep speaking, is Profound.

Classical rhetoric has little use for silence, or for listening.  They’re figured predominantly as reception, Passivity, the void.  Listening, when it is mentioned, is addressed not as a Positive Presence in and of itself unless it is a form of speech (see “active listening”).

What I intend to do for the next two months is to explore listening, and silence, as Positive sites, sites not only of Potential or Promise but of actual Presence.  My Purposes, loosely, are:

  • to assert listening as a central, centralized, and active rhetorical stance;
  • to stake out space in listening and silence as primary, active modes with their own rhetorics, not merely as the flipside of “speech” (a term under which I include non-verbal forms of communication, like gesture, writing, images, and sign);
  • to carry out this project without explaining what it is I am doing;
  • to respond to Melanie Yergeau’s call to “fuck that shit up,” the “shit” in question, here, being the expectation of “listening” as a form of reciprocal speech.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, I am The Worst at so-called “active listening.”  Since “active listening” operates as a form of speech, I intend to use my The Worstness at it to my advantage by not trying to get any better at it in the next two months, and thus to subvert expectations of what a “project of listening” is supposed to look like.

My method (or Process, if you Prefer):

  • do not talk for two months.  If talking accidentally occurs, make note of it and examine what it is that seemed so earnestly to demand it;
  • to “speak,” rely on alternative communication options (writing, AAC apps, sign, etc);
  • “speak” only when necessary to get things done – and to interrogate what exactly “necessary” means;
  • listen in ways that are natural to my own bodymind listening processes and prioritize actually listening over appearing to listen – i.e., do not fake “active listening” even if the situation appears to demand it.
  • offer no explanation beyond “I can’t talk but I am listening.”

The project should run through July and August 2015.  I have not decided whether singing counts as talking (my brain understands them as two different processes), but since I never sing in public anyway, I’m not sure it’s relevant.  I’ll contemplate this further.

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Livetweeting #2015SDS: My Schedule and Other Sources

Originally posted on Autistic Academic:

As part of the Digital Access Facilitation Team, I’ll be livetweeting several sessions at the 2015 Society for Disability Studies (SDS) conference in Atlanta, beginning tomorrow.  You can follow all the SDS fun at #2015SDS – there are conversations going on both Twitter and Facebook right now.

To follow all the DAFT livetweeters at once, check out our Twitter list here.  The full SDS conference program is available online here [pdf].

The sessions I will be livetweeting (with a partner) are:

Thursday, June 11:

1.5 Occupying Digital Spaces: Disabled People Creating Community and Resisting Ableism Online – 8:30 – 10:00 a.m.  #s11

2.4 New Dimensions in Literary Disability Studies – 10:30 a.m – 12:00 p.m.  #s24

3.3 Rethinking Religious Histories of Madness – 1:30 – 3:00 p.m.  #s33

Friday, June 12:

6.7 Excess, Access, Deviance, and Distress: Trauma as an Analytic in Disability Studies – 10:30 a.m. – 12:00…

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On Deconstruction, Speaking, “Speaking,” and Digital Spaces: #cwcon Presentation

Originally posted on Autistic Academic:

Here are my working outline and slides for the talk I’m giving at the Computers & Writing conference tomorrow at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

The tl;dr version: “Stop telling autistic people we can’t speak when we are allll up in your Internet talking our brains out.”

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