What Makes Autism Worth Having

Julia Bascom has a blog post, “The Obsessive Joy of Autism,” which I love and to which I’ve linked repeatedly.  Her post should be read in its entirety.

The lines in Julia’s post that I keep coming back to, and the ones with which I’m starting this post, are these:

Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happyso enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.

This is the part about autism I can never explain. This is the part I never want to lose. Without this part autism is not worth having.

(emphases in original)

This feeling lies behind all of my work these days.  My bio-family doesn’t get it.  They ask what I’m working on and I tell them: teaching first-year writing, reading a book of poetry a week, trying to mash postcolonial theory and feminist disability theory and Derrida’s speech/writing distinction into something resembling an original thought about autistic communication.

Then they ask what I’m doing “for fun,” or “in [my] free time,” and I tell them: teaching first-year writing, reading a book of poetry a week, trying to mash postcolonial theory and feminist disability theory and Derrida’s speech/writing distinction into something resembling an original thought about autistic communication.

Then they express their sympathies for the fact that I have no “life,” when in fact I feel more alive than I have in nine years and eleven months.

I’ve written several times about why I left the law firm, why I quit practicing law, why I really no longer give a crap that I even have a law degree except that “J.D., Ph.D.” is going to open up job opportunities that “Ph.D.” alone won’t do.  I’ve said that I’m not wired to assume bad faith, I’m not competitive in the way litigation requires one to be, that I’d rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable.  And all of those are true.

But the real reason I left the practice of law is that practicing law made me feel inhuman, un-human, a-human.  And it did that because it made autism not worth having.

For a lot of autistic people, including me, language is primarily and intensely lyrical.  I was good at poetics in undergrad because they were a natural part of my wiring.  My sophomore year, I drove my then-boyfriend to frustration trying to explain that there was, in my estimation, no such thing as a “discrete” thought, feeling, or idea.  And yet “connected” things were more than connected; they merged, shifted, startled.  Nobody ever catches just one herring.

I received my B.A. in English Literature nine years and eleven months ago.  I started law school eight years and ten months ago.  And I have been crap at poetics ever since.

Law is the opposite of poetic.  Law is intensely, fiercely left-brained; its primary commandment (after “if thee clyent hath not payed, alle thynges be fair game”) is Thou Shalt Not Metaphor.  Thou Shalt Not Simile, Personify, or Use Prepositions In Unapproved Ways.  Analogies Permitted On Even-Numbered Side of Street Only on Sundays.  Thou Shalt Never Approximate With Language.  To Approximate Language is to Betray Thy Client.  We Know Where You Live.

For being a profession that prides itself on its mastery of language, law actually exercises very few of language’s extraordinary capacities.  And I say this as a member of the American Legal Writing Association, as a former law review editor, and as someone who thoroughly enjoys teaching rhetoric.  (Rhetoric, of course, permits the use of figures.)  Legal language adopts an already-reductive symbolic system (you should see the things I don’t say) and reduces it further, usually in an attempt to reach some kind of mutually-agreed-upon fixed meaning.  So much for my love affair with deconstruction!

I have a paper due in a few weeks in my grad seminar on “The Nature of Poetry,” a class I never would have taken if the department had not required it.  Said paper demands a discussion of poetics.

I haven’t poeticked in nine years and eleven months, so when the library’s search engine led me to Ralph James Savarese’s “Toward a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and a New Geo-poetics of the Body,” I had the most epic meltdown I’ve had since law school.  Because what law school did to me, primarily, was to force me to live in my left brain, when the obsessive joy that made my life worth living and made language so intensely perfect (and so paradoxically reductive – but as I said, you should see the things I don’t say) resided in my right.  I fought so hard to be a good lawyer that for many years, I actually couldn’t think poetically.

I am not saying that law school “cured” my autism.  It didn’t.  Law school made my autism not worth having.  It gave me a tin version of my own voice, one that was decidedly less human than the voice with which I’d begun.  I started law school with a cello’s voice in my blood; I left law school with a kazoo.

Watching me get myself back, through literary theory and poetics and piles and piles of narrative and discourse, has not been easy for my husband, our roommate, or the cats.  I cry a lot.  But it’s not grief anymore.  It’s terror: I have to get to know someone whom I haven’t seen for nine years and eleven months, someone who is a complete stranger but who also knows me better than I know myself.  I don’t do stranger-interactions.

But I’ll do this one. Because this; this relationship with poetry; this intense and infectious joy in language; this makes my autism worth having.

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
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