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Autism and Representation
Case Western Reserve Univ
Cleveland, Ohio
28-30 October 2005



Kristina Chew
Saint Peter's College
Do not cite without permission of author.

"Fractioned Idiom: Poetry and the Language of Autism"


Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,

---from Hart Crane, "To Brooklyn Bridge"

I will explore the poetic qualities of the language of autistic persons and of autism itself as poetry by examining the "systems" of correlated items (flavors, clouds, doors) described in Clara Claiborne Park's Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism (2001) 1 and by comparing these systems to poetry, to a a prose poem on autism by Anne Carson from Short Talks (1992) 2 and to poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The language of autistic persons can be understood by reading their words and writing as one does poetry; further, literary terminology used to analyze poetry can assist us in understanding the verbal and non-verbal utterances of autistic individuals. To understand or interpret an autistic individuals' language another person must be able to read metonymically, by which I refer to the formulation of metaphor and metonymy in the work of the linguist Roman Jakobson. What seems metonymical and arbitrary to a non-cognitively disabled reader is "metaphorical" and true to an individual with a cognitive disability, as I will argue via a brief examination of the writings of the painter Larry Bissonnette 3 and of The Mind Tree (2003) by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay. 4

According to Jakobson in "Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbances," metaphor and metonymy are the two fundamental modes to communicate meaning. 5 In his formulation, a metaphor ("Achilles is a lion") links two disparate items on the basis of some similarity (strength and courage), while metonymy links two disparate items on the basis of contiguity or association (the equation by some now of Brad Pitt with Achilles, because the actor was cast to play the hero of the Iliad ). In metonymy, one thing is related to another because those two things just so happened to occur in close succession to each other. So, for a while, "sushi" meant "bike ride" to my son Charlie because I had one day bought him sushi for lunch after he had been on a bike ride and not (metaphorically) because of a resemblance between the wheels of his bike and the seaweed-edged rounds of sushi). 6

Autistic individuals often understand the meanings of words based on metonymy, on whatever object or event happened to occur in close succession to them hearing the sounds for a word. Autistic language indeed exemplifies Saussure's notion of the "arbitrary" nature of the sign, of the sign and signified in his Course in General Linguistics (1978). In Exiting Nirvana , Clara Claiborne Park describes elaborate systems of "correlated" elements to reveal how her daughter Jessy thinks and talks. When Jessy makes herself a breakfast of 8 pieces of bacon, the "Analogies and Correlations" she lives by are revealed: She makes 8 pieces "'because of good'" (Park 26). Silence (which is also good to Jessy, who was non-verbal until she was 7) is 8 "'...and between silence and sound is 7'"; "'doing something fairly bad is only 3 and bad is 2 and very bad is 1'" (Park 26-7). Another system is based on clouds and doors, with the sun and 4 clouds and zero doors the "worst." And yet another system is based on "flavor tubes" and numbers: Rice pudding is not good, and numbers are associated with each flavor ("0 light blueberry, 1 lime, 2 lemon, 3 orange, 4 strawberry...8 grape, 9 or more, blueberry again") (Park 81). Eating certain flavors or amounts of food in and of themselves means that a day is good or not so good, or just bad. 8 slices of bacon means that things are complete and no supplementation (with eggs or toast) is needed: "'If I have less than 5 and egg I have to cut that thin slices of toast'" (Park 27). 

Park presents Jessy's "marvelous yet sterile" systems with their equations of food and feeling without explaining their genesis.7 Park describes these systems to suggest something about autistic thinking with its focus on concrete and controllable minutiae: "Her systems were designed to eliminate the unexpected, to capture uncertainties in a net of connections, to reduce them to rule" (Park 83). As Jessy grows older, she loses her need for her cosmos of food, weather and number correlations. Indeed, her "emotions seemed independent of the weather," Park writes (82), only to discover twenty years later, when the neurologist Oliver Sacks speaks to Jessy, that the systems are still in her mind and are even more elaborate than had been thought. There are 55 new flavors (including three kinds of "espresso" and "dark rum"). 

The rationale behind Jessy Park's systems arises out of metonymic correlations between numbers and concrete phenomena that she uses to explain the world to herself and herself to the world. An excerpt from a journal kept by Fran, a young woman who was a "Jessy-friend," who taught and took care of her Jessy, suggests the origin of one system, of the clouds and the sky. 

Pure blue sky. While walking the long hill, a little cloud appeared and covered the sun briefly--oh, what sadness and anger--mumble, mumble, looking down at the ground, dragging the feet, stopping, answering no more questions about school. "What is the matter, Jessy?" "The cloud over the sun." (qtd. in Park 78)

The clouds are said to "full of numbers" ("multiples and powers of 37 and 73, with two bad 3's"); Jessy becomes happy when the cloud is gone. Another day, when there is a full moon and "low horrendous clouds"--"what a horrendous day," Fran writes--is full of crying, someone taking Jessy's "special" seat on the schoolbus, refusals to sing or answer questions, mumbling and telling Fran to go away (Fran herself walks home in tears). Fran's journal suggests how differences, subtle and extreme, in the physical world seemed at times to coincide with bad days for Jessy, who then turns one day's happening into a general rule for how things should be. She thus creates her system of clouds and doors, in which her greatest joy is represented by 0 clouds and 4 doors: A bright, cloudless day, with plenty of protection (doors) to keep out unwanted stimuli?. As a child, this system was used to describe her reactions to music: Hard rock, to which she listens to "with an expression of the purest joy, rocking in her rocking chair, putting her hands over her ears" (Park and Youderian) is the music of no clouds and 4 doors, while a recording of the spoken word is the worst (4 clouds and no doors): A cloudy, "horrendous" day, with nothing to filter out stimuli?.

All of these systems draw on concrete stimuli--food, clouds--that often provide a strong effect on the senses. The correlation of clouds and rice pudding and bad days seems random and mysterious.8 But we can begin to understand the meaning an autistic person whose linguistic ability may be severely limited and whose neurological writing fosters an unusual (I prefer not to say "abnormal") use of language itself. The language of autism might seem "bizarre" or "weird" (terms that I again use with reservation, due to the value judgments implicit in them) but it is no more so than the figurative language we find in poetry. 

Canadian poet and Classicist Anne Carson's "Short Talk on Autism" presents a woman's experience of a doctor's language: "it is a large grey cheerful woman its language is boomings beckonings boulders boasts boomerangs bowler hats. Brother?" (Carson 25). The nameless "she" does not hear the content of the doctor's language. She is stuck on the sounds (especially the initial "b"): "boomings beckonings boasts boomerangs bowler hats. Brother? Tell me about your brother?" The "booming" sound of the doctor's language leads to the woman falling into a reverie of words starting with "b," so that the only word she hears of the doctor is a "b" one, "brother." She hears (or believes she hears) " what does it eat, light ?" from the doctor's pencil and these words are repeated until, by the poem's end, their meaning is lost as they are repeated like a choral refrain: " what does wander yondering...... eat eat eat who know what damage eat light ?" (25). Carson's poem suggests the woman's understanding of the doctor's language is not semantic, but phonetic and rhythmic so that "w ander " generates "y ondering ." The woman experiences language and words as concrete objects, as groupings of "b" and "w" sounds. This concrete use of language is related to metonymy and links the language of autism to poetic language. In Carson's poem, the woman's understanding of her doctor-interlocutor is unknown and it is not clear what, if any, communication passes from patient to physician.

Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry can too be experienced as a mass of sound and images, as in lines 6-9 of "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire": pool and rutpeel parches 

Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crúst, dust; stánches, stárches 

Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there 

Foótfretted in it.  

Or from 57,

"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies...":

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves--goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came. 

How to construe the words in the first line--how do the verbs relate to the nouns; which nouns function as subjects, which as objects--"that being indoors"? "each"? "Dwells" and "spells" rhyme but there are internal rhymes too: "selves," "itself," "myself." Language is stripped down to its essentials, to nouns and verbs and adjectives. These lines represents an aspect of the very experience of language for a child with autism who struggles just to distinguish among the phonemes and vowel sounds of words and who is most comfortable using language that is concrete, while abstract notions--"truth," "faith"--are particularly difficult to conceptualize and grasp. Hopkins heaps up things --the pool, the "ooze squeezed to dough, crust, dust," a splintering slice of bread (the Host?). Lines like "shéer plód makes plough down sillion" from "God's Grandeur" have the same kind of gnarling music reminiscent of a Baroque fugue and like the commentary the autistic painter Larry Bissonnette writes for a painting entitled "Paints get really loused up by my signature so both art and letters learn to cohabitate (1997)":

Powered print treats painted images well as long as colors Larry selects match. Larry loves pink and purple because pressured painter gets to lighten stroke.

Like Hopkins' poetry, Bissonnette's writing engulfs us in language as sound and image, each syllable so over-stuffed with sounds and potential meaning that it can be unbearable to read such densely-packed sentences. His painting, a rectangular canvas, is alike filled with paint, with swatches of brown on the top, red on the bottom, pale pink through the middle and on the right, and more. 9

What if such compact verbal utterances were how we had to talk to each other, in such a fractioned idiom, in bits and pieces of word, in sounds knowable only to its speaker? Every word in Bissonnette's short commentary counts because there is little of it, and because of the dense quality of his language with its many adjectives: The print is "powered"--it is empowered by the colors he uses; it is given force and movement by those colors--while the painter himself is "pressured"--by the necessity of putting the paint into a contained space, by the world around him. The verbal utterances of Bissonnette and of Jessy Park--their fractioned idioms--suggest that an autistic person experiences language and the world as a continuous difficult poem steeped in metaphors, verbal echoes, word play. 

The word "idiom" is from the classical Greek word idiotes , "private citizen"; a cognate word, "idiolect," refers to a private language. Due to the unusual use of words and syntax, the language of an autistic person can be classified as a language for a community of one, as a private language. Rather than seeing this language as "incomprehensible," we can interpret it by trying to understand the "system" the user has created, just as, to read a poem, we need to decode the poet's use of tropes, of metaphor, tone, meter. Hopkins' poetry indeed approaches an idiolect in his overwrought syntax and diction as in this excerpt from "God's Grandeur":

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

"Generations have trod, have trod, have trod": That is how I have listened to my son playing with language. He would hear the " ear " in "seared" and "bleared" and "smeared"; the sound " ear " may be all he hears.10 Just to listen to the sounds of "God's Grandeur" is a far-fetched approximation of Charlie's experience of language. If we feel bafflement at this mass of words, imagine a child who has minimal speech and is cognitively disabled trying to make sense from the nonsense of the language of everyone else. Meanwhile, those everyone elses do not grasp the metonymical truths--of bike rides equalling sushi, or 4 clouds and a bad day, of "booming" signifying "boomerang"--according to which he orders and understands the world.

This is the confusion described by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay in his autobiographical The Mind Tree. Mukhopadhyay's writing has been seen as exceptional due to the severity of his autism and his language disability--but what is particularly exceptional about it is his idiom. Mukhopadhyay's use of language provides clues to his way of thinking just as Jessy Park's more limited verbalizations and systems of correlations do. While the book is basically structured as a narrative, Mukhopadhyay jumps from writing about himself as a child (of unclear age) to general observations about his difficulty to coordinate his mind and his body, his thinking and his verbal output.11 He intertwines a first-person and a third-person perspective, as here in "The Window of my World," the first section of The Mind Tree:

I think about the little boy who had a way of expressing himself, not through speech but through a frustrated temper tantrum. The language was known but it did not relate to anything. (1)

The third-person perspective in part gives his Mukhopadhyay's writing an objective, distant quality, like that we tend to associate with a clinical report. Mukhopadhyay writes about himself as a character in a story, "the little boy"; the "little" indicating that he is looking back at a younger version of  himself. He thus assumes the perspective on "the boy" in his book of an omniscient narrator. An abstract noun ("the language") becomes the subject of a sentence; "the language" is a "known" and familiar entity that is not able to "relate to anything," just as a person might not be able to relate to another person. (The reference to language as an entity in its own right recalls the line " it is a large grey cheerful woman its language is boomings" from Carson's "Short Talk on Autism.") Mukhopadhyay describes "language" as not relating "to anything" (and whose language is it--his only? another person's? language in general?). The effect of this passage is that it is not the autistic subject of the text who has difficulties relating but language itself. Language is written about as a thing foreign and external, separated and broken off, from the subject. In Mukhopadhyay's experience, language is such an alien being that he nonetheless must learn to use, to express his needs, and himself.

The Mind Tree 's subject also describes himself as thoroughly disembodied, "separate" from his own body. Mukhopadhyay often seems almost surprised that a body part, such as his hand, is actually connected to his "self: "The hand had made a strange relationship with its shadow, and he fluttered it and spent his hours, contented with the long company of his shadow" (2). Mukhopadhyay writes about his hand as a foreign entity that he has accidentally discovered. "The hand" is like "the language" referred to previously as he writes about both as disembodied and separate from his self.  The lack of connection between Mukhopadhyay's mind from his body leads to him cutting his fingers on a fan:  

Once a table fan had attracted him and he went to touch it. He cut his fingers, of course, but could not caution himself, though he had full knowledge of current, electricity and the dangers involved with it. 

The two stayed in their own selves, isolated from each other. (77-78)

The fact that a table fan can cut his fingers is described by Mukhopadhyay as an accidental phenomenon that he comprehends almost incidentally. His writing suggests that, had he not had the experience of touching the fan, he would not have known not to (and he does not indicate whether he has since stopped touching fans, only that he knows he is not supposed to). As he writes in one of his poems about how others perceive his difference:

Men and women are puzzled by everything I do

Doctors use different terminologies to describe me

I just wonder

The thoughts are bigger than I can express


With the help of my imagination

I can go places that do not exist

And they are like beautiful dreams.

But it is a world full of improbabilities

Racing toward uncertainty. 


Mukhopadhyay's understanding, like that of Park with the clouds in the sky, is metonymical in its reliance on the observation of chance occurrences that are elevated to truth. A theory about how poetic language works--through metonymy when metaphor is expected--can assist us in understanding Mukhopadhyay's thinking, in understanding, perhaps, how an autistic person perceives the world with its many "improbablities / Racing toward uncertainty."

In closing, I am suggesting that the techniques by which we analyze and interpret poetry have some use in figuring out the verbalizations and non-verbal behaviors of autistic persons, and that--armed with this insight--we might try to listen a bit harder and longer to the "random utterances" of those whose words may be few indeed. And, more than simply presenting the writing of the cognitively disabled, we need to analyze and examine its language and rhetoric. There can be some use in using the literary elements of metaphor and metonymy, assonance and alliteration, meter and syntax, in decoding an autistic person's communicative attempts or even, simply, what seems to be "bizarre" behavior--such as touching a moving fan or drawing rows of tubes and labeling them with strawberry, tangerine, lemon. The literary tropes of metonymy and metaphor can be used to suggest the divide in understanding and in using language between the cognitively disabled and those of us who are "linguistically-abled." If we read autistic language with the presumption that the person saying a seemingly non-sensical phrase such as "bedtime orange" is communicating his message; if we take on the responsibility of interpreting flavor tubes and clouds in the sky, we might be able to understand something of what an autistic person, with minimal language and not (or not yet) able to communicate more extensively through typing and writing, is telling us. And reading autistic language as we read poetry, with attention to its tropes and to the music of language--to its meter and rhythm--can offer some clues for interpretation and, most of all, for mutual understanding.

Works Cited

Bissonnette, Larry. "Letters Ordered Through Typing Produce the Story of an Artist Stranded on         the Island of Autism." In Douglas Biklen, Douglas. Autism and the Metaphor of the Person         Alone . New York: New York University     Press. 2005, pp. 172-182.

Carson, Anne. Short Talks . London, Ontario: Brick Books. 1992.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins . 4th edition, ed. W.H. Gardner         and N.H. MacKenzie. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1970.

Jakobson, Roman. "Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbances" (1956). In Fundamentals of Language . The Hague: 1971.

Mukhopadyay, Tito Rajarshi. The Mind Tree: A Miraculous Child Breaks the Silence of Autism . New York: Arcade Publishing. 2000, 2003.

Park, Clara Claiborne. Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism . Boston: Little. Brown & Company. 2001.

Park, David and Philip Youderian. "Light and Number: Ordering Principles in the World of         an Autistic Child." In Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia , vol. 4, no. 2 (1974),         pp. 189-191.


1. Park, Clara Claiborne. Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism . Boston: Little. Brown & Company. 2001.

2. Carson, Anne. Short Talks . London, Ontario: Brick Books. 1992. The version of Short Talks that is included in Carson's Plainwater: Essays and Poetry   (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1995) does not include the "Short Talk on Autism."

3. Some of Bissonnette's paintings with his commentary are reproduced in " Letters Ordered Through Typing Produce the Story of an Artist Stranded on the Island of Autism" in Biklen (2005), pp. 172-182.

4.  Mukhopadyay, Tito Rajarshi. The Mind Tree: A Miraculous Child Breaks the Silence of Autism . New York: Arcade Publishing. 2000, 2003. Many sections of The Mind Tree appear in Muukhopadhyay's earlier book, Beyond the Silence: My Life, the World, and Autism (The National Autistic Society 2000).

5. Jakobson, Roman. "Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbances" (1956). In Fundamentals of Language . The Hague: 1971.

6. So, too, for Charlie, does "bedtime" stand for a whole complex of words and associations, including the feeling of "I love you" because Barney--with his signature song--was once Charlie's bedtime companion.

7. The systems have been recorded in full detail in an article by David Park, Clara Park's husband, and Phil Youderian, "Light and Number: Ordering Principles in the World of an Autistic Child" (1974).

8. Though we often unconsciously equate objects--"apple pie"--to concepts--"mom"--on the basis of similarly arbitrary associations.

9. In Biklen (2005), pp. 172-182

10. My son has equated the words "girl" and "squirrel" because of their similar sounds (but not meaning), the inner " ir" and the ending curl of "l."

11. The lack of temporal awareness--of constructing a chronological narrative--in Mukhopadhyay's The Mind Tree is also notable in autobiographical accounts by autistic writers such as Sue Rubin, Lucy Blackman, and Alberto Frugone (collected in Biklen 2005).


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