I won the lottery when my parents adopted me from foster care; I won it again when they included me in regular education. Now, I seek to help kids much less fortunate than I by showing people what a nonspeaking student with autism can do.
— DJ Savarese
Abandoned by his birth parents and presumed incompetent, DJ Savarese (“Deej”) found not only a loving family but also a life in words, which he types on a text-to-voice synthesizer. As he makes his way through high school and dreams of college, he confronts the terrors of his past, society’s obstacles to inclusion, and the sometimes paralyzing beauty of his own senses. In his advocacy on behalf of other nonspeaking autistics, he embraces filmmaking and poetry, and discovers what having a voice can truly mean.
DJ SAVARESE graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College in May 2017 with a double major in Anthropology and Creative Writing. An ASAN Scholar Fellow, he was also the recipient of Oberlin’s William Battrick Poetry Fellowship and their Comfort Starr Award for meritorious scholarly work in Anthropology. His poems and prose have appeared in The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, Prospect, Disability Studies Quarterly, StoneCanoe, Wordgatherings.com, Voices for Diversity and Social Justice: A Literary Education Anthology, and A Doorknob for the Eye (chapbook). Currently a 2017 Open Society Foundations Youth Exchange/Human Rights Initiative Fellow, he works to make literacy-based education, communication, and inclusive lives a reality for all nonspeaking people.
“From a World as Fluid as the Sea: Autism and Literature”
Tito Mukhopadhyay and Ralph Savarese have been reading and discussing literature by Skype for years. Mukhopadhyay, who has been described as “severely autistic,” types his comments on the sidebar while Savarese, who has been described as “neurotypical,” speaks. The former has never been allowed in a regular school; the latter is an English professor. In 2012-2013, they read Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, two chapters a week for seventeen months. In the fall of 2014, they visited Arrowhead, where Melville wrote Moby Dick, and Mystic Seaport, home of the Charles Morgan, the world’s oldest wooden whaling vessel. Engaging issues of perception, sensory processing, and unrecognized competence in autism, they will recount their illuminating readerly journey.
TITO MUKHOPADHYAY is the author of four books, including How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move?, and the subject of both a 60 Minutes profile and a BBC documentary. His latest book, Plankton Dreams: What I Learned in Special-Ed is available from Open Humanities Press. Of Mukhopadhyay, Oliver Sacks once wrote, “It has usually been assumed that deeply autistic people are scarcely capable of introspection or deep thought, let alone of poetic or metaphor leaps of the imagination… Tito gives the lie to all of these assumptions and forces us to reconsider the condition of the deeply autistic.”
SOMA MUKHOPADHYAY is a teacher at HALO: Helping Autism Through Learning and Outreach, a non-profit organization. She developed the Rapid Prompting Method to teach her son, Tito, and foster his communication abilities. HALO offers workshops and camps for families and students throughout the year.
RALPH JAMES SAVARESE is the author of Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption and co-editor with his wife, Emily Thornton Savarese, of the first collection devoted to the concept of neurodiversity. Winner of the Hennig Cohen Prize for the best essay on Herman Melville, he has published some twenty-five articles on autism. In 2012-2013 he was a Humanities-Writ-Large fellow at Duke’s Institute for Brain Sciences. He teaches at Grinnell College in Iowa.
“Unpacking Moby Dick with Autistic Readers”
Interview with Katelyn Harrop and Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio. Listen here.
In this hour of Talk of Iowa, Savarese discusses how his new book deconstructs common perceptions about communication, language comprehension, and emotional aptitude as they relate to autism through his own experiences reading pieces of classic literature including Moby Dick with people from across the autism spectrum.
Reading at Prairie Lights
Ralph Savarese reads from See It Feelingly at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.