I’m told that my grandfather had a reputation for being the best plasterer in Portsmouth. I’ve inherited his talent for making smooth surfaces. Unfortunately, while it’s a gift, it’s also a curse. I’ve several times smoothed myself out so thoroughly I’ve almost obliterated myself.
Recently, my friend and sister in autism the poet Joanne Limburg brought to my attention the work of Ralph Savarese, writer, academic, (dis)ability activist and adoptive father of an autistic son. In his essay ‘The Lobes of Autobiography: Poetry and Autism’, Ralph Savarese discusses ‘Autie-type’, which he describes as ‘a highly poetic language that many non-verbal Auties produce spontaneously on their computers, whether in conversation or in actual poems’. I would suggest that it is not only nonverbal autistics for whom Autie-type is a first language, but all of us who are hyperlexic: i.e. for whom writing is easier and more natural than speaking; who have a better than average ability with the read and written word, but who struggle with processing and producing the spoken word, and sometimes experience mutism; and who express ourselves more effectively in writing than in speaking.
Some examples of Autie-type:
‘When I was little everyone thought I was retarded. The very hurtful easy lessons I attended were time spent away from the real world. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division were subarctic activities. Treated as autistic, retarded, and sedated, I saw myself suspended. Ashamed, I seasoned this mind of mine. Wasting time beasts inhabited my very much lost, very sad boy’s head. Attempts to freshly respond to humans were terrifying quests through killer trees. Where I sent my real self, reasonable, easy breathing, satisfying humans never could find me.’
‘It’s practically getting possible to create satisfying life, interesting and meaningful nowadays because really institutions’ popularity slides towards storage underground at a pace faster than police chasing stepping for escaped prisoners … Nothing apartheids you like the insensitive world of institutional existence. Tapping well of silence with painting permitted songs of hurt to be meted with creativity … Without art, wafting smells of earth’s pleasures would kite away to land of inanimate objects, so it’s past point of personal hobby.’
‘The wave breaks, the bone splinters, and I roll like a planet, like a perfect pearl from the conduit into the shiny vista of my life. I am afraid of the sea. At night in the one-tooth domino house she breathes my susurrating dream. I am the spray on her curling tongue, the loose knot her fingers untie. Help! I have no edges. My atoms scatter on the wave; my cells disperse like seeds. And yet I also yearn for this dissemination, the webbing of the flesh unwrapped, the rags unpinned from the bones. Torn between desire and fear, I think I will forget I am the waves, and the incoming tide is the advent of my soul. I think I will exclude this difficult sea.’
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
The first passage is by Ralph Savarese’s son DJ, who I think was about thirteen when he wrote it (US ninth grade – Americans, let me know) and is quoted in ‘The Lobes of Autobiography’. The second, also quoted in ‘Lobes’, is by an autistic artist who had been institutionalised for many years. The third is by me, and comes from a longer prose poetry piece called ‘The Rib Cage’, about my experience of anorexia. I wrote it in my early thirties. The fourth is a poem by Emily Dickinson, whom many people consider to have been autistic.
I could say that reading ‘Lobes’ has been epiphanic for me, but that sounds too cool and white. When I first read DJ’s words, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or jump up and down. I was drowning in recognition. I couldn’t breathe. It exploded and landed on my chest. I walked around and around my house and banged the walls to let off some of the froth. The first coherent thought to bubble to the surface was, this is just how my first drafts read. And the second one was, no-o-o-o! When did I ever allow native speech like that to materialise on paper? It would be suicide. It would be inviting the sharks right in and saying, ‘Eat me now!’ No, this is the secret misty way words rise off images in the early morning of my mind. No one, but no one, sees my autistic speaking. I make too-damn sure it’s all joined up and in good neurotypical syntax before it gets anywhere near a page. Even a private one.
Ralph Savarese notes that autists are highly metaphorical – you don’t say! I know that in my case this is because I think in images. When I verbalise, I’m not creating metaphors; I’m doing my best to language as fully and accurately as possible (not very possible) the visual thoughts arising in my head. The doing is not in the metaphor but in the translation of the imagery into acceptable neurotypical-speak.
As Savarese explains, broadly speaking, metaphor arises from the right brain; broadly speaking, grammar and syntax arise from the left. (And it is broad, because there is enormous variation among individual brains, with some people having functions on the ‘wrong’ side.) In those online right brain / left brain tests, it’s no suprise to me that I always score as very predominantly right-brained. This is a fit with the hypothesis of the 1977 study cited in ‘Lobes’ which suggests that ‘autistic children process information predominantly by strategies of the right hemisphere from birth and, unless unusual events occur, continue to be right hemisphere processors throughout their life.’ Unlike DJ, though, I am definitely not also good at left-brain activities. Maths? Forget it. I float in a mythopoeic world, tethered by a fine thread to consensus reality. I pretend to go along with it a lot more than I really do. The sharks again.
Interestingly, word production is also lateralised to the left brain, which would explain why (although superficially I appear highly articulate) vocabulary retrieval is so difficult for me. It’s like one of those palm-sized perspex puzzles we had in the seventies, in which you have to shuttle the little silver ball through a series of shelves and ledges and out the other end. It’s fiddly and frustrating and it takes a lot of time.
I used to mask this difficulty – the way a stutterer covers for themselves by finding alternative words for those with their stutter trigger. I did it very skilfully. I don’t do it any more. I hate those cover-words with their lack of specificity and circumlocutions. I prefer to allow the little gaps and hiatuses; I prefer to let the wrong word come: a pet is a parrot; a parrot is a carrot; agriculture is agrimony (have to google that one – it may be a fully accredited word) … is acrimony, is crimson … Colours tend to leave me speechless – they’re so intense. In truth this is the stuff of poetry, of associative and out-of-the box thinking. And this is the way I don’t erase myself, the way I don’t deface the native beauty of my own arising but simply let myself be. Because actually, I’m no better than I ought to be, but I’m as good as you.
It’s easy to deface and erase yourself if you’re autistic, and hard to stand up and be who and what you actually are – all one hundred and extra 42 per cent of it (1). It takes a lot of courage and a lot of practice. Autism is a gift, but it’s the kind of gift bestowed by a bad fairy (always the best kind in the end). It’s like being given a dozen wild and furious horses to hitch to your carriage. You can break them if you like – if you want them to end up mean and bridled and dispirited. It’s taken me half a lifetime to whisper my horses, and it requires a huge amount of skill, experience and mindful attention to keep the carriage moving forward without rattling, jostling, spooked and hell-for-leather horses, and generally pitching everyone into a rut.
I’m really committed these days to disrupting surfaces. I want to know what we’re all made of. I want the materiality of lumps and bumps, coarseness and sticking out bits. I want the old bones, coins and broken tea-cups. I want what presses up out of the pores of the earth. I’m no longer willing to small myself down and fold it up in a box because I think it might offend you. I want to be full of myself. And there’s a place in being in which it’s all possible. A place of fluidity, in which we flow into and through and among one another without snagging and hitching, in which we roll off one another’s idiosyncracies, and it’s delightful. I know this because I learnt it on the dancefloor (another story), it flooded out into my life, and mostly I live in it now. It feels limitless and full of potential. It feels like the essence of love. It feels like the place where we can all truly meet. It feels like a dreamed of sea.
(1) According to a recent study, the resting brains of autistic children produce 42 per cent more information than those of non-autistic controls.