Xanadu: Mrs Burton’s class – a tale of autspace

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea
.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that Mrs Burton was autistic. But this was 1972 and we didn’t yet have a word for ourselves. We didn’t have an ourselves. Mrs Burton lived in a bungalow in Gudgeheath Lane. The garden was overgrown and full of rescue animals. The year before I was in her class, Mrs Burton rescued a lamb from a slaughterhouse and somehow managed to keep it in the school field. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard. This was long before OFSTED was thought of, and the notion of a standardised primary school curriculum was still dystopian. Our headteacher was a socialist who ousted Christianity in favour of classical music at assemblies. Once, for a few experimental weeks, he instituted the Summerhill system1 and we chose which lessons to go to. The lamb was called Larry.

Mrs Burton lived in an amorphous middle-ground of age. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t old. I suppose in actuality she might have been in her early forties. She wore shapeless tweedy skirts that finished just below the knee, loose blouses with blouson necks and floppy ties, the ubiquitous tea-coloured tights, and flat shoes. Her dark, straight hair looped over her ears and around the back in a kind of shambolic Victorian bun. I remember her with dog-brown eyes – sharp but not unkind. However, I may have made that up.

I didn’t especially love, or even like, Mrs Burton. What’s remarkable about my time in her class is that, for the first time in my school life (I was nine), I felt comfortable. It’s hard to convey how extraordinary and unfamiliar an experience that was. I gave no thought to this at the time, only I remember once trying to explain it to my mum. It came out much smaller than it felt, and I could tell she was puzzled. I described it, I think, as being at home in Mrs Burton’s class, feeling that I belonged. I understand now that this was because in subtle, silent, unspecifiable ways, Mrs Burton’s classroom was autistic space. She didn’t try to make it that way. Inclusivity hadn’t been invented yet. It was because she was.

I still remember the geography of the tables in Mrs Burton’s classroom. They were were anchored like continents in a stable and unshifting world. I sat at a long one – two tables placed end to end – near Mrs Burton’s desk. I was on the desk-ward side, and there was a window several chairs down to my left. I moved to another, big square table, to learn about evolution – fish crawled out of the swamp onto a land forested with enormous primeval trees; stegosaurus gave way to brontesaurus, to tyrannasaurus rex; proto-people crept out of the undergrowth with stones. There was a new and thrilling cassette-tape episode every week.

We must have done maths with Mrs Burton I suppose, but I don’t remember any. In my memory the classroom thinned and cleared repeatedly around pools of fantasy space. Mrs Burton read us magical books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Wizard of Oz. She read us Coleridge’s opium-inspired ‘Kubla Khan’, probably not generally considered an appropriate poem for nine-year-olds, but I loved it. I didn’t completely understand the words, but I absorbed the music of the language, and I intuited meanings that underlay the literal one. ‘Kubla Khan’ still loops through my head from time to time.

It’s hard, it seems, for allistic2 people to understand how – and how much – autistic people are excluded. This is, in my experience, particularly in-your-face and frankly fucking horrible in the happy clappy world of alternative practices. Serendipitously, while I was writing this piece, I came across the work of disability activist Mia Mingus. Mia blew my mind. She had not just words, but formed thoughts and cogent sentences for something I had dimly sensed, experienced constantly, but never been able to knead out of flour and water into the useful consistency of dough. Mia coined the phrase ‘access intimacy’. She says:

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access. Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.3

In Mrs Burton’s class, I experienced access intimacy.

In 2017, school regulation makes it difficult for an autistic teacher to survive, never mind thrive. Our genius is at the back of the room doing it differently. We don’t / can’t / why would we want to? stick to the manual. Autistic children in the UK can now be diagnosed and statemented, and should, in theory anyway, receive specialised help to negotiate school, but they’re unlikely to experience the kind of truly autistic space I lucked into in Mrs Burton’s class.

This is not just a celebration of a single teacher, but a paeon to the whole awkward, eccentric tribe of us who’ve thrown away the instruction book and are spinning it out of our own bodies like spider web. The best autistic spaces are strange, capacious, ingenious places where it’s safe to be. They inspire. They contain but they don’t constrain. They’re vast in their scope and particular in their attention to detail.

Mrs Burton loved words and, being autistic, could get a bit pedantic about them. She told us when we wrote a letter we should never contract our county name to the awful ‘Hants’ but should allow it the full expansion of ‘Hampshire’. I think she’d like that I write. I hope she’d be pleased that I’m writing about her, but I think she’d probably be a bit embarrassed.

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I wrote this piece as an assignment for the Open Floor teacher training.

1. Summerhill is a British school run on democratic principles that had become notorious in the seventies as an establishment of mayhem and misrule following the publication of A.S. Neill’s book Summerhill School.

2. Allistic: ‘non-autistic’.

3. Mia Mingus: https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com.

Patti Smith riff

M Train is a book about nothing – about the in-between spaces, the wadding of human life. Patti makes the crevices feel fertile and itchy with green, ‘nothing’ like rich, dark, velvety boxes lined with stuff. Patti makes it permissible to expend days in wandering at random, musing, writing, and sitting too long at off-times in cafes. She makes it possible that this is itself a life.

Sometimes, serendipitously, Patti meets a strange personal idol. She seems to have no sense that she is herself a famous person and that her idols are probably awe-struck and delighted to meet her.

I wonder if Patti is one of us.1 Her father spent many years devising a handicapping system for horses, but he never placed a bet. He had ‘a mathematical curiosity … searching for patterns’. He was ‘kind and open-minded’ but ‘dreamily estranged’. Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘broke his heart’. ‘Question everything’, he told his children. He always wore the same thing: ‘a black sweatshirt, worn dark pants rolled up to his calves’ (surely an autistic touch) ‘and moccasins’. At the weekend, the children were ‘obliged to give him some privacy as he had little time for himself’.

Patti talks to inanimate objects, which have personalities and a view. Myself, I would have thought this was normal, except that I have become aware it isn’t. She spends days roaming around on her own, coming upon people, places and things. This, too, seems normal to me, but I’m autistic. Patti is obsessive – she says so herself. I think perhaps rather, though, she is immersive. She immerses into worlds – of books and lives and TV programmes – like blotting paper sopping into a dish of ink. She is herself an immersive world. A mood. A music. A dish of ink.

I first became aware of Patti in in 1978. ‘Because the Night’ and the iconic cover of Easter. I was 15. She was upraised arms, white camisole, and flagrant dark armpit hair. She embodied something I couldn’t define and didn’t understand, but wanted inchoately. I’ve always adored armpits with their soft, tender hair – the shape, the undulations and hollows, the suggestion of hidden places and sex. Patti didn’t conceal hers or do the polite thing and depilate. She flaunted them, these beautiful, unseemly, ordinary things. I was slow. It took a lot longer for the penny to drop. I had lovers who were men, and I liked their silky armpits. At some point, eventually, it occurred to me that I could have my own, and ever since I have. It’s kind of farouche and fuck-you and normal, dammit. It’s me, and it’s mine, and here I am.

I wrote this in the wrong book, at the back of the Mysore class register. It arose in the interstices – a weed on a page not intended to cultivate actual writing. I wrote it in Patti space, drifing an hour or so, in the Picturehouse downstairs, cake for breakfast,2 rain drilling the tarmac, slick olive trees – yes, olive trees – St Alfege’s, massed and matronly, presiding. It’s not about practice, but it’s hiding out now in this blog, an outlaw, whisky-toting, red kerchief, hooves on rocks.

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1. Autistic.
2. The cake was delicious.

Hacking off the Plaster

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.

 

Bleeding words: I write about why it’s hard to write

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”―Ernest Hemingway

I may possibly not have the same relationship with bleeding as Ernest Hemingway. While I think he’s probably intending razor blades or knives, I’m getting tides, the moon and the leg-collapsing sensation of drawing down, an organic cycle that transcends choice, desire or need and isn’t very dramatic. But it’s true there’s nothing to this kind of bleeding.

And I really wish I could write that way. I really wish there were a running tap or a tide, because nothing to me is more perplexed, trammelled, stilted and stuttering than making the little ants march across the big white spaces. For me, writing is more like wading through waist-high sludge than opening a vein.

In that case, you might reasonably be wondering why I keep on trying. Byron (I love Byron – I don’t really like Hemingway) explained, ‘If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.’ I feel that. I often empty my mind by moving these days, but it’s a different kind of emptying. Byron is right: there’s something cathartic in tipping out the trash can. At least then you can see what’s mouldering and mulching; it’s no longer silently doing its inexorable organic thing inside your head. There’s a satisfying sense of compensatory aesthetic control when the inchoate is mustered and corralled, penned into neat black lines and grammatical structures – even if all they really do is frame its essential wildness.

But for me it’s not enough just to quietly lasso a few horses. I have this desperate need to be heard, seen and truly apprehended, to know that I am not sifting away like sand through an egg-timer. It’s as if some maniacal little Führer in my head is constantly yelling, ‘Listen, all of you! Listen! Just listen! LISTEN!’ Because otherwise I don’t exist. I’m whirling and whirling away, down the plughole, over the event horizon.

So, start where you are and all that, I thought I’d excavate it a bit, this feeling: the wool in my mouth, the thick tongue, gagging, choking. Just why is it so fucking difficult? Just why?

The thing is, when I write, I do feel as if my life depends upon it, and it depends upon it being good – so I have very high standards. It has to sing for me; it can’t clunk or collapse with an exhausted sigh. Writing is something I do well or I don’t do at all – which you can see is a crippling position to begin from. Who the hell can write like that? Like it has to be perfectly finished before it’s even started?

In some ways, this urgency, this sense of life-depends-upon, begins in a response to my neurology. I think in images. I see my thoughts, all of them, and then translate them into words. A writer friend – neurotypical – once told me she was envious of what she saw as my ability to generate images in poetry. I wanted to explain to her that I don’t have to generate anything. The inside of my head is an overwhelming prolixity of multi-layered and inter-penetrating images. Images are for me the ground of consciousness. The difficulty is in sifting and sorting. It requires a huge amount of executive function, and if you’re autistic, you don’t have a lot of executive function.

The first time I heard an autistic person describe the way they think as a movie, I was puzzled. Why was this something that needed explaining? How else was there to think? I still find it difficult to imagine what it’s like to think in words or how it’s even possible. Words seem such a sophisticated product of consciousness, like an aeroplane or the iPhone, so removed from the primal mud of the source. How can they arise pristine and fully formed?

I love films (actual ones), especially when they create their own landscape and communicate mostly through it. They are for me a form of direct apprehension: visual to visual. It’s a jaw-unhingeing relaxation to inhabit this kind of instantaneous world in which meaning presses through the surface like colours in a dirty sponge and soaks unmediated into my consciousness. Sponge to sponge.

When I write, there has to be the interpolation of another surface, one that must be negotiated and surmounted, and with it comes a sense of impotence. The thing is, when you think in images, so much of everything that matters – detail, colouration, mood, tone, and a kind of slidingness between one thing and another that allows for multiplicity, for more than one thing to be true at the same time and for everything to be connected to everything else – so much of this slips though the spaces between the words, leaving you with something at best diminished, at worst tangential to its actual meaning or signifying absolutely bloody nothing.

I also feel in images. My emotional experience happens in intense, rich, brightly coloured moving pictures, saturated with metaphorical meaning. I am one of those autistic people who experiences an overwhelming amount of emotion (whereas others report feeling almost no emotion at all). There’s so much going on in here that I often feel in danger of drowning in myself, and I struggle to experience a sense of containment. Like many autistic people, I find it difficult to name and categorise emotion. Partly, this seems to be due to the sheer volume of it happening all the time. Partly, it seems to devolve from the fact that no words have been coined for many of the emotions I see-feel. They exist like outlaws beyond what is languaged, defined and accepted as a known emotional experience. I need fifty words for snow. These days, given time (I’ve practised a lot), I can usually match what I see roughly to a fully accredited word for a feeling, but it’s a very broad category that loses much of the particularity, aesthetic wonder and intensity of the actual emotion. It communicates a lot less than it leaves out, and this is mightily frustrating.

There’s something else too. It’s biographical. I came to dance, but in my family dancing was considered a bit like masturbating – embarrassing and better done behind closed doors. So while I was always a secret dancer, writing became my first public practice and discipline, the first expressive form where I was witnessed. It also became the dungeon where my dancer was tied up and hidden. While I have set her fully at liberty in the world (another story), writing continues to be freighted for me with the frustration, limitation, dislocation / relocation of something that is not my first means but which had to be reached for, manipulated into. Maybe that’s why dancing is indeed for me like Hemingway bleeding: an open vein, a running tap.

Just lately I allowed myself to notice something else: writing and reading are erotic experiences. It’s the name I didn’t name of that intensity of being intimately read – by school English teachers and onwards to mentors and lovers I’ve written to. While I was fiddling around, turning the compost for this article ­– writer’s fore-play, essential to the writing act – I typed some words I like by Matthew Remski:

Language is continually overflowing its consensus meanings … When we use it playfully, it co-creates with us. But when we domesticate it to a conceptual purpose, our most serious grammar and richest vocabularies become very fragile nets through which most of the world escapes.

And as I typed, I was overtaken by this swoony, vertiginous feeling, of one thing collapsing into another – time, space and personhood. And for a moment I could not quite recollect … Who do these words belong to? To me? To you? Where did they come from? And I wondered, do you press through into another person’s consciousness when you re-write their words? Do you? Is it like lying naked, mind to mind, but still essentially unknowable? Are words really sex? Did my family get it all wrong?

And somehow I waded through the mud to the end – and the bit of writing I really love: polishing, refining. I’m autistic; I’m a details person. I have no eye for the big picture, and the process of emerging a structure is laden with anxiety for me. I can’t always bear to stay present for it. It’s got better since I embraced the associative nature of my thinking. I no longer look for lines, but drop in a pebble and follow the rippling out. And the rippling out and the rippling out … until the ripples dissolve into a sort of stillness.

threads of yoga, Matthew Remski, 2012.