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.

DSCN0223.JPG

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.

It is not the words: art, (dis)ability, thinking in pictures and speaking with the body

ImageJudith Scott was an artist (she died in 2005). She made large, intricate, colourful pieces by wrapping with yarn and strips of cloth. Inside these womb-like, containing spaces, x-rays reveal concealed objects: forks, rings – small daily items from her immediate environment. Judith also had Downs Syndrome; she was deaf and non-speaking and spent her life up to the age of 43 in institutions. Here, when she was a child, crayons were taken away from her because she was considered too ‘retarded’ to be able to use them – even though she clearly was using them, perhaps not in the way the staff expected, but artists do the unexpected with their materials. Judith’s medical notes record that after the crayons were taken away, she cried for hours.

The introduction to the video about Judith on karmatube poses the question, ‘Can something can be called art if it is made by someone who does not consider herself an artist?’ I wonder why it’s assumed that Judith didn’t consider herself an artist. Because she didn’t speak, write or sign? Because she didn’t articulate artist as a word? Is the word itself a magical signifier of reality? Folded into the assumption that Judith did not consider herself an artist is a second one that because she didn’t speak, write or sign, she didn’t reflect. But as soon as she got the opportunity, Judith spent every day, all day, making art, continuing sometimes until her fingers bled. It seems to me that her work is a body of non-verbal reflection and that she communicated her identity loud and clear.

Like many (though not all) autistic people, I think in images and translate into words. My thought-pictures are evocative, textured and intensely compelling. I also experience emotion as image and similarly have to slowly deduce – or maybe it’s more like seduce – the terminology for the feeling from the colours, lines, tone and content. It’s a kind of internal pathetic fallacy. For some visual thinkers, see-thinking is realistic. Temple Grandin, for instance, explains that her visual memories are like computer files stored in her brain. They are accurate and precise and make her a highly skilled structural designer. This way of thinking enabled her to note design faults in the Fukushima nuclear plant and predict the disaster that occurred there as a result of the tsunami in 2011. For me, though, see-thinking is mythopoeic. It’s an arthouse movie, an expanding, interconnecting sequence of images that carry meanings on multiple levels, psychological, emotional, somatic.

It’s only very recently that I realised most other people’s mental processes don’t happen this way, and I’m still puzzled by how it’s possible to think without seeing it. It turns out to be equally difficult to convey to non-see-thinkers what it’s like to see-think and how the translation process works. For a start – in my mind anyway – there are always many layers of interpenetrating images going on at the same time. I say ‘going on’ because they’re not static like paintings; they shift and change, and I can move between, into and through them. I can also alter them, though where this ‘I’ is located, what is volitional and what arises organically beyond ‘my’ control, is not entirely clear to me. I suppose it’s really a dialogue of unconscious and conscious mind. Once I start to transpose image into word, the words themselves arise as image – sometimes typed in Courier on a strip of paper – and then generate more images, so the richness and multi-dimensionality of meaning is often overwhelming.

In the process of paring and refining into language, much of the expansiveness, beauty and subtlety of the original vision gets lost frustratingly in the gaps between the words. And there are experiences and feelings that simply have no words in the English language, or for which language fails to provide fine enough distinctions:

When the phone stopped ringing she perceived a peculiar silence. One of many. Which one? There is a silence of perception. It wasn’t that. Thoughtless silence? Forced silence? Chosen silence? Silence because you’re listening. Fearful silence. Because the radio’s broken. Hesitation. When you don’t say it because you don’t want to hurt the other person. Enraged silence. When you don’t say it because it’s not going to do any good. Waiting. Thinking. Not wanting to be misunderstood. Refusing to participate. Self-absorption. When a loud sound is over. Shame. (Empathy, Sarah Schulman)

I wouldn’t be surprised  if someone like Judith Scott found verbal language just too much of a dispersal of creative energy. I’m not deaf and I find it very exhausting. I have hyperlexia – defined as a significantly higher than average ability with the written word, coupled with a lower than average ability to comprehend spoken language. My intuitive sense is that I read body language and facial expression preferentially; I definitely find speech harder to understand when these are not available, and I detest the phone. My hyperlexia seems to me a paradox. I feel that it arises out of the secondariness for me of word as a mental process and a sense of the urgency of translation if I am to swim in the shoal. Because no one wants to be eaten by a shark. Yet I write seldom. It’s too arduous; the sense of the breadth of the of the gulf to be bridged too daunting. While in a sort of way words allow me to feel connected, they also fix me in isolation – because words are cyphers, and the actual experience always floats silently between them just out of reach. As Hamlet says, ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.’

According to research, 70 per cent of interpersonal communication actually occurs not through the clipping of words but through the body, so perhaps hyperlexics are actually more tuned in than the average person to the full range of human expression and are in fact listening where it really counts. And it cuts both ways. My hands are very articulate. I speak with them a lot. They often carry meanings from inside that I haven’t yet been able to understand verbally or that words lack the subtlety and finesse to encode. When I began to investigate the possibility that I might be on the autistic spectrum, I learnt that body-speaking is a defining ability of autistic people. There’s a term for it. The term is ‘flapping’. Yes, ‘flapping’ … as in penguin. Many autistic people who have been in special education aimed at training them to pass – to appear as seamlessly neurotypical as possible – recall the instruction, ‘Quiet hands!’, meaning that they should sit on it and shut up. God forbid you should get the crayons if you don’t know how to use them!

It’s no news to anyone, I think, that in our culture the mind is prioritised and privileged, while the body and its productions are denigrated. Whereas in earlier times the suppression of the body took the form of a kind of moral demonisation– even furniture had to be clad in tablecloths and antimacassars in case it got too exciting – today the body is undermined by industrial-scale prostitution. It flaunts itself in a window in Amsterdam, infinitely purchaseable and totally silenced. Even loci of somatic enquiry and embodiment, the holy asylums of the speaking body, have been infiltrated by commercial pimpery. The reified yoga body is a multi-billion-dollar cash cow. Who would have thought we could be brainwashed into buying ‘improved’ versions of our own bodies? Never mind that these digital manipulations are not realisable in the living, breathing world. No wonder so much energy goes into silencing the autistic body. A body that speaks irrepressibly its own meaning has the potential for very exciting subversion. Maybe this is why I don’t own a pair of lululemon yoga pants.

I found out about Judith Scott from Emma Roberts. Emma is a Five Rhythms dance teacher, a dance artist and a fellow explorer in the badlands of the moving body. As a child, Emma was told she had ‘ants in her pants and poor concentration’. But what if she was concentrating on the ants in her pants? After all, she went on to train in classical dance, which requires a great deal of focus – and a lot of ants. What if the ants in her pants were the way she was communicating? What if she was just speaking her primary language?

Since I was diagnosed with autism earlier this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about ability and disability and what, if anything, these words even mean. As someone on the autistic spectrum, I’m likely to give you the wrong change and the wrong date, my short-term memory would shame a goldfish, and I don’t know left from right or the difficult bits of the times tables, but I do have a first-class degree and a doctorate (in Pictures and Words, of course – I’m frightened of the sharks). I can’t stand or sit with my back unsupported for more than a minute or two, and I really need a seat on public transport because of Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome, but at the age of 50 I have an astanga practice that would be beyond most people in their twenties. Both autism and ED / HMS involve binaries of deficit and hyper-ability – what autism specialist Tania Marshall calls super-powers. It feels dishonest to describe myself as disabled, and dishonest to describe myself as not disabled.  I live in a floating space of both / and, neither / nor. Judith Scott’s deficits  appear far more evident, and yet they bleed so seamlessly into her genius as an artist. It seems incontravertible to me really only that Judith Scott was Judith Scott.

Judith Scott: http://www.judithandjoycescott.com

Emma Roberts: http://www.shapingtheinvisible.co.uk

Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin, Doubleday, 2006.

Empathy, Sarah Schulman, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2006.

Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking, The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 2012.