How poetry helped me hide my autism, and how poetry is helping me find it (part one)
This is part one of a talk I gave June 5, 2022 for the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Embracing Neurodiversity conference.
Initially, I titled this talk “How poetry helped me hide my autism, and how poetry helped me find it,” but I think that’s a little bit misleading, so I’ve made a small change.
The title is now “How poetry helped me hide my autism, and how poetry is helping me find it.” I made that change because this process is ongoing, and it probably be ongoing for a very, very long time.
I first got an inkling that I might be autistic about two and a half years ago, which means I’ve got four decades of misdiagnoses, of self-judgment, of less-than-ideal coping mechanisms that have to be sifted through, and that’s going to take a while. And one of the things I hope to get across in this talk is that, for autistic people who have gone undiagnosed into adulthood, learning you’re autistic isn’t this magic moment that fixes everything, where you get to look back on the wreckage of your life and say, “Well I’ll be darned, turns out it was autism all along!” and then everything is miraculously okay. One thing I’m learning is that nothing about this process is quick and easy.
Like a lot of autistic people who learn they’re autistic fairly late in life, my autism awareness process began with one of my children being flagged in school for assessment. Unlike a lot of people who learn they’re autistic late in life, I was two years into a PhD program at the time this happened. I’m a researcher — I’m trained in how to search for and pick through and aggregate huge amounts of information quickly and effectively. My brain is a finely tuned data processing machine, so as soon as the autism conversation started in my family, I turned all my attention to it. I noticed a few things. One was how little academic research on autism was actually conducted by autistic people. Another was how little autism research was being conducted in the humanities: that is, the arts, languages, history, philosophy.
Prior to learning I was autistic, I had been at a bit of a crossroads in my research: I was stalled in my proposed dissertation project, and not really convinced that I had chosen the right area of study. So I did the only thing that made sense: I pivoted my research toward autism and poetry. As an autistic poet, I have a unique perspective to offer. In a way, I was creating an accommodation for myself: like a lot of autistic people, I’m not much of a multitasker, so if I was going to have a mid-life autism crisis and do a PhD at the same time, I was going to have to roll those things together.
As a researcher, I examine the overlap between autistic language use (e.g., echolalia, listing and cataloguing, non-sequiturs, idiosyncratic naming) and the formal techniques associated with poetry (e.g., repetition, meter, incantation, symbolism, figurative language).
My approach is rooted in Critical Autism Studies/Neurodiversity Studies, and engages the idea of neurocosmopolitanism, that is, the notion that neurological difference is not something merely to be tolerated or accepted, but is instead a crucial element of human diversity.
Now, the word “neurocosmopolitanism” might be new to some of you — it’s certainly new to my spell check. It was coined separately by two theorists (Nick Walker and Ralph James Savarese) more or less at the same time.
Cosmopolitanism is the philosophy that all people, regardless of their origin, cultural background, religion, etc., are entitled to respect and full consideration. A cosmopolitan environment is somewhere where different cultural influences are celebrated and embraced — think about big cosmopolitan cities like Montreal and New York and London. A cosmopolite is a citizen of the world, someone who encounters difference with genuine curiosity and excitement and admiration. So, neurocosmopolitanism applies those principles of respect and consideration to people with neurological difference.
Nick Walker, in her book Neuroqueer Heresies, writes that: “To embrace the neurodiversity paradigm is to refuse to pathologize neurocognitive styles and experiences that differ from our own, and to accept neurodiversity as a natural, healthy, and important form of human biodiversity — a fundamental and vital characteristic of the human species, and a crucial source of evolutionary and creative potential … The neurocosmopolitan seeks to actively engage with and preserve human neurodiversity, and to honor, explore, and cultivate its creative potentials, in a spirit of humility, respect, and continual openness to learning and transformation.”
Depending on your discipline, this might be quite different from your approach to neurocognitive difference. But this is the fundamental philosophical underpinning of my research. In Critical Autism Studies, autistic people aren’t research subjects to be reported on my non-autistic “experts.” We are the experts, and we are the protagonists of our own stories.
There’s a photo of me at about five or six years old, so… 1982? 1983? By the looks of things, it might be my birthday; I seem to have a pink birthday wrapping ribbon stuck in my hair, which I’m sure I would have regretted immediately because I hated — and still hate — having my hair brushed, so getting that off my head was probably an event. I am sitting cross-legged on some truly outstanding 1970s-era carpet which I can practically feel just looking at it. I seem to have braided the tail of an authentic 1980s My Little Pony, and there is a second pony on the floor in front of me. I’m looking sort of sideways at the camera, or possibly just past it.
I grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. I have one younger sister, and we were raised by my mother. By all reports, I was a quiet, clever, pleasant child. I was speaking in full sentences at one, but only to my mother — if another adult approached, I would look at my feet and hide. By three I was reading aloud, but only if I thought nobody could hear me. For much of my early life, my favourite activity was lining up my Fisher Price little people along the slats in the wooden floor; I also enjoyed organizing Smarties by colour, spinning in circles, walking backwards, jamming my face into the corner of the couch until I saw stars, talking to myself, counting to myself, spelling words to myself, and running by myself.
When I was eight, one of my favourite toys in the world was a pink glitter baton, and I played with it by holding it upright until every last fleck of suspended glitter had settled, then I would slowly upend it, watching the trapped air bubble creep toward the clump of glitter, which would then start falling with a rush toward the bottom, starting the process again. Another favourite toy was the classic Etch-A-Sketch, only instead of using it to draw wonky, angular pictures, I would systematically “draw” horizontal line after horizontal line, about a millimeter at a time, until all the metallic powder had been removed and the mechanism inside was revealed. Then I’d shake it and start over.
All in all, I was a typical atypical kid.
If I were in elementary school today, I’m pretty sure somebody would have flagged me for an ASD assessment relatively early on. But it was the 1980s, and quiet girls with advanced reading levels and fairly decent manners weren’t considered troublesome enough to warrant much thought. The few troubles I did have were explained away somehow or other. My clumsiness and the broken bones that resulted from it were just me with my head in the clouds. The fact that I couldn’t tie my shoes until I was six was just a matter of me not trying (note to the young people: Velcro on sneakers wasn’t really a thing yet). Not learning to ride a bike until grade six was weird, but I was a bookish type and maintained that I could ride a bike if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t, so there.
Taken on their own, none of these things seem like much of a big deal, but together they do paint a compelling portrait of an autistic — and totally oblivious — child.