The Poetry Paradox

ImageI find myself pondering the commonly held beliefs about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) on quite a regular basis. One that puzzles me is the perception that people with autistic spectrum disorders are emotionally devoid, that they are emotionless robots. I see myself as quite an emotional person. I study the arts, poetry specifically, which arose in me great swathes of joy, sadness, intrigue and awe. But does this put me at odds with what someone with AS “should” be like? 

Thanks, in part, to my mother’s devotion to reading me bedtime stories I had a passion for books and could read before I started school. At the age of seven I stumbled across a book called Golden Apples: Poems for Children in my primary school library’s meagre poetry section. In it I read W.B Yeats’s short poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’. I cannot profess to have understood the poem totally at that age, but its language evoked a sense of idyllic wonder in me that remains to this day. I now study Yeats as a Masters student and his poetry can still move me to tears.

 

The Song of Wandering Aengus – William Butler Yeats

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/244302

 

What also flies in the face of AS stereotypes is that I understand metaphor, symbolism and other unsaid meanings of poetry, which, according to most professional opinions, I shouldn’t be able to understand. Although I do think that in understanding poetry my mind can end up at the same destination as others’, albeit via a different route, but as I’m not a psychologist that explanation will have to suffice.

In one of my favourite films V for Vendetta (read the original graphic novel, it’s fantastic!) the main character, V, states that ‘Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth’. This means that, in his opinion, without words everything is meaningless, as our ability to describe or otherwise communicate them they have no meaning. This is how I feel about poetry. Words, ideas and feelings are, to paraphrase the movie ‘bulletproof’. However, this doesn’t solve our little contradiction. How can I feel this way if I am an unfeeling AS android? Simply put, it is a fallacy – but like most misunderstandings there is nevertheless a grain of truth at the heart of this misconception.

I think that it is true people with AS or full-blown autism have problems with feelings and emotion. However, it is not just a lack of these things that cause problems. It can be an abundance of rage at being hugged by a stranger, or too taking too much joy like being fascinated with toxins and poisons. What is probably the most common problem is that the feelings are there, but (myself included) the words don’t always come easily at the time. You may think that because I write in a (hopefully!) reasonably clear way with a voluminous vocabulary and a cogent turn of phrase it hard to see why I would find it hard to express my emotions. I intend to shatter any illusions of me you may have but I am much more expressive in writing because it can be rehearsed, and prepared in advance. I labour over everything I write, from academic essays to my Tweets or Facebook posts. So because I remove the spontaneity of my blog entries I can put my feeling across in a much clearly way than if we had just bumped into each other in the street.

It is important to remember that often, in terms of dealing with emotion, people with AS and autism can be quite immature. I think of it in this way: like a baby cannot handle solid food my brain needs feelings and external stimuli to be processed into a more manageable form, think of it like emotional mush.  For me poetry is the blender that takes intense emotion and processes it from being an ethereal and abstract thing to become more digestible through the words of the poet. This is also what encouraged me to write my own poetry, because reading poetry showed me a way to take confusing thoughts and emotions and map them out in an incredibly expressive way.

So in short, saying that everyone who has an autistic spectrum disorder is an emotionless automaton is like saying someone isn’t thinking because you don’t speak their language. They have a lot to say – but lack the means to communicate it.

 

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On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. III)

In the 2004-05 academic year I was suspended from school for the first time. Now, with some hindsight, I think that my then undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome was the root cause. I have always struggled with Maths ever since I started school. The common sociological cliché of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome is that they will be some kind of Rain Man figure, who is obsessed with Maths, Science and technology. Whilst I have a strong interest in the latter two Maths leaves me stumped – I wouldn’t be surprised if I have dyscalculia, which is like dyslexia, but it is a difficulty to do with numeracy, rather than literacy.

So in one particular Maths lesson my fifteen year old self was finding it hard to keep up with the mathematical jargon the teacher was telling me and the rest of the bottom set class. My mind started to drift as I couldn’t follow the gobbledygook – and then, my teacher suddenly pointed to a problem on the board and asks me “why is this the wrong answer?”. Finding myself baffled I used humour as a nervous response so I replied, “because it isn’t the right answer”. She was furious at what I said, and she told me that I had to stay behind and talk to her about my “bad attitude”. So I spent the rest of the lesson silently fuming about being unduly vilified.

After the lesson, when I should have been having lunch, she proceeded to read me the riot act to the point that I could take no more. I stormed out of the room shouting that she should “f*ck off!”. This resulted in me being suspended and put in an isolation room with other suspended students for three whole days. I now realise that if I could have read her body language and facial cues I would have realised that my Maths teacher was asking me a rhetorical question to remind me to pay attention in class. If was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 1992, when I was three, my teachers would be aware that I sometimes get things wrong, meaning I come across as facetious or aloof when I don’t mean to.

If I had also known about my having Asperger’s Syndrome when I applied for teacher training I would have got the extra help I needed to pass the course. After being told that I needed to improve substantially during my second school placement I spent nine hours at school, followed by seven hours in my university’s library planning and preparing so that I could email my plans to my mentor in advance. I would leave home at 6:30 in the morning and return after midnight almost every day. If I had known that the difficulties in my teaching I was struggling to fix were due to a brain condition that I was born with, which couldn’t be cured I would have given up there and then.

Eventually the inevitable happened and I failed the course. It was the first time that I had failed anything in my academic career. I even had to sit through the final farewell assembly at the university with all of my peers whom had all passed and were congratulating each other. I was probably one of the most intelligent people on the course with some of the best subject knowledge, but it wasn’t good enough.

That was it. I had no plan B, my future had crumbled like dust and, worst of all I couldn’t work out why. But as my life seemed over, eight months later I would find a revelation – and a new beginning of sorts…

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On what should have happened in ’92 (pt. I)

In 1992  I was three years old. I was, quite probably, one of the worst toddlers imaginable. I broke all of my toys trying to see inside them to find out how they worked. I broke most of my family’s stuff that wasn’t kept under lock and key. I even managed to break my baby cot and my parents had to keep repairing it with string. This only got worse as I got older.

At school I was awful, to the point where I was sent to all kinds of counsellors and behavioural psychologists. I was also sent to a dietitian to work out why most food made me feel nauseated when I tried to swallow it. My teacher at primary school invented a report card system to tackle my bad behaviour.

All the while my alienation from my peers grew, especially as I reached secondary school, where I received more counselling for my perceived “sadness”. I never had a girlfriend as I couldn’t interact very well with my peers because I always seemed so different, or weird, compared to other kids of my age. I worked towards getting the best qualifications I could so that I could become a teacher, as I always seemed to have academic talent, as I could read before I started school.

I managed to get into the university of my choice. I never did the freshers thing where new students get hammered and party all week, as the prospect of doing so made my stomach turn with anxiety. I received more counselling for social phobia/social anxiety, but alas, it never got to the bottom of why I found it very difficult to make friends. So I spent the bulk of my time nerding it up in the library for between six and eight hours at a time. I enjoyed the studying and it paid off: I got the second best degree class possible. I had no social life to detract from my work.

It was when I got accepted onto a highly competitive post-graduate teacher training course that set in motion a chain of events that would change how I perceive myself, and the rest of the world forever…

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