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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Social Safari

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Ever been travelling abroad and seen things that are normal to the locals, but just leaves you confused and asking why? For me at least, this is what it’s like to have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). Common things like idle chit-chat about the weather, or those “how are things?” conversations can seem bewildering and pointless. It has been suggested to me to try observing the behaviour of others and learn how to emulate the same illogical and weird behaviour.

 For years I have been watching the behaviour of others and trying to figure out why they did certain things. Statistically those with AS tend to struggle with metaphors and common sayings, such as ‘draw your own conclusions’ as they are viewed only though logic. However, there is a way around these difficulties; some individuals, me included, can use intelligence and experience to work out such phrases. A good way of illustrating this difficulty is best found in Richard Watson Todd’s fascinating book: Much Ado About English, where he points out the illogical and confusing nature of the language. In it he asks he reader to imagine that they do not speak English as a first language and then think about this sentence: “chop down that tree and then chop it up.” I think that people with AS can feel similarly confused when interacting with others, but through watching and listening to others use these phrases has taught me how to infer a meaning through context.

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed when observing the social activity of others is what I call the female greeting cry. When women meet up with their friends (of either gender) they generally greet them with a high pitch that is noticeable higher than their usual speaking voice. The most plausible hypothesis I can think of for this behaviour is that the change in pitch is an effort to show enthusiasm and excitement to be in the other person’s company. This, therefore, establishes a subconscious empathetic link between the two parties, which is an aid to social bonding. I have also noticed my mum and sister use a higher tone of voice when making important phone calls, but use their regular voices for everyday phone calls. My mum also uses the same higher tone when serving customers when she is at work, so I think that it is used to ingratiate one’s self to strangers.

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I have been particularly interested in this firstly, because I have a fascination with the English language and how it is used by different people, but also because I find it difficult to alter the pitch and tone of my own voice to express feelings and emotions, to the point that people often think that I am either depressed or a robot. I Don’t mind this too much; Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is both and he’s a much loved fictional character. I am also observing how other people deal with street salespeople and chuggers (charity+muggers) so that I can get better at dealing with them because it’s such a spontaneous interaction.

The focus has also been on me involving myself in more varied social situations in order to learn new ways of understanding and interacting with people. I’ve played for the same cricket team for several years now, but after each game most of my teammates go to the pub for a drink afterwards. So I decided that I could be a valuable experience to go along with them after a game and see what they do there. I’ve never really been a stereotypically macho man. I like sports and Shakespearean sonnets; I like beer and I also like butterflies, so you could say that I like to mix it up a bit. However, I was at a loss as to what to talk about at the pub. The bulk of my teammates’ conversations were about their wives, girlfriends and children, of which I have very little experience indeed. At least on the positive side I managed to have a very good conversation with my captain’s wife about education as she teaches children with disabilities, and we both shared our secret outrage at the current prevalence of apostrophe abuse in UK society as a whole. (Don’t get me started on shop signs!)

My Asperger’s specialist recommended that I observe others so that I can create what he called a ‘social script’. This turns things around to suit my strengths of memory and attention to detail so that I can draw from a varied bank of experience to aid my fluency in social interaction. I fear that there is one major pitfall in this kind of social exercise. I’ve always had quite a reflective and introverted life; therefore there is an ever present danger of comparing myself to others in purely social terms. This will always end with a knock to my self-esteem because my brain is socially impaired. That is not my best skill, but I do have plenty of others, like Einstein said: ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’

There is also a positive side to it. The more people I observe the more I realise that people are so different, so stupid, kind, confident, unsure, afraid, funny etc. When I worry that I might inadvertently upset someone I should remember that there are people out there that are genuinely sardonic, cold and rude on purpose. Even if I make social mistakes and I come across as being arrogant I know in my heart that I’m not and that I can learn from my mistakes and put it into practice next time.

 

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