I 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
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.