Carol Rumens is the author of sixteen collections of poems, as well as occasional fiction, drama and translation. Here she talks about Asperger’s Syndrome and Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC), the misunderstandings and mysteries still surrounding these conditions, and how her awareness of Asperger’s Syndrome has affected her understanding of her own creative process.
Aspie – someone with Asperger’s Syndrome
Chromatics – the study of colour
When my grandson was diagnosed with autism it was as if a stone had been hurled into a quiet pool. The ripples spread through his immediate family, particularly affecting my two daughters (one being his mother) and myself. We re-evaluated our lives from a dizzy perspective. Autistic spectrum condition is a genetic condition. It’s a doubtful gift passed from generation to generation. A lot of us were implicated!
At first I was very uncomfortable with the idea that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. I’d always considered myself eccentric. My self-esteem relied on a sense, since earliest childhood, that I was creative, one of those people who could paint, draw, play music and write, even if they weren’t always very good at thinking straight or mixing with the other kids. I was an introvert – fine. So were a lot of intelligent people. I didn’t need close friends: I needed a room of my own, plus a typewriter. So what?
Perhaps being an Aspie made me less guilty of the wrongs I’d done to others in my life, but, equally, I was less responsible for the good. The best of my ‘good’ self – my poetry – was just a symptom, an expression of pathology.
I began the “On the Spectrum” sequence partly to express that grief. But I soon struck notes of defiance and humour. I remembered strange, disconcerting experiences I’d had as a child, and I measured them against some of the diagnostic criteria of Asperger’s Syndrome. Some were in tune with the criteria. But others weren’t.
I will have more questions in future: I haven’t finished telling the story. For instance, it’s said that Aspies lack empathy, and that we misunderstand metaphor. I wonder where this leaves the Aspergers poets – or indeed the women with Aspergers.
Sensory over-stimulation is one of the affects of Autistic Spectrum Condition: there’s neurological and experiential evidence. But wouldn’t that susceptibility be more likely to increase empathy? Perhaps autistic people, especially women (the gender which is socially conditioned for empathy) have an excess rather than a lack of response to others, but deny it because it feels chaotic and scary? An inability to grasp metaphor might be the result of a similar subconscious defence-mechanism –because metaphor is also sensuously stimulating, and therefore potentially disruptive.
Poetry might attract people with ASC because it provides techniques of controlling sensation. It allows heightened experience in the safe ‘environment’ of the page, line and stanza. It foregrounds pattern-making. It allows repeated patterns to be safely interrupted. I realise now that, whatever the genetic ‘prompt’ towards an activity for an individual, it doesn’t invalidate the activity. Being an Aspie poet doesn’t damage the poetry, but the pride.
And so, having overcome my pride and prejudice, a faintly crusading element entered my attitude to autism. The condition needs a lot more fresh thinking. I’m not generally someone who wants poetry to earn its bread as a foot-soldier in the army of good causes. But I want to speak for a greater understanding of autism, and I choose to do it through the medium I’m best able to employ. Rather than use poetry as propaganda, I would simply ask it to report back sometimes from the field, like a travel correspondent in the complex, many-coloured terrain of a newly discovered country.
What I’d like to do now, besides filing more dispatches, is to edit an anthology of poems by autistic poets. Certain poets have already ‘come out’ and I suspect there are potentially many more. Autism is a richer, wider, more polychromatic spectrum than so far defined. In fact, to know autism would be to know consciousness, which would be to see God. I don’t think anyone can, but I hope we can build some better microscopes.
Carol Rumens’ latest collection, Animal People, is available on the Seren website. The striking final sequence, ‘On the Spectrum’, focuses particularly on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it may be experienced by young women, as well as exploring some of the effects of Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC).