In a Guest Editorship looking at emerging disabled artists, Lisette Auton commissioned Sez Thomasin, autistic, gender-queer poet, to write about their experience of neurodiversity and their route into a creative life. They discuss the hurdles, the belonging, and the ‘what if’ for others who are denied creativity by the prescriptive false view portrayed by non-neurodiverse imagery and expectations.
“Oh no, I’m not autistic! You see I’m really, really empathetic and also I write poetry so I can’t be.”
I’m ashamed to say that this is something that came out of my mouth about four or five years ago, when people first started to ask me whether I thought I might be “on the spectrum”.
What’s worse: it was usually autistic people saying this; spotting a kindred spirit and reaching out. Worse still? These people were often creative types; poets, writers, painters… and I told them that I couldn’t possibly be like them because of my amazing empathy and creativity. I’d like to start this piece off by apologising to them. That was a gross failure of theory of mind on my part.
The thing is, I knew that I was weird and that I came across as anti-social sometimes, aloof even. I joked about my “resting bitch face” and the way that I somehow never managed to read people’s reactions, and how they seemed totally oblivious to mine… but autistic? That wasn’t me. I knew all about autistic people. They were good at maths for a start, and that definitely wasn’t me. They weren’t creative. They were literal minded souls, poor loves. Extended metaphors? Personification? The sort of figurative language that made my heart sing every time I wrote it or heard it or read it? Those people wouldn’t have a hope of understanding it.
I love poetry. Ever since I can remember, the soothing rhythm of metered verse has brought me a peace of mind that I couldn’t get any other way. As a child, I obsessively memorised anything with a rhyme and a rhythm. I wandered around reciting everything from Pam Ayres to Hallmark greeting card verses under my breath. I wrote little ditties for family birthdays, and when I (frequently) got my foot in my mouth and found myself in trouble for offending someone, I would duck out of the social excruciation of an out-loud apology and they’d be faced with a silent, blushing child shoving a bit of note paper with lines of contrite doggerel in their faces.
No, I definitely wasn’t autistic.
Because to me, autism had always been presented as a kind of diametric opposite to creativity. Autism was Rain Man and, later, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night Time. (Both portrayals of autism written by neurotypical people, by the way). Autism was obsessing over travel timetables, mental mathematic gymnastics and not caring about other people. It was also, without exception, male. It wasn’t so much that I rejected the idea, as that the idea could not exist within the parameters that existed in my head. I knew I was a poet. I knew I cared, deeply, about the feelings of other peoples. I knew that poetry was the way I tried to make sense of and express those feelings. I might not be able to have an in-depth conversation with someone about a disagreement we’d had without intense anxiety, but hell, I could write them a sonnet about it!
I honestly couldn’t tell you if it’s an autistic trait or a human one to believe what you are told as a child even in the face of overwhelming evidence. I wasn’t a special educational needs child: my grades were good (except in maths). The fact that I was bullied every day of my school life, that I couldn’t seem to make friends, that I was actually usually happier reading or writing than playing? Those were just me being the shy swotty weirdo I was. The thing that changed everything was the emergence and growth of the UK’s performance poetry scene.
Before my city had regular poetry nights, social outings were a chore. Something that I was expected to do, and was getting wrong by not enjoying. Then, someone invited me to a poetry open mic night and I dubiously went along.
It was (compared with a music gig or a nightclub) wonderfully quiet and relaxed. Instead of navigating the bewildering turn-taking of group conversation with overwhelming ambient noise in the background, we sat and listened to a carefully facilitated series of poems: my absolute favourite mode of communication. I wanted more. So much so that I ended up co-hosting various open mics and poetry slams myself. Just to make sure I got my fix. It was a few years into this that the occasional questions about whether I was on the spectrum finally began to penetrate. When autistic poet after autistic poet asks you if you might be autistic, the response; “I can’t be: I’m a poet” will, eventually, dawn on even the most stubborn person (hi!) as being ridiculous.
Because there do seem to be a lot of autistic poets – or maybe we are just good at finding each other. Often, we’ve been diagnosed in adulthood. We love metaphor and simile and personification and all those other poetic devices because here, unlike in the “real world” they have names. We can look them up and take them apart and find out how they work, instead of blinking at people who may or may not be joking, mocking or deadly serious. We get ridiculously excited when we hear a good sestina, and feel like we’ve been punched in the ear when we hear a poem where the scansion’s out of place.
We are allowed to be withdrawn and quiet at our social events of choice: after all we’re poets! We’re supposed to be moody! We can even stim if we need to. Poetry audiences, unlike theatre audiences or music audiences are blessedly quiet, but equally blessedly not silent. It’s OK to gasp, sigh, laugh, even click if we want to if a poem moves us. When we’re on stage, we can monologue for minutes at a time about subjects that inspire us. And instead of being shunned or barely tolerated, we are praised! We can even flap our hands and close our eyes if we want to. It’s all accepted as part of the performance.
There is something that worries me, though.
I’ve been autistic all my life but, partly owing to the messages I absorbed about autism as the antithesis of creativity, it took over 36 years for me to recognise, understand and accept my condition.
Had I been diagnosed in childhood, how much more would those messages have prevented me from understanding myself as a poet?
Find Sez on Twitter @wordgeeksez