Posts Tagged ‘autism’

Writers on the Spectrum, by Julie Brown. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010
ISBN 978 1 84310 913 6.

The term first widely appears as a sociology thesis, by Judy Singer under the title, NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea.
She uses it in her fight for people with an autistic or aspergers to own their space in the commonly accepted human population.

The phrase refers to the Autistic Spectrum, and to people with Aspergers Syndrome. Now it is recognised they are part of the same spectrum, that people with these ‘conditions’ exhibit behaviour varying in degree and intensity from the accepted, usual behaviour of people. And that there are many, many variations of these differences of behaviour.

Researcher in the field, Michael Fitzgerald, identified several behavioural markers, which consist of:
social and bodily awkwardness,
narrow interests,
repetitive routines,
speech and language peculiarities,
non-verbal communication problems.

It is essential to understand that lists are not people: we can all list our behavioural traits, but as far as explaining us goes, forget it.
People with NeuroDiversity are, yes, people, who have cognitive differences –  not medical or psychological conditions that can be ‘treated’. For NeuroDiverse people counselling, psychological talk-throughs, make no sense: it is not due to trauma (in most cases that comes later, when the world pitches in against you), or a medical condition.

There are extremes, of course: I have known people having to wear protective underwear at night into their teens, whose social awkwardness has left them virtually non-communicative, avoiding eye-contact – this is especially among those whose handling by the community has been far from gentle, understanding, or accepting.
Because, yes, the impact of one’s community has a lot to answer for, in later diagnoses of the condition.


Julie Brown identifies a range of authors with a strong likelihood of spectrum-identification.
They range from Hans Christian Anderson, Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, W B Yeats, Lewis Carroll and Sherwood Anderson.
There is only one woman author in this list. Odd. But then women did not tend to be diagnosed as on the spectrum, as readily as men. This is such a box of wasps – open it and you will certainly be stung: the guilt of the male perspective overriding everyone else, like a steamroller.

There is difficulty in actually telling a story – the details take over and any story-arch, narrative strand, becomes lost. I have known people on the NaNoWriMo 1000-words-a-day-for-a-month marathons come out at the end with copiously detailed… prologues.
There is difficulty with language itself – usually a very wide vocabulary, but words that bend and blend, or become so strictly circumscribed in meaning, as to eschew all colourings but for one. It is as though the readers must know the key specific meaning used before communication can happen, only that can change as the writing… explores itself.
Their writing, work, can seem a sealed box that yields nothing to the give-and-take of communication.

I am sure we have all known someone like this.

And just think of the writing of, say, Samuel Beckett.
‘Nothing happens, twice.’ Ok, a glib critic’s waspish jibe to Waiting for Godot. But it also hints at a meticulously detailed work, whose story-line is not apparent. ‘But that is just the point: all is broken, there was nothing whole left standing after the Nazi’s retreated. They broke Europe.’ Beckett expresses that well, the dislocation of a PTSD Europe.
And can you mention Beckett in this instance, and not James Joyce: the bewildering snowstorm of detail that is Ulysses, that dislocated language of Finnegan’s Wake?

My first thought was Colette’s story Gigi: I was so bowled over by the detail of furnishings in that story, that the actual story seemed a half-hearted adjunct to this, the real heart.
Staying in France, can we ask about certain noveau roman writers? Alain Robbe-Grillet, for instance? The stifling detail of Jealousy… ok, it matches the experience (metacognitive) of being over-powered by jealousy… but The Erasers? And The Golden Triangle is so packed with words, images, at the cost of a through-line. Or Claude Simon’s Conducting Bodies, for example, where image transmutes into image. It is like Lewis Carroll in this, where events can be shuffled, with no harm to the piece, because they do not build, but are.
The proliferating detail of the novels caught the time and needs of the post-War mind-set expertly, where the loss of major narratives became glaring clear, or objectionable.

I was bowled over, recently, by the stories of Australian writer Christina Stead. Again they contain a great wealth of detail; the actual story itself takes on a preposterousness in comparison. She fought very hard for recognition as a writer, and achieved it. Then had to continue fighting to keep her reputation and position. And so when Virago approached her to reprint her work, she became known as ‘difficult,’ she feared being side-lined as a ‘woman writer,’ or ‘feminist’ writer, when she had fought so hard to be known as just Writer, and in the same room as the men. It’s a tricky and shifting terrain.
But maybe that ‘difficult’ also denoted her different awareness of social norms?

New Zealander, Janet Frame’s story is by now well-known, mostly due to the excellent film of her life, Jane Campion directed, An Angel At My Table, giving a good indication of the exclusion, fear and precariousness of someone living on the spectrum. Her books are books of wonderful details, of slant views on a half-understood world.

When you think back to past writers, you notice certain traits that suggest spectrum behaviour. I love Robert Browning’s work, but who can unravel his earlier works to any sufficient degree, without doing harm to the works? And the proliferating detail of The Ring and the Book?
The Brownings’ employment of end rhyme was a tactic that forced further and further elaboration of character and motive, as the line led onto line in order to keep the structure and form. It was as though language and the human mind were conceived of as so much a part of each other, as though the correct sequences of rhythms and rhymes-runs could create or capture a character.
But they verge on the excessive; it is as though this mind-language mutual expression was a construct, something not found in the ordinary world, just as the characters Robert Browning describes tend be shut-off, isolated and fanatical. Robert Browning’s universe is a wonky place.

Similarly, we hear tales of Tennyson’s ‘unworldyless’, his need for isolation, his symbolic world (The Princess; the King Arthur poems), his difficulties in public, his ‘melt-downs’. All part of the neuro-diverse life.

What of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, an excessive, narrow, detailed, extensive writing, about social catastrophe? People on the spectrum know such these experiences as regular life.

Every Word Is A Bird We Teach To Sing, by Daniel Tammet (Hodder, 2018) discusses incidents and authors on the spectrum, in greater depth. Here we meet self-identified spectrum writer, the Australian poet Les Murray. And also, on the French connection, OuLiPo writer George Perec.

The NeuroDiverse writer then, can bring great things to writing, images that defy gravity, and appraisals of behaviour, the world, that startle, disturb, make new – this last with a proviso that what you find might not always please.
The NeuroDiverse writer has always been with us.
Long may it be so.

It is high time their lives were made better for them, by acceptance, patience, understanding, yes even the granting of ‘artistic license’ (for, was this not a form of acceptance of NeuroDiverse behaviour in its own period of use?).

See also: The Autistic Brain, by Temple Grandin. Routledge, 2017.