Monday, December 21, 2015

Autism & The Artist: Part One

          I have been seeing a lot of articles regarding autism and Asperger’s Syndrome lately, and some are thoughtful, reflective, and funny.  Some are quite informative, and most mean well.  Right now Autism seems to be a buzzword and medical hot-topic, and because I have been diagnosed as falling within the spectrum, I may be a bit more aware of such discussions.  However, very few are intersecting with what I feel to be a fundamental issue I struggle with on a daily basis---Autism and the arts.  You see, I am a poet.  I mean, I am not just a poet.  I do other things.  I am a husband, a father, and a teacher, and even those things certainly create a great many variables in my life, it is poetry and artistic expression I am going to talk about now.
          Before I begin to discuss my interactions with artistic expression, I need to define a few things for you.  First, I fall under the category of mild autism in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) ---what used to be classified as Asperger’s Syndrome.  True to form with many others diagnosed with Autism, I have secondary issues.  Among them, I have Alexithymia, which is a disorder which affects my ability to identify and express myself on an emotional level.  I also believe (though I have never been tested) I have a mild version or variation of Prosopagnosia, which is essentially face blindness.  I have a pronounced difficulty remembering people’s names, even those I work with on a daily basis.  I recognize their faces, but I have difficulty accessing their names when I need them.  As a poet, I am much more affected by the Asperger’s and the Alexithymia I must also state I was diagnosed as an adult.  In fact, it’s been just under two years since I was diagnosed.
          I would like to begin with Special Interests & Social Interactions.  If you know someone on the Autism spectrum, or if you are on the spectrum, you may understand that a lot of people with autism develop special interests, for which they become somewhat obsessed.  The stereotypical areas of focus seem to be math, numbers, science, trivia, and sub-genres of culture (e.g. superheroes, science-fiction, etc.).  The stereotypical nerd or computer programmer comes to mind.  I am not going to tell you anything new when I say these are popular for autistic people because these areas of focus seem to allow for obsession and rely upon abilities/interactions which fall outside normal social interactions.  These sub-genres allow for, and even demand the ability to obsess over the minutia often shunned by popular and more widely accepted social interaction touchstones.  Take football or baseball for example.  All of the popular kids like sports.  Some even play in Fantasy leagues, and they will talk about their favorite teams at the local sports bar or at work.  This is socially acceptable for everyone.  Take Phil, who is mildly autistic and who has a special focus for football, and he can talk stats with the best of them, because that is how he explores his focus.  But when the others have had their fill of discussion regarding stats and want to move on to player salary disputes, Phil is just getting warmed up and he still wants to talk stats.  Phil starts bringing up player salary stats to try and be a part of the conversation, but by then, the office guys have moved on to why Coach X hasn’t decided to start using Wide Receiver Y, and Phil becomes more and more marginalized.  To no one’s fault, Phil is not invited to go to the sports bar for beer and the game.  Phil quickly becomes that guy who knows about any stat, but is too intense for regular, friendly socialization. 
          That’s how it is expressed.  Phil will naturally gravitate to those people who not only have the same set of special focuses, but allow for his awkward social interactions---the avoidance of eye contact, the long-winded and complicated syntax, and the excess of energy for establishing opinion.  What this doesn’t tell you, is that the only reason Phil joined the conversation was because he thought everyone wanted to know everything there was about what he is passionate about.  Phil doesn’t understand when enough is enough.  He doesn’t know when the conversation is over.  He isn’t able to transition to new levels or different directions as easily.  His momentum is a hard thing to influence and shift.  He thinks because you are changing the subject so quickly, you haven’t listened to him and acknowledged his subject mastery.  He feels as if you are not taking into account what he has had to say.  You are foreign and strange, and Phil moves away from interacting with you just as much as you move away from him.  The difference is that Phil doesn’t necessarily realize that it’s the autism making him feel this way, and he feels like it’s his fault you don’t want to interact.
          Now, when the special interest is acceptable, either acceptable because other people enjoy the subject, or it’s easily categorized in the realm of nerd or geek behavior, everything is fine.  However, when it’s art (whether that is writing, painting, music, or something else) an added level of discomfort is added.  First, it is difficult because most people like art, but they do not understand its creation.  Why anyone wants to be an artist when you can be a banker or lawyer is a strange thing, indeed.  For someone with autism, it is excruciating.  Not only because people look at artists differently, but because people look at autism and those with autism differently.  However, at least one more layer exists.  Autistic people often scaffold their behavior and actions on those around them.  Somebody with autism who wants to be an artist, must first learn artist behavior by imitation, and not being able to read what is essentially based in emotional expression is all too common.  Now imitating is an essential step in the progress of an artist, but here lies the struggle:  Autistic artists will always struggle to make the shift to authentic, individual, and original creativity.  For the artist with autism, knowing when to make that shift, and how to make that shift is incredibly difficult.  

(At this point, I will sometimes be using the second person “we” to describe some aspects of what I am discussing.  Please know that I am only able to speak of how I feel, as no two people with autism manifest in the same ways)

I will use one such issue from my own experiences.  One of the issues I have with poetry is the skilled and crafted line break.  Often times, well considered line breaks can make the difference between a fair poem and a really good poem.  So much (not to employ William Carlos Williams intentionally) depends upon good line breaks.  It is an aspect of poetry I have struggled with and continue to struggle with to this day.  I liken it to reading the faces of people. Just as someone with autism struggles to read the emotion and intent in another person’s face, I struggle to understand the subtle differences in the choices line breaks can connote.  The person with autism knows there is something to be gleaned in the subtle shifts in facial expressions, but the specific emotion is not a nuance easily understood.  The autistic person will take their cues from these facial expressions and guess at which facial expressions they themselves should make in order to help them express what they are feeling. When I began writing poetry, I began with imitating the line breaks I saw in other people’s poems, not understanding that line breaks other people used would not work for me.  My poems were different and therefore required different line breaks (as well as different forms and constructs) but I could not see that.  I could not see how one person’s use of a line break, which worked, could not have the same impact when used in a poem I was writing.  My imitation was a cause for consternation as I was trying to learn from the act.  This conflict---learning from imitation, but imitation failing on so many levels, was confusing and disheartening.  I still struggle with line breaks, even though I have become better.  I have created a list of rules and rarely let myself stray from them. 

Another challenge facing an artist who wants to be an artist is that those with autism struggle to be accepted and viewed as normal.  I cannot speak for those who fall on the severe end of the spectrum, but I do not a common theme among those who can talk about their experiences is the struggle to be viewed by the world at large as simply normal, or average.  The desire to express one’s self in art is to say to the world I see things differently.  This presents a huge conflict of interest for the individual with autism.  We struggle in a daily basis to fit in with the crowd, to be just another face and avoid being thought of as different, but the artistic spark is telling us to be different.  When we look at other artists without autism, we see a confidence in this opinion and we get depressed because that confidence is not a thing we can imitate.  We have to own it, and sometimes the best we can do is to pretend we are confident in our art.  This isn’t meant to take away from the struggles people without autism go through to be artists.  I am simply trying to explain the depths of what the autistic artist struggles with which feels to be in addition to the typical struggles artists in general face on a typical day.

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In a few days, I will continue with my discussion relating more specific issues and struggles.

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