Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Autism & the Artist: Part Four

I am worried about writing this part of my series.  I don’t really know as much as I would like regarding the subject as I would like.  I am a teacher and a poet, but most of what I know about supporting artists is what I have tried to do and what I would like to be done for me, and hardly any of that deals with autism directly.  However, I can speak about a few things and I suppose that will have to do.  So here then, is what I have to say about supporting an autistic writer, or more specifically, what I have to say about supporting a poet with Asperger’s.

1.  Support is support.  No matter how you slice it, it comes down to a binary action on your part.  Are you going to support your child, parent, brother, sister, boyfriend, girlfriend, cousin or friend; or are you not going to support that person and his/her art?  To begin with, that is to start supporting someone, there is no magical formula.  You have to be willing to be supportive.  Chances are, that the person you know with autism wants to be an artist for the exact same reasons a neuro-typical person wants to become an artist.  What may be different is that some of those reasons might be amplified or muted, depending on the individual.  For example, the desire to communicate ideas and emotions is a typical motivation for an artist.  With somebody on the Autism spectrum, art might be the only means of communication available, or the only means of communication recognized by other people.  For myself, my poetry comes in part from a desire to belong to something.  My alienation is a fact of my life I will never be comfortable with and poetry is the door I hope opens up into place where I am not alone.  By writing poetry I am in part, trying to belong to a group of people and have the opportunity to feel as if I am normal.  “See?  I have friends who like the same things as I do, and we can laugh at the same jokes.”  What does this get you?  If you can understand the relative value of each reasons the person with autism holds, then you can better understand their needs.  It’s pretty obvious, but I have found that people who want to know why I write poetry have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to do anything artistic.  Why don’t I just want to sit down and watch the game?  Football is a social activity, right?  If I watched football, that would be more socially acceptable, but my needs aren’t being met.  We circle back to the general reasons any neuro-typical person wants to explore art and we discover it’s all about what a person needs.  So, obvious or not, there are a lot of people who don’t understand, and that’s why I state the obvious.

2.  Understand the nature of art.  If you are going to support somebody, it is probably a good idea you understand what it is that person is trying to do, and there are several strata of understanding that needs to be discussed.  You need to understand the medium (music, painting, sculpting, writing, acting, etc); genre (with writing that could be fiction, drama, poetry, non-fiction, screenwriting); the nature of art in general and the nature of the specific art; the place that art holds in the person with Autism you know; and you have to understand the art as it sits in context with perception and acceptance of the art.  This does not mean you have to accept everything as art, nor think that every expression created has excellence. 

Acknowledgement goes a long way in this department, and on a personal note, I would hope that through honesty in your appraisal of the work created will be a valuable tool in the growth of any artist, and those with autism, too. It would do you good to familiarize yourself to some of your artist’s favorites.  If the artist with autism is a painter, knowing why they like Gaugin more than Van Gogh, or despise Titian while praising El Greco, can be invaluable to understanding what it is he or she is trying to do. 

One thing to be clear about, is that you be honest when you deal with the artist who is autistic.  If you despise poetry, then you had better establish some boundaries very early on.  From my personal experience I can tell you that my wife put up with hour and hours of me reading her poems she had no desire to hear.  She is very supportive of my life as a poet, but she doesn’t want me to talk to her endlessly about a new form of poem I have fallen in love with and will be trying to write for the next three months.  She is there to share with my every success and break my fall with my every failure, but she does not want to hear me recite from the latest epic poem I have decided will be my focus for the next three to four weeks.  Does my wife hate poetry?  Not at all.  But there is a world of difference between not hating poetry and loving it as much as I do.  And here is the weird thing: I am not as nearly focused on my career as a poet as other poets I know.  It’s just that when I do start talking about poetry, I keep talking about poetry long after everyone else in the room has grown tired of the subject.  What does that mean?  It means that my Asperger’s doesn’t let me see when other people are finished as soon as I need to know.  If you support an autistic person who wants to be an artist, you need to make sure they know you support them, but that does not mean that your life needs to be consumed with that art.  Say it early and say it often until it sinks in.

You need to understand how the world at large interacts with art.  Again, I speak from a poet’s perspective, and so this information may not directly translate to other mediums or genres, but there is a lot of crossover none-the-less.  I am speaking about success in the world of art, and my experiences in the poetry community.  I am a fair poet.  I have had four chapbooks of poetry published, four full length collections of poetry published, and more than a hundred of my poems have been published in dozens of literary journals.  One of my more popular poems was anthologized in 2013 alongside some poets who I admire greatly.  I have received grant money from arts councils (not as much as I would like) and I am friendly with quite a few well known and respected poets.  None of that means anything.  Supporting your artist with autism will be to help him or her understand that success, no matter who we are, is a long, steep path.  It is not a destination.  It’s a hard concept for new artists to understand under the best of circumstances, but it can be devastating to someone who already has a difficult time interacting with the world and may not know how things work.  As someone who supports an artist with autism, you need to understand that your artist may be producing quality work, and might be an amazing artist, but that does not equate with success as defined by the world at large.  Most of the world defines success by popularity, position, and wealth.  Artist rarely have all of that.  I know a lot of poets who are absolutely amazing who never get the recognition I think they deserve.  That does not mean I am saying those poets who are famous are not deserving.  I do not know of any famous poet (within the poetry community) who do not deserve their position and celebrity.  I do not use the word celebrity as a pejorative, either.  I know there are poets I do not read, but I do not begrudge their success.  I am 46 years old and I have come to accept I will never rise any higher in the poet/poetry food chain.  I will continue to write my poems and hopefully continue to have my poems accepted for publication, but I do not expect I will ever be the poet people clamor to invite for a reading or book signing.  You may be forced in all likelihood to be a cheerleader for your artist with autism without ever having their efforts and passion pay off.  Accepting that is a huge part of what support means.

I don’t want this to be a disappointment to you, but there is not very much to be done.  As a poet I found comfort in being rejected.  It meant I was being treated like everyone else and I was the one responsible for my own success.  I suspect that your child, your partner, or your friend, will be frustrated in their failures, but all the more pleased when they see what success they have is a result of their effort rather than the manipulations of others trying to compensate for perceived differences.

Well, I told you I didn’t know much in the way of advice when it comes to supporting the autistic artist, but I still managed to write too much on the subject.  I hope this, as my other parts in this discussion have shed some insights into the mind of an artist who sits on the Autism spectrum.  I know that as someone who has been identified as high functioning, I do not speak to many people who have the daily struggle of supporting and loving those with more severe manifestations, but I hope this helps a little.   

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