Why this post?
Trawling through the Internet in search of autistic writers, I found it really hard to come across people I didn’t know already, especially autistic poets. So, after the wonderful interview with Karl Knights (here) and the thought-provoking mini-interviews from six neurodivergent artists, writers and performers (here), this is the third and final post in the series about neurodivergent writers. In this post, I write about some of my favourite writers, in the context of some of the strengths and differences in their writing, which I associate with their neurodivergence.
What is autism?
Autistic people think and experience the world differently to neurotypical people. In an interview, Joanne Limburg says that ‘Autism has been defined almost exclusively by what is apparent to those who do not have it’ (2017, here). So, to avoid this, here is a definition by an autistic artist, Megan Rhiannon in her wonderful book, Existing Autistic:
‘Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disability that affects every aspect of a person’s life, most notably our cognition, how we communicate and relate to other people, and how we experience and process the world’ (2020, p3).
‘Suspected autistic’ people include Nikola Tesla, Andy Warhol and Charles Darwin, and ‘confirmed autistic’ people include Steve Jobs, Stanley Kubrick, Albert Einstein and Gary Numan (Rhiannon, 2020, pp4-5). Of course everyone is different: The famous saying goes ‘if you’ve met one person with autism then you’ve met one person with autism’ (Rhiannon, 2020, p22).
A note on language used
Surveys have found that the majority of autistic people now prefer the identity-first term ‘(is) autistic’, while the general public, and family and friends tend to prefer the person-first term ‘with/has autism’ (Rhiannon, 2020, p23), Rhiannon prefers ‘(is) autistic’, and explains that because autistic people are ‘born wired differently’, ‘there is no separation of the person and the autism’ (2020, p25). So I will use the term ‘autistic writers’ and even ‘autistic writing’ to reflect this identity throughout the post.
Strengths and differences in neurodivergence
Kate Fox in her collection The Oscillations says that many of her poems in the collection ‘touch on neurodiversity – the idea that, as in biodiversity, there is a strength in the differences of people with conditions such as autism and ADHD who think and experience the world differently’. (2020, p69). In this post, I write with a similar emphasis on some of the perceived strengths and differences of neurodivergent writers.
‘Diagnosing’ autistic writers?
Writers on the spectrum by Julie Brown (2010), is a fascinating look at some writers who she considers may have been autistic, due to characteristics of their lives and work, including WB Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll and Opal Whiteley. However, it could be seen as problematic to ‘diagnose’ dead authors as autistic based on their work and lives. Joanne Limburg reflects on her late diagnosis, and asks ‘could I have identified as Aspergers if the label didn’t exist?’ (2017). Fitzgerald questions whether ‘diagnosing the dead’ is a ‘legitimate activity’, but goes on to do this in his own work (2005, p25). So, for those writers who lived and died before the label and diagnostic criteria were formulated, were they autistic? We can only speculate and celebrate their amazing work.
This post comes from a position of curiosity, interest, and respect, together with affinity and allyship, and I hope this comes through. All views are my own unless attributed to someone else.
Affinity with nature and animals: Dara McAnulty
Dara McAnulty’s book Diary of a Young Naturalist was published in 2020. Written as a teenager, the book charts a year in the author’s life: ‘This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head’ (p7).
What I love about the book is the detail and affection with which the author writes about nature.
Both Fitzgerald and Brown describe ‘an affinity with animals’ as a characteristic of autistic writers (Fitzgerald, 2005, p72; Brown, 2010). This is evident in Dara McAnulty’s work:
‘Dog violets push through first, just as the sparrows dig the moss from the guttering and the air is as puffed out as the robin’s chest. Dandelions and buttercups emerge like sunbeams, signalling to bees that it’s safe to come out now, finally’ (p14).
I love the detail in this, and the anthropomorphism of everything. Even the air is ‘as puffed out as the robin’s chest’, suggesting the pride and excitement of spring.
Nature is also depicted as more clear and understandable than people. This theme comes up in other autistic writers’ work, including Kate Fox and Opal Whiteley (see below). When writing about listening to a blackbird, McAnulty says:
‘The song carries me further back: I’m three, and living either inside my head or amongst the creeping, crawling, fluttering wild things. They all make sense to me, people just don’t’ (p15).
‘Acute sensory perception’: Emily Dickinson
An affinity with animals and nature can also bring with it an appreciation of the subtler aspects of the senses. Some autistic people have heightened sensory experiences. Rhiannon describes ‘over-responsive’ and ‘under-responsive’ sensory profiles (2020, p28). For example, ‘over-responsive’ individuals might experience an increased sensitivity to senses such as sound or light, while ‘under-responsive’ individuals might seek out sensory experiences like loud noise (p28). While being ‘over-responsive’, or very sensitive, may be uncomfortable or even overwhelming, it can also be seen as a huge strength in a writer, who can then write about things on a more subtle level of detail.
In her book Writers on the Spectrum, Brown suggests that Emily Dickinson was autistic, based on her life and her poetry (2010). Some of the aspects that Brown describes as characteristic of autistic writers are: using and breaking rules, observing animals and objects rather than people, an ‘acute sensory perception’ and ‘creating the world through detail’ (p26). Many of Dickinson’s poems have a very fine sense of detail, suggesting great sensory acuity. In a letter to her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson shows an extreme sensitivity to what is around her:
‘I think you would like the chestnut tree I met in my walk. It hit my notice suddenly, and I thought the skies were in blossom. Then there’s a noiseless noise in the orchard that I let persons hear’ (2011, p172).
This ‘noiseless noise’ sounds like Kate Fox’s wonderful line ‘I hear you hearing everything’ in her poem ‘Cetaceous’ (2021, p54; see below). In a poem as tribute to autistic activist Dinah Murray, Kate Fox also writes about ‘the fierce desire to be right/the ability to hyperfocus,/withstand obstacles and fight’ (here). This hyperfocus can also be seen in Dickinson’s poem number 605:
‘The Spider holds a Silver Ball/In unperceived Hands –/And dancing softly to Himself…’(1975, p297).
The phrase ‘Unperceived hands’ is unusual – do spiders have hands? – and anthropomorphises them, while ‘unperceived’ is also paradoxical. Surely if they are in the poem, they have been perceived? The image of the spider ‘dancing softly to Himself’ is also wonderful, suggesting the writer has captured the intent of the spider instead of simply describing it. Dickinson has entered into the spider’s world. This highlights a very keen and special attention to detail, and sensory acuity.
Differences in communication: Kate Fox
The Oscillations by Kate Fox was released in 2021. This is a wonderful book of poems, many of which deal with the experience of being autistic, including differences in communication between autistic and neurotypical people. As we have seen, autistic artist Megan Rhiannon’s definition of autism includes differences in how people communicate.
Kate Fox writes about ‘masking’, which describes when autistic people try to ‘pass’ as neurotypical, and can involve copying neurotypical behaviours in social situations (see here for a blog post on the National Autistic Society website which is an account of someone’s experience of masking). In ‘Masks’, she writes: ‘Here is a girl who became a woman/who can see behind masks and round corners/and hear the gaps between words and things/where light pours like falling water’ (2021, p43). This draws attention to ‘masking’ in communication, and also suggests a sensitivity like that found in Emily Dickinson’s poems: ‘the gaps between words and things’ shows an acute attention to detail.
Fox also describes heightened sensory abilities, in ‘What could be called communication’, the people in the poem are described as being sensitive to light: ‘They think everyone can see/the fluorescent lights humming’ (2021, p50).
Fox also shows an affinity with animals in the poem ‘Cetaceous’ (2021, p.54): ’but you make me fluid/as you navigate through the murk/with senses I didn’t know existed/weaving sky into sea/sound into sight’. This beautiful phrase combines the wonder of this encounter and its impact on the narrator, and suggests the writer has the ability to understand some of the diversity of communication in the natural world. There is also a kind of synaesthesia of the senses in which they communicate with each other, e.g. sound is woven into sight.
Joanne Limburg: Uncovering neurotypical ‘rules’
Many autistic writers write about the difficulty in understanding and playing by neurotypical ‘rules’. Joanne Limburg writes about this in a tender and funny way in The Autistic Alice (2017). In this collection of poetry, Alice become a kind of persona for the writer as a child, drawing on the character by Lewis Carroll. Incidentally, Lewis Carroll is also thought to be autistic by Brown in Writers on the Spectrum (2010).
One of the poems in the collection is called ‘Alice in Reception class’ (p34). The (probably neurotypical) teacher approaches Alice and asks her what she’s painting. When Alice replies ‘Splodges’, she seems disappointed. When the next teacher comes along and asks the same question, Alice says ‘Fireworks?’, and this time the teacher is delighted. As a result, ‘Alice notes: ‘The answer they want/isn’t what is – it’s what isn’t’ (2017, p34). I love this uncovering of the difference between how the neurotypical adult sees the world (and art), and the autistic child’s perception. Joanne Limburg expresses similar thoughts in her interview in 2017 (here):
As for the ‘Alice’ of the Alice books, she could be seen (as some have) as an autistic child with a logical approach to life and a tenacious insistence on what is right and appropriate, who must navigate an unpredictable and capricious neurotypical world.
In The Annotated Alice (p56), Alice is disappointed that she cannot go through the looking glass like her fictional counterpart ‘Alice through the looking glass’ (by Lewis Carroll). She asks her mother if she would go into another world if she went through the looking glass: ‘No, she said:/I’d wake up in hospital, being mended,/and I was so disappointed. I never meant/to stay on the nonsense side.’(2017, p56). Please note that the nonsense side here refers to the neurotypical world, and possibly also the adult world.
Opal Whiteley, another writer considered to be autistic by Julie Brown, has a similar experience with another (probably neurotypical) teacher. The narrator in her journals shows an extraordinary empathy and connection with animals, in stark contrast with her teacher. Her pig follows her to school and stands outside, then he comes in:
‘He stood there saying/“I have come to your school./What class are you going to put me in?”/They were the same words/I did say on my first day at school./…I guess our teacher doesn’t have/understanding of pig talk./She came at him in a hurry with a stick./When I made interferes/ she did send us both home in a quick way’ (pp19-20).
Like Limburg, Whiteley describes the mismatch of understanding between the autistic child and the (probably neurotypical) adult, contrasting with the child’s extraordinary affinity with animals, which extends to understanding their language.
Of course a blog post like this risks the danger of making generalisations about what autistic writers may or may not have in common. In her interview with The Poetry Review, Joanne Limburg says: ‘Obviously, I can only ever write from my own perspective, and I would never claim …that my experience was typical or representative of that of anyone else with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autistic Spectrum Disorder’ (2017). But I hope instead it has simply raised some interesting thoughts, and highlighted some great work by autistic writers which is well worth exploring.
Below, I’ve included the references and reading from this post, and have extended this to include all the recommended reading from this series: from the interview with Karl Knights (here) and the mini-interviews with six neurodivergent writers and artists (here). This is compiled with the hope that it will be a useful resource for people wanting to read and hear more work by autistic and neurodivergent writers and artists.
With thanks to my mentor Victoria Gray for her encouragement in this project, and to Ellen and The Poetry Business for hosting me as Digital Poet-in-Residence in October 2021.
Reading and references from this post
Julie Brown (2010). Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome have Influenced Literary Writing. Jessica Kingsley Publisher.
Emily Dickinson (1975). Emily Dickinson: The Complete Poems. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Faber and Faber.
Emily Dickinson (2011). Letters of Emily Dickinson. Everyman’s Library.
Michael Fitzgerald (2005). The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger’s Syndrome and the Arts. Jessica Kingsley Publisher.
Kate Fox (2021). The Oscillations. Nine Arches Press.
Kate Fox (2021). Tribute to Dinah Murray, poem and blog post, here.
Joanne Limburg (2017). The Autistic Alice. Bloodaxe Books.
Joanne Limburg (2017). Perspective: The shape of the problem: Joanne Limburg asks what it means to write as an autistic subject. The Poetry Review, 107:1. Published online, here.
Dara McAnulty (2020). Diary of a Young Naturalist. Little Toller Books.
Megan Rhiannon (2020). Existing Autistic, here. Megan Rhiannon Illustration.
Opal Whiteley (1976). The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart. Adapted by Jane Boulton. Tioga Publishing Company.
Recommended reading and listening from other neurodivergent writers and artists
Jon Adams: http://www.artspace.co.uk/artists/jonadams/
Amanda Baggs. ‘In My Language’, (video, here).
Jane Burn. Be Feared, upcoming from Nine Arches Press.
Debs Cooper: https://debjcooper.wordpress.com
Erin Ekins (2021). Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide For LGBTQIA+ Teens On The Spectrum. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Kate Fox and Jenny Haukio (2007). We Are Not Stone. Ek Zuban Press. Website for Kate Fox: www.katefox.co.uk
Victoria Gray: https://www.victoriagray.co.uk/
Naoki Higashida (2014). The Reason I Jump. Sceptre.
Naoki Higashida (2017). Fall down seven times get up eight. Sceptre.
Cyree Jarelle Johnson (2019). Slingshot. Nightboat Books.
Asger Jorn, and the CoBrA art movement, here.
Laura James (2018). Odd Girl Out. Pan Macmillan.
Penny Kiley (2021). How To Watch Your Mother Die, short story published in ‘Spread the Word: Life Writing Prize 2021 Anthology’, here.
Sarah Kurchak: @fodderfigure.
Karl Knights: @inadarkwood. Upcoming pamphlet: Kin, Smith Doorstop.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2015). Bodymap. Mawenzi House/Tsar Publishers.
Joanne Limburg (2021). Letters to my Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism. Atlantic Books.
Erin Manning (2016). The Minor Gesture. Duke University Press.
Katherine May (2018). The Electricity of Every Living Thing. Trapeze.
Elle McNicoll (2021) Show Us Who You Are. Knights Of. Her first book, A Kind of Spark (also from Knights Of) is going to be made into a BBC series.
Mollie Russell (2020). ‘My Nephew’s Second Birthday: A Saga of Self-Stimulatory Behaviour’ (poem). Published in The Emma Press Anthology of Illness. The Emma Press.
Donna Williams (1998). Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct. Jessica Kingsley Publishers .
William Butler Yeats: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-butler-yeats.
Melanie Yergeau (2017). Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke University Press Books.