Autistic people speak through poetry

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It started, appropriately enough, with the word “bullied.”

Poet Chris Martin was helping student Mark Eati from Plymouth, who has autism, write a poem asking playful questions about Disney characters. “What makes Mickey feel bad?” “What makes Donald Duck say yuck?”

Eati does not speak, so he answered each question by pointing to pictures on a computer tablet.

Martin asked, “What makes Pooh say oooh?”

Eati, then 20, hesitated for a moment. Then he opened a keyboard on his tablet and quickly typed “AWED”.

Her teacher and teaching aide, seated nearby, were blown away. They had never seen Eati type as much as a letter. Eventually, Martin discovered that Eati had excellent linguistic and mathematical abilities, partly obscured by the sensory-motor difficulties that prevent him from speaking.

Martin shares the story of Eati and many others in “May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and Our Neurodiverse Future,” released this week. The book recounts Martin’s experiences teaching poetry to people with autism, emphasizing that their poetry is beautiful not in spite of the writers’ autism, but because of it.

“It’s not a book about fixing anyone,” Martin said. “It’s not like any of these non-speaking autistic people are broken. They’re just born into a society that doesn’t have the right resources for them.”

Many people with autism are talkative, but some have difficulty speaking. It may be related to the part of their brain that controls speech or difficulties with complex fine motor skills – lips, tongue, teeth, throat – needed to form oral words, said Barbara Luskin, a psychologist at the Autism Society. of Minnesota. .

“We live in a society that assumes if you can’t talk, you can’t think,” Luskin said. “They have the words in their head, they just can’t get them out.”

Eati, now 25, and her 21-year-old brother Max, who also has autism, are among neurodivergent activists working to highlight the long-neglected abilities of people with autism. Like siblings, many neurodivergent people are only recently able to show off their advanced communication skills, thanks to affordable, technology-enhanced tools that offer easier methods for non-speakers. The tools, ranging from pointing at pictures or letters to fluent typing, demonstrate that speech limitations do not necessarily indicate an inability to process language or understand the world.

“We have a whole generation of autistic adults speaking for themselves,” Luskin said. “Twenty years ago that was inconceivable. … Now they say, ‘We don’t need to be like you. We are who we are, thank you very much. “”

That’s what Mark and Max say.

“We always wondered if everyone in the world hundreds and thousands of years ago was neurodivergent,” Mark and Max wrote together (as they often do) in an email response. to a question. “The education system and the community have trained a majority of us to adapt [neurotypical] standards. … Now systems are forced to adapt to neurodivergence. It makes us sad that creativity and humanity have been suppressed for so long.”

Models and sensory language

Martin has always felt neurodivergent himself, he said. Growing up, he was described as “sensitive”.

“I had the sensibility of someone who is very open and wants to connect with people without a lot of armor or mask,” he said.

He graduated from Carleton College with an English degree, moved to New York, and earned a master’s degree at New York University (and later a second master’s degree at the University of Iowa). He was living in Brooklyn and working various jobs at a local school when the school principal asked him to work with students who Martin realized were autistic.

He and the students immediately “hit it off,” Martin said, “because it was so natural to me that I never questioned it.”

He spoke to students about their interests and helped them express their passions in poems. Autistic thinking naturally often resembles the characteristics of poetry, with an emphasis on patterns and sensory language, Martin said.

“So often what [people with autism] communicating is basically poetry,” Martin said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t really believe there are neurotypical poets.”

In addition to “May Tomorrow Be Awake”, Martin has published a number of volumes of his own poetry, most recently “Things to Do in Hell”. He is curator of Multiverse, a literary series of neurodivergent poets from Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions. And he works with Unrestricted Interest, a program dedicated to the poetry of neurodivergent writers.

Neurotypical poets sometimes struggle to find a “voice,” Martin said, as his students naturally write with meaningful descriptions, cadences, and puns. “Please understand that I am the trial/breeze that crosses the very/great great great world yes yes.” writes Martin’s student Hannah Emerson, whose new book “The Kissing of Kissing,” published by Multiverse, has been hailed as an “expansive and ecstatic debut” in The New York Times.

“Unfortunately, the way poetry is taught in schools is that each poem is like a puzzle that only the smartest person can crack,” Martin said. “Poetry, like pop and rap, is born out of this human impulse to sing poetry and do it together.”

‘A split second’

Mark Eati was diagnosed with autism when he was not quite 2 years old, said his mother, Indu Eati from Plymouth. He has received therapy but does not seem to be making much progress. After a year, when asked to show pictures, he was unable to distinguish between “cat” and “ball”.

One day, Indu watched Mark listen to a song with lyrics about arithmetic and noticed the look in his eyes.

“I said, he understands the song,” Indu recalled. “He knows how to make that calculation.”

She pulled out slips of paper with numbers on them and asked Mark to point to the answer for two plus two. He did. Then eight plus eight. He did.

“It was like a split second,” she said. “His finger would go straight to the answer.”

Further tests showed that Mark, who was not yet 3 years old, was adept at prime numbers and long multiplications. Later, he showed remarkable skills with languages, including foreign languages ​​he had learned online.

In other areas, Mark was hampered by sensory-motor differences. “Body awareness, spatial awareness – he couldn’t find his own nose,” Indu Eati said. “So, there was like this extraordinarily great intelligence, but not everything was in line with reality.”

As a child, Mark didn’t like standard classrooms where “people assumed I had no skills or couldn’t think,” he wrote in an email.

“As the stars lit up my room each night, I thought about the day and who said what and why. If I didn’t understand something, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t understand that I wasn’t wired for ‘understand’. It took me until the age of 8 to learn on my own that I ‘sense, feel and process information’. I don’t think or analyze.”

Max’s background was similar in many ways, although language skills came much earlier.

“At 15 months, Max was already typing, finding letters and stuff on a laptop,” Indu said. The child preferred the big words: “Vertigo” instead of “étourdi”.

“Ever since I was little I knew I was different,” Max wrote in an email. “I used my sensory-motor differences to my advantage. I believed in my abilities to learn without being neurotypically taught.”

Both Mark and Max have expressed their anger at the failure of schools and society in general to recognize their abilities. Channeling that anger, they founded Alapa, a cohousing community for neurodiverse people in Plymouth. It opened in January 2021 and five single-family homes are currently occupied, Indu said. It also offers daily training in independent living skills, the arts, creative writing, and other topics.

Martin likes to emphasize the importance of recognizing the diversity of thought in all humans. People with and without autism have been harmed, he said, by a system that recognizes only a narrow range of behaviors and thinking styles as legitimate, failing to value the unique perspectives of people who think outside the box. beaten.

“We’re all stranger and more different than we’ve been allowed to be,” Martin said.

Chris Martin and Mark Eati will speak, read and answer questions at the launch of “May Tomorrow Be Awake” from 7-8 p.m. Tuesday at Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av., Minneapolis. (Masks are mandatory in the store.)

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