The majority of this post has been in my “draft folder” for a while, but I finally found the impetus to finish it today after reading a comment on one of my pages, part of which said, “I’ve had many people with Asperger say they think I have it…..is that a thing….where someone walks in the room and Aspies know if that person is Aspie? Who knows. I have a son with moderate Autism so I suppose it is possible.”
Recently I turned on the TV and channel-surfed, coming across an interview underway on the ABC which was part of a show called “Talking Heads”. I was captivated as an overweight, bald, elderly man (whose appearance, speech patterns and mannerisms reminded me very much of my father) spoke of his childhood in a country town in Australia; of how he often decided he didn’t want to go to school and would head off to the bush instead to read a book in the shade somewhere; of how the headmaster of this small country school knew this but didn’t mind because he knew this boy was educating himself through books. This man spoke of how, as a boy, he lived in his own little world of imagination and of preferring the company of animals (two things I had in common with him as a child) over what he called “The Humans” . He said that other kids went to school to educate themselves about each other, but he was not interested in that. As a boy he knew that there were certain things that could not be done or said because, “The Humans wouldn’t like that”. He also knew “The Humans” wouldn’t like to hear themselves referred to in that way but it was how he thought of people. Because of his self-imposed isolation from other children in his small country school, when he finally had to go to the much larger high school he was totally unprepared for the expected level of “socialising” and then the bullying which followed the very quick realisation by the other kids of his social ineptitude. He felt that school was not a very good place at all and that anyone who does not fit in, as he didn’t, should be exempted from school (said with a chuckle).
As the interview progressed it was revealed he had a talent for learning/speaking and translating other languages and had worked for about 4 years as a translator. It was a talent that just came naturally to him. That immediately brought to mind autistic author Caiseal Mor’s book A Blessing and a Curse in which Caiseal described his own similar talent for languages (and also his own affinity with animals at a very early age).
Everything that I had seen and heard of the interview so far led me to think that this man must be on the autism spectrum and probably had Aspergers Syndrome. No proof of course, just a “gut” feeling …maybe even a “takes one to know one” type of thing, or the recognition of a “kindred spirit”. And then, the light-bulb moment came, when he said he had an autistic son!
I firmly believe that autism doesn’t just “suddenly” appear out of nowhere. It is genetic! …and it is a complex and variable “way of being” which is probably due to the combination of a number of genetic and environmental factors. So many times on autism support forums (which usually turn out to be support for the parents who are often grieving for the child they expected but didn’t get, rather than support for autistic individuals) I’ve seen parents asking what did they do wrong, or why did this happen to them as there’s never been any sign of autism in their families before. If only they really looked they would find many family members, including themselves, with many “traits” of autism. As I read the posts and slowly piece together their disjointed family histories I see the signs and wonder why they can’t. Are they in denial or are they truly blind to what is so obvious to me? Even going back a couple of generations in both mine and my husband’s families, subtle signs of possible mild autism/Aspergers are there, now seen clearly with retrospective wisdom.
There were no Aspergers diagnoses back then …just people who were odd, eccentric, weird, reclusive, painfully shy, unusually quiet, naive, emotionally immature, impulsive, loud, hyperactive, academically gifted and talented but socially inept (the absent-minded professor types), not ‘socially savvy’ or sometimes socially inappropriate, people with perfectionist tendencies and obsessive interests sometimes revealing a level of academic and/or artistic skill, dedication, concentration and attention to detail not always found in the population at large, even to the point of acquiring encyclopaedic-like knowledge of whatever their field of interest happened to be. Many of these people, if they were children today, would be diagnosed with varying degrees of autism spectrum-related learning disabilities and behavioural issues and in some cases would qualify for assistance at school.
Research demonstrates that autistic traits are distributed into the non-autistic population; some people have more of them, some have fewer. History suggests that many individuals whom we would today diagnose as autistic — some severely so — contributed profoundly to our art, our math, our science, and our literature. ~ Morton Ann Gernsbacher, http://www.autistics.org/library/acceptance.html
Now then, who was this man I saw in the interview?
Les Murray… Australia’s leading poet and one of the greatest contemporary poets writing in English. His work has been published in ten languages.
Les Murray has won many literary awards, including the Grace Leven Prize (1980 and 1990), the Petrarch Prize (1995), and the prestigious TS Eliot Award (1996). In 1999 he was awarded the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes. (From http://www.lesmurray.org)
From The Times Literary Supplement
March 30, 2009
It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen
by Les Murray;
introduced by Robert Potts
The TLS first published Les Murray thirty-three years ago, and he has made regular appearances in our pages ever since. Arguably the most prominent Australian poet since the Second World War, and enjoying an international reputation, Murray has built up a substantial body of work exploring Australian life and culture from a persistently non-conformist slant, loathing fashion and coercion and celebrating instead “the quality of sprawl”: individualistic, generous, unsnobbish, idiosyncratic.
“It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at 15” was published in the TLS twenty-five years ago; it has been gently revised since then, with some lines being altered, others replaced, and two others relocated. From the intriguing title, with its frisson of the alien, and on through its steady and familiarizing revelations, it is a poem about learning. The reader gradually learns that the poem is about Murray’s autistic son; the poet is describing his gradual comprehension of his son’s difficulties and qualities; and, finally, we have the son’s own erratic acquisition of knowledge, right up to the heart-breaking self-awareness of the final line. In style, the poem’s use of stand-alone, factual observations, with no enjambements and no logical progressions between lines, mimics some of the condition it describes; but also draws an uneasy distinction between “It” – the condition, implacable and alien – and “him”, the frightened and struggling boy, negotiating as best he can between his own limits and those of his family. Despite the dispassionate veneer – appropriate to his son’s more machine-like moments – Murray delivers a powerful poem of humour, sadness, love and, surely, admiration.
It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen
He retains a slight “Martian” accent, from the years of single phrases.
He no longer hugs to disarm. It is gradually allowing him affection.
It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute, shrieking, and runs him at frantic speed through crashing doors.
He likes cyborgs. Their taciturn power, with his intonation.
It still runs him around the house, alone in the dark, cooing and laughing.
He can read about soils, populations and New Zealand. On neutral topics he’s illiterate.
Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn’t a cyborg really, is he, Dad?
He lives on forty acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually.
He knows the map of Earth’s fertile soils, and can draw it freehand.
He can only lie in a panicked shout SorrySorryIdidn’tdoit! warding off conflict with others and himself.
When he ran away constantly it was to the greengrocers to worship stacked fruit.
His favourite country was the Ukraine: it is nearly all deep fertile soil.
When asked to smile, he photographs a rictus-smile on his face.
It long forbade all naturalistic films. They were Adult movies.
If they (that is, he) are bad the police will put them in hospital.
He sometimes drew the farm amid Chinese or Balinese rice terraces.
When a runaway, he made uproar in the police station, playing at three times adult speed.
Only animated films were proper. Who Framed Roger Rabbit then authorised the rest.
Phrases spoken to him he would take as teaching, and repeat.
When he worshipped fruit, he screamed as if poisoned when it was fed to him.
A one-word first conversation: Blane. – Yes! Plane, that’s right, baby! – Blane.
He has forgotten nothing, and remembers the precise quality of experiences.
It requires rulings: Is stealing very playing up, as bad as murder?
He counts at a glance, not looking. And he has never been lost.
When he ate only nuts and dried fruit, words were for dire emergencies.
He’d begun to talk, then returned to babble. It withdrew speech for years.
He remembers all the breeds of fowls, and all the counties of Ireland.
Is that very autistic, to play video games in the day?
He is anger’s mirror, and magnifies any near him, raging it down.
It still won’t allow him fresh fruit, or orange juice with bits in.
He swam in the midwinter dam at night. It had no rules about cold.
He was terrified of thunder and finally cried as if in explanation It – angry!
He grilled an egg he’d broken into bread. Exchanges of soil-knowledge are called landtalking.
He lives in objectivity. I was sure Bell’s palsy would leave my face only when he said it had begun to.
Don’t say word! when he was eight forbade the word “autistic” in his presence.
Bantering questions about girlfriends cause a terrified look and blocked ears.
He sometimes centred the farm in a furrowed American Midwest.
Eye contact, Mum! means he truly wants attention. It dislikes I contact.
He is equitable and kind, and only ever a little jealous. It was a relief when that little arrived.
He surfs, bowls, walks for miles. For many years he hasn’t trailed his left arm while running.
I gotta get smart! Looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!
LES MURRAY (1994)
Edit: 4/01/2011 ~ I just came across the transcript of the “Talking Heads” show featuring Les Murray. As I said in my blog, I came across the interview after it was already part way through. There was a bit near the beginning, which I had missed, where Les said, “…and I was having a fairly bad time socially in high school, being a little bit autistic and kind of not knowing much about dealing with human beings.” Seems I guessed right about him being on the spectrum. The whole transcript of this fascinating interview can be read here.
I also found a transcript of a much more comprehensive interview with Les in which he talks about certain aspects of his life in more detail, with the same interviewer on a Radio National show called “The Wisdom Interviews” from 2005 which you can listen to or read here.
It seems I’m a bit slow in finding out about who Les Murray is, his poetry and him describing himself as “a little bit autistic”. There’s a few different ramblings about it already on the internet, for example… an entry last August on a blog called Incorrect Pleasures, about The education of an autistic poet. Oh well, I’m finding this whole exercise interesting from the point of view that my ‘gut feeling’ was correct in my assessment of Les Murray being possibly Aspie. 😀