Kindred Spirits?

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. 😀

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9 thoughts on “Kindred Spirits?

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this post but I want to reread it because it is packed! What caught my eye and I related to at the moment was what you said about reading from the parents perspective.

    “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?”

    I wonder the same thing myself, I know at one point I was in denial. But my eyes were opened once I rid myself of the “fix” him mindset to the “accept” him mindset. I also had a husband that said “Angel, he acts a lot like you and your Mom. He also has major food issues like my brother. (David’s brother)” That opened my eyes as well.

    I believe that others see things through my writing that could hold some answers or another point of view that could help me, which I am open to, however I do not feel that the parents who feel that they have been wronged somehow are open to such discussions. I say this because when I read and piece together things from other parents blogs I immediately want to write them and tell them what I see. But I don’t think that would be a good idea in most cases.

    That is just a nugget of what I got from your post. 🙂 There is so much more in there!

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    1. Thanks Angel 🙂 …I agree that changing from the “fix” to the “accept” mindset can provide a real eye-opener. It’s hard waiting for that change to happen in people …and the sad part is that some may never change at all and may never realise that “different” is not necessarily “wrong” and that “fixing” is not necessarily “helping”. Simple acceptance is often more helpful in the long run and far more empowering for the autistic/aspie involved.

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  2. I agree with what you both say about there being traits in some parents, and that is certainly true for me. But traits don’t always mean full syndrome Aspergers and I think that is important to note too. It is important to me to be honest about what I do and do not have….and much of this comes for wanting to be respectful to those who do have full syndrome Aspergers. I didn’t have the painful social experiences growing up that they describe. I always had friends and I guess it could be said I was part of the in crowd. This is not the experience that my friends with Aspergers describe. I don’t want to go around acting like I know what that’s like if I don’t, being all, “oh, I can relate”, if I can’t. Then I’d be doing what bothered me when some people with milder forms I’ve encountered talked like they know what it is to be like my son. With that said, my sensory processing issues can rival that of anyone with Aspergers and many of my Aspie friends say they don’t deal with what I do there, not even close.

    I think the difference between those with NVLD and Aspergers is that Aspies are on the other side, to use your metaphor, and we with NVLD are between worlds, relating to both but comprehensively belonging in neither.

    I am also between worlds on my view of fixing and accepting. My son has such medical issues and regresses at the drop of a hat that I’m always having to fix something. I don’t think even the most ardent acceptors are happy if their kids regress or jump for joy at the thought that those kids will never live independently. At the same time it is about what do we want them to see about themselves reflected back to them in our eyes….fear and I wish you would change thoughts or unconditional love and acceptance? I want him to feel love and acceptance.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks 🙂 Sorry I didn’t get to this sooner …busy time of year.

      I agree it is important to note that traits don’t always mean full-on Asperger Syndrome. Just rereading my post I realise that didn’t come across clearly in my writing.

      I’ve often thought of myself as being between worlds, on the other side of both so belonging to neither. Socially I’ve always had difficulty fitting in. At school I had a few friends but we were all a little ‘odd’ compared to the mainstream crowd, and we were not part of nor generally accepted by the ‘in’ crowd (especially during early to middle high school when teenage bitchiness is often at its worst …senior high school was marginally better). School was definitely not a pleasant place to be, and I felt misunderstood and confused which in turn caused me great anxiety about not knowing what I had done or said that was so wrong or silly. I often felt the same way at home too, with my parents and brother. Even later on as an adult I would sometimes make embarrassing faux pas, in spite of my best efforts not to, lol. Eventually switching to a GFCF diet helped to ‘clear my brain fog’ and brought about what felt like an ‘awakening’, and of course life experience and maturity in general all helps, but I’m still different, and sometimes people notice and say something that I find quite hurtful (even though I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way) and I just have to smile and ‘suck it up’ so I don’t make them feel bad.

      I’m also divided on the ‘fix or accept’ issue. I believe in fixing to a point …medical treatment, dietary intervention and behavioural therapies etc all have their place in helping a person to become ‘their very best selves’ and to function and interact in the everyday world in a way that is healthy and fulfilling for them. If their ‘best self’ doesn’t happen to conform to what is considered typical/normal then I suppose that’s where acceptance comes in. I don’t like the idea of conformity for its own sake, or the ‘herd mentality’, but at the same time I feel like a hypocrite because I can see that conformity provides a level of safety and protection, so the more ‘normal’ someone appears the better it might be for them in avoiding the lack of acceptance that too often goes along with being different. So, even though my boys are different and I love them for who they are and I’m very proud of them, I also sometimes wish they were more ‘normal’ so they wouldn’t have to go through all the crap that’s been dished out to them by other kids (and some adults) who are ignorant, rude, abusive and just can’t accept ‘different’ in any way whatsoever, and so they wouldn’t have to pretend to be normal, which I know they do to a certain extent. Pretending to be normal is a means of self preservation but it can lead to resentment for knowing that you’re not accepted as you are and that you have to act a certain way to ‘fix’ that. I’m probably sounding a bit confused (or confusing) here so I’ll stop. 😀

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  3. No, that didn’t sound confused at all. Actually, I was thinking about how incredibly nuanced that was for a comment and how it could be a post in and of its own.

    The way you described yourself in high school, those are the kind of people I always found the most interesting because they had the most depth, even if we were not in the same click. They were talented, artistic, philosophical. I wanted to be with them but I guess I needed the approval of others more at that time in my life. I so hated being on the outside looking in as a child that I made it my mission around twelve years old to “figure people out” and be accepted by the popular ones. The truimph and tragedy of it was that it worked. I was always afraid if people knew the real me they would abandon me. Now I can care less and am more comfortable in my skin. The other day found something I wrote at age 11 that appears to be a social story on how to get people to like me. It is hilarious. I’m doing a blog post on it after the new year.

    I think about your boys. In some ways I think things are harder on those with Aspergers than for someone like my son. With Aspergers more is expected of a child in terms of functioning in typical settings and that doesn’t always come naturally. With my son they expect him to do off the wall things and the kids think its cute (for now) and they want to help him. But with Aspergers it is almost like the NT kids assume Aspie kids are choosing to be different and it does not register that, like my son, this is just who they are.

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    1. Yes I agree that other people’s expectations (of what they see as a ‘typical’ person choosing to be different) do make it more difficult for Aspie kids, and NT kids can be incredibly cruel at times. Even NT adults who ‘should know better’ often judge other people way too harshly, based purely on their perceptions of what they see as ‘unacceptable’ differences. Aspie kids become Aspie adults and a certain amount of the ignorance and vindictive crap of the schoolyard still lingers in the workplace and other areas of life in adulthood. Still, that’s just human nature I guess, and unfortunately changing people’s attitudes can be a very difficult and slow process, but definitely something worth pursuing …eg. our blogs and the millions of others out there voicing their opinions. 🙂

      Your comment about my previous reply being almost a post in itself has got me thinking (again, LOL) about maybe doing a series of posts about my childhood experiences and beyond. Unlike you at 11 or 12 years old I was totally clueless about how to “figure people out” …that didn’t come until much later. I probably could have benefitted from your little social story, LOL …I’m looking forward to reading it. 😀

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  4. I totally think you should write that series. I always say that the story of Autism will not be told by the doctors, the researchers, or even the historians…..it is told on the blogs and in the memoirs by people who have it and the parents. It is the only way it will be told. Ever. Sharing our stories benefits us all, I believe.

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    1. My series of “memoirs” is something I haven’t started yet because I can never figure out exactly where to start or what to write about …I feel a pressure to “get it right” so I don’t offend anyone or come off sounding like I’m complaining unnecessarily as some of my relatives do occasionally read bits of my blog. I’ll figure it out eventually though …just requires a bit more time to get my head around it. 🙂

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