Finding One’s Voice: Art, Autism, and Communication

…we
dip into this thing that we cannot
name except for the words
flowing from our pens and tongues.
— From my poem, “Samadhi”

So much of the dialog about autism focuses about how we as autistics cannot and do not communicate. I’ve noticed that the emphasis seems to be on our capability (or lack of) to communicate with speech, and I sense an underlying assumption that limits human communication to the realm of speech. Besides the distinction of high-functioning versus low-functioning (which I think are somewhat limiting concepts), verbal versus non-verbal serves as yet another division line between autistics. I feel that the emphasis on verbal communication in autistic people promotes a severely limited idea of how autistic people can and do communicate which does not allow for alternate methods.Loose Lips

So, leaving aside speech, what do we have? When speech fails us, we find alternative methods, whether consciously or not. I believe strongly in the power of art to communicate what perhaps cannot be expressed adequate or at all by normal methods. The preponderance of autistic artists – poets, writers, musicians, visual artists, and others – evidences a capability to tap into other, non-traditional means to say what we wish and what we mean.

What Is Communication?

I’ve been thinking about the broader concept of communication and reaching back to my undergraduate days studying communication – both mass media and interpersonal communication – and remembering a few basic premises that I learned during my studies. Communication, as I recall it being defined during these studies, consists of: a sender, a receiver, and a channel, with the receiver sending feedback and noise as a possible interference – and communication can be implicit or explicit, written, verbal, or non-verbal (body language, for example). This definition is very broad and inclusive of various methods of communication.

Examining myself, I can identify the various ways I communicate to others. Since I am verbal, I can use speech. Sometimes, however, I find speech (especially unscripted speech) somewhat limiting – though I have an extensive vocabulary containing what might be called “low incidence” words, there are times I just cannot access mentally what I want and need to express myself. Judging from what I have read about other Aspie’s/Autie’s experiences with selective mutism, I do not believe that I am alone. I feel that I have a need to be precise, to find the exact words to express the exact thought in my head. Otherwise, I am not sure that my message is understood.

Then of course, these is body language. I find that my use of body language is somewhat limited. Going back through my diagnosis report from last year, the clinician who diagnosed me with Asperger’s also noticed this limitation. Expanding out to other values such as tone of voice, even those items can convey messages. But in my case, I also recall that others have mentioned my tendency to speak in monotone. Being as I regularly read my poetry and spent nearly four years as a disc jockey at one of the campus radio stations as a undergrad student, I find that if I consciously control my tone of voice, I can make myself sound expressive and responsive; however, if I’m not paying attention, it is monotone.

Art, Autism, and Communication.

Three things started me thinking about this whole topic: 1) Amanda Baggs’ video, “In My Language”; 2) Autistics Speaking Day, and 3) art itself as a communicative force. First of all, I came upon Ms. Baggs’ video this past summer and watching it, I found myself intrigued at seeing how she communicates and interacts with her environment, as well as her statements about language.

Secondly, I remembered last year’s Autistics Speaking Day and how in the face of some silence on Twitter, Facebook, etc. we spoke, and spoke a great deal. That day, we communicated by blog posts, poems, Tweets, Facebook status updates, videos, you name it. Last year, I wrote the poem “Speech” as part of my offering for Autistics Speaking Day, which is a meta-poem as I describe how exactly I speak through poetry.

I have said before that it is much more native to me to communicate with the written word. Since my knowledge in the area of brain functions is still not what I would like it to be, I must admit that I am not entirely sure yet why this is the case. Dr. Temple Grandin has offered an explanation that parts of an autistic/Asperger brain being over-wired (namely the frontal cortex) and others being under-wired (for example, the limbic system); her mention of brain wiring makes me think that this could lead to a possible explanation.

Alternatively, it simply may be because with the written word, I have more time to consider what I wish to say, and the exact words that will convey my thoughts. On top of it, I do an act of translation in my brain, since I am a primarily visual thinker – the translation is from pictures or moving film to words. The process is more evident when I write poems, but it does exist with most of my writing as a whole.

Of course, one must consider how the message begins in the first place. Below the pictures in my mind, there is still more: the emotion. Emotion is the first well, I believe, from which a good deal of creative communication emerges. For me, the emotions turn themselves nearly instantaneously into pictures – and when felt about a particular subject, the pictures become finer and more detailed. For a musician, the emotion would lie beneath and emerge as sound either through instrumentation or the human voice. For the visual artist, it may emerge as images and colors which then find their way out through brushstrokes, 3D illustrations, oil pastels on canvas, and so forth.

Emergence, by Nicole Nicholson

Emergence, by Nicole Nicholson

Is this process any different than that of a non-autistic artist? Maybe not. And I must admit, I would love to learn more about the artist communication processes of other autistics/Aspies. However, I think the major point of notice with an autistic artist is that the medium he or she works with more easily gives voice to what maybe in a moment of speech he or she cannot express adequately, or at all. This quote by violinist and filmmaker Laura Nadine underscores exactly what I mean:

“There is no other way for me. I am locked inside my mind like gold in the belly of a fortress. My lips are not witty enough, my spoken words misplaced. It is only through poetic prose inspired by music that I can even begin to seep beneath my mind’s locked doors.”

Also, consider these words from artist Kim Gerry Tucker, recently featured on Awe in Autism’s website:

“Artistic expression is an important, even therapeutic means of communication — to be able to “go to another place” for a while, especially since I struggle with effective communication.”

And that is exactly what we do: we go to another place within ourselves. I know I am in that place when I can shut my eyes and see my poems and moving pictures…all I have to do is take notes and describe what I am seeing. I can rewind, replay the images and catch detail I didn’t the first time around. I can freeze frames until I have finished translating them into words. For an autistic person, being able to withdraw inward a little, go to that place, and tap into what is there can mean a difference between being able to communicate and being silent and shut up. That “place” is a healthy, good place for any one of us to be in…a place where we can find the message and the meaning and let it flow out through our particular talents.

Letting It Go

Examining myself, I have concluded that there are several ingredients that I need in order to be able to create and communicate. I would probably sum it up with this equation:

Desire + Skill/Talent + Time + Peace of Mind = Art

Again, these are probably the same things that anyone would need to create and communicate, but for me as a spectrum artist, I find that they are more crucial.

The first, desire, one might think would be pretty obvious – you’d have to want to create in order to even do so, right? But truthfully, desire is where it all begins. Oftentimes I have witnessed people with the desire to create kid themselves into thinking that they cannot create – and I have even done it to myself. For example, I have somewhat limited drawing and illustrating skills, but I do not allow that to stop me from sketching or drawing, which I do sometimes to illustrate or accompany a poem (for example, “You Don’t See It”). During the moment, you take your desire and work with what you have.

That leads me to: skill/talent. I clubbed both of these together to encompass both those with a natural talent and those who have manually learned their art through instruction (i.e. both the prodigies and the non-prodigies are included here). Words come naturally to me, so that is the primary medium with which I work. I have some drawing and illustration skills, and can play both electronic organ and guitar at beginner’s level. I am willing to build by skills in both of the later, but I turn to words first. One can view skill/talent as the tools in one’s toolbox to allow oneself to communicate and let the message come out.

And if one is a novice/amateur/etc. at the chosen art, then he or she still has the tools to express him/herself. I began as a twelve year old with a ninth-grade reading level and vocabulary and during my high school years, reading every book I could get my hands on to soak in their words and beauty. Kambel Smith began with a Christmas gift of an easel and painting supplies. We all start somewhere and have the potential inside us to grow, become greater, and express ourselves in greater ways.

Now, I must address an important element: time. For me, a poem can take anywhere from five minutes to two hours to write, depending on how long it is and how well I am able to concentrate, see the images in my head, and pull them out. I even have poems that took me three months, or even a year to write because something wasn’t quite right the first time I tried. Other artists need differing amounts of time to create and communicate, but the bottom line is that time needs to be allowed for that creation to happen: time to ponder and then time to turn the intangible into the physical.

The last element, at least for me, is peace of mind. This is not to be confused with peace of emotion or feeling, although some may need all of these to be able to create. For example, I have channeled from some of my darkest emotions and brought forth the resulting melancholic colors into poetry; I have channeled words from my past pain and my present pain. But I find that if I am anxious or worried, the words just will not come. Perhaps it is the opposite for others – that writing gives vent to their worries and anxieties – but anxiety stops the projector in my head or makes it go on endless loop.

Conclusion

I thank Father and Mother God for the talent They have given me. Because of this, I have the means to express who I am and what is within me. I could not image a world in which I could not write; I cannot fathom how much would remain locked up inside of me.

When speech fails us, there are other ways to get our messages out to the world. I believe that within us, there are entire cosmoses that have yet to emerge into the tangible in their full spectrum colors. I would encourage tapping into those universes to see what one desires to express, and find a channel of communication to bring them out. Let us not limit ourselves to our lips and ourselves a disservice by believing the lie that we have nothing of value to say.

In closing, I leave you with an excerpt of my poem, “Speech”:

This is what happens when speech becomes futile. You see,
I have three mouths – one on my face, one below my belt, and the
last one existing in the center of my brain. It grows teeth
as the words come, busting through bloody gums that eventually
send speech down the nerves of my arms and into my fingertips. Magically,
the teeth turn into type, this hushed silence
that you are reading right now…
Listen carefully. Don’t
read my lips. You won’t find anything there today.

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6 thoughts on “Finding One’s Voice: Art, Autism, and Communication

  1. I am an asperger’s with excellent speaking skills…in specific sorts of situations. I teach and am excellent in that spontaneous environment, so then people expect that same sort of excellence all the time, but I also have situations that can make me almost mute.

    That is when I fall back on writing. The written word, as you say, can be examined and considered.

    Someone on facebook at one point made a big pronouncement about people who write important things in emails instead of saying them in person…as you SHOULD.

    And I thought…there you go, a neurotypical’s view of the world and their assumption that it is right and that we are all the same. Sigh.

    • Hello Christine:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think the presumption here is that emailing important personal matters is rude, cowardly, and disrespectful, and lacks the ability to respond to what is said in person. This can be a rather touchy subject. I’ve broken up with past boyfriends via email, with the primary reason being two-fold: a) the relationships in question were long-distance, and 2) I could better say what I needed to in writing. A thought just came to me that one possible compromise might be to tell the person ahead of time about the email, send it to them, and then perhaps talk to them again in person…but that may work for some folks and not others.

      Really, I think the problem is another presumption that there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate, which underlies the kinds of remarks that you describe having seen.

      -Nicole

  2. all I have to do is take notes and describe what I am seeing. I can rewind, replay the images and catch detail I didn’t the first time around. I can freeze frames until I have finished translating them into words. For an autistic person, being able to withdraw inward a little, go to that place, and tap into what is there can mean a difference between being able to communicate and being silent and shut up. That “place” is a healthy, good place for any one of us to be in

    This is a great description.

    It’s really difficult to have a facility with language and be autistic, since so many people believe that you have to have poor language skills for a diagnosis. It confused me for a long time. Now I say hyperlexic autistic which probably confuses people even more, but they generally accept they’ve been given an explanation.

    The place I go in my head when I’m writing is the safest, most relaxed place in my life. Even if I’m not going to put a story on paper, it’s like watching a film or television programme made entirely for me.

    (Now there’s a good topic for a blog post!)

    Some years ago, when I was seeing a psychotherapist, I became acutely aware that I needed to find exactly the right word to describe what I was feeling. It didn’t matter that it made me sound like a pompous twit with a PhD in English, I had to describe things perfectly. Maybe I’m overcompensating on the communication thing?

    Metaphor is the place where it gets weird. I understand metaphor and can use it without problems, but when I hear someone use one in speech, I get a quick visual flash of the literal description. Mackerel skies have fish swimming in them, while people who are nuts look like squirrels eating. It’s such a brief flicker of an image that I often barely notice it, but it’s definitely there.

    Anyway, circling back to my point…was there one? I think I just lost it…I’m looking for autie writers to be beta readers on my latest novel, which is about many things, one of them autism. Linky to the first part if you’re interested:
    http://autistwriter.wordpress.com/download-the-first-chapters/
    and the offer is open to any other writers who may still be ploughing through this tl;dr reply.

    • Hello Tielserrath:

      First of all, thank you for the compliment. 🙂

      Secondly, when you mention overcompensating, I totally hear you on that. I think what might partially compound the problem is that we end up being misunderstood a good percentage of the time, so we try our darnedest to make sure that we are understood, and understood exactly as we mean to come across. Maybe that’s why some of us end up being called “little professors” — my aunt, other family members, and classmates accused me of everything from being arrogant and trying to sound “smarter” than others (my aunt and family members, and I wasn’t) to “acting white” (the classmates who accused me of this were Black, and again, I wasn’t). But no, I wanted to express myself, be clear, and get it out there. And not only that, words and vocabulary fascinated me in school — words were probably one of my narrow interests and I used to read the dictionary for fun. How’s that for hyperlexic? 🙂

      But the place in my head…it is a nice place to go. That’s where my poems and my visual art are born. And I like the fact that I can go there and try to reproduce what I am seeing. I think more autistics should be encouraged to do this, especially the artists or artists to be. Art has the potential to say what we sometimes cannot.

      And I hear you about the metaphor point. I’ve grown more proficient at using it myself, but when hearing it I can and do see the literal image of the metaphor.

      Thanks also for the link to your novel. I’ll have to check that out.

      -Nicole

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