Monday, January 26, 2015

The Hyperlexic Paradox

The precocious development of a large vocabulary and the use of unusual and complex sentence structures are common elements begins of early childhood for a certain group of Autistic people, and remain a features of our communications well into adulthood.   And it is one of the reasons we are so often misread.

Some see us as cold or formal or distant because to those who don't know us well our expression comes across as more similar to literary or academic writing than colloquial speech -- a byproduct of our hyperlexia.  When you are 9 and the only person whose words reflect an understanding of your inner reality is a dead Irish poet, you tend to find yourself communicating in strange ways.  And those habits stick.

Others take the complexity of our language and our obsessions with it as signs  that we feel at home expressing ourselves with words.  For me, they indicate the exact opposite.

All my life, I have been trying to communicate what I think and feel in a language that evolved from a way of viewing the world completely alien to my own experience.   In the folklore of my ancestors, precocious speech was seen as a sign that a child might be a changeling -- all I can say is that is not far off the mark.   From an early age I always imagined that I came from another world where people thought and felt like I did.  I assimilated language in an unsuccessful attempt to explain my reality.  And when speech and prose failed, I tried poetry.

Speaking of the way modern Irish literature grew out of the experience of colonization, Malachy McCourt thanked the English "for stuffing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors."  I could say the same of the "gift" of a language shaped by a culture that aims to limit the acceptable bounds of sensation and perception -- being an Autistic person whose only available means of communication was a language shaped by neurotypical assumptions made me a poet. 

 Ironic, perhaps, because the assumption is commonly made that Aspies don't understand metaphor.  But what I actually find is that usually when I am speaking literally people take it as metaphor, because what I am speaking of exists outside the world that their sensory gating allows them to perceive, and when I am speaking metaphorically people tend to take what I am saying literally, because I have translated it into terms that appear more concrete to them than my actual concrete experiences do (which tend, in turn, to be misinterpreted as abstractions.)

You might think that being a poet makes it easy for me to express my feelings.  But I write poetry precisely because everyday language doesn't readily convey what I feel.   When it comes to things I am feeling intensely, sometimes conversation is nearly impossible.   Knowing that my words will only express an approximation of what I am saying, I become slow and meticulous in attempting to choose each one.   And each one also is a signifier fraught with a dozen layers of meaning for me.  And sometimes typing or uttering them can bring me into a place of being completely overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings they evoke.

And once I have written or spoken words, I often hear them repeated to me in a new context that shifts their meaning.  I hesitate in conversation when it is important for something I say to be understood because I see how quickly meanings I did not intend can become attached to my words, and the ways in which the words I use take on a life of their own.  As Adrienne Rich writes in her poem, "North American Time"

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.

"We move but our words stand
become responsible

for more than we intended

"and this is verbal privilege"

A verbal privilege not shared by my Autistic kin who this culture deems "low functioning" and who most people assume lack a rich inner life -- until someone like Carly Fleischmann finds a way to all too briefly break into the world of language and describe her experiences.  (That is, until they are silenced by electroconvulsive therapy as Carly was . . .)

Sometimes speaking or writing at all feels like a betrayal of my own heart and my own experience.  The harsh sounds of English doesn't reflect their flow.  The concepts the words of the language refer to are not mine.   The history that shaped the language and the culture is a history of brutality.   And I want to stand outside of history.  But poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history, and neither did I.

And so I write.  Knowing that I will be misunderstood.