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.


VeronicaV said...


katja said...

woah, i've been thinking about this lately. specifically, the hyperattentiveness to each rule of manners and to every way in which things are interpreted and make people feel. and for exactly the same reason: it's not that i'm good at this, it's that i grew up being very very bad at it, and having to learn it all as if a foreign language, and building complex databases in my head of the memory of each experience so that i could figure out which one was most appropriate to apply right now.
recently, someone told me i was a grammar freak, and they meant it as a putdown, as if by focusing so much on writing and speaking well (in a finished product, not necessarily a blog comment), i was elitest and anyway, people who are not educated still say important things. which i completely agree with, and have experienced many times, but it doesn't revoke the punishments i endured all through my young life because i spoke incorrectly, and eventually, you learn to care about the rules simply out of self-preservation. (and my subsequent understanding that striving for "good communication" is important, because every person speaks only their own individual language, made up of their own experience of each word in that language, and it is nearly impossible to communicate effectively anyway, so it is important to try to do it well.)

Kira said...

A betrayal. I had not yet fit those words to my experience, but that is exactly what it feels like. It's as if, by trying to make it fit into words, I am not doing right by my own experience, somehow not telling my whole truth.

It has been an extremely frustrating task to intuit which words will portray what I need them to portray, and which will simply trigger previous experiences and understandings in the listener which I need to avoid. For me too, my whole life has been a continuous mission/struggle to find words. Words that are resillient or flexible or useful or clear enough to make the journey from my inner territory to the inner territory of another without somehow becoming mangled or unrecognizable along the way. The space between us can feel like a vast and choppy sea, with my words an inadequately chosen vessel often proving unable to make the trip.

But of course there is a gift in that struggle and I have to thank you for repeatedly attempting this daunting journey. Because of your effort to put your experience into words, you helped me to find words that feel a little less like a betrayal, and encouraged me to think that perhaps my own attemps to do so are also not in vain. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

When I do talk I feel like cassandra.

Thanks again sean

Anonymous said...

There's quite a lot I could respond with here but one comment, a parenthetical at that, has sort of spun me out. First, thank you for writing this. People have been totally confused by how I could "possibly" be a poet AND an Aspie and then they assume it's because I tested in the top 2% for verbal comprehension. No, I have to say, the fact that I tested that high has allowed me to figure out how to use these alien words to connect to another human being.

So, the comment that's got me spinning out. The story I heard about Carly was that she "wanted" ECT. I remain skeptical about this. The fact that she has been silenced by it makes me angry and also horridly favorite writer "silenced himself" after 20 years on psych meds and then, while he was on monitored withdraw from them after a hypertensive episode in his 40s, tried ECT as well. I don't know how to deal with the ache of his suicide and can't imagine the gnashing hell his family has to plod through every damn day. Suspiciously many suicides were 'treated' with shock therapy when their symptoms "returned" after ceasing long-term med use. ECT is pretty much a lobotomy with a smile in my opinion.

I know this wasn't your point. But such is my relationship with language; although I'm "a writer," I sometimes feel as those language is my second language, especially with all this puddle hopping. Thank you for indulging me.

Anonymous said...

you need to identify with more of a fairy term, if you ask me. autism holds a sonar hoax on you, and clearly, in the esteem of intelligence, and in the common hope to be understood, you should find more and more people in your life willing to see past the layers of dust kicked upon you. your medicine is sometimes not for everyone. but at one point, it was. medical terms and the english language... oy. i hope you can learn hawaiian or a more loving language without so much emphasis on observing from an immaculate distance. i dislike using immaculate in that last sentence, but perhaps it carries an insincere fixation with the blank slate so many of us could not survive on. thanks for taking your time to let others grow.