When I gave birth to a son in 1994 there wasn’t any doubt in my mind what I would call him. I had spent much of my life listening to Bob Dylan and reading poetry by Dylan Thomas; both Dylans had had a transformative influence on my life and naming my son after them was my homage.
As a poet and a teacher I am immersed in words and communication; it’s also not surprising, then, that I named a child in honour of two men renowned for their artistry with language. However, the irony of this is not lost on me: my son turned out not only to be autistic but to be one of the children on the spectrum who didn’t develop language and to whom the label ‘non-verbal’ was attached. ‘How did it feel’, I was asked by a radio presenter on whose show I was guest ‘to be a poet who named a son for poets and for the son not to speak?’
Dylan does now have sounds and a few words which he uses regularly and which, while not always clear, are familiar to people who know him. These words have changed over the years. Some words go underground for a while then reappear later and sometimes words disappear completely once an interest has passed. Dylan currently has a small but fairly stable core vocabulary which I’m hoping he will continue to use. I try and remind myself that this vocabulary has only been developing for a relatively few years. I remember exactly how old Dylan was when he first started trying to use speech because I wrote this poem about it (published in my second collection ‘The Bat Detector’).
Eight years old and at last my son
is trying to share the world, stumbling
from silence to the uncertainty of words.
Aaaarm, he tells me, over and over, his hands
circling my arm, fingers stroking the skin.
He discovers its newness again and again:
I bend my arm at its hinge, push gently
into Dylan’s ribs: Elbow I say.
It’s mummy’s elbow. Bibow he says, Bibow
then unbends it, lifts my arm high and pokes
my underarm: Hair, he says, Hair.
Now he has me hanging on his every word,
waiting to find out what else he knows
(has always silently observed).
He looks up – points suddenly outside:
Hair, Hair he shouts. Good pointing I say,
good talking. But that’s a tree, Dylan – tree.
I take him by the hand, lead us to the garden
and reach to catch a waving branch of willow.
Leaves I tell him: Leaves. He strokes them,
gently: Hair, he says. Hair.
When I first read the poem at a poetry event a friend and fellow poet told me that he understood Dylan’s description; there was a particular tree outside his office window, he said, which he had always thought of as having hair. This is a way of sharing the world which has remained with Dylan; years later, every spring, he tells me that the trees have grown their hair.
Around the time I wrote ‘Hair’ I was reading the novel ‘be my knife’ by Israeli writer David Grossman. One of the recurring themes in the novel is the idea that the acquisition of language is a process of loss – that by learning the label for something there is a sense in which we lose our understanding of it. So, for example, if I don’t have a word to describe the thing which you know as ‘blackbird’, in order to think about it I must observe it very closely – more intensely than if I could take the shortcut of naming it ‘blackbird’. Without language I must use my senses to engage with the world, and my experience of the world is therefore more embodied than if I had access to language. It is in this sense that acquiring language could be described as a process of loss. Here is one of the characters in the Grossman novel describing this sense of loss as their child learns to speak:
I don’t have to tell you of my joy when he began to speak; you probably remember the wonder of a child first naming things. Although every time he learned a new word…even his first word, a beautiful word like ‘light’ – my heart curdled around the edges, because I thought, Who knows what he is losing in this moment, how many infinite kinds of glamour he felt and saw, tasted and smelled, before he pressured them into this little box, ‘light’, with a ‘t’ at the end like a switch clicking off. (David Grossman, 2002, p.10)
Sensory awareness in autism is well-documented. In some cases perception is so heightened as to cause discomfort, but where sensory engagement with the world is possible it can become a rich way of knowing for the autistic person. Every day I watch Dylan explore the world through his senses, sniffing, tasting and stroking the things for which he has no name. I understand why the character in the Grossman novel might worry that being able to say the word ‘light’ may remove the child’s sensory engagement with the phenomenon of light. I remember thinking that by giving Dylan the word ‘leaves’ I was destroying his more beautiful and poetic belief that this was the tree’s hair.
Understanding the essence of something through our senses – exploring the taste, smell and touch of a thing – is a way of knowing familiar to poets. The senses are often the starting point of writing and frequently form the muscle of a poem. A poet’s ability to write about something so the reader sees it fresh, as if for the first time, often comes from the poet’s use of their senses. In this respect, Dylan is a true poet.
Can I really claim that a ‘non-verbal’ autistic adult is a poet because he understands the world through his senses? How can my son’s approach to language measure up against a poet’s? To explore this further I would have to identify what it is a poet does with language. A poet, I would suggest, is concerned with the musical and visual qualities of language. For me these are both essential; the sound patterns that language makes (the rhythm and rhyme) are important but the pictures which it forms (the imagery) are equally important. So let’s take these two uses of language – the creation of sound patterns and the drawing of pictures – as the basis of a poet’s craft. Against these criteria, is there poetry in autism?
In a previous post I noted that strong sound patterns in language (for example nursery rhyme and chant) support the development of speech in babies and toddlers and I reflected on the ways in which, as a ‘non-verbal’ adult, my son also responds to these. Dylan’s enjoyment of the rhythm and rhyme in poetry and song is an appreciation as clear, I would hazard, as a poet’s. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that someone autistic and with limited (or no) speech would respond to patterns in the sound of language in the way that a poet does. But imagery? Aren’t autistic people supposed to find metaphor confusing? Are we not constantly told, as parents and carers of autistic children, to ensure that our language is literal? That we should never use phrases such as ‘I was on fire’ to convey a state of high motivation or passion, for example, or ‘he laughed his head off’ to describe extreme hilarity. Really? Well hadn’t someone better tell Dylan that trees grow leaves, not hair?
While I appreciate that this might be different for others I have come to believe that the world my son inhabits is largely metaphorical. He doesn’t have a lot of speech, but the words Dylan does use to describe the world are often striking in their imagery. The trees that grow hair is an early and particularly striking example of his use of imagery, but there have been others over the years. Once, as I served pizza to him, he said: ‘cheese crying’. I was puzzled at the time, but made sense of the image later when he said it again as I was making cheese on toast. I suppose if you are observing the scientific process of change in the state of a substance when it is heated, and you don’t have the word ‘melt’, then ‘crying’ is a pretty accurate (as well as imaginative) substitution. The cheese has been crying! How good is that? Well, better than this poet could do, that’s for sure. Whenever I melt cheese now I think to myself ‘now the cheese must cry’.
Another example of Dylan’s metaphors is from his much-loved ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story book. There is a picture of Beast which particularly interests Dylan. He points to Beast’s nose and says ‘po-tay’ (potato). When Dylan first started saying this I ignored him, thinking it random language. But one day I looked closely and could see exactly what he meant; while I would never have made the association myself, I can see that Beast’s nose does look just like someone stuck a potato on his face. I’d have been thrilled, when I was teaching English in school, if a pupil had described someone as having ‘a nose like a Jersey potato’.
And then there’s the ippy. For many years Dylan would refer to ice cream as ‘ippy’. We had no idea why but Dylan was so certain that ice cream was ‘ippy’ that we all started calling it ippy, until it had effectively been renamed within the family. Then, one day (while naming Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) I realised that ‘ippy’ was Dylan’s pronunciation of ‘happy’. And so I had found another metaphorical use of language by Dylan; a bowl of ice cream was a bowl of happiness. He didn’t know what ice cream was called, only the way it made him feel. This is really quite sophisticated; ‘happiness’ is an abstract concept and therefore very difficult to describe. Poets spend their time trying to convert abstract nouns (such as greed, envy, happiness, love) into concrete images. A poet would always try to avoid putting ‘happiness’ into a poem; instead, we would try to show happiness by embodying it in an object or action. If a pupil in school had given me a bowl of ice cream as an image for happiness I would have been thrilled. In fact, if I were still teaching poetry in school, I would take Dylan’s bowl of ippy and turn it into a fun activity for writing with children. What’s in a bowl of excitement? Orange jelly obviously! A bowl of anxiety? That could be spaghetti. And what about a plate of jealousy? Something green. Okra (slightly slimy ladies fingers)?
Another example: the car showroom we drive past sometimes which Dylan always points at and says ‘Fire’. It took me many, many drive pasts before I realised that in the logo on the building Dylan could see the flames of a fire twisting and rising. In this example Dylan has made a metaphor from the visual appearance of something (the logo) rather than the way it makes him feel (the ice cream). Most of Dylan’s metaphors are based on his visual apprehension of the world: the showroom of fire, Beast’s potato nose, the crying cheese and the hairy trees are all language-pictures which Dylan has drawn by making visual comparisons between different objects or phenomena.
Making comparisons and associations between two unconnected things is the basis of metaphor. Poets make unusual connections between things in order to shake the ordinary into new shape and make the extraordinary tangible; they help us to see and experience the world with fresh eyes. Making connections between things is also, however, one of the ways in which we order and make sense of the world. Perhaps Dylan’s metaphors are the result of his attempt to make sense of the world by grouping objects by their visual characteristics rather than by linguistic category?
Whether or not our brains order the world linguistically or visually has been linked to theories of brain lateralisation. At some point in the 1990s I discovered the book by Betty Edwards, ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’. At the school I attended in the 1970s I was not allowed to take art beyond age 14; you could only enroll for the subject if your name was on a list pinned up in the school hall the week before subject choices were made. My name was not on the list. Now, as a lecturer in Education working with young adults hoping to become school teachers, I sometimes draw on my negative experience of art at school, and the impact on me of being told I couldn’t do it. I also tell my students, however, about the Betty Edwards book and how it transformed the way I thought about art and my ability to draw.
Edwards’ thesis is that drawing requires us to get in touch with the right hemisphere of our brain, the part that is responsible for our perception of space and perspective. In order to draw well, we need to quieten down the left side of our brain which controls linguistic function, and which is constantly interfering with labels of things, rather than the thing itself. Many of us are habituated to using the left hemisphere of our brains and when we look at the world we tend to see things by their names rather than by the space they occupy. So, for example, if I want to draw a good picture of a door I somehow have to suppress the left side of my brain from trying to label it (door, door frame, handle) and to draw on the right side of my brain in order to see the object that we use to move between rooms in terms of the space it occupies and the space surrounding it.
To illustrate this process and to encourage us to get in touch with the right rather than the left hemisphere of our brains when drawing, Betty Edwards includes exercises in her book which prevent us from seeing in language, and encourage us to see in terms of space. One example is a requirement to copy a Picasso line drawing of Igor Stravinsky, but to copy it with the book upside down. With the picture the wrong way up it is not easy to make linguistic sense of the lines: you cannot work out ‘hand’ or ‘elbow’ or any of the component parts of the figure. In this situation, you are obliged to look closely at the lines and the relationship of the lines to each other, in order to reproduce the drawing in terms of perspective and space. Although skeptical I went ahead with the experience and was amazed at the result. This was some years ago now and I have lost the drawing I made. However, I remember that it was a transforming moment for me: from that point on I stopped thinking about myself as someone who could not draw. More importantly, however, it changed the way in which I looked at the world. After that, I tried to look at the world visually as well as linguistically, and to actively draw on my visual brain when working on a poem and searching for unusual images. Although I doubt I would ever arrive anywhere as fresh and unusual as some of Dylan’s metaphors, I like to think that I sometimes manage to turn down the interfering left hemisphere of my brain which would shout ‘leaf’ before the right hemisphere had seen ‘hair’.
Where this brings me to is a new way of thinking about poetry and autism. For all his lack of language and ‘impaired’ communication, Dylan is in many senses a true poet. His heightened senses and apparent emphasis on right-brain rather than left-brain processes combine to produce a unique way of seeing the world. His vision is free of the social and linguistic categories we impose on what we see and which are imposed on us. When Dylan communicates what he sees, the images he offers are as startling and fresh as those of any poet. There is a lot a poet could learn from Dylan’s use of metaphor and his engagement with the senses. That’s Dylan Ariel. Not Bob or Thomas.
Elizabeth Barrett (2005) ‘Hair’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press
Betty Edwards (1993) Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Harper Collins
David Grossman (2002) be my knife, Bloomsbury Press
Sources for willow images unknown but appreciated.
Here is a link to a test which claims to assess your use of left and right hemispheres of the brain:
When I took the test myself the results suggested that I draw fairly equally on my left and right hemispheres, with a slight bias to the left side (53% left and 47% right). Quite a bit of the test can be done without language in that it requires responses to colour and pattern. I had the idea that Dylan might be able to do it so let him have a go. I only intervened to read the instructions for questions which required an action (e.g. ‘cross your arms’) and to observe Dylan and record the results. The results of Dylan’s test suggested a clear preference for the right hemisphere: 81% right side of the brain, only 19% left.
Of course this doesn’t ‘prove’ anything: the test could be unreliable; the conditions in which I administered it could be unfair; and Dylan’s capacity to engage with it could be limited. However, the results are broadly as I’d expect if some of the ideas I rehearsed in this post have any foundation. Do take the test: it’s fun!
See also my post musing on left-handedness and autism here.