Living with an adult who doesn’t use speech to communicate means that I spend a lot of time thinking about language. People often remark on the irony of a poet having a ‘non-verbal’ son but I have come to realise there are more connections between Dylan and myself than differences, not least in our approach to language. How can that be when words are a writer’s currency and Dylan has so few?
The Language Barrier
Poets, it seems to me, are as interested in the way that words fail as in the way they work. When poets write it is from a place of agony. Language is inadequate. We make faltering choices and wrong turns. We cannot find the exact description for the light outside a window. We fail to find a way of distinguishing one feeling from another. Constantly we delete, discard, begin again. Our quest is for the ‘best words in their best order’ (Coleridge, 1827). No word should be wanted or wasted. We will work a piece over and over to find the ‘truth and beauty’ (Keats, 1820). Even then, some poets consider their entire oeuvre to be no more than work in progress. This difficult search for the right word is a process which my son also knows.
Poets vary in the time they spend writing but I cannot engage in it for more than a few hours. I find the experience mentally and physically exhausting. If I think about the agony of writing it helps me to understand why Dylan may choose silence. Consider how it might feel if communication were like this all the time. What if it is so difficult for Dylan to find the right words that ordering breakfast is as challenging as writing a poem? Or if he experiences the world in so many colours the words to differentiate between them don’t exist? If Dylan can hear sound above and below 20KHZ, how might he begin to utter a word? If his senses are flooded with stimuli, as some autistic people report, then is Dylan’s silence so surprising? It can be safer, sometimes, to say nothing at all (a state poets refer to as writer’s block). Language is only a representation of the world; words are at least one step removed from the phenomena they describe. As I have argued elsewhere, Dylan may experience the world more intensely and essentially than those of us who live behind the language barrier.
Three Writer’s Maxims
Dylan does, however, need some strategies for communication and much of my time is spent trying to help Dylan to develop these. At the moment Dylan’s favoured methods are visual. Photographs approximate the thing that they represent most closely and communication can be reliable this way. I might use this photograph, for example, to explain a trip to The Old Horns. However, the specificity of the photograph also limits its usefulness. I couldn’t use the same photo to communicate that at some point today we’ll stop for a pint somewhere because ‘somewhere’ is general and can’t be photographed.
This reference to the general and the specific reminds me of three writers’ maxims, commonly used in creative writing workshops:.
- The concrete not the abstract
- The particular not the general
- Show don’t tell
I know writers who get quite agitated about these maxims, arguing that poetry cannot be reduced to rules. I am aware that there are plenty of fine poems which break these rules. Subversive practice is, I know, often at the heart of the startlingly original. However as a starting point for writing poetry the maxims are not a bad framework to inform our choices about language.
I would, for example, urge a beginning writer not to use abstract nouns such as poverty or anxiety but to focus on concrete images to communicate these: show the poverty in the way she walks, I might say, or: don’t tell us he is worried; show it in the dart of his eyes. I would ask the writer for particular rather than general information: not music, but Bach’s Overture in D; not the pub, but The Waggon and Horses. Precisely which pub is the sort of detail that is important to Dylan too; he is particular, not general. Dylan is concrete, not abstract. Dylan shows me things, he does not tell. Dylan, I would argue, intuitively adopts a writerly approach.
Flipping The Maxims
Dylan cannot, however, live wholly in the particularity; he needs ways of thinking about pubs in general and of understanding abstract concepts such as love and fear. As a writer I spend my time supporting students to make their writing concrete and particular; realising that my work with Dylan must travel in the opposite direction can feel quite challenging.
Although Dylan hasn’t engaged with communication systems that have been offered to him in the past there have been recent indications that he may be more receptive. Dylan has moved, for example, from using only deictic gestures (pointing to request, declare or ‘share the world’) to copying my use of representational gestures such as mimicking drinking and driving (not at the same time of course). This is an important shift in that it signals Dylan’s developing awareness of communication and its uses (I have written about Dylan’s use of gesture here and about his use of speech here).
Symbols and signs can offer a good staging post between the specificity of photographs and the abstractions of language. I used these with Dylan when he was younger but he wasn’t particularly responsive then. In due course my signing tailed off and, without regular practice, I forgot the signs I knew. I suspect that Dylan wasn’t ready for the introduction of symbolic language at the time, but his recent interest in representational gesture has encouraged me to try again. ‘An idea in the highest sense of that word’, Coleridge reminds us, ‘cannot be conveyed but by a symbol’ (Coleridge, 1817).
Makaton is a language programme based on British Sign Language which combines signs with symbols and speech. In a previous post I’ve referred to the tendency of parents of autistic children to use gesture and facial expression so makaton feels like a natural and comfortable development for me. I’m hopeful that signing might be the next step for Dylan’s development in that it includes abstract concepts but makes these concrete by representing them through hand and finger pictures.
Practising signing recently I was reminded of one of my favourite movies, Stand and Deliver (1988). The film tells the true story of how a group of students at Garfield High, East Los Angeles, pass an AP Calculus test against the expectations of school and community, thanks to the dedication of their teacher Jaime Escalante. It is a wonderful movie which I’ve used for years with my students in order to explore key educational and social justice issues. It is also a marvellous source of examples of supporting the learning of students who aren’t used to succeeding and who lack confidence. Señor Escalante understands that his role is to give his students strategies for learning and that in Maths – like language, a subject of signs, symbols and abstraction – that means making learning concrete. One of the tricks Escalante offers his students is a method for calculating their Times Tables on their fingers; come on Fingerman, he says to one of his students who is hesitating to solve a problem: you can do it Fingerman.
I’ve been feeling a bit like Fingerman as I try to build signing into my everyday language practice. It’s early days yet but Dylan seems to enjoy watching me. Even if he doesn’t always attach meaning to the signs, I get the sense that he finds them pleasing aesthetically. This week I was signing the comment in Dylan’s link file, reading back what the care staff had reported about his day. As I signed, Dylan watched me intently, copying back my gestures. I was conscious of the dance of our hands through the air, drawing shapes and objects, describing actions and feelings. There was, I thought, a truth and beauty to our hands; they were searching for the best words in their best order.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817) Biographia Literaria
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (12th July 1827) Table Talk
John Keats (January 1820) Ode on a Grecian Urn
Ramón Menéndez (1988) Stand and Deliver
John Keats by Joseph Severn
oil on canvas, 1821-1823, dated 1821
National Portrait Gallery
Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke
oil on canvas, dated 1795
National Portrait Gallery