Between freak and superhuman

For the autistic mind, the world is a complicated tangle of signs that refuses its own decoding. If autism is construed as a source of power, however, frustration can be transformed into creativity and self-expression.

Autism headliner

Illustration by Thit Thyrring.

Some will tell you that autism is both a gift and a curse. Indeed, one can say that about almost anything in life. Autism can be amusing – though, admittedly, often in a dubious way. The latter is certainly the case for those who live with autistic partners. As my girlfriend will confirm.

A great many books have been written about how to live with autism. Books have helped both my parents and myself to understand and deal with my challenges. Naturally, it is a great place to start, but at a deeper, personal level I still haven’t worked out how to understand and relate to my autistic self. At least, not beyond learning to accept it and move on. Which is the first step one must take when working out anything whatsoever. But the books have been of little use in my attempts to grasp my own form of autism, let alone relating to it and reflecting over what it means to me.

I remember feeling very much an outsider at school without being able to pinpoint exactly why that was the case. I had been diagnosed at the age of eight with something a child psychiatrist had told my parents was called Asperger’s syndrome, but the links between my personal problems and my condition had not yet dawned on me. It is only now, 26 years old and a graduate in comparative literature, that I begin to understand what it means to be autistic. Presumably, it is a never-ending process.

Life as text, life as chaos

Autism atlas insert 3

Magritte’s “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”) (1928-9) or “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).
Sometimes translated as “The Betrayal of Images” By René Magritte, 1898-1967.
The work is now owned by and exhibited at LACMA. This image was restored and enhanced by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009 for Wikipedia.

For a long time now, I have tried out different approaches to capturing what reality is like, seen from the perspective of an autistic person – how to define what might be called ‘the autistic experience’. I have been studying my past self, hoping to find a way to cast a light on how I had been previously living as an autistic person, to gain more insight and find the right words for what it was like. The answer, it seems to me, lies in the art of reading life as one reads literature. It is an art with two sides to it. One is the art of approaching life through reading literature, to apply the experiences offered by literature to find new perspectives on life and so understand it better. The second is the art of looking back on lived experiences and analyse them as if they were texts. Life as it is being lived appears chaotic and it is only when one stops and applies a literary gaze that one gets a critical overview of the pattern so that one can draw the lines joining the red dots.

There are isolated events in my childhood that come back to me with clarity. Some of them are nice, others less so. One episode has stuck especially in my memory. It was my great privilege that I went to a small school deep in the countryside, where I was allowed to be a bit ‘special’, an oddball, without anyone being too judgemental about it. I was never bullied at school either, even though my mother always said that I was an obvious victim, and that I should be grateful for having such kind classmates. And I really am grateful, even though it was always crystal clear to me that I wasn’t the most popular boy in school.

One day, our teacher decided that we were to learn folk-dancing. We lined up, facing each other in two rows and the teacher explained the steps. I seem to remember that the dance was called Totur til Vejle but can’t for the life of me recall the intricate routine of the affair. It surely cannot be as complicated as I remember it. Still, in my memory Totur til Vejle is a totally logistical impossibility. You move around one partner, shift up and down the row, walk through linked arms then round in circles holding each other’s hands in a movement that, back then, reminded me of the wheels of a steam locomotive.

It should come as no surprise that I had no earthly chance of emerging from the experience in one piece. Our teacher, who naturally wanted to be nice to me, came over and got hold of my arm. ‘You come along with me and help me to look after the tape recorder’, she whispered as she led me to the other end of the gym. So I sat there pressing buttons on the tape recorder for the rest of the lesson while my classmates performed Totur til Vejle with utmost precision and grace. I remember bravely fighting back my tears, gripped by that only too familiar sensation of being at an opposite pole to the rest of the world, that we would always be out of register and every attempt to unite us must necessarily end in a fiasco. I was stuck there, moodily, unhappily minding the tape recorder while the world functioned perfectly around me. There was something unreal about the scene, as if part of a film. I half expected someone to leap out from the shadows in the gym and give it all away as just an absurd comedy.

Today, when I think back and see myself with the tape recorder, I cannot help thinking that the whole setup – and here we reach the core of the matter – had a grotesque feel to it. That it was absurd. I am reminded of the novels by the Czech author Franz Kafka, in which immediately recognisable situations suddenly shift from normality into strangeness. Because I am autistic, my life experiences, from way back and to this day, have been a series of utterly absurd events. For the autistic mind, the world around you is a complicated tangle of signs that don’t allow you to decode them. This is not because the world is evil or enjoys hurting us, nor is it because autistic people are by definition pitiable – it is just how the world seems to us.  Nor is it, indeed, because we quite like to be outsiders – a bit weird. No, that it just how things are. Autism is not a curable illness, and an autistic person cannot simply stop being autistic. It is a permanent state of mind, a fundamental condition that you can only accept and then arrange your life accordingly. I am in no way suggesting that, as an autistic person I am a victim of any sort. In many ways, my autism is a wonderful gift. Exactly because the world seems strange and non-negotiable, autism offers a deeply distinctive vantage point from which to study it. More than once, Greta Thunberg has insisted that, to her, autism has been like a superpower, allowing her to stand fast and fight for her cause with perfect conviction and strength. Just like her, I have no interest whatsoever in changing out of my diagnosed condition, should it ever become possible.

I would argue that the autistic experience is in part Kafkaesque because the world around you appears as a rejecting and incomprehensible ‘other’. That sense of unreality is the context for what the performance artist and writer Nielsen says about Josef K in his foreword to Gyldendal’s new edition of Kafka’s The Trial:

Nowadays, people would have diagnosed K as ‘autistic’ because he is nearly incapable of comprehending the social game he had entered. K can do nothing else but try in vain to perceive and interpret other people – their facial expressions, movements, words – in short, the signals they send. It is all about him, unmistakeably, his every chance (though there is no such thing) encounter, when every glance and every movement hint at a message, perhaps a possible answer to the enigma of his trial, and hence of his life. He finds everything ‘meaningful but incomprehensible’. He doesn’t get it.[1]

Ambushed and overpowered

Autism atlas insert 2

Portrait of Edward James by René Magritte, 1937. Source
www.robinurton.com via Wikimedia Commons

To Josef K, the world seems an unceasing series of signs and signals that he realises should be understandable, but, since he can’t grasp what they mean, K feels frustrated again and again. Every time K comes into contact with the hostile legal process against him, he also has to deal with being frustrated at every turn. Even though he has no hope of gaining knowledge of his trial, he is met with the expectation that he really ought to be prepared all the same. This is actually a fundamental feature of human destinies in Kafka’s work: it is impossible to live up to the standards of a world that always looks to the individual to meet its expectations without offering any opportunity to conform to its demands. Life is a legal process and your case is always already lost. Every attempt to control what happens is no more than an illusion because your life has slipped out of your hands. Which is why the most fundamental Kafkaesque experience is frustration.

When Josef K tries to grasp how the legal process works, he fails because it is unfathomable. He never finds out where it starts or ends and, besides, the legal system is always in possession of knowledge he had never realised existed. The world around Josef K is always already one step ahead of him at all times and exasperated by his inability to follow its processes. To me, Franz Kafka’s surreal novel seems a perfect prism for understanding and expressing in words the autistic experience – a most fluffy concept. The novel gets it right from the very first page, when K is woken by two police constables and learns that he is under arrest on a charge that no one tells him about. The world is ahead of you, it will ambush and overpower you and, regardless of how hard you fight back and how strenuously you try to decode its messages, something is always slightly off. The world moves on, but by then the autistic person is already breathless. The special relationship between the world and the autistic person is of great interest and worth study, since the autistic mind and the world find each other mutually frustrating and fascinating.

For the autistic mind, the world is unreadable while at the same time, more than anything else, it wants to understand how the world works. Oh, how you dream of deciphering the signs and grasping the process! But there is something that resists, something impenetrable and, precisely because of that impenetrability, the autistic person is always taken unawares. Even just being in the world with its sounds and its people is often challenging. The sounds can be especially problematic: I remember how badly thunderstorms frightened me as a child. I didn’t dread being struck by lightning. It was the thunderclaps that made me panic. In my mind, the sounds grew into a solid, physical mass, filling so completely the world around me that the enormous weight threatened to crush me! My parents would try their best but couldn’t do anything except offer me comfort while I buried myself among the cushions on the sofa in an attempt to disappear.

The wish to disappear is, I believe, one of the fundamental traits of the autistic experience. It is nowhere else as well expressed as in Hamlet, when the prince is alone on stage in Act 1, Scene 2, and turns toward the audience to declare:

Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

Hamlet, just like K, is hunting for clues and evidence in order to explain an enigma and, like K, Hamlet does not seem to be very good at it. He is fumbling about in an utterly surreal world, full of ghosts, conspiracy theories, madness and murder: an impenetrable world in which nothing is ever what it seems. Hamlet finds it all so impossible that just having a sensing body is too much to cope with and so, more than anything else, he wishes that he could vanish. I imagine that, when I immersed myself in literature as a child, I was driven by precisely the desire to vanish. For exactly that reason, it cannot be a coincidence that I exclusively read fantasy stories and old classics. I loved the novels by Jules Verne. With their historical settings, adventurous travels and imaginative characters, these worlds were far away from the world from which I desired to disappear.

Forever out of step

Autism atlas insert 1

The Son of Man, 1946 by Rene Magritte Photo by Steel Wool
from Flickr

From the world’s point of view, autistic people are exceedingly complex and mysterious creatures. Somehow, they seem at the same time to be hyper-specialised supermen and superwomen with often abstruse interests, and comical outsiders who lack social skills as well as the capacity to perceive their own, sometimes charming and sometimes irritating eccentricities. But they are also figures on the periphery of society and have inherent characteristics, which no one with autism can do anything about and which cannot in any case be substantially changed. The net effect is that they mostly come across as an assortment of exotic exceptions rather than people with real personalities. The autistic person is the human being who cannot be any other than who he or she is, an absolute individual. However, at the same time you are forever out of step with the rest of the world, always a little off and, hence, more than anyone else, forced to play a role when in contact with the world. This role is one that you, as someone with autism, must play even though you are unable to act it convincingly. Autistic people are incapable of not being autistic, but this absolute authenticity also makes existing in the world impossible. This is why, in the eyes of the world, the autistic person is a walking impossibility: someone who fulfils the modern ideal of an absolute authentic human being and, at the same time, someone who embodies all we nowadays fear about lack of social competence. The autistic person is at the same time alarming as well as fascinating, simultaneously a freak, a modern hero and a supernatural being.

Recollect, if you will, how autism is represented in the cinema and on television, as the characters the world imagines them to be. In two successful detective series – the BBC’s Sherlock and the Danish-Swedish The Bridge[2]  –  the two leading characters, respectively Sherlock Holmes and Saga Norén, are both portrayed as autistic. Indeed, it is their autistic traits that makes them excellent detectives and at the same time makes them incapable of functioning in the company of other people. Autism confers superior abilities of observing and reasoning, as well as a profoundly endearing but tragi-comic social awkwardness due to their inability to understand the signals others are sending. Being autistic makes you, in the eyes of others, someone exotic for whom the rules and norms of society are not clear. Thus, the autistic person exist in the space between being the incarnation of the modern fantasy of absolute authentic individuality and being a person without social skills or the possibility of integration into society. But it is this very impossibility to understand the world on its own premises, that makes the autistic person a perfect detective. At the same time a freak, modern hero and a superhuman.

I am convinced that autistic people can emerge from the Kafkaesque nightmare and take back control. One way is to recognise the underlying comedy of the absurd. To my mind, Kafka is a great humourist, and humour offers his readers an essential escape from the state of mild depression induced by his books. The comedy is bound up with the absurd in the strange set-pieces of the plot. It is deeply funny when Josef K discovers that the massive legal tome, his one chance of gaining knowledge about his trial, is filled with pornographic images. The reader can’t help laughing as K helplessly roots around to find clues and signs. Kafka makes us laugh at the absurdity of it all and, in so doing, helps us to deal with, and live with, life’s own absurdities. In this way, my exercise in reading autism through Kafka has not only made it possible for me to express in words how I have experienced autism but also helped my attempt to formulate a strategy for overcoming autism. Now I laugh when recalling the childhood anecdote about folk-dancing and the tape recorder. Simply taking on board that autism is often absurdly funny has enabled me to turn my frustration into humour and self-irony.

Another and in my eyes much more effective way to ‘take back control’ is to become aware of the unusual position that autism puts one in. Like detectives, autistic people patrol the periphery of the world. A position that allows the autistic person to gaze into society and unravel its interior networks. The autistic person is an outsider, which places the autistic person in a position of power from which everything can be scrutinised and thought about from new angles. A self-aware autistic person will realise that this outsider position is not just an exposed position but also one that offers a unique and novel perception of the world – a perception that allows for the creation of art. I strongly urge all talented autistic people to create poetry, prose, songs, music and every kind of artwork, in order to express their autistic experience. Such creations will of course be endlessly varied because no one autistic experience is like any other. But what all these works will have in common is an autistic experience of the world. Only in this way can our own, uniquely autistic narrative be made known by giving expression to our perceptions of the world, rather than the world’s notions of what it might mean to be autistic.

In such art works the autistic creator identifies what it is like to be autistic, and also that being autistic profoundly affects how the world at large, its languages and peoples are perceived, sensed and narrated. In writing, every sentence will reverberate with the complex sensibilities of the autistic mind. This body of art will offer concrete evidence of our, the autistic people’s, ability to formulate and express our experiences with assurance, independence and artistic energy.

Only when autistic people are conscious of the power autism confers to them can they reverse their frustrations and use their state of mind as a source of creativity and self-expression.

 

Translated by Anna Paterson

The original Danish version of this text was published as ‘A walking impossibility or a human being?’ (Mellem omvandrende umulighed og supermenneske) in Atlas 2/2020.

[1] Franz Kafka, Processen, Gyldendal, 2014.

[2] Danish: Broen. Swedish: Bron.

Published 24 November 2020
Original in Danish
Translated by Anna Paterson
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by Atlas 2/2020 © Jacob Meyer Hald / Atlas / Eurozine

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