Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Speaking For Myself, by N.I. Nicholson


Viscous inky clouds
wrapped around me,

I’ve lived beneath
the black blots

on a page: a pen’s
teardrops, lingua obscura.

Half-lit in phosphorescent
white-noise glow

my words pulse, edge-bleed
through static snow,

slide sideways under
a glass ceiling door.

The autism dictionaries
are out of date,

anachronisms crammed
into medical model margins;

meanwhile, my heart
transmutes into a tin can.

You have no reference,
no entry for its label;

you translate it as
“contents: unknown”.

I am an autistic person who primarily thinks visually. Most of my cognitions begin as either pictures or moving film. When I communicate verbally, I perform acts of translation in my brain – converting those pictures into written or spoken language -- before I speak or type. 

I also have a deep love of written language. Books were doors, beckoning my child and teenaged fingers to open them. I’ve walked through too many of them to count. Stories became my native lands; I found safety and comfort as I wrapped their color-crammed worlds around my skin. And naturally, I wanted to wield words myself the way my heroes did. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I “grew up”.

When I was eleven, my parents separated and my mother and I moved to Middletown, Ohio. As a child, I had been accustomed to using vocabulary that was more advanced than my grade level and which also included low-incidence words. During my sixth and seventh grade years, some of my classmates teased me because of the way I spoke, asking why I always used “big words”. At the same time, the aunt who raised me also insisted that I quit “trying to be smarter than everyone else” and to “talk normally”.

She also bullied me for not speaking quickly enough. When she frightened me – usually by screaming at me or hitting me – I would feel my whole self go rigid. In the web series Imaginary Friends, Michael Scott Monje Jr.’s narrator Clay Dillon describes a feeling of his body turning to metal. Mine turned to ice, including my vocal chords. Nothing would come out of my mouth – which would enrage my aunt even further. And on the heels of that rage, more of her screaming and hitting.

So what did I do? I changed myself to suit other people. I learned to speak more quickly, and moved away from reflecting before I spoke.  

I learned to pass as “normal”.

I have struggled for years with a fear of not being understood when I communicate. I become easily frustrated when I cannot successfully express myself. Sometimes, my memory film rewinds to those moments in my childhood and teen years when I was teased, shamed, and bullied for the way I spoke. I go into a very dark place; my throat fills with murky clouds, and I feel obscured from everyone’s sight. Unseen, unheard. Couple this with an ingrained, unconscious attempt to pass for “normal” even when I speak, and my whole self turns to fire and ice: electrical wires overloaded with current crackling inside an frozen body. I am still not understood, and I feel worse than when I began.

During a recent conversation with my fiancé, I discovered just how ineffective and damaging this was to me. The first time I tried to explain my reasons for a particular behavior, he didn’t understand me. It was not until I slowed down, completely translated my thoughts from pictures to words, and then spoke again that he understood.

Then it occurred to me: what if I slowed down…ALL of the time?

When I type, I (usually) naturally slow down and take time to reflect – and thus translate my thoughts from pictures to words – before those words land on the page. During this process, I edit these words either in my head or (as I have been encouraging myself to do so that I don’t overload my mind) on the page. I can refine, revise, and polish my words before you even read them. And I see no reason not to do the same thing when I speak. This may cause me to speak more slowly, or to take more time to collect my thoughts and then express them.

But you know what? I offer no apologies or excuses for any stilted speech or lack of speed on my part.

It is way too easy for marginalized people to internalize the dominant cultural prejudices against them. Neurodivergent folk are subjected to both overt and unspoken prejudice against them in many forms, including ableism. And with that ableism comes a pressure to be “normal”: fake it until you make it, if you can. Why use a scooter sometimes, when you can walk? Why use a device to help yourself communicate when you need it, when you can speak “perfectly fine”? Heaven forbid you appear disabled!

A pressure to communicate “like everyone else” – whether it is in the form of pushing non-verbal autistics towards speech, disguising a different cognitive style as I did for so many years, or insisting that one’s language conform to perceived norms without regard for individuality or creativity – is ableism, plain and simple. It does not matter whether it is explained away as being “for our best interests”, disguised as “therapy”, or trotted to us under the banner of “helping us become normal”.

You can pour scented food coloring over a pile of shit, but it’s still shit.

And ableism – no matter in what form it appears – still smells like shit.

In 2015, I plan to be non-compliant to the ableist status quo, starting with my method of spoken communication. I will keep y’all posted on how it goes.

- N.I.