The transformative power of autistic thinking
Poet and essayist Chris Martin works with autistic writers to help them transform their lives through their art. In a positively riveting recent essay at Literary Hub, he reflects on the critical — and rising — value of the autistic perspective at a time when our relationship to “the more-than-human world” has entered an acute crisis:
Neurotypical brains, which prioritize human content, zero in on the complex dance of social life unfolding around us, alert at all times to a change in the established choreography. A great poet, however, must ground their work in sensory observations that move past the often transactional nature of human experiences to get at the vast “real world” going on all around. We too often miss or overlook what’s really going on around us. And that’s what autistic writers do naturally. . . .
When we think of unique and caring individuals like [my autistic student] Bill as a collection of deficits, we not only risk alienating them, but we also put in jeopardy the parts of ourselves that exist necessarily outside the so-called norm. In life, as in poetry, we must remain open and assume ability, so we don’t miss out on crucial lessons like the one Bill taught us that day at Hallam Lake, as he deftly tapped into the vicarious life of a crippled bird. And we must learn, like Bill, to hear the hurt and yearning of the more-than-human world and cultivate the rich, layered, and autistic attention our planet desperately requires. . . .
Autistic thinkers habitually see and hear with an environmental bandwidth that dwarfs their neurotypical counterparts. They perceive widely, warmly, and with an earnest curiosity that treats the more-than-human world as a phenomenal network to be engaged, not a menu of resources to be exploited. . . . Where others perceive nothing but a mute backdrop to their busy human affairs, these autistic thinkers comprehend a bustling chorus of more-than-human voices accompanied by a dense dance of more-than-human forms. . . .
Gonzalo Bernard, an autistic artist and shaman, has written about autism as “the shaman’s disease.” He points to the oracular within the echolalic, the dervish inside the stim. To Bernard, [my student] Hannah’s song is no different from his om, giving the contemplative mind a root from which to bloom. It is this mixture of truth, connection, and contemplation that endows the autistic thinker with transformative abilities. They can see what others can’t, because their eyes are wide open to the more-than-human world, preferring the periphery to direct contact. They not only hear with greater acuity than their neurotypical counterparts, but also hear more widely, more deeply. The strength of their empathy for the more-than-human world leads autistic thinkers to completely transform the way we talk about environmental crisis. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that autistic voices are among our best resources for facing climate change. We, as a species, need to enter a stage of deep listening if we are to survive. Our listening must grow, as Hannah wrote, ever deeper.