• Chris Martin on Poetry, Autism, and the Joy of Working With Neurodiverse Writers

    "It’s a dance: forever angling toward the autonomy of the student while ensuring that they are not alone."

    I watch from my end of the video chat as Adam’s lanky frame once again escapes the purview of my Zoom screen. He is answering the beckoning call of a stick he gleaned from the woods earlier that day. When Estée, his mother and communication partner, reorients their screen in Toronto, I can see Adam rhythmically twallowing the stick in his left hand, expertly moving it back and forth like a windshield wiper or wing.

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    Estée takes the keyboard to him and Adam begins typing again with his right hand: “I am wanting to ask you a question I have. I am wanting to ask the teacher how you can think with me so easily about doing poetry love that you can have thinking about much movement using me good to have support about it and understanding. That is meaningful to me and I thank you doing the dance.”

    This dance—which Adam alternatively calls a jam or an assembly or a rally—was at once metaphorical and real. Adam, who is a nonspeaking autistic eighteen-year-old, often makes a peripatetic sort of dance of our one-hour session, alternately typing and repositioning himself elsewhere in the room. But he also leads the dance of conversation by way of his writing, which sets a different choreography in motion. Today, as most days, the three of us are joined by Ellen, one of Adam’s art collaborators.

    Like Adam, Ellen and Estée are both artists who often work in material or sculptural modes. But sculpture, writing, dancing, twallowing: these forms all stay in conversation when we’re with Adam. In between his sustained waves of typing, which sometimes last for a hundred words or more, only punctuated by the spaces that separate them, he pauses to replenish himself and welcomes reflections on what he’s just written. Or just as often a reflection on how he’s just written, as together we revel in the patterns of sound and sense Adam is drawing forth.

    It is in these swells and waves that we continuously welcome each other into the ongoing dance of collaboration, interdependence, and neurodiversity.

    Our ideas as writers and artists bring us into a thrilling intellectual tango, which happens alongside the tactile dance of Adam’s fingers on the keys. As Adam types, I take the words down in a shared Google Doc. As his fluid sentences emerge, voiced one word at a time by the vocal synthesizer connected to his iPad, my mind attempts to keep pace and my heart leaps to think in this way, doing the “poetry love” that brings us all into a swell of fellow feeling. It is in these swells and waves that we continuously welcome each other into the ongoing dance of collaboration, interdependence, and neurodiversity.

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    “Poetry love” can be a hard thing to explain to people who are not in the practice of it, people who have often been alienated from the possibilities of it by their previous experiences, most commonly the experiences they had in high school. Poetry is an art form that can be difficult to pin down, and when people try too hard to pin it down, they often ruin everything that makes poetry magical.

    When you focus on what poetry is, or worse, should be, you instantly lose the most important thing about the practice of making a poem: what could be. What could and can and does happen in a poem is the light at the heart of its practice. If the poet uses constraints or rules or restrictive patterns in a poem, it is always to open up something larger: a feeling, an experience, a connection.

    And if it’s hard to explain poetry, it would seem even more difficult to explain the remarkable reciprocity poetry shares with autism or autistic minds or autistic ways of moving through the world. Is it the way patterns—rhyme, line count, meter—so crucially embed themselves into the visual and sonic framework of each poem? Do the poem’s formal elements—line breaks, stanzas, repetitions—delineate a space where creative decisions are more readily perceived and undertaken? Is there an almost architectural element to building poems that lets autistic writers inhabit their particular ways of making language? Does the hand of the poem open to the writer (and reader) in a way that leaves space for the breadth and depth of autistic intensity? Whatever it is, I have watched my students, time and again, grasp the hand of poetry and begin dancing like they’ve been doing it their whole lives.

    I have come to foreground neurodivergence in my way of moving through the world, but in the ’90s there were no positive associations with the “deficits” inherent to my “disorder,” nor was there a community of support. Instead, I found another label that seemed to suit how I thought and who I wanted to be in the world: poet. I found writing poems exceptionally difficult, and I loved it. Poems could hold all my boundless energy and, with practice, direct it toward an endless palette of linguistic opportunities.

    In a poem I was encouraged to do things differently, to forge the creative and unexpected pathways that were my intrinsic strength. In college I dove headlong into the world of contemporary poetry, seeking out work that signaled new expressive horizons and poets who challenged the way I thought. I had discovered a multiverse where my racing, discursive, associative intellect was channeled into buzzing focus. I felt like I could be all of who I was.

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    While many of my peers were jumping into MFA programs with an eye toward teaching in academia, I was looking for a less obvious route. Inspired by poet-teachers like Ron Padgett, I wanted to work with younger students. I got my first chance in an after-school program at a middle school in Brooklyn, where I found myself working with a young man, named Matteo, who wanted nothing more than to explore the movie Planet of the Apes. The joy I took in working with Matteo, and other students whom I would later recognize as autistic, was natural. My gifts as a sensitive boy, now a man living in the epicenter of American poetry, served me well in collaborating with neurodivergent students. I listened closely and relished the creative effort of helping these unique students access their own gifts, which I found startling and self-evident.

    When you focus on what poetry is, or worse, should be, you instantly lose the most important thing about the practice of making a poem: what could be.

    Over time I began to discern how poetry’s patterned structure uniquely serves neurodivergent thinking—and vice versa— something I’d discovered in my own creative investigations. Initially drawn to poetry because of its rhymes and rules, I soon discovered that inventing new patterns pleased me even more than recapitulating standard ones. As a baby poet living in San Francisco, having already tried sestinas and villanelles and contrapuntals and any other form I could find, I tasked myself with inventing a new poetic form every day for a year. Not to impress anyone, or attract social media attention, but simply to revel in the possibilities and deepen my understanding of what poetry can do.

    Even now, having published four full-length collections of poetry, I find that those patterns and constraints continue to give me a unique thrill: part tuning fork and part obstacle course, part piggyback and part three-legged race. They whisk me forward while simultaneously holding me back, creating the generative friction necessary to hone language and thought as they emerge. Patterns work to organize, challenge, and divert my words, forging a whetstone over which they can grow sharp and smooth.

    Many of the writers you will meet in this book don’t need to seek out constraints. When they haven’t been negotiating the constraints of their own sensorimotor complexity, they have been struggling against the constraints of a society built to minimize the complexity of their intellect and expression. Whether it’s through staggeringly low expectations or lack of access to communication support, these students and their insights are often held back by a dam of societal neglect.

    I can’t tell you the number of times I have sat down with a nonspeaking writer and they have begun our session with a phrase like, “I’ve been waiting for this” or “I am so excited you are here.” Then comes the flood, even if it appears to trickle out one painstakingly typed letter at a time. When given the opportunity to express themselves creatively, I have seen nonspeaking writers summon the kind of focused stamina that puts free climbers to shame.

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    Which is not to say that patterns don’t still serve a crucial role. In their poem “I Use Patterns to Survive,” nonspeaking autist Max Eati advises the reader: “Feel it and follow it.” They continue:

    My life follows a pattern
    of many other autistics
    so I learn from them

    Our lives are products
    of invincible codes
    that create invincible patterns

    I write and update them
    I design and fuel them
    into real life circumstances

    and add simplicity
    to educate myself

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    To feel and follow the pattern is to educate ourselves and create access points that help navigate a path forward. So many of the autists I know are autodidacts, self-taught apprehenders of the world’s complex and largely unseen systems. And like so much that we do in life—for ourselves, by ourselves, outside of any school (or tuition)—this kind of self-education is largely an act of intuition. We feel our way through the flesh and texture of an abundant world toward the focus of frequency, seeking, above all else, a sense of simplicity, of attunement.

    Instead of memorizing facts to prepare for some uncertain future life, we become autodidacts of the now, a manifold of objects and creatures and perceptions that call us into perception. This is the dance Adam writes about so vibrantly, a flow made possible by our abiding relation to a nearly impossible world, so bursting it is with sensory detail. Patterns help us tune in to the inherent simplicity we seek, a wayfaring line amid the spectacular chaos of contemporary life. They move us from the babbling “patter” of life, as Adam would say, to the “pattern” of it, tuning in to meaningful ways of languaging.

    To feel and follow the pattern is to educate ourselves and create access points that help navigate a path forward.

    This practice of pattern formed the foundation of my early work as a teaching-writer. I encountered student after student thrilled by the idea of inventing poetic forms that perfectly suited their particular passions. In a workshop at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, I helped a young man elaborate his vision for a poetry of swooping, unbroken parallel lines, enabling him to write an epic tribute to telephone wires, since he liked nothing more than to draw from memory the pattern of those lines crisscrossing the desert landscape.

    Another time, I spoke to a teaching-artist whose client had dislocated her knee five times and now began every conversation by asking her interlocutor about their own experience with dislocations. In ten minutes, with the help of other teaching-artists in our pedagogy workshop, we brainstormed a poetic form replete with echoes of her client’s fascination: a five-stanza poem wherein each stanza would feature a dislocation (using the tab key) at the exact point when a “kn” word appeared (know, knit, knuckle, knockout, and of course knee).

    There are hundreds of these examples and the list is growing. When I work with schools, we often print anthologies where the “recipes” for these new forms are included so that other teachers and students can utilize them moving forward. The sonnet form will always captivate me, but for a twelve-year-old who wants nothing more than to endlessly pour over anime comics, what form could be more thrillingly relevant than an “aniME,” a self-portrait that alternatively focuses on four of your favorite anime characters? Poems have the potential to tailor, fine-tune, and pattern passion into form. The forms that result establish a creative feedback loop with the content.

    Formal suggestions are one way to scaffold the creative process for students, especially when they are just learning the possibilities of poetic writing or the motor technique of an AAC (alternative and augmentative communication) method or both. I learned quickly that no standardized approach can satisfy the diversity of needs and abilities my students inhabit. Each student requires their own unique supports and a leading role in shaping those supports.

    Since we meet once a week, many students spend several of the interceding days cultivating poems internally. Other students like to begin the session with a brief conversation, discovering there the linguistic impetus for their own writing. I come to each session prepared to prompt a student in the direction of writing, but I always ask them if they have something in mind before I do. It’s a dance: forever angling toward the autonomy of the student while ensuring that they are not alone.


    Adapted from May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and Our Neurodiverse Future by Chris Martin. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

    Chris Martin
    Chris Martin
    Chris Martin is this very moment endeavoring to become himself, a somemany and tilted thinking animal who sways, hags, loves, trees, lights, listens, and arrives. He is a poet who teaches and learns in mutual measure, as the connective hub of Unrestricted Interest/TILT and the curator of Multiverse, a series of neurodivergent writing from Milkweed Editions. His most recent book of poems is Things to Do in Hell (Coffee House, 2020) and he lives on the edge of Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis, among the bur oaks and mulberries, with Mary Austin Speaker and their two bewildering creatures.

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