The Listening World: Neurodivergent Voices for a More-Than-Human World

Chris Martin on What We Can Learn From Each Other—and the Natural World

This week I was video chatting with Meghana Junnuru, one of my non-speaking autistic students, and she typed: “We will not get back to normal. We will only get back to natural.” Living in Minneapolis, I am graced with a slew of regional parks and nature centers within a short drive of our home. As I spend more and more of this unthinkable time in the woods with my children, listening and looking and building and playing in more-than-human milieus, those words leaven my hopes. No, we will not return to hunting and gathering, but we will return to whatever aspects of our lives remain from before Covid-19’s arrival with our perceptions both sharpened and softened, keen and patient in ways that might help us better navigate future uncertainty.

In one of her earliest poems, Meghana wrote “May tomorrow be awake / with the touch of zero.” As so many of us learn how to stop barreling through the world, we are growing gradually more awake, our senses more alive to the world around us. We are reaching into a space where neurodivergent thinkers live every day. At the convergence of National Poetry Month and Autism Acceptance Month, in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, it’s an ideal time for the endlessly talking neurotypical world to turn its attention toward autistic poets and listen.

*

Bill and I were staring at a red-tailed hawk at the Hallam Lake Nature Preserve in Aspen, Colorado. The hawk, which appeared to be returning our stare, fractured its ulna a couple years back, leaving it permanently flightless. Having suffered through a number of recent health issues, I projected my own weariness on the hawk. Bill, on the other hand, was ever-spry, bouncing on his feet. A ruggedly handsome devotee of outdoor life in the Roaring Fork Valley, he spent his days climbing and biking and skiing. He looked cut out of a Patagonia catalogue. And it was readily apparent to me that at 28-years-old, with his bulging calves and wiry forearms, Bill was in better shape than I had ever been.

Bill is also what is commonly referred to as “classically” autistic, and many people, even professionals, imagine that means he lacks an intrinsic capacity for empathy, the ability to intuit someone else’s perspective (theory of mind), and a nuanced attention to language. To the most prejudiced eye, these assumptions might seem justified by Bill’s behavior—he flaps his hands, has difficulty making eye contact, labors to carrying on a conventional conversation, and struggles to complete mundane tasks like buying breakfast at the local coffee shop­. On this particular day, however, Bill will cut cleanly through each of these false assumptions.

When he and I first arrived at the red-tailed hawk’s enclosure, our guide informed us how the unfortunate raptor became a resident of Hallam Lake. Bill jumped up and down and grunted passionately. He seemed genuinely upset. But Bill was too stimulated by the news to express his empathy in words. A 2009 article by Scottish researcher Adam Smith found that those on the autism spectrum don’t just experience empathy on levels equal to their neurotypical peers, but that in many cases the autistic brain is wracked by an excess of empathy, often leading to a systemic form of emotional paralysis.

Empathy, like autism, turns out to be far more complicated than we previously thought. As Ralph James Savarese deftly outlines in his groundbreaking article, “I Object: Autism, Empathy, and the Trope of Personification,” there are actually three stages to empathy—emotional, cognitive, and performative—and people with autism routinely find themselves stuck in the first stage, overwhelmed by a flood of emotional empathy that short-circuits their ability to understand what they are feeling and communicate it to others.

Those on the autism spectrum don’t just experience empathy on levels equal to their neurotypical peers, but that in many cases the autistic brain is wracked by an excess of empathy.

At Hallam Lake we joined an assortment of staff from Ascendigo, a Carbondale-based non-profit serving the autism community through a rigorous mix of outdoor activities, sports, life skills, employment opportunities and, increasingly, intellectual enrichment like creative writing. I had prepared a writing exercise for Bill and three other young men with autism. I asked them to pick one of the three protected raptors and study it closely, paying keen attention to what the bird hears and sees. I called this challenge a “Bird’s Eye” poem and wanted them to communicate the experience of a bird from the inside out.

Since Bill often finds the motor process of writing difficult, Diane Osaki, his brilliant and devoted occupational therapist, began by asking some generative questions. When she asked Bill what the hawk might be looking at, he replied “Me.” When she asked Bill what the hawk feels when it looks at him, he replied “Happy.” I asked him how he knew that the hawk was feeling happy and he said, “The hawk is smiling at me.” I typed up the first few lines and asked Bill if he wanted to change anything, but he shook his head. At first, Bill’s responses seem to corroborate the common prejudice that he lacks theory of mind, or the ability to imagine what another’s experience of the world might be:

The hawk is looking at me
The hawk is smiling at me

They appear to confirm an autistic worldview, going back to the etymological root of autism: self-focused. The hawk even takes on an anthropomorphic smile. I asked Bill to observe the hawk further and tell me what he saw. It’s here that the poem gradually transformed, allowing the bird’s own experience to foreground itself:

He spreads his wings
He scratches his feathers

Notice the shift in address from “the hawk” to “he,” demonstrating the autistic penchant for personification, a common poetic trope, but even more common among people with autism. Personification, according to Savarese, reveals their inclination toward warmhearted inclusivity. Autistic thinkers welcome the participation of animals, trees, objects, and even weather into our human world of thought and action.

Autistic thinkers welcome the participation of animals, trees, objects, and even weather into our human world of thought and action.

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:

Bill returned to his poem, driven to finish it.

The hawk hears rustling leaves
The hawk wants to fly
so he hears

For someone said to have profound language challenges, a word like “rustling” is remarkably apt; it sets the scene for a lovely aural trio linking the “L” sounds of rustling, leaves, and fly. These subtle choices drew me closer to the thrall of the poem. I asked Bill to complete the final line. Diane wondered aloud what the hawk might be hearing. To our ears the sentence needed its final noun, but Bill saw (or heard) it differently. Despite our prodding, he repeatedly indicated that the poem was complete.

I stood next to him, watching the hawk tilt its head upward, searching the trees and the sky beyond them, shifting focus to listen to an airplane in the distance. That’s when I realized that Bill had successfully adopted the bird’s eye (or ear) view. And that he had brought me along with him. The poem was finished precisely because the hawk had a broken wing. He couldn’t fly out to meet these sounds and sights, as much as she clearly desired to do so. He could only hear flight as it was embodied by distant airplanes and other birds. Not only was the poem complete, but through its seeming incompleteness Bill was able to dramatize the life of a bird who in its own incompleteness was cut off from its central ability.

That’s when I realized that Bill had successfully adopted the bird’s eye (or ear) view. And that he had brought me along with him.

Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine how we view and serve the autism community. A social deficit, like attending equally to all facets of the environment, can be restaged as an ethical strength, enlarging what we care for and about. We often demand that people with autism learn how to act more like “us,” some specious version of normal. But what if we spent more time trying to understand how each individual voice, precisely because it is different, might contribute to a larger and more invigorating conversation about who “we” are and how we’re changing to meet an increasingly complex and diverse world?

When we think of unique and caring individuals like 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.

*

For years now I’ve lived with that multi-hyphenate phrase of David Abram’s careening between my ears: a more-than-human world. He coined it to anchor the subtitle to his phenomenal first book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, which has served as my own anchor for several years. The notion of a world that is explicitly more-than-human seems at once obvious and fussy. Of course we live in a world that encompasses more than human affairs, but we all know the “real world” is fashioned of daily needs, responsibilities, and desires. The “real world” is characterized by adult realities and compromising hierarchies in which we must know our place. It’s a claustrophobic space where many of us, unfortunately, live much of the time.

But a more-than-human world invites us to reconsider our relationship to, well…relationship. “Humans are tuned for relationship,” Abram writes. “The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils­—all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness…. For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus on.” It pleases me greatly to find “every flapping form” within this quotation. In my years as a teacher of neurodivergent students, I have encountered many flapping forms and have learned to better recognize the subtle self-stimulating behaviors—toes dancing in anticipation, knee’s silent jackhammer, a rhythmic pressure applied to the fingertips—that arise in my own body from time to time.

Abram is right to emphasize “focus.” In an age that is increasingly out-of-focus or focused more and more on tiny screens overflowing with human news, our ability to encounter a lived experience of otherness—a muskrat surfacing near the storm drain, the pallor of leaves sickened by a rust fungus, a miniscule monarch egg clinging to the underside of a milkweed leaf—dwindles and so does our ability to understand ourselves. Abram goes on to write: “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

One of the several deficits listed under the diagnostic criteria for ASD (autism spectrum disorder) in the DSM-5 is a predilection for “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.” In most cases, when a neurotypical person displays this same predilection we say they have a passion for something. One person’s restricted interest is another’s area of devoted study.

It’s a paradox of the contemporary world: we have grown so adept at studying ourselves that we have forgotten who we are.

The word autism, ironically, derives from the exclusive perception of oneself. And yet autistic thinkers have a prodigious gift for perception. And a gift for passion. And often these twin gifts are directed at the more-than-human world in ways that transform our society for the better. There is, of course, the example of Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation, who singlehandedly transformed the beef industry, making slaughterhouses more humane by explicating and designing toward the bovine brain. And more recently there is Greta Thunberg, who uses her passionate, articulate speeches to wake us from the “real world” so we can see with clear eyes the more-than-human world right in front of us that must be saved, even if only to save ourselves.

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. And though many autistic thinkers like Grandin are fascinated with mammals, their attention doesn’t end there. It doesn’t limit itself to the kingdoms of animalia or plantae either. Meghana has written to me of her argumentative gut flora and the rousing inner life of rocks. When Tito Mukhopadhyay writes about miners trapped underground, he finds himself fretting over the oxygen molecules themselves. Adam Wolfond thinks endlessly about the endlessly variable movement of water and the grounding of sticks, wielding his body like a blood-filled dowsing rod to maneuver through the more-than-human world. 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.

Simply put, they find meaning in the environment. And without this particular form of meaning, suffused with “the nourishment of otherness,” our understanding of what it means to be human becomes increasingly flattened under our surface obsession with human affairs. It’s a paradox of the contemporary world: we have grown so adept at studying ourselves that we have forgotten who we are. Bill reminded me how language, in small and subtle ways, can nourish our understanding of otherness, loosening the binds of the “real world” to better enter the deeper animal ecosystem of thinking beneath it.

*

From the moment Hannah appears on the computer screen she is singing. It’s not the kind of singing you find in a karaoke bar, but the kind of singing you might hear in the woods; a complex series of repetitive trills pouring forth as if from the syrinx of a starling. Hannah’s singing is echolalic, which means she collects fragments of songs she’s heard and mixes them with snippets of my own speech as we interact. Once you acclimate to them, they begin to form a sort of aural tapestry that enlivens the room from behind. For Hannah, however, these songs are not background material; they are foundational to her presence. She calls them her “grounding sounds.”

Twenty-seven years old, with a stylishly boyish haircut, Hannah arranges the pillows around her on the couch as she prepares to type. Often, just before we get going, she will suddenly get back up and grab a stack of books, desiring their company as she writes. The poets who wrote these books—Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Lorine Niedecker—are what Hannah calls “keepers of the light.” And it is not hard for her to take her place among the keepers because, as they say, she comes by it honestly. Hannah Emerson is a direct descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She is proud of this fact and feels deeply the way it connects her to the legacy of New England light keepers and beyond.

Given my experience with Meghana, I should not have been surprised that the second poem Hannah ever wrote in my presence changed my life. I make it a point to, as Hannah might put it, expect illumination, but one is never quite prepared for that further step: revelation. In our first meeting, she wrote some lines whose resonances took up immediate residence with me: “Some sounds / use words. I hear / the language of leaves.” As I reflected on those lines, a chasm opened up between the forceful act of using words and the generous labor of listening to language. Hannah, who doesn’t “use words” in the same way I as a talking person do, has learned to orient her body toward the wider and wilder strains of language, emanating from all corners of the disparately animate world. As Aviv, Hannah’s talented PCA, helped her adjust the pillows that supported her body, I spoke of the difficulty many people have in leaving the spectacular world long enough to enter that other world, what one might call a listening world, where patience and care and a more capacious form of attention can help us tune in to the shier frequencies of a previously unheard language. I asked if Hannah would like to write a poem about the listening world. Accepting the resistance of Aviv’s hand against hers, she typed, excitedly, “YES” and then “YES” again.

Her poem began, gently, in the imperative, and as it emerged I tried to give it some intuitive shape, finding Hannah’s four-word lines build toward a four-line stanza:

Say prayer for little
things, things that live
in deep hurt. Feelings
language take to lair.

I was quietly thrilled to see the form fall into place, all those trilling “L” words anchoring the ends of the lines: little, live, Feelings, lair. It immediately felt like a stanza that couldn’t be otherwise, every piece necessary and right, all of it crowned by the visceral surprise of that final word. While Hannah’s first poem, with its “language of leaves,” signaled the natural world more directly, this “lair” caused everything before it to suddenly grow redolent and feral, crepuscular and furred. And the greater surprise of that animal surge is that it’s somehow tied to language, a marker by which we’ve traditionally separated ourselves from the animal world. Language here is the subject, taking feelings into the lair of expression, even if that expression pours forth in a kind of hibernating silence.

There is a tenderness to the way language is taking these feelings, as if by the hand, into a place where they can be safe and where anything they say can be easily heard, each word amplified by the cave’s natural reverberations. The phrase “take to lair” echoes the more conventional “take to bed,” an invitation from language to bring these feelings into the sanctum of expression.

As I took in all of this, Hannah was caught in the echo as well, reverberating in the playful song of her own name: “Haaaaaa-nuh, banaaaaaa-nuh.” Each time she voiced the final syllable, it rose precipitously, and her hand often dashed into her shirt as if searching for a pendant. More than once she made as if to leave the couch and Aviv gently redirected her, encouraging her to stay with the poem. I pointed out the form I saw emerging, four lines of four words, and asked if Hannah liked it. Again she typed, “YES YES,” and then “love it.” I sensed that this pattern, and the structure it facilitated, gave Hannah the feeling of lair for her own language, a mode of angular hospitality to hold and shelter her expression. I asked her how the next stanza would begin and she was off, her hand occasionally jumping away from Aviv’s to open and reclose the plastic cap of a water bottle:

Let it signal God’s
light, I say for want
of light feelings. Is my
ear deep or deeper?

I didn’t want to break the form, but I also knew that second line very much desired to break on the “want,” emphasizing the poet’s own desire for light and light feelings. Light and want, with their confident terminating T’s, bookend and strengthen the sentiment. I also love how the comma and interior period arrive in the very same places as in the first stanza, echoing its form. Out of the caring darkness of the cave lair, the prayer that is the poem will signal nothing less than God’s light, a light the poet’s feelings momentarily lack, caught in the heavy reverb of language.

But instead of rising to the surface, like the light which seeks expression at the cave’s mouth, the poet returns to the question of depth: “Is my / ear deep or deeper?” I love this question; it may be my favorite to ever appear in a poem. The poet, as a denizen of the listening world, has a deep ear, but could it be deeper? Could the listening deepen, could the poet’s ability to witness intensify and grow? This is a question Rilke might have asked. It is the question of a Christian mystic or a Zen priest. It is a question that instantly reorients the reader toward contemplation, drawing the spiritual and perceptual into alignment with the natural.

*

David Abram’s journey toward the more-than-human world began with his curiosity about indigenous shamans. As a practicing magician, he wanted to know the difference between a magician and a shaman, and he traveled into the heart of several ancient cultures to find an answer. What he discovered is that a shaman is someone who performs real magic, utilizing a profound knowledge of the natural world to affect others in a seemingly incomprehensible way. They often live on the margin, making their nest in the between. They might be simultaneously less and more human than others, depending on what one’s definition of human might be. He found that, although they don’t always participate in the everyday dialogue of the community, Shamans are treasured for their ability to understand the larger conversation happening around us at all times, a gathering of tongues and colors and unmistakable wit.

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, 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.

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.

Despite her echolalic grounding sounds, Hannah cannot willfully produce language of her own accord. She can sing and repeat, but cannot physiologically organize her poetic voice into speech. Many months after writing this poem, when I asked Hannah if she felt a sense of purpose in her engagement with the listening world, she responded, “Yes, try to understand. I am not really human. I am helpful mistake of humanity.” Although I disagree with Hannah, finding her to be among the most human and humane people I know, she lives in a society where her manner of moving through the world cannot find a fluid way with our contemporary expectations and mores. She is seen by some as less-than-human, a horrible paradox given her rich engagement with the more-than-human world. The question is not whether her ear is deep, but whether it is deeper. In her poem, she signals her readiness to face the question, but as a society, as a species, are we?

*

Every day I work with Hannah feels like a gift. Her mind teems with fertile abundance. Her poetry emerges from its steadily tilled soil like a spontaneous garden. I find it unspeakably nourishing to help give shape to her thought. In the epilogue to Braiding Sweetgrass, Anishinaabekwe ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “Generosity is simultaneously a moral and material imperative, especially among people who live close to the land and know its waves of plenty and scarcity. Where the well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all.”

In this time of environmental crisis, it is wise to look to native peoples, who have been in relationship with the land for centuries upon centuries, despite betrayal and genocide. It is wise to seek wisdom from those who have been tending it, sheltering it, like an indispensable flame amidst the harsh winds of change. And it is also wise to see how true and deep well-being must be the natural product of what Kimmerer calls “mutual flourishing.” What better way to describe the rich promise of the neurodiversity movement?

Our minds each possess a generous proclivity, a well-being that is linked to the well-being of our neighbors, our co-workers, and the vast tangle of more-than-human voices all crying out in the song of survival. We need a chorus. And this chorus needs to encompass every possible note, every possible phrasing, every possible rhythm and intensity. One of those notes will be Hannah’s and she wants you to know that her singing is both difficult and necessary. During a recent session, she offered up her own definition of autism: “It is very hard to be awake in this world. My body makes it hard to be here with you. Please understand you helpful people put the label on my existence. Please get this hell is mine. It is great life of trying to be here, because I help the world get that they need to become me to help themselves.” The mutual flourishing of our neurodiverse future will require singing and listening in equal measure, our ears and throats growing deeper with each new verse.

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The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

 

Chris Martin
Chris Martin
Chris Martin’s fourth book of poetry, Things to Do in Hell, will be published by Coffee House Press in the fall and his first book of essays, May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and Our Neurodiverse Future is forthcoming from HarperOne. He is the recipient of grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Minnesota Humanities Center. He is the co-founder and executive director of Unrestricted Interest, an organization dedicated to helping neurodivergent learners transform their lives though writing, and he lives in Minneapolis, where he also teaches at Hamline University and Carleton College.





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