Book Review: Behind the Lines of Autism (Joshua Davies)

Reviewed by Michael Northen with Barbara Crooker and Rebecca Foust

Simi Linton's now famous mantra "nothing about us without us" has become a reality in most situations to which writing about disability extends. One area where this has yet to become a reality, though, is for people on the autism spectrum. Even groups such as "Autism Speaks" are, in truth, essentially others speaking for people with autism. That is why the recent publication of Joshua Davies' Between the Lines of Autism by SilverWood Books is a significant event. Davies is a nineteen year old British writer with a diagnosis of Asperger's.

SilverWood Books editor Helen Hart says:

We became aware of Joshua's work after his mother contacted us. She was trying to help him publish his book, and we're a publishing services company...We corresponded with Joshua and his mother together, and were really impressed with what Joshua had written. He told us he'd not read a poem or even read a book until he was 17, but then it was suddenly as if a light went on for him and opened up a huge channel of creativity. We found this amazing considering the articulate writing, the ability to put together concrete poetry, and the emotion he's able to express so clearly.

Davies, explains his entrance into poetry this way:

I decided to write Between the Lines of Autism after months of writing down my feelings in a diary. I was struggling in school with loneliness and isolation none of my peers understood or even cared to understand me, being branded weird, queer etc is soul destroying.

One day my mum asked me to write a poem to go with a small teddy bear called Halo a gift which she was going to send to her very sick friend Angela (she was terminally ill) hence my first poem "Angela's Halo". The response we got from Angela's family was amazing so my mum encouraged me to take my diary notes and turn them into poetry.

The poem that provided his entrance into poetry is also the first poem of the book.

As one might expect of a debut collection of poetry by a writer not yet twenty, Between the Lines of Autism is the work of a poet still trying to find his voice. Davies experiments with a variety of forms, testing out which of those fit his purpose. Among these explorations, however, readers glimpse a writer who is able to speak about a life with Asperger's from the inside out. In "Autistic Omens" Davies writes:

   What is wrong with you? Someone would ask
I tell them living with Autism is a difficult task
Asperger's is not an illness that cures over time
   Asperger's Syndrome is a state of mind

In saying this, Davies' makes the crucial point that disability and illness are not the same thing, a point that disabilities studies researchers like Terry Tracy argue on a more academic level in their attempts to distinguish disability narrative from illness narrative. As Tracy argues, illness narrative is about a search for a cure, disability narrative is about one's identity. This holds true for poetry as well and no where in Between the Lines of Autism is Davies looking for a cure. What the best of his poems do is to try to give other a sense of who he is.

Davies' poem "Expressing One's Feelings: towards communication" provides one step towards such an understanding. From where he is sitting, it appears that "Those gifted in normality can craft thoughts like they were clay." But for Davies,

Hard it is to express one's feelings
When the feelings are numbed by fear
When your thoughts cannot leave your mouth

Therefore, the discovery his of ability to write poetry and the opportunity to express his emotions are, for Davies, one and the same thing. He explains, "My ideas for the poems are basically I take a sense, a feeling or emotion and then personify it or transform it into something visible like an object or element. I love to be descriptive which creates powerful visual imagery." Thus, having never read the Romantic poets, Davies has come independently to a Wordsworthian view of poetry, one that has special meaning to a person with Asperger's: to write poetry is to express one's feelings and to be able to express one's feelings is to communicate.

Between the Lines of Autism is a fledgling discovery of voice. Not surprisingly, the poet tries it out in all directions, not limiting himself to nameable emotions, but to such disparate topics as ink, zombies, dogs on leashes, and church sanctuaries. He also explores a number of poetic forms, a natural move for a young poet, and a surprising wide-ranged one for someone who had read only Wilfred Owen before discovering that he, too, could write. One interesting effort, with the unfortunate title of "Shot Down in Flames, " begins:

He fell
Past His father
Towards the endless sea
Far from the endless sky
Towards his destiny as a symbol
Of a lesson mankind should have seen
Never dare dream beyond the precipice

In the main, though, the poems that are most rewarding for readers are those that give insight to his life as a person with Aspergers. In "Autistic Omens," for example, Davies makes an interesting claim. He says of autism:

Everyone with it …has a different curse
Quirks, compulsions, fears and worse
But each of us also has a gift

The poet's claim is that rather than encourage the development of that special ability that a person with Asperger's might have, the putative normal population resents the ability and tries to suppress it, saying "What makes you better than us?" In Davies' case, when asked what his talent is he replies, "As I lack social skills, I show them my poems."

Showing people Davies' poems is what this reviewer did literally. Because Joshua's poems provide such a rare opportunity to read poetry by someone who actually experiences Aspergers from the inside, I asked Barbara Crooker and Rebeccca Foust, two well-respected poets who have raised a son with autism and frequently written about their experiences to look at several of Davies' poems. Their responses are indicative of the kinds of conversation Davies' book might generate.

One of the things Crooker noted is that Davies does not distinguish between autism and Asperger's syndrome. I believe her words are worth quoting at length:

It's [the line between autism and Asperger's] a border that's often poorly defined, both in the autism and educational communities. If we look at these disabilities as circles and place them side by side, there would be a large intersection where both have the some of the same qualities, some of the same issues. Where they differ, though, and I'm speaking as the mother of a son with "garden variety" autism, PDD/NOS (or, as I'd prefer to call it, "vaccine-acquired" autism), is that people with autism rarely see themselves as different, rarely see the divide that Davies writes about: "Those gifted in normality can craft thoughts like it were clay." He is acutely aware of his difference: "Hard it is to express ones [sic] feelings / When all feeling is numbed by fear," and he's envious of those who can express "feelings from their set faces." This is light years away from people like my son, who has speech, but who could never articulate these sorts of insights. For example, he watches "Sesame Street" every morning without a clue that this is not something a young adult would typically do before going to work. He doesn't differentiate himself from his non-disabled peers.

Nor could he express the maelstrom of volatile emotions that Davies so eloquently describes, ones that burn "inside me like an unquenchable flame," this anger that "scald[s] and sear[s]." My son is content with who he is, as long as his routine is maintained, and, as one of his sisters said after 9-11, is not overwhelmed by the larger picture. It's not that he doesn't get angry…you should hear him on game day, when the Philadelphia Eagles lose. But he doesn't turn it on himself.

Davies writes with a great deal of insight and self-knowledge, something to be applauded. If my son were to express similar emotional turmoil, although it might be difficult to deal with as a parent, I would applaud it as a higher-functioning skill. And Davies is also to be applauded for his bravery, in writing this down.

Foust's responses offer a reading of Davies' poems that cast a more critical eye on his work from a structural point of view, one infused with the knowledge that the work is by a person with Asperger's. While as a neurotypical reviewer what I saw in Davies' sometimes stilted or awkward use of words was merely a young writer feeling his way into poetry and language, Foust sees quite differently. For example, the title of one poem already discussed was is:

Expressing one's Feelings
           towards communication

My take on the use of "one's" here was simply that it is a beginning writer's sense that somehow that it is more formal-poetic-universal than "my" and that the subtitle was added for clarification (possibly by the publisher). Foust, on the other hand, sees "one's" as the writer's attempt to hold what should be a personal experience at bay by keeping its tone flat and unemotional. This effect is bolstered by having a subtitle that is both brochure-like and uncapitalized. She says, "So, before I've even begun reading the poem, I have sense of a speaker who is wary about and somewhat remote from his subject (expressing feelings)" even though "I know also that the speaker's goal in writing the poem is better communication with others." In this sense the poem works against itself.

Foust comments further:

Line 2 tells us that what numbs the speaker's feelings is "fear," interesting an unexpected because fear is itself a feeling and also because where many people assume that autists are not capable of feeling, here we are told that they not only do feel fear, but feel it so strongly that it interferes with the expression of all the other emotions. "Neuro-typicals commonly believe that autists wholly lack normal human emotions, are "like robots," etc. Here, we are learning from the inside that the speaker does have a full range of emotions but they become "numbed" by fear, the same fear that prevents those feelings from being expressed: "When all feeling is numbed by fear/ When you thoughts cannot leave your mouth."

Despite both the formality of the title and his fear of expressing himself, Foust like Crooker, does agree that Davies achieves his goal in communicating that he has powerful feelings. She says of the line, "Those in normality can craft thoughts like clay," "I found striking and poignant the notion that one could be 'gifted' with 'normality'…this is a speaker who seems to long for communication, to be reaching for it from the very start of the poem."

Foust's reading of Davies' work raises an interesting question for the reading of the work by any writer with disabilities: does it become a different reading when the reader knows that the writer has a disability? It's a question, tackled by poet Daniel Simpson in this issue of Wordgathering in his essay, "The Trouble with I.". Simpson is speaking specifically of the work of writers who are blind, but it is a fair question to ask of disability literature in general. Is Davies' "Shot Down in Flames," despite its complete lack of reference to disability, a different poem when the reader knows that he has a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome?

One final remark of Foust on Davies' longing for "normality" is work noting:

I'd add here, though, that there is a movement in the ASD community not to see the condition as a disability, as something less-than. Quite the opposite; in this view, the many gifts and strengths of the autistic mind are cause for celebration, and it is the neuro-typicals who are pitied for their weak powers of perception, limited concentration, and failure of imagination.

Foust's comments, in dialogue with Crooker's observations, and Davies' poems themselves demonstrate the potential power that even a small volume by a speaker with Asperger's himself can unleash.

The writing of Between the Lines of Autism has literally been a breakthrough achievement for Davies. It allowed him to travel to the annual Autism Conference in Wales where he was able to sign copies as an author, and his local government has purchased copies that will be placed in schools and libraries. Not many 20 year olds can claim that accomplishment. Even so, BLA is still a debut book. Davies has much more writing to do (not to mention much more reading of other poets in order to continue learn how to write). I would suggest that Davies follow the advice of John Lee Clark. Clark is the editor of Deaf American Poetry and a deaf/blind writer himself. He argues that most people who aspire to be poets are, in fact, mediocre writers. What makes a poet create work that others want to read is having something new to say, a point of view that is different. Davies has that point of view.

What he will now need to do is resist the temptation to try to show that he can write about anything in the universe and instead focus his to writing on what it is to live the life of a person with Aspergers – not just in generic terms, but concretely. Davies hinted in one poem that social skills are difficult for him. Perhaps in the next book, he can show us what he means by that. It is through turning to the nuts and bolts of his life that he is going to find his real voice and continue to make contributions. Other poets with disabilities like Jim Ferris, Dan Simpson and Clark, himself, who have demonstrated that it is in writing from the ground up that poetry becomes interesting, can serve as mentors. In the meantime, with the publication of Between the Lines of Autism Davies has shown that, through the tool of poetry, a young adult with Aspergers can speak for himself, edging off the podium those who would speak for him. In doing so, as Crooker's and Foust's comments illustrate, he has already given us some things to think about.