The Power of Poetry, Community and Autism
Few people master the art of effective communication. When you have a disorder like autism that directly impairs the ability to communicate, mastery can feel out of reach. Too often individuals with autism are seen as incapable of creativity, especially when it comes to writing and enjoying literature. Once we look closer, however, we see that the opposite is true. Poetry and song, with their inherent structures and patterns, are the perfect scaffolding upon which minds with autism build amazing things.
My hopes for Unlocking Potential were concrete, bring the power of creative writing to students with autism and teach educators how to use those tools in the classroom with students struggling with literacy. An Arts Learning grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board made it possible for CEA to bring the work Chris Martin and Brian Laidlaw do with individuals with autism to more families.
What happened in that classroom for five days in early August was so much more amazing than that. What happened was community building. Students who struggle to work in groups, who find social situations overwhelming and connections difficult to make, came together and built works of art. Each contributed, each was engaged, and they all left knowing that they can build beautiful, provocative things.
Yet, the real power of this experience lay in the creation of a safe space in which to be uniquely oneself. In that classroom, each student became empowered, individually. And that empowerment fed the collective creative process. So much of their lives are lived in spaces where they do not see themselves reflected.
For 10 hours this summer that changed. Students with autism created in a space where their “deficits” became assets, and their voices were celebrated. Thank you to Unrestricted Interest for sharing your artistry with families living with autism, and thank you to the Minnesota State Arts Board for seeing all the potential that needed to be unlocked. Through partnering, we give voice to lives that are rarely heard, and we empower individuals with autism to create, speak and share their unique minds.
Join us at Potential Unlocked! on September 16 and discover our anthology of poems created during this course. It is born from a safe, connected space that empowers young people who often feel adrift in society. At this event, our community celebrates their hard work, their creativity, and their extraordinary minds.
Special Interests and Language Arts
August is giving me what we call “scrunch face,” his brow furrowed as he glares at the screen. We haven’t even finished the first line of our daily collaborative poem, and he already sees why it won’t work. We have challenged ourselves to write the world’s first Jazz Poem and now, because no word contains two consecutive A’s, it looks doomed.
Because seventeen-year-old August is finally getting interested in music, after years of avoiding it at all costs, I’ve been giving him a jazz primer. Jazz is the ideal first step because August finds voices intimidating; they tend to overwhelm him emotionally. We listen to Coltrane, Art Blakely, Miles Davis, and more. After a half-hour of close listening and conversation, we switch to writing. That’s when August suggests we invent something totally new, the Jazz Poem.
In the seven years since we started working together, August and I have invented nearly one hundred poem forms together: dinosaur poems, seasonal poems, escalator poems, even numerical formulas like our Fibonacci poem. As a young man with autism, August has a great affinity for rules. We invent each poem by, first, creating the rules. In terms of executive functioning, this is the planning stage, and August is quite adept at it. For this particular poem, we decided to take the word jazz itself as our launching pad. August notes that its most distinguishing feature is the double Z. I suggest that we focus on words that contain double letters, for example the word letters! He thinks this is hilarious, and so we push on giddily.
In the past, August and I have employed abecedarian forms, which basically means that the poems move through the letters of the alphabet as they progress. As often happens when we invent a form, our Jazz Poem becomes a mash-up of two rules: the double letter and the abecedarian. Every line will feature a double letter word, and we will progress through the alphabet. He volunteers to write the first line. And then comes the scrunch face.
Poetry is a terrific resource for students and adults living with autism. It transforms their devoted passion into creative expression, utilizes their innate understanding of the materiality of language, calls on their visual acuity in creating similes and metaphors, and it also plays to their strengths (making rules, following a plan) while offering them challenges (cognitive flexibility, social interaction). That’s a mouthful. New research has shown that the right hemisphere dominance shown by many on the spectrum leads to an inherently poetic brain structure, where metaphor is a primary force. And August is no exception, he’s definitely responded to this way of accessing the power of language.
Since our plan has just hit a roadblock, I challenge August to look for an alternative route. After a short time his eyes light up, and I can tell he’s solved the problem. The first line of our Jazz Poem becomes It’s like my anaconda ate a xylophone.
Not only did he exhibit the cognitive flexibility required to overcome our first obstacle, but he also referenced the last thing we listened to: Milt Jackson! As we continue writing he keeps upping the ante, including lines with double doubles like Stop gagging on that ragged note and then triple doubles like A silly tune will launch this poem.
Language for August is and has always been performative, the words are the action and vice versa. He may struggle with constructing an analytical argument, but when he’s free to let the music of language lead, the results would make Dizzy Gillespie giggle. Twenty-six lines later we’ve done something no one else has done before, and August has another reason to embrace his budding love for jazz.
Discover your voice and how to Unlock Potential, August 7-11!
There’s a course for educators too!