What Could Be Called Communication - by Kate Fox
You might find them staying near the walls or clutching their earphones, rocking from foot to foot and looking just above their audience. They might be wincing at sirens, saying “Pardon” a lot in crowds, clutching the rails on angled walkways, wondering at the calm faces of everybody else. Sometimes they rest a foot on a crossed ankle in such a way that others will click “Love” in recognition when one of them writes a Facebook post about it. They might have coloured lenses or squint perpetually into the sun. They think everyone can see the fluorescent lights humming. Their eyes dart or fix so they might be called evasive or invasive. They’re stroking a finger, twiddling with their hair, tearing up paper, something in a mesmerising rhythm. They do not always recognise each other, though are often to be found clustered around tea urns, outside where it’s quiet in the toilets at parties, in wombs and rooms where everybody shares the same nose because of those contagious genes so they can perpetuate their tangents and straight lines build forests of themselves sending micellar releases of carbon and water to those who need them, survival tips, encouragement, warnings in pulses of sound and light.
“Here though, was community and culture”, writes Kate Fox, describing her experience at Autscape, an annual conference run by and for autistic people, and the inspiration for this poem. It’s this sense of community that I love about the poem: the list of clues and cues, signals sent and received, building to the image of a forest of trees, invisibly interconnected. The analogy with micellular networks (expansive underground webs of fungal threads which enable trees and plants to share nutrients and signals) implies hidden forms of communication. Importantly, however, Fox’s poem turns the stereotypical view on its head: it is those looking in from the outside (i.e. non-autistic people) who may miss the nuance of what is being communicated. Research on the “double empathy problem” attests to exactly this, reminding us that communication is always a two-way process.
The poem, and Fox’s accompanying commentary, draw attention to the social context of communication, the shared assumptions of a community and the extent to which they invite people in or push people “outside where it’s quiet”. Who gets to decide what can be called communication? Who sets the rules and parameters? What happens to those who don’t follow them?
The poem is rooted in the body and physical space, speaking to how differences in neurology often mean differences in sensory experience. It points to the everyday challenges of navigating a world that’s built for neurotypical bodies, the resultant routine of adaptation and the need, sometimes, to escape.
Interestingly, the poem adopts an observer perspective – we are invited to witness body language, habits of behaviour, and to make our own meaning from them. In doing so, it shines a light on our differing lenses, what is clocked, what may be missed or misconstrued. It makes me think about the history of public and scientific perceptions of autism, the risks that come when certain lenses become dominant, what (and who) gets left out of the picture (Silberman, 2015). Whilst awareness is growing, autistic people frequently experience stigma relating to harmful stereotypes and limited understanding of their needs (Han et al., 2022). The tone in this poem is notably tentative, the observations peppered with “mights” – a recognition that we’re talking about neurodiversity and a reminder to be cautious of assumptions and generalisations.
Throughout the poem, there is a lurking sense of threat. Fox nods to the ways in which autistic people may be perceived (“invasive”, “evasive”) and the sense of vigilance that results. Insidious ableism and the centering of neurotypical experience mean that judgment and marginalisation are often baked into the institutions in which we live. Recent autistic-led research is shining a light on the extent to which autistic people mask their experiences and neurodivergence (Belcher, 2022). As well as a conscious “act”, masking is now understood to be a lifelong, developmental and often unconscious process of sculpting the self to align with social expectations and maintain emotional safety (Pearson & Rose, 2023). All too often this involves squashing feelings, denying sensory needs and developing a hyper-attunement to the multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle messages about how to fit in.
For many, masking starts at a young age, within an educational system that pushes children into school environments that can be overwhelming. And it continues in later life, with assumptions about how we should live, work and interact feeding stigma and its corollary, shame. In counselling, often an important part of my work with autistic and other neurodivergent clients is to think together about the messages they have absorbed about themselves historically. Not uncommonly, this involves unpacking painful memories of bullying, criticism and internal narratives about themselves as too loud/quiet/lazy/weird/rude/naughty/clumsy/fussy…
Elsewhere in her collection, The Oscillations, Fox writes of the necessity and toll of masking:
Here is a girl stood alone in the middle of a white aircraft hangar,
who needs somebody to take her hand,
here is a girl joyously kicking up brown leaves.
People mostly see only one of these.
Here is a girl wearing a badly-fitting clown mask
plastic mouth rim digging into her top lip
and a girl in a lacy blue body suit
which raises a red rash on her tummy.
Here is a girl who can make a room full of strangers
come to hug her like her own.
Here is a girl who doesn’t quite recognise herself,
though there are always plenty of photos.
Here is a girl who became a woman
who can see behind masks and round corners
and hear the gaps between words and things
where light pours like falling water.
Here is a woman who knows
she can travel as fast as rewind
to where the girl stands alone
in a hangar filled with the sound
of arrivals and departures.
Here is a woman who knows
that it will never be too late to stand alongside
the girl in the hangar,
take hold of her hand and squeeze.
The poet reflects on the lenses that are brought to bear on a person’s life, and again invites us as readers to consider our own perspectives. In each of these scenic snapshots, we are offered a chance to “see behind masks” – to see, and embrace, multiplicity. I love the mental time-travel that goes on in the poem, the idea of flying back and offering to a younger self the understanding and companionship that wasn’t possible before. The hopefulness of the message: it’s "never too late”.
Perhaps there is something similar here to the kind of time-travel we might aspire to make possible in a therapy session. But journeying back is only as helpful as the lenses we’re bringing with us. A central focus of compassion-focused therapy (CFT) is thinking about how a person might have learned to emotionally protect themselves, and the hidden costs of this. Masks, to me, is a deeply compassionate poem. That image of the girl alone in the aircraft hangar is a beautiful evocation of how our childhood selves inhabit our busy, noisy adult lives. How easy it is to overlook their needs amidst the traffic of comings and goings, business and flight. The poem enacts a looking-back that is more than just reappraisal, that inhabits a hard-won and empathic recognition of unmet need; a kind of love.
Looking at that final stanza, the use of the future tense ("it will never be too late") is also significant, I think. Does it suggest there’s a journey still to be made? Perhaps that there might be a need for multiple journeys, that the girl in the aircraft hangar might need to be returned to? As I write, I’m thinking about the idea in CFT that self-compassion is something to practice, that it doesn’t always come easily and that sometimes we need to imagine it or channel it from external sources before we can feel genuinely warm and caring towards ourselves. Poems like this can help.
As therapists, we spend a lot of time attending to our client’s self-perceptions, but it’s also important that we’re mindful of our own lenses and the influence of the systems of which we are a part. Historically and to this day, clinical psychology has wielded a lot of power in sculpting the diagnostic label and conceptualisation of autism, and has given rise to some very problematic theories and harmful “treatments” (Silberman, 2015). With the neurodiversity movement has come a growth in autistic-led research and a much-needed focus on the impact of social structures that marginalise and discriminate against autistic and other neurodivergent people (see the links at the end for more on this).
A recent review examined the research literature on autistic adults’ experiences of mental health support (Brede et al., 2022). I won’t try to summarise the findings (I’ve included a link to the paper below if you’re interested) but, suffice to say, it makes for sad reading. Change is sorely needed and part of that, I think, means reflecting critically and collaboratively on how our practices meet the needs of neurodivergent clients (or not), embracing diverse ways of communicating, and valuing neurodiversity within the profession (I’m guessing I’m not the only mental health practitioner for whom this was never explored in training). It means understanding what neurodiversity might mean in the context of other forms of diversity, and the layers of oppression, masking and (in)visibility that result (e.g. Jones et al., 2020; Lopez, 2022). For any therapists reading this, check out this article by Robert Chapman and Monique Botha on neurodivergence-informed therapy.
I’m conscious, as I write, of my own lens, the power/privilege of my position as a (white, male, non-autistic) clinical psychologist. I’m definitely not the expert here, and no doubt there are things in these poems and in this blog post that I’ll have missed. But I also think it’s important that as non-autistic people we’re listening and engaging in dialogue.
That dialogue might take many forms – in fact it’s essential that it does! In writing this blog post, I’ve been thinking about the value of art and writing to enrich and deepen emotional understanding, to facilitate learning that goes beyond the realm of the cognitive/intellectual. Perhaps one thing that poetry is particularly good at is disrupting preconceptions and implicit narratives; in enabling a kind of un-learning. In an essay on the poetic and emotional/spiritual value of waiting, Arundhathi Subramaniam writes:
Poems are about waiting because while a shift in perception can happen in a flash, it is often preceded by a slow, unseen process of unlearning. It takes unlearning to defamiliarise the world, to reinvigorate one’s gaze.
If unlearning is part of the work of crafting poetry, it’s also, I think, part of poetry’s power. The potential to unsettle and unseat. Fox’s are poems of reclamation, celebrating authenticity and kinship in neurodiversity – and, indeed, in life. Poems of resistance, pouring light on the shadowy recesses of power, ushering unseen perspectives and identities into view. And in so doing, they invite us as readers to resist, too. Resist stereotypes and cliché, those well-trodden mental paths. Resist the easy mental slide towards the familiar. To resist, even, the dictates of language, remember “the gaps between words and things” and to enter into them, ready to be surprised.
Thanks to Kate Fox, all the wonderful autistic people in my life, and all those who I’ve had the pleasure to work with. As Kate Fox says in the introduction to her book, “here’s to a more accepting world”.
What Could be Called Communication and Masks are shared here with kind permission of Kate Fox and Nine Arches Press. They can be found in the collection, The Oscillations (Nine Arches Press, 2021)
References and Links
Belcher, H (2022) Taking off the mask. Practical exercises to help understand and minimise the effects of autistic camouflaging. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Brede, J., Cage, E., Trott, J., Palmer, L., Smith, A., Serpell, L., ... & Russell, A. (2022). “We Have to Try to Find a Way, a Clinical Bridge”-autistic adults' experience of accessing and receiving support for mental health difficulties: A systematic review and thematic meta-synthesis. Clinical Psychology Review, 93, 102131.
Chapman, R., & Botha, M. (2023). Neurodivergence‐informed therapy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 65(3), 310-317.
Han, E., Scior, K., Avramides, K., & Crane, L. (2022). A systematic review on autistic people's experiences of stigma and coping strategies. Autism Research, 15(1), 12-26.
Jones, D. R., Nicolaidis, C., Ellwood, L. J., Garcia, A., Johnson, K. R., Lopez, K., & Waisman, T. C. (2020). An expert discussion on structural racism in autism research and practice. Autism in Adulthood, 2(4), 273-281.
Lopez, K. (2022). Intersectionality on the Horizon: Exploring Autism in Adulthood from a Unique Vantage Point. Autism in Adulthood, 4(4), 255-257.
Pearson, A. & Rose, K. (2023) Autistic Masking: Understanding Identity Management and the Role of Stigma. Pavilian, Shoreham-by-Sea.
Silberman, S. (2015) Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Avery, New York.
Some Useful Websites:
https://theautisticadvocate.com/ - Kieran Rose's website has loads of links to neurodiversity-affirming books, links and resources. I also highly recommend his online course "The Inside of Autism".
This article by Ruth Yates for the Poetry Business includes a list of books by neurodivergent writers.