Poetry as a Means to Understand and Cope with the Social Difficulties of Having Autism

by Jacob Richard Cumiskey

My name is Jacob, and I am a twenty-one year old undergraduate at Warren Wilson College studying poetry. I have a disability known as Asperger syndrome: an Autism Spectrum Disorder that manifests itself through extreme discomfort in most social situations and difficulties in non-verbal communication. The phrase “non-verbal” can be a bit misleading here, because while I personally have a very difficult time reading body language from my friends or hand signals from my parents, I have a very comfortable time communicating to the world through my writing. I have been writing poetry for around nine years, and I believe there may be reasons linked to my disability as to why poetry comes more naturally to me than socializing, and the truth behind these reasons might not just be important for the autistic community to understand, but for the state of Florida to know as well.

Autism has become a hot word in our state recently, but there seems to be some pretty dangerous patterns regarding people’s initial take on what having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (an ASD) means. There is this tendency to either reduce individuals with an ASD to people with basic social anxiety or demonize them to the point of labeling their behavior as intentional social deviance. Doctors and scholars naturally have a much more empirical view on ASD—having linked differences in social behavior with differences in brain structure— but in my opinion, the ways in which the general public is learning about autism these days is extremely silly. The behaviors of a shark need to be researched from afar because we cannot ask the shark why it does the things it does, but some people with autism can be asked what their life is like and explain directly (or indirectly) what autism means to them.

The arts are an easy example of how this can be accomplished.

First and most important, eye-to-eye discussion is not always necessary with art, and so just about any artistic medium can act as an outlet for people with an ASD to discuss things they wouldn’t normally be comfortable talking about. Writing, for example, creates a safe environment where it is just the person and some paper. A blank page (or canvas, or journal) is the perfect listener and has zero social expectations for the artist, and this makes all the difference in terms of comfort. As someone with autism myself, one of the main reasons why I chose to write poetry over other forms of artistic expression is because it gives me the chance to speak without having to be spoken to or observed. I feel safe when writing because essentially nothing is expected of my behavior when I am alone with the page, unlike just about every other moment of my life. Poetry provides an opportunity for me to feel easy about my own thoughts, and so instead of forcing kids and adults with an ASD to participate in uncomfortable social experiences in order to help them “grow,” doesn’t it make more sense to allow the autistic community a means to indirectly communicate with neurotypicals through the arts? Wouldn’t art be an effective way to help people with autism grow comfortable with their own voice?

The arts can be no replacement for day-to-day communication, I know this, but art also creates the chance for normally unacceptable forms of communication to be celebrated and allows for an individual’s confidence to build. Through poetry, I may not have immediately begun socializing with other people, but I slowly learned to feel confident and safe with my own thoughts, and this confidence is the key to prosperous social interaction. In time, I hope our state will begin notice this valuable correlation between autism and the arts even more. So many people with an ASD are relentlessly treated like social pariahs by their peers; at the very least, it is essential for people on the autism spectrum to have a place where thoughts can be explored safely. Poetry is this for me, and I hope it might already be this for a few other people with an ASD as well.

As a personal example of the concepts I have been talking about, recently a good friend of mine asked me how I feel being in a long-distance relationship. Because of my autism, this was naturally a hard question for me to answer in the moment, and so I began working on a response to this through poetry. Writing this was not only more comfortable for me personally, but I feel as if it became a more effective form of communication than me just speaking on the subject immediately. What do you guys think?

I had to write some stuff to myself before I could answer her question.

I had to write some stuff to myself before I could answer her question.

My response.

My response.

Jacob Cumiskey recently spoke at the Florida Alliance for Arts Education 2014 summit in a session entitled “Access through the Arts: One Student’s Journey to the Neurotypical World in the Public School Setting.”

7 thoughts on “Poetry as a Means to Understand and Cope with the Social Difficulties of Having Autism

  1. I’ve been writing poetry for over 30 years, beginning in Jamaica (where I was born, raised, and have won awards) and continuing in my adopted home of Pensacola, Florida where I have performed and published my works with other local poets. I personally am suspicious of poetry as therapy, poetry as protest, or indeed poetry subsumed into anything else… just give me the naked animal, mere poetry! Having said all that, I appreciate where Jacob Cumiskey stands and I laud his courage. I have a brother, Kurt, who is profoundly autistic and cognitively limited; now aged 53, Kurt reads at about a 4th grade level and can write no more than his name, far less compose anything as sophisticated as a poem.

    Jacob Cumiskey is articulate and here he has given us a poem that I find rich, layered and rewarding. I hope he will keep writing not only in order to bypass his social difficulties but because he has things to say and clearly also the ability to say them in poetry.

    Jacob Cumiskey is a poet.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your opinions on the post. It is nice to have a fellow writer comment on such things, and I completely understand your suspicions. Poetry is hardly a cure-all for anything, let alone ASD, and shouldn’t been implemented as such, but (for me at least) it is rather cleansing. One must personally decide to write and conclude what that writing means to them–it should never be forced upon someone, be they neurotypical or otherwise. Thank you for writing about your brother; it is important that people know every individual with autism is different and there is no “one size fits all” way of dealing with the harder parts of having an ASD. The praise for the poem made me happy; I still consider myself very much a novice and so its nice to see what other people think of my work. May your future poems be enjoyable to create!

  2. I have the blessing of having been Jacob’s friend for several years, but it requires no such bias to see that he’s spot-on with everything he says here. One of my favorite points is one he makes in passing (and with a terrific comparison): “The behaviors of a shark need to be researched from afar because we cannot ask the shark why it does the things it does, but some people with autism can be asked what their life is like and explain directly (or indirectly) what autism means to them.” It is foolish, rude, and unkind to look at autism through the lens of observation as opposed to communicating with people with autism. And arts education as a way to do so! How clear the solution seems — although of course it is not a universal one. But art is so intimate in its conversation, so personal and honest in its messages. It is widely understandable, but most of all, it is understanding. As Jacob says, a poem expects nothing.

    To exclude arts from the educational program, especially at a young level, is of course detrimental to all students, as many studies have discussed. But it is *particularly* detrimental to students for whom it is their best method of communication, an alternate where there might otherwise be no alternate. It is our responsibility as involved members of our community to make sure that all other members are given the opportunities and the abilities to develop their confidence, their abilities, and their voice.

    It is in my nature to be verbose, but even here, I feel as though I’m only saying the things Jacob has already said. This is so superbly put that it very nearly disguises the beginning of an important discussion as the end of one. 🙂

    The poem, as yours usually do, makes me feel like I’m glass in the process of shattering. I love it.

    • I am honored by such praise and such an extensive elaboration on these thoughts my friend. Truly the next time we meet will hold interesting discussion; I think I have an idea who you are. 🙂

  3. What a lovely insight! Thank you for explaining so clearly what some (including my own daughter) may never be able to express. Your poem is poignant and precious.

    • Thank you very much for thanking me! I just try and talk about what helped me out in my life; writing of course isn’t for everybody, but there are plenty of other hobbies (arts related or not) people on the autism spectrum can express themselves through. I feel the key is embracing communication through those hobbies rather than forcing neurotypical communication right off the bat, you know? I feel as if the proper social behaviors come when socializing stops being psychically painful for people on the spectrum, and confidence through arts communication or hobbies may not ERASE that pain, but it sure does help (for some at least). I know one thing that helped me a lot growing up was finding other people who enjoyed doing the same things I did, that way I could communicate to them through playing video games or cards rather than far more (at the time) typical and painful methods. Maybe this could be something to try if you havent; what kind of things does your daughter enjoy doing?

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and art with us. I am sharing this with two friends who have children with an ASD, as well as all the rest of my friends who may know someone with an ASD. It is so important for the voices of those who experience this difference to be heard. Also, your poem stands alone as beautiful and powerful in and of itself. Thank you!

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