In a previous article I expressed a desire for more books about autism written by people on the autism spectrum. Therefore, I was delighted when Uncommon Minds popped up on my Amazon recommendations. Uncommon Minds is a collection of poetry, flash fiction, prose and illustrations by people who identify themselves as autistic. It is a slim, easy to read collection that I was able to get through in an hour (with a few interruptions from a hyperactive puppy that happened to be in the same room). Contributors come from all four corners of the world, their ages ranging from eight to forty eight. Uncommon Minds is a haphazardly arranged collection, with seemingly little thought given to the order of the pieces. It contains a few poems and illustrations of an impeccably high quality, buried in a heap of mediocre writing.
Much of the poetry is filled with teenage angst, clichés and repetition. But what I really didn’t like was the writer’s apparently compulsive need to make everything rhyme. Combinations like ‘best…rest…test…fest’ made it easy to predict how some poems would pan out just from looking at the first line. However, there were a few rare gems. “This One” by David Seth and “The Autist’s Reception” by Frank L Ludwig stuck out to me as being startlingly original in their use of language and similes. Centring on the themes of isolation and miscommunication, both poems offer unique insight into what it’s like to live with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I particularly enjoyed Ludwig’s depiction of Columbus’s journey to America (instead of Asia) as a metaphor for the confusion that arises when someone with autism is spoken to using ambiguous language. ‘I brush your subtle overtures aside: you see, I may not have received your message, or else I’d have replied’ (Ludwig, p 38).
The prose was scantier, and just as varied in its quality as the poetry. Stories like “What I Saw” by Kit McKenzie Martin contained an important message and were written in an authoritative voice, yet discussed the issues surrounding autism with delicacy. One passage was particularly poignant:
‘His thumb wrapped itself around two of my fingers, and for a moment it was like that. Then he lifted his hand and took mine in his. I squeezed. I know. We stayed like that for about a minute. The bus rumbled down the street, curving around the corners, my hand in his. They said I helped calm him down. Sometimes people underestimate what it means to acknowledge someone’s humanity. To see it. I don’t know what they thought my gesture was, but we knew what it was. A show of solidarity. A quiet one, not a trumpeting fanfare, but a whisper. I know’ (Martin, p 6).
It should have ended there, at a point where the message was clear and the writing was at its’ most powerful. However, an additional two lines dragged out the story. Martin’s depiction of teenagers with classical autism as normal humans overwhelmed by fear, trapped in a body that makes it impossible for them to express themselves reminded me how lucky I am to have the ability to speak. However, I felt this piece could have been condensed considerably without losing anything.
The strongest piece in the collection was not a poem or a story. It was a factual piece entitled “What is Autism?” by Nick Walker. Walker explained autism in a concise, direct manner that emphasised the positives of having a differently functioning brain.
‘Autism is still widely regarded as a “disorder”, but this view has been challenged in recent years by proponents of the neurodiversity model, which holds that autism and other neurocognitive variants are simply part of the natural spectrum of human biodiversity, like variations in ethnicity or sexual orientation (which have also been pathologised in the past). Ultimately, to describe autism as a disorder represents a value judgement rather than a scientific fact’ (Walker, p 71).
This challenged my own interpretation of autism. I’ve described autism as a ‘disability’ or ‘disorder’ countless times in my writing, simply because I need a huge amount of social and medical support in order to function normally. How could I claim I’m completely healthy and still accept this support? The majority of my issues (and the issues of others like me) stem from trying to navigate a neurotypical world with an autistic brain, and a lack of tolerance and understanding in others. What if autism wasn’t seen as a disability? What if it was seen as a different way of thinking? Would that make others more or less tolerant?
Such a well written, thought provoking piece of writing should have been placed at the front of the book. Walker’s depiction of autism would have made a useful introduction, and put the rest of the poems, prose and illustrations into context, encouraging the reader to view the uncommon mind of each author in a more positive light. The editor’s choice to place “What is Autism” two thirds into the book continues to baffle me, and I can only conclude that not much thought was given to the order of the pieces.
While every poem, story and illustration in Uncommon Minds offers unique insight into what it’s like to live with autism, many of them are of a low quality, and (I imagine) written purely for the therapeutic value of writing. With errors in the spelling and formatting, and seemingly little thought given to the order of the pieces, I was disappointed by the overall quality of the book. However, there were a handful of exceptionally talented writers whose pieces displayed originality, insight and sophistication. I hope that the writers I mentioned above have been recognized since the publication of Uncommon Minds, and will continue to shed light on what it’s like living with Autism.