Speaking in Tongues (This is Autism)
by Nicole Nicholson
I speak in tongues: I burn,
scorching my voice with the rising dawn,
igniting words and air
until my throat-flame has gone –
and I leave a phalanx of fire made
from bundled armies of fulgent spears.
Trees bend low to the river
to soothe their scorched ears.
My bones are gravid with words,
my brain swollen with pictures:
my attic cries for release from
words drenched with tinctures –
bleeding film, turgid and dripping,
slithers underneath my skin
to exit through my fingertips. Read
the blood to know where I’ve been.
Tear the stars from my belly if you must:
but know that my feathers are ink and sky.
Pull down Heaven upon my head –
maybe you will see me cry,
but maybe you will see me dance
my stripped wire patterns into the earth,
a waggle dance woven into my soul,
double-helixes programmed before birth
from which both my gifts and pain come.
I will not erase these from my soul.
They are the reason I speak in tongues,
extracting ribbons of cellophane gold
from the cathedral of strings, alive
and forever oscillating in my heart.
I would not be this colored soul:
a tuning fork, pitched by this art
of words. This is my autism: it blossoms,
lotus-curved, white floating blooms
open to the sky to drink in the rain
while the ignorant build rows of tombs
and declare us dead. Pity is a grave, unfit
for the living. I don’t regret the wings
that God gave me. I will speak in tongues,
I will fly, and I will forever sing.
Nicole’s process notes:
I wrote this poem almost four years ago, when I was a self-diagnosed Aspie (the term “Aspie” is a colloquialism for someone who has Asperger Syndome, one of the manifestations of autism).
The first version of this poem came out of me in a much different form than you see here. It was a word train of anger and frustration at not only my difficulties with communication and being misunderstood but also the misconceptions about autism I had encountered up to that point. The latter I had seen to some degree because of Autism Speaks’ pity-based fundraising and negative messages which painted autistic people as hopeless, helpless, tragic people in desperate need of a cure. I subscribe to the idea of neurodiversity, which is the belief that autism and other neurological conditions are not only neurologically valid ways of being but are normal variations in the human genome, and of course, I was upset at the idea that I needed to be either “cured” for simply being myself or that people like me should be genetically wiped out of existence.
Fast forward to late 2013. I heard about the “This Is Autism” flashblog event in which autistics and their allies were encouraged to write about what autism means to them. This was an action of positivity to combat yet another round of negative messages from Autism Speaks that implied that we and our families suffered because of autism, or that we were helpless burdens on our families. I suddenly got inspiration to rewrite the original poem, as I always felt that it needed…something else. So I rewrote it to reflect a more focused and positive statement of what autism meant to me. I normally don’t write rhyming poetry, but when the first stanza rhymed itself, I just kept going. Every word is the truth – my truth.
Nicole Nicholson is the editor of a new online literary journal, Barking Sycamores, which focuses on poetry and writing on the autism spectrum.