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Autism and Representation
Case Western Reserve Univ
Cleveland, Ohio
28-30 October 2005



Lisa Janice Cohen
Newton, MA
Do not cite without permission of author.

"Poetry, Asperger's Syndrome, and Emotional Literacy: A poet's experience"


A lack of connection between cognition and emotion is thought to be one of the features of individuals on the Autism spectrum. Poetry has enabled one individual with Asperger's Syndrome to more fully connect thought to feeling. Poetry may be uniquely suited to this exploration as it uses concrete imagery to evoke emotion. Lisa will present select pieces of her own poetry along with the events that inspired each particular piece and the lessons learned as a result of exploring the poetic imagery.


Lisa has been a practicing physical therapist for nearly 20 years. She is currently in private practice in Watertown, MA. She is the author of many articles and invited book chapters in the areas of chronic pain, orthopaedic dysfunction, and repetitive stress injuries. She is also a poet and has had her work published both in print and in on-line magazines and is a moderator for an online poetry forum ( ). She has just completed her first novel.

Poetry has long been a vehicle for self expression.   Long before written language documented human experience, oral poetry chronicled history and culture across many civilizations.   If the internet is any indication, poetry is still a thriving and growing art with poets representing every walk of life, age, gender, and language. Poetry has been used for therapeutic purposes as well. There is even a national association for poetry therapy.   ( ) They publish a quarterly journal, (Journal of Poetry Therapy--The Interdisciplinary Journal of Practice, Theory, Research, and Education) and advocate the use of poetry as a therapeutic tool in many patient populations.   But to the best of my knowledge, no one has examined poetry as a path to emotional literacy for individuals on the Autism Spectrum.  

Poetry seems a perfect fit for individuals on the spectrum.   Many of my fellow 'aspies' talk about their early reading ability and their love of language.   Many of us have great skill in making language-based jokes, e.g., puns.   And many of us, in the words of Temple Grandin, 'think in pictures'.    In addition, because writing is primarily done after the fact, it is simpler for those of us with roundabout neural circuitry to process emotions when they are not happening in real time.   In fact, that is one of the reasons that Carol Gray's ( ) social stories and comic book conversations are so powerful.   These are tools that use language and pictures to explore social situations and understand emotions.

Poetry has been defined in various ways.   Samuel Taylor Coleridge's definition is, to my mind, one of the best. "Prose; the right words in the right order. Poetry; the best words in the best order."   When I teach poetry workshop for children, I describe poetry as the orange juice concentrate of language--it contains all of the flavor, the 'pow' without being watered down, diluted. It is full of sensory images that carry emotional freight and tone. Those images can be mined for meaning.  

There are three specific areas where individuals on the spectrum are said to have difficulty: Theory of Mind (TOM), processing emotion, and sustaining reciprocal relationships.   All three of these areas can be explored using poetry as a tool.

TOM--The Angel of Paraguay

In the classical medical-model diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, the 'Sally-Anne' test ( ) is used to demonstrate faulty theory of mind; that is, to show that individuals with autism cannot accurately tell what someone who is neurotypical might know or think.   While it is true that autistics and autistic 'cousins' can have difficulty in taking the perspective of non-autistics, it is also true that 'neurotypicals' can fail miserably in interpreting the inner life and beliefs of someone on the spectrum.  

Poems of person and place allow the author to take on the voice of another and explore different elements of self.   Edward Hirsch does this to excellent effect in his Hades Sonnets.   For example in "Self-Portrait as Eurydice", he takes on the voice of the woman of myth, writing:

". . .and waited for you to startle the grave/path into the underworld--dank, silent--/where I shivered in the night's embrace/until I heard your fatal cry. . ."  

In this powerful series of poems, Hirsch uses the voices of Persephone, Eurydice, and Hades to explore themes of love, death, betrayal, and sacrifice using a first person perspective.   Hirsch is remarkable in his ability to take on the persona of Eurydice and Persephone, both women of mythology.

Writing allows for a safe venue in which to practice perspective taking and point of view.   An example of this is "The Angel of Paraguay."

This poem emerged from a friend's story of adopting her son in Paraguay.   In the years after he was born, she has continued to visit some of the poorest towns in Paraguay with donations of clothing and money to help support a community that is extremely marginalized. I was moved by her commitment to help the people there and wove some of her story with imagery of my imagined Paraguay into this first person narrative.   I researched the geography and culture of Paraguay along with asking my friend to review early drafts for accuracy.   The poem is not simply the narrative of her experience; however.   It synthesizes elements from many of her visits with my own perspective.    By focusing on the imagery, I could experience the sensations of being 'other' in a specific context.

The Angel of Paraguay

for Judith and Jerry

Shanty towns sprawl for miles
along the river's sluggish flow. The city shimmers
lights draw the curious and the dead. Tourists
confuse desperation with desire, convince themselves
that dollars for innocence is fair trade.

A woman steps off the plane,
breathes in air heavy
with the scent of poverty. Street vendors sing out
for her attention. Eleven years before
she fashioned river clay in the shape of a boy
with eyes the color of jet. Today,
she sees his face everywhere.

She goes home with a young girl
and her baby, eats chipa and bananas,
sips thick mate. Tomorrow, she says,
I will go with you to the health center.
The girl smiles, shakes her head, no, not safe for you.

Pain stares her down; she does not flinch.
A band of children circles around
but she is empty now. Nada mas,
no hoy. They laugh and scatter.
Hasta Manana .

LJCohen, 2003

When I look at this piece now, I see more than a narrative.   I see the dichotomy of alienation and belonging that bridges both the cultural divide this woman experiences and my own experience of a neurological divide.   Just as Judith experiences a profound sense of being 'other' in the circle of children, so do most autistics in their day to day interactions.  

This particular poem is written in third person point of view--as if the narrator were hovering above the scene, describing it.   Poems of this nature can also be written in first person point of view with the narrator slipping on the skin of the protagonist as in Hirsch's sonnet series.

Processing Emotion--The Healing

Properly interpreting emotion in real time, e.g., a conversation, involves reading subtle and often fleeting cues, both in facial expression and body language, as well as tone of voice.   In typical conversation a vast amount of emotional meaning is carried in this meta-language.    For many autistics, dealing with the non-verbal aspects of language is like being a native speaker of Quebecois in France.   The language is recognizable, but because idiom and nuance is different, true communication breaks down.  

Using concrete and specific imagery to explore emotion uses a typical autistic strength to compensate for a typical weakness.  

Much of poetry deals with an exploration of emotion.   The use of poetic devices such as simile, metaphor and personification allow the writer to embody emotion, grounding it in specific and concrete imagery.   The juxtaposition of unusual pairings of images can also highlight emotion.   An excellent example of this is in Jane Hirshfield's, "Narcissus: Tel Aviv, Baghdad, San Francisco; February 1991." In this subtle piece, she centers on the "precise/opening of the flowers" in stark contrast with world events.

  "It seemed they were oblivious but they were not,/they included it all, the nameless explosions/and the oil fires in every cell, the white petals/like mirrors opening in a slow-motion coming-apart/and the stems, the stems rising like green-flaring missiles,/like smoke, like the small sounds shaken/from those who were beaten. . ."

The power of poetic tools is rooted in the human mind's ability to form associations between sensory experience and cognition.   Strong memories are often triggered by sensory events; a scent or a song can bring back a specific memory or emotional state years later with surprising clarity.   Simile and metaphor are tools for comparison; strong poems use unusual comparisons to highlight events or emotion.   Personification is another comparison tool in which inanimate or non-human objects are imbued with human characteristics.

In "The Healing", I use imagery of predator and prey to explore fear in a poem that braids that imagery with narrative events from a personal injury I sustained a number of years ago.

The Healing

You knelt on the trail,
hands cradling my head
while I worried about you
worrying about me.   The fear
came later.  

A rabbit freezes.
The raptor's shadow
darkens a stubbled field.

They arrived quickly,
but I could see your eyes
marking the moments between
steep slope, sled, and ambulance.

Sometimes the falcon
fails, hunger
his only prize.

The patrol moved carefully,
bundling me in a rigid papoose.
Later, you told me you winced
with each turn and bump,
but I welcomed the pain.

The danger passes.
The rabbit quivers
and returns to feed.

The x-ray tech
joked with me
until the films emerged,
damage stark silver
against the black.

Five years later,
I revel in long winter walks,
study lessons written by animal tracks
like hieroglyphs in snow.

LJCohen, 2005

The main technique used here is personification; the danger to the narrator is described in terms of the relationship between predator and prey.  

Through the use of imagery, I was able to process the fear I experienced in the aftermath of my injury.   The poem emerged from something I read in the scientific literature: Prey animals in the wild are able to literally 'shake off' fearful experiences.   Their nervous systems are able to process the adrenaline response leaving them able to resume their lives after a near miss with a predator.   In using that imagery, I was able to identify with the rabbit and move through the experience with my version of the raptor's shadow.   

Relationship--The Breaking of the Glass

To be in an equal and reciprocal relationship with another requires both skill with theory of mind as well as a degree of emotional literacy.   When problems arise in a relationship, they are accompanied with high emotional arousal.   The higher the stakes, the more intense the emotional content.   The effect of emotional stress on autistics is predictable--we run through our resources and have difficulty accessing our usual compensations.

Donald Hall explores his relationship with Jane Kenyon, his wife and fellow poet in the collection "The Painted Bed" written as Jane was dying.   In "Distressed Haiku," he writes:

  "You think that their/dying is the worst/thing that can happen./Then they stay dead."

  Its very simplicity and starkness speaks volumes about his grief.

Early in my marriage, a job crisis forced my husband to move us across the country for a 12 month period.   In one stroke, I lost my comfortable routine, my job, my apartment, and the support of local friends and family.   Looking back, I can clearly see that I was clinically depressed that entire year.   It wasn't until much later that I explored the sensations of confusion, pain, and fear in the context of my relationship over that move.   "The Breaking of the Glass" was the result.

The Breaking of the Glass


Beneath the chuppah, I took a vow--
wither thou goest, I will go;
and wither thou lodgest; I will lodge.
And God as my witness
I meant it,
believed that
cleaving unto you
would still the tremor in my hands, unclench
my teeth. Fear seeps
through my skin,
soaks my shirt.


This is the physics of uncertainty.
Even gravity fails.
I am falling up.
Ink floats
off the pages of my journal. Your letters
unwrite themselves.


Dishes leap into the sink.
I drown them in steaming suds.
The front door
slams, a wet glass
slips, shatters at my feet.
You turn the water off,
kiss my reddened hands.


On our wedding day, you didn't
stomp a wineglass.
Instead, the rabbi wrapped
a lightbulb in a white cloth.
A symbol of a symbol
far easier to break. We clean
the floor carefully. Sweep
then vacuum. One less
to pack.


After we seal the last carton,
after the van drives away, light
echoes off white walls,
finds the last
bits of broken glass.

LJCohen, 2004

The extended metaphor--that of broken glass, is a central theme of a Jewish wedding.   It has several interpretations.   The one I prefer is that the breaking glass symbolizes the sadness that co-exists with happiness and the happiness that can be found even in times of great sadness.   This piece was written several years after the events depicted in the poem, and in fact, the 'story' of the woman dropping the wet glass is purely fictional.   However, the story gave me the central image and themes that helped me to see my own emotions and interactions with my husband in the context of a disruptive move.   

Conclusion:   What Good is Poetry?

What Good is Poetry?

It buys us nothing, will not
fill empty bellies bloated
with endless promises
or excise a bullet
from an accidental wound,
unravel time to force
the trigger to untrip.
But it is the copper penny
spent, redemption
from the poverty of language
that sucks marrow from the bones
of our misfortunes.

The only thing of value
I can offer.

LJCohen, 2005

What good is poetry?   It is a powerful and relevant tool for self-expression, identity, and exploration of internal process.   Because it is so image rich and sensory based, poetry may be uniquely suited to help individuals on the autistic continuum connect cognition to emotion. In my own experience, it has enabled me to use my strengths in language and concrete imagery to understand abstract emotional concepts and develop emotional literacy.   This is an area worth further exploration and I am hoping to put together a poetry workshop for other adults on the spectrum in the near future.


Lay Back the Darkness , poems by Edward Hirsch.   Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2004

The October Palace , poems by Jane Hirshfield.   HarperPerennial, New York, 1994.

The Painted Bed , poems by Donald Hall.   Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2002.

Original poetry by Lisa Janice Cohen--please do not reproduce without the express permission of the author.

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