Autistic Musicking

June 23, 2015

Musicologist Andrew Dell’Antonio and disability & education scholar Elizabeth J. “Ibby” Grace (who is one of my fellow editors at Autonomous Press) are collaborating on a project (will it be a paper? a monograph? a book? an action movie?) about autism and musicking, and I’m one of the autistic people they interviewed as part of their research.

And what is musicking? According to the information Andrew and Ibby sent me in preparation for the interview, musicking is a term coined by a musicologist named Christopher Small, and discussed in Small’s book Musicking: The Meaning of Performance and Listening (1998). Musicking is music as a verb: to music. To music, as I understand it, is to participate in music in any way: you’re musicking when you play music, sing it or sing along with it, compose it, dance to it, share it, help to make it happen, create art inspired or informed by it, allow it to inform the way you move or interact or live… if it’s a way of engaging with music, it’s musicking.

Below is the stuff I said about Autistic musicking during the interview. The interview took the form of an extended Facebook chat session, which included a lot of rapid-fire chatter and questions and joking around and personal interjections like “Hey, me too!” or “Good question!” from all of us. I’ve edited all that stuff out, though I’ve left in a few of the questions that Andrew and Ibby asked me (because some of my answers make more sense if you know what questions I’m responding to).

I’m looking forward to seeing Andrew and Ibby’s work-in-progress as it progresses further. They presented some initial bits and pieces at the 2015 Society for Disability Studies conference, including some quotes from the interview below. 

Q: What makes sound more or less pleasurable for you?

Sounds are more pleasurable for me if they’re in harmony with everything else that’s going on, or if I’m in a position to work in harmony with the sound. So the sudden sound of someone using a power tool is never pleasurable, because it rips into the flow of whatever’s already going on. But good music, even if it’s as loud as a power tool or starts as suddenly, can be pleasurable because I can incorporate it into the groove of what I’m doing and how I’m moving.

My sensory channels aren’t separate, it’s all part of one complex multifaceted experience, so the soundtrack has to work in harmony with everything else.

Q: Can you say more about the “complex multifaceted experience”? Does it involve synesthesia?

Yes, it’s all about synesthesia. Because I haven’t experienced anyone else’s sensory and cognitive processing, I can’t clearly separate what aspects of my experience constitute synesthesia, and what aspects are a result of my particular cognitive processing of my sensory experience.

A further challenge in talking about it is that music affects me emotionally, but about half of the emotions I experience are Autistic emotions for which there are no words in neurotypical languages. And it’s also hard to draw a clear boundary between “inspired and emotionally stirred by the music” and “sound/concept/emotion synesthesia.”

I find that terms like “sound/color synesthesia” don’t really do justice to the complexity of my experience. I have “everything/everything else synesthesia.” Just one big gestalt experience.

Q: So acknowledging the inadequacy of neurotypical language to describe Autistic multisensory experience, from your perspective, is it even useful to separate “musicking” as a distinct mode of engagement from the global Autistic experiential gestalt?

Yes, I think it’s still useful to think of musicking as a distinct realm of activity. One just needs to remember that the boundaries that separate realms of activity and experience (or areas of academic study) are fluid and permeable.

The boundary between “musicking” as a description of a specific field of activity, and “musicking” as a metaphor for other activities, is particularly soft and permeable.

Am I musicking if I write a story? One can say that composing a story is like composing a piece of music, and that’s a metaphor. But what if listening to music is an important part of my creative process as a writer? What if, when I write a story, I’m often thinking about its soundtrack? What if I drop little song references into my stories to try to put the music into the reader’s head as well?

At what point does writing become musicking actually as well as metaphorically? Fuzzy boundaries.

All of the above is part of my personal experience of writing stories, by the way – not hypothetical. I love story, and music tends to convey story to me.

Songs and song lyrics play an important role in my cognitive experience. They’re a rich source of cognitive/social scripts. I want to clarify that, because in the context of autism the term “social scripts” is often used to mean “rote learning of social protocols for the purpose of passing for neurotypical” – and that’s absolutely not what I’m talking about.

What I mean by cognitive/social scripts is that I don’t think in words in the sense of having an “internal monologue” the way many people seem to – but I can think in songs. So when I have an intuition or pick up on a “vibe,” and my unconscious mind needs to communicate something about it to my conscious mind, it often happens in the form of a song popping into my head.

Here’s an example of how it works for me: when I was getting my degree in Counseling Psychotherapy, the degree program included a year of clinical practicum that involved counseling clients in a counseling center. Songs would pop into my head when working with clients, and the songs were hints about the client – things I was picking up about them unconsciously.

My favorite one was when I met a client for the very first time – literally the first time I laid eyes on her – and the song “Sing” by the Dresden Dolls popped into my head, loud and clear. It’s a song about reclaiming one’s voice, about overcoming the fear of speaking/singing out. And it turned out that that was exactly the issue that the client needed to work on.

Q: Do you think there can be a culturally Autistic (or more broadly neurodivergent) approach/approaches to musicking?

I think there are potentially as many distinctively neurodivergent approaches to musicking as there are neurodivergent individuals. Even just focusing on Autistic individuals, the range of experiences and potential approaches is so vast.

So I don’t think there will ever be one particular Autistic cultural approach or style, when it comes to musicking. Just look at the many Autistic people already making music, or the historical figures in music who were probably Autistic. Look at how different their various styles and approaches are/were.

I think the key element in any Autistic cultural approach to musicking would simply have to be the embracing of variety. An Autistic culture of musicking would embrace the variety of ways of musicking, and also the variety of experiences and responses to music.

One reason I was drawn to particular genres of music as a teen and young adult – hard rock, metal, punk, ska – is that the subcultures built around these genres are accepting of certain types of embodied participation in musicking.

More simply put: kids at a metal concert physically rock like they’re Autistic. They’re even referred to as “headbangers.” I was drawn to subcultures in which it was socially acceptable for me to move to music the way I naturally move to music.

Now, Glenn Gould and Thelonius Monk could be openly Autistic in the way they moved when playing the piano onstage. But you’re not allowed to move to the music like Glenn Gould when you’re in the audience at a Bach recital.

So an Autistic culture of musicking wouldn’t be about a particular genre, but it would include acceptance (and celebration) of stimming by audience members. At a metal show, if the audience is stimming, that’s like applause – it’s a sign to the band that they’ve hit a good groove. In an Autistic culture of music, this would be the case in every musical genre.





Foreword to Defiant

May 30, 2015

Below is the foreword that I wrote for Michael Scott Monje Jr.’s novel Defiant.

Defiant is one of the first titles to be published by Autonomous Press, the independent publishing house I co-founded with Monje, Elizabeth “Ibby” Grace, Bridget Allen, and Corbett O’Toole. It’s part of the same epic series-in-progress as Monje’s earlier novel Nothing Is Right (although it stands perfectly well on its own). 

Defiant is available directly from Autonomous Press, and from online retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble (though it’s better for small publishers if you order from them directly), and from your coolest local bookstore if you ask them to carry it. I’m reprinting my foreword to it here as a preview of sorts. 

Last time we met Clay Dillon he was six years old and nothing was right.

If you haven’t already read Nothing Is Right, Mike Monje’s first Clay Dillon novel, that’s okay. Defiant takes place 23 years later, and it works more or less equally well to start with the six-year-old Clay and then read Defiant to see what the little guy’s future holds, or to start with the 30-year-old Clay and then go back to discover where he came from. (And even as I write these words, Monje is already well into the writing of the next Clay Dillon novel, Imaginary Friends, which takes us back again to Clay’s childhood, picking up not long after Nothing Is Right left off.)

Like Monje himself, Clay Dillon is autistic. The young Clay of Nothing Is Right didn’t know he was autistic, and the adults around him didn’t know it either. Defiant begins just after Clay has finally found out. At the age of 30.

Imagine spending your entire childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood knowing that you’re different from everyone else in your world – different from your family, your teachers, your peers, the people you pass on the street. Not different in the superficial ways that elementary school teachers and “inspirational” writers are talking about when they repeat cutesy platitudes about how everyone is special. Different in the fundamental workings of your mind. Different in the ways you experience, use, and understand language. Different in the ways you perceive reality – not just differences of viewpoint, but differences in basic sensory experience, differences between what you see, hear, and feel, and what everyone else claims to be seeing, hearing, and feeling. Different in ways that make understanding between yourself and the people around you impossible, because on a basic neurobiological level, they’re incapable of experiencing anything like the reality you experience, and you’re incapable of experiencing anything like the reality they experience. They don’t understand what your thought processes are like, or your emotions, or the reasons behind most of your actions, and you don’t understand any of those things about them, either.

And imagine that because these people who are so vastly different from you also vastly outnumber you, all of the constant confusions and difficulties that stem from these differences are blamed on you – attributed to some failing, deficiency, bad intent, or general wrongness on your part. They’re different from you and you’re different from them, but the way they tell the story, the way the story is taught to you, is that they are normal, and normal means good and right, and you’re not normal, which means you’re bad and wrong. At best, most people respond to you with puzzlement or pity; more often, with hostility, cruelty, or contempt. And no matter how hard you try to change this state of affairs (and you try harder than any of them will ever know), no matter what you do, nothing is right.

And imagine that you have no name for what it is that sets you apart from others, no name for the nature of the difference.

And then one day you find out that there is a name for it.

After 30 fucking years.

Having a name for it means that suddenly you have a way to start talking about it. The name means a new understanding, a new lens through which your past and present can be seen in an entirely new way. The name is a starting point from which you can begin to create a new and coherent narrative from the chaos of your life. A starting point for communication and understanding between yourself and others, about who you are, how you and they might differ, how you can work together. A starting point for finding other people like yourself, reading what they’ve written, benefitting from their experience, joining with them in communities of mutual support. A starting point for the task of discovering what you really need in order to have a better life, a life that fits you, a life in which some things, sometimes, can finally be right.

At the same time, it’s a bit of a shock. As the old saying goes, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” The radical shift in self-perception that comes from discovering in adulthood that one is autistic can be profoundly disorienting. And the cascade of insights that flow from such a discovery, however valuable and transformative in the long run, may be accompanied by intense anger and grief. As Monje explained in an introductory post when he first began publishing Defiant in serial form on his blog, Shaping Clay:

In Clay’s case, as in my own, the grief is not so much a matter of feeling like a limitation has been imposed, and it’s definitely not the feeling that the diagnosis somehow diminishes us as people. Instead, it’s grief for the childhood and younger adulthood that he could have had—a grief for the opportunities lost, if only we had been properly supported and taught.

So Clay is in a fragile state right now, as this chapter of his saga begins. While he’s finally discovered he’s autistic, he has very little idea of what this really means, or can be made to mean, in the context of his actual life. Mostly he’s flailing around trying to cope, as his old understanding of who he is crumbles around him. And to top it all off, he’s about to make the all-too-common mistake of putting himself in the hands of a non-autistic psychologist.

Clay and the psychologist, Dr. Williams, live in two different worlds. I hold citizenship in both worlds, which might be why I got the job of writing this foreword. I’m autistic, and I also have an academic career which consists to a large extent of teaching psychology to students who are headed for careers in psychotherapy and related professions.

When I read Defiant through my autistic eyes, Dr. Williams is the book’s villain. I’ve seen too many people harmed by the Dr. Williamses of the world, the condescending “experts” whose “expert knowledge” consists of a steaming heap of stereotypes, prejudices, and unsound theories and practices invented by other non-autistic “experts.”

But when I read Defiant through the eyes of a teacher of psychology, Dr. Williams seems more tragic than malign. She was probably drawn to the field of psychotherapy by the same thing that draws most of the aspiring therapists who show up in my classes: a genuine interest in human beings and in helping human beings to make positive changes in their lives. And somewhere along the way, she got lost in all her acquired expertise, and in the comforting illusion of certainty and superiority that such expertise conveys. And now she’s face-to-face with a fascinating, unique, beautiful human being who’s primed to begin an extraordinary process of transformation… and her head is so stuffed with expertise that she can’t see him.

I’ll be recommending Defiant to my fellow autistics for many reasons, and one reason is that it serves as a cautionary tale that might save some readers from “experts” like Dr. Williams. I’ll also be assigning Defiant to my psychology students, in the hopes that it will save them from becoming Dr. Williams.

But enough about Dr. Williams. Let me say a bit more about Clay.

D.W. Winnicott, a pioneer in the field of child psychology who was quite a bit wiser than Dr. Williams, said that when children grow up in environments in which it’s unsafe to express their true selves, they develop “false selves” that are in closer compliance with what’s demanded of them. By the time they reach adulthood they may have forgotten that the false self is a mask, donned in compliance with external expectations. The true self is buried, and the mask stays on, however badly it might fit.

With the discovery that he’s autistic, the part of Clay’s mask that hides his true autistic self (as much from himself as from anyone else) has begun to crumble. But that’s not the only part of Clay’s false self that’s crumbling. The mask is cracking all over. That’s often how these things go. For instance, Clay’s compliance with the dominant societal standards of masculinity is also part of his false self, and that, too, has begun to crack.

And what’s underneath? Clay is just starting to find out, and we, the readers, get to find out along with him. Whatever it is, though, it’s bound to be infinitely more complex, strange, and beautiful than the ill-fitting mask of compliance. Compliance, as D.W. Winnicott once said, “is a sick basis for life.”

And the best antidote to compliance is, of course, defiance.




PTSD on Fury Road

May 26, 2015

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road yesterday. It’s every bit as good as all the most positive reviews imply. Quite simply the best action movie I’ve ever seen. And yes, overtly feminist. And yes, amazing badass disabled woman heroine. One other amazing thing I haven’t yet seen mentioned in any review is the explicit and […]

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Neuroqueer: An Introduction

May 2, 2015

The term neuroqueer was coined independently and more or less simultaneously by Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace, Michael Scott Monje Jr., and myself. Having coined it, all three of us managed to spend a few years not getting around to using it in any published work, even though the set of concepts and practices represented by the term came […]

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Neurotypical Psychotherapists and Neurodivergent Clients

December 3, 2014

I’m often asked if I have any words of advice for psychotherapists and other professionals, on working with clients who are autistic and/or otherwise neurodivergent.  Why, yes. Yes I do. And I’ve been meaning for some time to type up some of those words of advice and make them publicly available. The push that I needed finally came from Sarah […]

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Toward a Neurocosmopolitan Society

October 1, 2014

In my previous post, Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Cognition, I published my answer to a question that the fabulous Steve Silberman asked me as part of the research for his book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.  Below is another excerpt from that same conversation with Steve – my answers to two more of […]

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Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Cognition

September 29, 2014

Steve Silberman is a journalist and wonderful human being who’s done some superb writing on autism and neurodiversity. He’s currently working on a book entitled NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which I’m certainly looking forward to reading.  As part of the research for his book, Steve visited me at my aikido dojo, […]

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Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions

September 27, 2014

New paradigms often require a bit of new language. This is certainly the case with the neurodiversity paradigm – even the word neurodiversity itself is still relatively new, dating back only to the late 1990s. I see many people – scholars, journalists, bloggers, internet commenters, and even people who identify as neurodiversity activists – get confused about the […]

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The Veiled Oasis

September 15, 2014

In my previous entry, I posted an introduction and link to The Hyperlexicon, an online hypertext labyrinth that I created in 2006, as an undergraduate student in the Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies. In December of 2010, I returned to the hypertext medium that I’d used to create The Hyperlexicon, and created a […]

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The Hyperlexicon

September 13, 2014

In 2006 I was a student in the Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies (I’m now a faculty member in that same program). At the beginning of our first term, my classmates and I were given the following assignment: Create a lexicon of words that are new, confusing, or of particular interest to […]

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