It began, appropriately enough, with the word "awed."
Poet Chris Martin was helping student Mark Eati of Plymouth, who has autism, write a poem by asking playful questions about Disney characters. "What makes Mickey feel icky?" "What makes Donald Duck say yuck?"
Eati does not speak, so he answered each question by pointing to pictures on a computer tablet.
Martin asked, "What makes Pooh say oooh?"
Eati, then 20, hesitated a moment. Then he opened a keyboard on his tablet and quickly typed "AWED."
His teacher and his educational aide, sitting nearby, were blown away. They had never seen Eati type so much as a letter. Eventually, Martin discovered that Eati had excellent language and math abilities, partly obscured by the sensory motor difficulties that keep him from speaking.
Martin tells Eati's story and many others in "May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and Our Neurodiverse Future," published this week. The book recounts Martin's experiences teaching poetry to people with autism, emphasizing that their poetry is beautiful not despite the writers' autism, but because of it.
"This isn't a book about fixing anyone," Martin said. "It's not like any of these nonspeaking autistic individuals were broken. It's just that they were born into a society that lacks the right resources for them."
Many people with autism are talkative, but some have trouble speaking. That may be related to the part of their brain that controls speech or to difficulty with the complex fine-motor skills — lips, tongue, teeth, throat — needed to form oral words, said Barbara Luskin, a psychologist at the Autism Society of Minnesota.
"We live in a society that assumes if you can't talk you can't think," Luskin said. "They have the words in their head, they just can't get them out."
Eati, now 25, and his 21-year-old sibling, Max, who also has autism, are among neurodivergent activists working to showcase autistic peoples' long overlooked capabilities. Like the siblings, many neurodivergent people are only recently able to show their advanced communication skills, thanks to affordable, technology-enhanced tools that provide easier methods for nonspeaking people to communicate. The tools, ranging from pointing at pictures or letters to fluent typing, demonstrate that speech limitations do not necessarily indicate an inability to process language or understand the world.
"We have a whole generation of adults with autism who are speaking for themselves," Luskin said. "Twenty years ago, this was inconceivable. ... Now they're saying, 'We don't need to be just like you. We are who we are, thank you very much.'"
That's what Mark and Max are saying.
"We've always wondered if everyone in the world, hundreds and thousands of years ago, were neurodivergent," Mark and Max wrote together (as they often do) in an e-mailed response to a question. "The education system and community trained a majority of us to fit [neurotypical] standards. ... Now the systems are being forced to accommodate neurodivergence. It makes us sad that creativity and humanness were suppressed for so long."
Patterns and sensory language
Martin always felt neurodivergent himself, he said. Growing up, he was described as "sensitive."
"I had the sensitivity of someone who is very open and who wants to connect with people without a lot of armor or masking," he said.
He graduated from Carleton College with an English degree, moved to New York and earned a master's degree at New York University (and later a second master's from the University of Iowa). He was living in Brooklyn and doing a variety of jobs at a local school when the school's director asked him to work with some students who Martin realized were autistic.
He and the students immediately "hit it off," Martin said, "because it was so natural to me I never questioned it."
He talked to students about their interests and helped them express their passions in poems. Autistic thinking naturally often resembles characteristics of poetry, with its emphasis on patterns and sensory language, Martin said.
"So often what [people with autism] communicate is essentially poetry," Martin said. "I have gotten to the point where I don't actually believe neurotypical poets exist."
In addition to "May Tomorrow Be Awake," Martin has published a number of volumes of his own poetry, most recently "Things to Do in Hell." He is curator of Multiverse, a literary series by neurodivergent poets from Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions. And he works with Unrestricted Interest, a program dedicated to poetry by neurodivergent writers.
Neurotypical poets sometimes struggle to find a "voice," Martin said, whereas his students naturally write with sensory-rich descriptions, cadences and wordplay. "Please get that I am the trying / breeze going through the really / great great great world yes yes." writes Martin's student Hannah Emerson, whose new book "The Kissing of Kissing," published by Multiverse, was praised as an "expansive and ecstatic debut" in the New York Times.
"Unfortunately the way that poetry is taught in schools is that every poem is a kind of puzzle for only the smartest person to decipher," Martin said. "Poetry, like pop and rap, springs from this human impulse to sing poetry and do it together."
'A split second'
Mark Eati was diagnosed with autism when he was not quite 2, said his mother, Indu Eati of Plymouth. He received therapy but didn't seem to make much progress. After a year, when asked to point at pictures, he was unable to distinguish between "cat" and "ball."
One day, Indu watched Mark listening to a song with lyrics about arithmetic and noticed the look in his eyes.
"I said, he understands the song," Indu recalled. "He knows how to do that math."
She set out scraps of paper with numbers on them and asked Mark to point to the answer for two plus two. He did. Then eight plus eight. He did.
"It was like a split second," she said "His finger would go right to the answer."
Further testing showed that Mark, not yet 3 years old, was adept with prime numbers and long multiplication. Later, he showed remarkable skill with languages, including foreign languages he'd learned online.
In other areas, Mark was hampered by sensory motor differences. "Body awareness, spatial awareness — he couldn't find own nose," Indu Eati said. "So there was like this really big extraordinary intelligence but it wasn't all mapping to reality."
As a child, Mark disliked standard classrooms where "people assumed I had no skills or that I could not think," he wrote in an e-mail.
"As the stars lit my room each night, I thought about the day and who said what and why. If I didn't understand something, I could not sleep. I did not understand that I was not wired to 'understand.' It took me until 8 years of age to self-learn that I 'sense, feel and process information.' I do not think and analyze."
Max's journey was similar in many ways, though language skills appeared much earlier.
"By 15 months, Max was already typing away, finding letters and everything on a laptop," Indu said. The child preferred big words: "Vertigo" instead of "dizzy."
"Since I was little, I knew I was different," Max wrote in an e-mail. "I used my sensory motor differences to my advantage. I believed in my abilities to learn without being taught in neurotypical ways."
Mark and Max both expressed anger at the failure of schools and the larger society to recognize their abilities. Channeling that anger, they founded Alapa, a co-housing community for neurodiverse people in Plymouth. It opened in January 2021, and five single-family houses are currently occupied, Indu said. It also offers daily training in independent-living skills, arts, creative writing and other topics.
Martin likes to emphasize the importance of recognizing diverse thinking among all humans. People with and without autism have been harmed, he said, by a system that recognizes as legitimate only a narrow range of behavior and thinking styles, failing to value the unique perspectives of people who color outside the lines.
"All of us are weirder and more different than we've been allowed to be," Martin said.
Chris Martin and Mark Eati will talk, read and answer questions at a launch for "May Tomorrow Be Awake" from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av., Minneapolis. (Masks are required in the store.)