Autism, Writing, and the Encroaching World

Robert Fromberg
Covering Autism and Creativity
TDR Regular Contributor / September 15, 2021

Now available: Robert Fromberg’s How to Walk with Steve

Join Us on September 26, 2021, at 1 pm for our How to Walk with Steve launch party. The event is free and will feature readings from Robert Fromberg, Adrienne Marie Barrios, Victoria Buitron, and Amy Burns. Register now @Eventbrite so you can receive information and a link to participate on the day.

My brother Steve will not walk beside me. Sometimes he walks in front of me, charting his own course and infrequently looking back to see if I am still in sight. More often, he walks behind me. That allows him the time to register and then, accompanied by twitches, foot shuffles, and finger taps, emulate every choice I make as to pace, direction, and whether to go right or left around obstructions. If we are in, say, an airport, this approach also allows Steve the time to make an occasional dive to grab a brochure from a display. (Steve’s collection of brochures is the stuff of legend.)

When we walk together, I represent the external expectations of the world—numerous, subtle, barely not random. For Steve, who has autism, such inscrutable expectations are ever-present oppression. He would surely feel more comfortable walking without me and the expectations I embody, but because I am there, he does his best to observe and follow.

Surrounded by this hurricane of external unknowability that passes for normalcy, Steve does not completely sublimate his internal proclivities. He must have his moments of freedom—to select one or three or five brochures, to take photographs of a yield sign with an unusual shape, to glimpse the new location to pay highway tolls, and to study the knobs of interior doors in a house he visits. To me, these impulses of Steve’s resemble those of a poet or painter, acts of freedom against, or carefully sheltered from, the world’s normalizing external forces.

The poet William Stafford called writing “One of the great, free human activities.” For Steve, it is more like whatever freedom exists in the eye of a hurricane. And perhaps the same is true for most writers.

In the first few years I taught creative writing at Northwestern University, my first assignment was, “Write something.” I wanted to make Stafford’s point, that writing is freedom. “Here,” I tried to say, “here is some freedom. Take it.” Simple, right? Some students thanked me (or sometimes thanked god) for this dicta-free approach to writing, and they hurried off to write whatever occurred to them. Others told me, either in person or in semester-end evaluations, or they told the dean, that they needed more direction, that they wanted to understand the path and be given some propulsion along it.

With Steve as my mentor, I’ve since looked at the freedom of writers with a little more nuance.

What Stafford called a writer’s “weak, wandering, diffident impulses” are constantly under assault from the external world. A corporate leader told me that being a high-performing employee is flat-out impossible if that person seeks any sort of balance between work and the other parts of his or her life. (Jeff Bezos told Amazon workers to view their careers and lives as a circle, an even more insidious notion.) And the construct of a person having only one job, one career, is so dated as to be quaint. At the same time, the breathtaking amount of time we devote to unpaid caregiving, already rising rapidly before the pandemic, is now a far more intense burden.

Then there is the sheer misery of the recent external environment. Trump. The anti-vax movement. The Texas abortion ban. Twitter wars. Write? I just want to huddle in a corner. Or run screaming through the street. Which probably gives me a glimpse of what Steve goes through each day in the eye of his particular hurricane, which has become far worse during COVID. He now calls me between four and 14 times each day to say he’s worried that everything will be canceled for the rest of his life.

At the same time, I see writers inviting external forces to meddle in their work. On social media, writers (sometimes through well-shot and edited videos with clever soundtracks) talk and gesticulate about how hard they are laboring to choose what their “MC” should do next in their “WIP” so that they can produce the number of pages per day designated by a computer program or a contest or a self-created schedule in order to send work to agents who will apply their own criteria for public palatability before, if the planets are in proper alignment, deigning to pass the work on to another set of gatekeepers displaying another set of criteria at the doors of Reputable Publishing Houses. None of this sounds like anyone is having fun. And it certainly doesn’t sound like freedom.

Whether this burden of external pressures is self-imposed or an outgrowth of societal wretchedness, it leaves writing a “great, free human activity” that, like Steve’s love of highway signs and doorknobs, is engaged in constant battle with a confusing, demanding, and dislocating external world.

When Steve walks, every shuffle of his foot to find the right position, every series of taps on a stair rail, every sudden veer to put a wide distance between him and a person walking toward him testifies to this battle. Yet, while Steve darts and swerves through these external forces, he always has his eyes open for something that belongs only to him. And when I steal a glimpse of those moments, here is what I see: the firmness with which he grasps each brochure he selects and the decisive suddenness with which he pulls it from its rack. For Steve, darting and dodging through an unknowable external world, the impulse of the artist is indomitable.

Now available from Latah Books:

“Robert Fromberg knocks me out.”
Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead

“In refusing easy consolations, Fromberg has created a memoir that shines like polished bone.”
– Patricia Eakins, author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories

“Without a trace of affectation or adornment, Fromberg depicts the searing moments that made him who he is. Never have I read a more authentic, deeply-felt rendering of a child’s developing mind.”
– Leslie Lawrence, author of The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines

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