For The Love of Letters, Lists and Other Things

Filed Under (Art, autism, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Development, Obsessions) by Estee on 10-03-2011

I love letters. I’ve loved typeface since I was a child, remembering picking up my mother’s collection of old brown volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica. I admired the letters, words and sentences before I could read them. Around the age of four, I tried to write letters of the alphabet by sounding them out. I was proud as I showed my mother warbled symbols drawn with red crayon. I don’t know if I wrote all the letters correctly, but I yearned to read… and write. 

These days I’m still attracted to typeface and letters, am a big fan of Cy Twombly and the artist, Agata Ostrowska (a printmaker whose work I’ve posted at the beginning here), and others who incorporate text into their work. It’s an “obsessive interest,” I guess you could say. I love the way one word can have one meaning when it stands alone, but when placed beside another, can connote something different.

Long after my “obsession” was contently embedded, I gave birth to an autistic child who also loves letters and read them by 11 months of age. I revelled in his ability while many others told me to be on alert — that Adam, with “hyperlexia,” meant that he would be able to decode words and letters, but his reading skills would still suffer later on — when he had to read phonetically and comprehend.

Yet, the other day, while sitting on his bedroom floor in the twilight,  I pulled out some pictures and words that I thought were completely unfamiliar. It seemed no-brainer to him. He just knew what all these pictures were. He picked up the information somewhere and organized it. I think kids like Adam are like sponges, picking everything up and making sense of it in their own way, despite the fact that we don’t always think so.

Language and comprehension is like art. We don’t necessarily acquire it the way Penelope Leach and Dr. Spock insist young children do, and we cannot be certain of how it is experienced and acquired, except that it does seem to be experienced on many sensory levels. We can make assumptions by how a person communicates, through different forms of expression. Like art, language acquisition, although widely studied, is largely ineffable; so vast that we will never know enough.

Lists, and obsessive interests like purported autistic collectors and artists like Joseph Cornell and Gregory Blackstock added fuel to my existing interest in not just letters, but the lists they can become. These are the way we organize information and make sense of them — the child who lines up the trains, the objects, perhaps,the artist who draws cities in perfect detail from memory, or the child who builds their knowledge like intricate networks of scaffolded knowledge. These are the ways we make sense and order of things.

Umberto Eco, art historian and novelist, by virtue of his profession, is interested in form, structure and order. As a curator of art, I too understand the art of catalogue. I enjoyed working in a library for part of my university career for this very reason. I loved the smell and feel of card catalogues in and of themselves. I understand the way curators and librarians collect things and how important it is — these libraries of human thought. In his book, The Infinity of Lists, Eco made me think about how I think Adam acquires language — like the curator — filing and cataloguing and even enjoying every sensory aspect like the musty smell of the card catalogue. How we take for granted the sheer art form of it.

 

To finish this post, I’ll leave the idea hanging for now. Just enjoy this. It’s something Adam found, actually:

But since we have digressed abundantly,
Turn back thine eyes forthwith to the right path,
So that the way be shortened with time.

This nature doth so multiply itself
In numbers, that there never yet was speech
Nor mortal fancy that can go so far.

And if thou notest that which is revealed
By Daniel, thou wilt see that in his thousands
Number determinate is kept concealed.

This primal light, that all irradiates it,
By modes as many is received therein,
As are the splendours wherewith it is mated.

Hence, inasmuch as on the act of the conceptive
The affection followeth, of love the sweetness
Therein diversely fervid is or tepid.

The height behold now and the amplitude
Or the eternal power, since it hath made
Itself so many mirrors, where ’tis broken

One in itself remaining as before.

— Excerpt from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, from Paradise, Canto XXIX, VV, 126-45.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.