I'm Autistic & Performing Poetry Helped Me Find My Niche

by Minerva Siegel

While being autistic presents me with a lot of frustrating challenges, it also gives me a lot of gifts. Autism isn’t a disease or something to be “cured,” it’s a fundamental difference in the way my brain works. Given this, it makes sense that studies have shown links between autism and increased creativity. My mind doesn’t think in a conventional way, and my idiosyncratic nature totally comes out in my poetry, which is freeform and often laced with theoretical physics references, tie-ins to multicultural folklore, and astrology shout-outs.

I’ve been in love with poetry since I was a little kid. I can’t get enough of it. Some of my best friends are really accomplished, published poets, and they are heavily involved in Milwaukee’s poetry scene. My good friend Bethany Price, author of the poetry collection Terror, has been trying to convince me to perform at local poetry readings for over a year. I honestly didn’t think I’d ever do it because of my autism.

As an autistic person, going out into a world that wasn't made with you or your unique needs in mind can be cripplingly intimidating.

Bright lights and busy, noisy environments overwhelm me really easily, and the thought of going into sensory overload while on stage in front of a bunch of strangers is nothing short of horrific to me. I have total meltdowns when my senses are overloaded. During these meltdowns, my mind feels like absolute chaos. It’s hell. I can’t think clearly, I get blinding migraines, my parasympathetic nervous system reacts, and I panic. Sometimes, that panic manifests outwardly as rage, and sometimes I just cry inconsolably. I avoid situations that might cause sensory overload like the plague, and I often turn into a bit of a hermit because of it. As an autistic person, going out into a world that wasn't made with you or your unique needs in mind can be cripplingly intimidating.

Autistic people (like me!) deserve fun and community, too.

Poems I read during the event.

I don’t want to be so scared of my sensory issues that I miss out on living my life. Those with autism deserve fun lives, too. I decline so many invitations out of fear of having meltdowns, and I’m kind of sick to death of missing out on potentially great experiences. Even though I have autism and struggle socially sometimes, I still want to be included. I crave community, and I deserve to be around people that are open-minded enough to appreciate my unique value.

Maybe that’s why, when the hosts of a poetry reading at a local art gallery asked me to perform, it was with a bold sort of courage that I finally said yes. But almost immediately, my anxiety set in.

What if the lights are too bright and I can’t handle it? What if it’s too loud there? What if I go into sensory overload, make a fool of myself and am blacklisted from the poetry scene forever? My poetry includes a lot of references to particle physics, planetary movements and old mythologies- what if no one likes it? What if this whole thing just makes me feel like even more of an outcast anomaly?

Still, I said I'd perform, and even though I was scared, part of me was really excited for the challenge.

Self-Care To Prepare, And Then... Showtime!

When the big day came, I spent most of it focusing on self-care to mentally prepare myself for the commotion later. I took the time to do my full 11-step Korean skincare routine and followed it up with a relaxing Lush bath (eff yeah, Rocket Science!). I drove across town hours early to make sure I missed anxiety-inducing rush-hour traffic, and hung out with some friends at a coffee shop until showtime.

I was the second act to go on. The lights were blinding as I climbed on stage and stepped up to the microphone, but as soon as I read the first line of my first poem, something happened that I never expected: I felt at home. The whole world sort of melted away, and I was at home in my poetry. The spotlights were so bright that I couldn’t see anyone out in the audience, which actually calmed me. My voice was strong and smooth, and I felt more confident than I ever thought I would.

My final line was punctuated with earnest applause. People shook my hand and congratulated me as I made my way back to my seat, and I felt so relieved that I didn’t even mind the commotion. I’d done it! I’m still so proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and not letting my autism stop me from doing something I really wanted to do.

Know your limits, but don't let fear stop you from living your best life.

Being aware of your mental health needs and boundaries is so important. There are things I simply cannot do because of my autism. I challenged myself by performing, but that doesn’t mean I’m about to attend a wild music festival or start going to crowded amusement parks. Years of therapy have made me self-aware enough to know my limits, and while I knew that becoming overloaded at the poetry reading was a possibility, I also recognized that it was mostly fear holding me back. By performing at the gallery, it was my own fear I was confronting, not my autism.

I’ve since been invited to speak at other galleries and events, and I’m excited to get more involved in the Milwaukee poetry scene. As an autistic person, I’ve spent my whole life being labeled “the weirdo” and alienated, and I feel so grateful to finally have found a social niche that encourages me to express myself creatively through poetry. I think finding your niche is really important when you have autism or any other sort of neurodivergence. I’ve been bullied and excluded for as long as I can remember, but I’ve finally been welcomed into a community that lets me bloom in my own way. How cool is that? How lovely?