Walking Autistic with Skoliogeography

An Untranslated Experience


in Ideas • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


I am going to the corniche because I am always going to the corniche, but then diversion: in the butcher’s window, the gloss of a goat’s gelatinous eye and the reflection of electricity fizzing from streetlights that should have gone dead at dawn. From the shop next door mannequins jamble the doorway, their faces piously carved away to stained, Styrofoam nothings. And, up above, the punch-drunk blue of the noontide sky.  


Psychogeography, writing that explores the intersection of place and psyche, has been a tool of my writing practice for years. I write about the street and the history of the street and the people and cats and lights and dreams of the street. I write about myself on the street.  

When I share this writing in my writing program it is called weird. One reader says my work is full of an “extraordinary implicit animism,” another says they are bewildered by its fragmentation and intensity of emotion, while other comments on the precarious interplay between place and character, saying that the setting is more of a character than the actual characters. 

No one is quite sure if this weird work of mine is magical realism or surrealism or fantastical, but I am quite sure and I tell them: it is only reality, only the bare bones of fact. 


Moving on from the faceless mannequins, I count eleven cracks in the ruptured pavement, each one spiraling its own course toward the sea. The corniche. I am still heading to the corniche. The street has changed though. It was the gloss in the goat’s eye and the loud blue of the sky that did it. I can still hear the blue ringing in my ears. Today the city is conspiring, beguiling, banging drums of myth and memory, so I count again the eleven cracks and, unsteadily numbered, move on. 

“Maybe the way your brain is wired is weird,” the psychiatrist says. We are at the end of the hour-long appointment, but it feels as if I’ve been sitting on this lumpy couch for far longer. I felt frustrated during this appointment as I tried to express my inability to do normal things, to live a normal life, to just be normal, but I know the doctor’s quip about my brain’s faulty wiring is meant to be a light-hearted joke, so I smile.  

Into a courtyard teeming with pigeons, into a courtyard hazy with bukhoor, into a courtyard thick with a watery sort of sunlight. My mind, already following a thousand trails of sensory input, fragments: the sunlight is the sunlight before a rain shower/the bukhoor is cheap and too sweet along the edges/the pigeons coo and their coos form a cottony softness that hovers like fog.  

I don’t think these thoughts in quick succession, I think these thoughts simultaneously. The world around me feels as if it is thickening, meaning gathers and coheres so that everything I see distracts me with its significance.

Eleven cracks, I remember the eleven cracks in the ruptured pavement spiraling toward the corniche. Distant now, the eleven cracks, the ruptured pavement, but the memory is clear, and time stitches itself together: there is always coherence among the shards.  

The neuropsychologist begins by asking questions about my childhood, so I tell him about the little girl that I was.  

Hyperlexic, I lived in books. I was obsessed with ideas, my brain spinning as I tried to ingest every scrap of knowledge I could to make sense of the world. I invented words and talked so incessantly that I was kicked out of a preschool ballet class. I made strange, repetitive noises and fidgeted in unusual ways. I couldn’t stand the feel of denim or silverware, the sound of ticking clocks, or the stink of detergent. I loved to act, in fact, I believed that was what socializing was, carefully studying my peers and then putting on a constant performance. At school, I lectured others on obscure subjects, forgot assignments, and annoyed everyone with my nervous tics. Because I was considered “gifted,” my difficult behavior was attributed to laziness and a bad attitude. In middle school, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors took hold, and by the time I reached university, panic attacks consumed my life.

Then I tell the neuropsychologist about the adult that I am.  

I describe my constant rumination, the way my mind relentlessly crunches through vast amounts of data looking for patterns even when I am so exhausted by the process that I wish it wouldn’t. I tell him about my overwhelming anxiety. We discuss my adherence to routine and my difficulty coping with change. Face flaming, I describe the words I still invent, the strange sounds that never stopped. I tell him about my current special interests, the ones I study intensively, reading stacks of books and taking notes until I write essays on them — or lecture bemused strangers at parties about the Space Shuttle Columbia or the transcultural history of the Arabian Gulf. I tell the doctor that I struggle to recognize faces and sarcasm, and that I say what I mean and expect others to do the same. I explain that, as I’ve gotten older, for days after a social event I am full of a jittery fatigue that leaves me feeling jagged, as if my thoughts have been replaced by a whirlwind of broken glass. 

The evaluation takes hours and when it is over, I am so drained that I feel like a blank space where there used to be a person.  

When I meet with the doctor at the follow-up appointment, it takes a moment for his words to sink in: autism spectrum disorder. 

Ragged clouds have made their way in from offshore and the face of the city goes mottled in the sudden shadow. I smell rain and I smell the shadow itself, the heavy, limpid weight of it. There is expectation in the air, the crowd is on the brink of giddiness; if I could find the right word, I think I could set this whole street off.

I tell no one about my diagnosis. Instead, I read.

I learn that autism is a neurotype thought to occur in 1-2% of the population. It is diagnosed by clinical observation that looks for lifelong difficulties or differences in socialization and communication, restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, sensory sensitivities, and rigid adherence to routine. It has been likened to a different wiring system for the brain; it is less a set of observable behaviors and more the internal experience of sensory, cognitive, and communication differences.  

For decades, autism research primarily focused on boys who expressed their autistic traits in a narrow range of behavior that was thought to encompass the entirety of the condition. It is only in recent years that experts have begun to acknowledge that the way autism can be expressed and experienced varies widely. I learn that because autism is believed to be a multifactorial condition, meaning it has different causes, these traits are expressed differently by every autistic person. There is now a growing awareness that generations of autistic people, in particular girls, have gone undiagnosed. 

One reason people often go undiagnosed is masking. Masking is an attempt by an autistic person to disguise their neurodivergence and appear neurotypical. Masking is not the small adjustments we all make to get along with others, it is a constant and elaborate attempt to suppress traits of neurodivergence and appear neurotypical in order to be accepted. Some autistics liken it to a survival strategy. It is often done unconsciously so that autistic people who mask assume this is what socializing is like for everyone. And because many doctors still base diagnosis on externally observable behavior rather than an assessment of internal experience informed by autistic people, autistics who are high maskers often fly under the diagnostic radar.  

It is often assumed that if someone can use masking to disguise their autism, then they must not be impacted very much by their autistic traits. But masking does not mean someone is not struggling, merely that they have learned to hide this struggle from others. Masking may allow autistics to blend in with neurotypical society, but autistic people report that it is exhausting, anxiety-producing, and leaves one with a feeling of inauthenticity. In fact, autistics who mask intensely are known to be at particular risk for suicidality. 

I am going to the corniche because I am always going to the corniche, but first there is a city to thread myself through. Raindrops have begun to spatter the ground. I can feel the tension building, something is drawing closer, displacing the gravity of the street. The crowd around me is coming apart as people get into taxis or duck into alleys and coffee shops. It feels like something is waiting, it feels like something is always waiting just around the next corner.  

In my reading I learn that from the dawn of autism as a diagnosis, experts have observed that autistic people, as M. Remi Yergeau writes in Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, “use language in unusual ways. From mutism to metaphor, from abstraction to repetition, syntax, word choice, logorrhea, monologuing, echolalia, inversion, precision, neologism, and formulaic use of words, autistic language is startling, inventive, challenging, irregular.”

Like so much else about autistic behavior, this unusual language has long been considered a sign of pathology. As Julia Miele Rodas writes in Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe, the autistic penchant for “bricolage, assemblage, and pastiche [are seen] as aesthetic failures rather than experimental techniques,” while our focus on background information is considered inappropriate, distracting, and unnecessary. 

On the rain-slick street, the blast of too many horns, somewhere nearby there has been an accident or an almost accident, and I fumble my hands to my ears, willing the sound to cease.

And then it does.

The street is like that sometimes.

The world of sound returns slowly. The hiss of a bicycle through a puddle, the muted hush of a pigeon in rafters I cannot see. Then there is a low throb of thunder from the passing storm, the slap of heels on wet pavement. The street takes a breath and I exhale.

And then the city is back, and I am back in the city, and I am still walking toward the corniche. The swift shift from silence to not-silence has a rhythm that lingers, a certainty of there/not there that clings to the steps I take, that hums in the hang of my hands at the ends of my arms.  

In my reading, I discover people who view the autistic weirding of language not as pathological but as marvelous, and I feel a wild keening in my chest.

When I read Kristina Chew’s suggestion, in “Fractioned Idiom: Metonymy and the Language of Autism,” that for an autistic person the world may be experienced as “a continuous difficult poem steeped in metaphors, verbal echoes, wordplay,” I want to shout.

When I read in Autistic Disturbances, Mathew Belmonte’s argument that autistic expression “is fundamentally nonlinear,” I do shout, and the sound flies out of my mouth and fills the room I am in with echoes that linger and remind me of sunlight. 

I read an essay by Chris Martin, “The Listening World: Neurodivergent Voices for a More-Than-Human World,” in which he suggests that “autistic thinkers welcome the participation of animals, trees, objects, and even weather into our human world of thought and action.” While the etymological roots of the word autism refer to the belief that autistics are inordinately self-focused, Martin suggests it is often autistic people who have “a prodigious gift for perception,” a perception that is not limited to other humans, but a perception that is open to the surrounding environment “that dwarfs their neurotypical counterparts.” It is believed that autistic individuals may take in more sensory information than non-autistic people, and that the autistic brain processes this information more intensely, so that this connection to the world can be both deeply satisfying and intensely overwhelming. 

In Ralph James Savarese’s “Toward a Postcolonial Neurology: Autism, Tito Mukhopadhyay, and a New Geo-poetics of the Body,” Tito Mukhopadhyay, an autistic writer, explains that his “boundary between imagining and experiencing something is a very delicate one… Maybe I do not have to try very hard to be the wind or a rain cloud. There is a big sense of extreme connection I feel with a stone or perhaps with a pen on a tabletop of a tree… I just have to think about it and become it.” 

I think of the fragmented, orthogonal nature of my writing, its repetition and rumination, its privileging of setting and description over character and plot, and the tumbling torrent of echolalic language flowing from an intense attunement to place that feels like my fundamental state of being. It was this torrent of words that got me in trouble as a child when I could not stop talking, it is this torrent of words that in my writing program is called weird and surreal and bizarre, and it is this torrent of words that is, to me, nothing more than a straightforward communication of reality. 

In reading about autism, I have seen my most intimate thoughts and private behaviors listed in the pages of textbooks and diagnostic manuals. But it is only when I read about autistic linguistic traits, and see them everywhere within my own writing, that I finally allow myself to accept the truth of my diagnosis. So it is, at last, my own weird words that lead me to myself. 

Walking through a parking lot a few blocks from the corniche, I note the cars skating by and the way the rain-damp potted ferns in a balcony overhead are about to tip over and the way the hem of my abaya is damp from the greasy puddle two blocks back and the sound of a roaring AC-unit and the music from an idling taxi and the sputtering cough of a little boy drinking a can of Mirinda too fast and the sky overhead still shifting as the emptied clouds move on. 

On a swaybacked table outside a shop there is an assortment of dazzles: a hot pink alarm clock in the shape of a mosque to wake you with prayer call, Fula dolls in indoor and outdoor fashions, a basket of agate rings, a basket of geodes, a basket of baskets. I pass a garden wall topped with crushed glass and a palm tree that lists out over the street, reaching, reaching. The rain has stopped but its leaves are still spangled with condensation. If I tilt my head and catch the canopy in the proper light, the street around me sparkles, revealing its true self.  

What readers were picking up on in my psychogeographic writing that they called odd, and I called reality was autistic perception and expression. I think back on the words I heard — skewed, crooked, weird — and I let them spin their thorny spines through my mind. Amid the echolalic repetition I think of the prefix skolio, from a Greek word meaning crooked or diverging. Then I think of the word geography, also from Greek, meaning earth writing. Then I think of what might happen if the two are put together.

In this putting together, in this creation of word and thought and path, I find skoliogeography.  

I drift where the street wants me to drift, finding my way through the skeletal bones of a burned-down mall, down an alley lichened with litter, through a shop that begins as a toy store before becoming a fine crystal showroom, the smell of the nearby sea turning the air around me bright and then brighter.  

Skoliogeography is an orthogonal psychogeography that gives preeminence to autistic ways of being and doing and perceiving and writing. Skoliogeography resists ossified methodology, better to say skoliogeographies, perhaps, because there is not one, but many. As an interrogation of the shifting space of the self, skoliogeography understands the transformative potential of solipsism, that maligned autistic trait. As an implementation of the autistic gaze, skoliogeography is something that can be found both within a street, within the walker on the street, and within the text produced by the walker on the street. Skoliogeography is untranslated autistic experience. It lives in the crackling electricity of the skin, where it can exist shorn of motive or framework. It is autistic consciousness on the page, but it is a consciousness that is, at all times, emerging. As an aesthetic, it is bound by liquid borders and accessible to all. Skoliogeography seeks out of the fundamental beyond the plastic bustle of the crowd. It is a shout that beckons the world to witness the ethereal, the ecstatic, the transcendent. Skoliogeography is not just seeking the marvelous in the mundane but expecting it. 

In the arterial hum of the city, I walk. Faster now, I can feel the heft of the buildings, stacks of shops and flats and workshops, falling off of my shoulders, releasing their grip. I am nearing the edge of the land, the edge of the water, the point in space where the two come together, and I feel myself about to come apart. 

Sunlight burns through the last remnant of cloud and drips yellow off the sides of buildings. I stand on the corner of the last street, and I squint. This fragile new light is a marvel, it tessellates between sound and taste and texture. For a moment it overwhelms, then I remember my path, the ruptured pavement, the dripping palms, the moment when the city returned. 

In front of me is a roar of traffic and a gulf of time. The sea is right there and the scent of it is strong in my skull. For one last moment I am a part of the sidewalk crowd and then I break away. Alone, I move across the final street, through the torrent of taxis and cars and buses, these wayward streaks of color and noise, and finally I reach the corniche and move across the sand, leaving a trail of footprints in my wake.•


Natasha Burge is a Saudi-born American writer whose family lived in the Arabian Gulf for more than half a century. Her work has been published around the world, anthologised, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, made a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and the Dzanc Prize for Fiction, and translated into Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. Her debut book Drifts, a memoir of autism and transcultural identity, is out now from Footnote Press.