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These past days I’ve been waking up early. A slipped disk makes lying awake painful, so I find myself at 4am sitting by the open window with a soothing cup of tea and listening to the blackbirds singing. There are two of them, and they sing at intervals.

Each one has hisblackbird own song and experiments with it. I try to play their songs on the keyboard, at some point falling into “Blackbird singing in the dead of night“. The Beatles wrote that one with the civil rights movement in mind, back in ’68. I’ve finished my tea and the sun’s still not up, so I surf the internet, looking for a good video of this song. No dice.Instead, I find another kind of “blackbird”. Her name is Amanda Baggs, and she is autistic. She has managed to make the internet her medium to communicate with the whole world. Using type-to-speech technology, she overcomes her disability — she stopped speaking in her early twenties. Not enough, she makes a film of what she has to say using video technology and uploads it to the internet — all by herself. So the internet has empowered her and others in a highly networked autistic and Asperger syndrome online community. It has become to them what sign language has been to deaf people: a channel for them to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.What Amanda Baggs has to say is really interesting. (See her video “In my language”) She is translating what she calls “her language” for us, and she makes the point that, though we consider her strange, we are the ones who are confused. Nobody bothers to understand how she communicates, and with whom, why, or about what. “My language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. … I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me.”

It’s quite strange to imagine that to her, a faucet with running water or a window letting in sunlight is just as relevant a conversational partner as you or I would be. Perhaps more so, because she responds to sensations, and feels water and sunlight very directly. It’s such a different world, which makes communication so strenuous. But then again, the difference isn’t absolute. After all, sometimes the best conversations I have are with blackbirds.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your lifeYou were only waiting for this moment to arise
Black bird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly
Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night

  • David Wolman in Wired, “The Truth about Autism”, 25 February 2008, shows how Baggs uses computer technologies to express herself, spending almost all of her waking hours online. She definitely has a way with words. Should autism be treated, Wolman asks her. Yes, says Baggs, it should be treated with respect.
  • TV report: Second Life with Autism, in 4 News
  • Kids’ Health: A friendly, informative website that explains health issues, e.g. autism, to children and teens.
  • Event for songbirds: Come sing Handel’s Messiah at the Church of the Ascension, Munich, on Sunday, March 9, 2-4pm. A wonderful experience!

Learning the Ropes – Worte verstehen

blackbird – Amsel
slipped disk – Bandscheibenvorfall
soothing – beruhigend
at intervals – abwechselnd, in Abständen
to fall into – überleiten
the dead of night – mitten in der Nacht
civil rights movement – Bürgerrechtsbewegung
to have in mind – denken an
no dice – kein Glück
type-to-speech technology – Technologie, um Textdateien vorzulesen
disability – Behinderung
upload – hochladen
empower – befähigen, ermächtigen, mündig machen
deaf – gehörlos
confused – verwirrt
to bother – sich die Mühe machen
to interact – interagieren, kommunizieren
faucet with running water – Wasserhahn mit fließendem Wasser
conversational partner – Gesprächspartner
sensations – Empfindungen, Sinneseindrücke
strenuous – anstrengend
sunken – eingefallen, hohl
waking hours – Stunden des Wachseins
have a way with words – sich gut ausdrücken können