Autism Interview #213: Traci Neal on Poetry and Advocacy

Traci Neal is a poet, speaker, and public advocate. Neal’s writings are featured in The Elevation Review, 1619 Speaks Anthology, Sims Library of Poetry, Spoken Black Girl Magazine, The Art of Autism, Poetry X Hunger, Text Power Telling Magazine, Black Art Magazine, and many other media publications. She has been featured as a guest poet on National Public Radio (NPR) for Poetry Moment in Spokane, Washington to recite her original poetry. This week she shared her experience with obtaining an autism diagnosis as an adult and her passion for poetry and autism advocacy.

What made you decide to pursue an autism diagnosis at the age of 34? Describe how you felt upon receiving a diagnosis.

I was having a conversation with my mother around late July of 2023. I cannot recall what we were talking about. At the end of our chat, my mother mentioned to me that I may be autistic. I heard her say this other times during my late teens and early adult years. This time I had to know if it was actually true. 

I researched to see if I could find a psychologist in Columbia, South Carolina, where I currently live. I also wanted to see who would accept my health insurance for the screening. I was on a budget. After my diagnosis, I felt such a sense of relief. I can finally put a name to why I process things differently and act the way I do. 

Your website explains that, as a teenager, poetry was your outlet to deal with bullying and having low-self esteem. What was that like? How did poetry help you during this time?

I always desired acceptance and love for as long as I can remember. Along with my autism, I have ADHD. I was socially awkward and smaller than many of my peers, which was not considered good back then, as a southern black girl. I was supposed to have ‘meat on my bones’.  I was an easy target for bullies. 

My autism makes me appear child-like at times, so I had to work extra hard to blend in with my peers. Poetry was a way to connect on a deeper level to my faith in God. The words are divinely given. I did not know any of this until after my diagnosis. Seventh grade is when the words started to advance. The writings were beyond what I could comprehend, and they talked about things I had never experienced. 

By being able to tap into the supernatural through poetry, it was like being in another world away from the pain of my persecutors. That is why I say poetry was my outlet from the bullying and my low self-esteem. It was a portal to a place for me to just breathe. 

What attracts you to writing poetry? What do you enjoy most about it and how were you first introduced to it?

Since the poetry is divinely given, I feel like a messenger. The words have touched so many, especially when knowing about my autism and how long it took to find out about it. Poetry brings people together. It allows voices who have no words to be shown a way for their feelings to be expressed. 

I was first introduced to poetry by my parents. I loved reading Dr. Seuss’ books as a kid. My father took me to the library a lot in my childhood because he was a high school teacher. He wanted to make sure I was ready for school. I read a lot of Dr. Seuss’ books growing up. My autism brought challenges to my reading though. 

I struggled with reading in second grade so much. My teacher even noted it on one of my report cards. I know my autism should have been discovered then. One day, I just miraculously read an article to my mother. I have been reading ever since. 

Keep in mind, I have no idea what the majority of the words mean or how to spell them, yet I still can read them. This is true with poetry too. I have to constantly look up words on Google and find the definitions. Most of the time, I will not retain any of it if it is not a word I repeatedly look up.  

What are the topics of some of your favorite poems?

My favorite topics of poems talk about enlightenment, empowerment, compassion, and love. These are the kinds of topics shown in my poetry as well. Even when the message makes individuals think, it ultimately is coming from a place of love. 

What other poets do you enjoy/admire?

The poets I have admired since childhood are Phillis Wheatley and Maya Angelou. I look back on why I chose them. It has a lot to do with my autism. I felt like Wheatley’s poems were so eloquent. I could tell she was intelligent. I wished to be intellectual for a long time. I tried hanging out with smart people too, but it never made me smarter. I admired Phillis Wheatley’s intelligence. 

Angelou’s poems were empowering. They made me want to change the world and be a positive influence in society. I felt like this was more obtainable for me than trying to be intelligent. The funny thing is that my autism grants me access to poetry incorporating intelligence and empowerment. 

What topics are you most excited to speak about?

Topics I am most excited to speak about are overcoming rejection, building relationships for success, and having an appreciative attitude. I think these topics help encourage more people of all ages to display a greater sense of morality. If each of us would be willing to show kindness in some way, I think the world would be a whole lot better. 

What has helped you most to develop healthy self esteem as an adult? What advice do you have for other undiagnosed adults who may have had similar situations as you?

Personally, having a good support system, setting boundaries, doing positive activities, and meditation are basic tools that have helped me in the long run. By not trying to fit in, but being myself instead, I continue to witness what individuals are good fits for my life right now. 

I set boundaries as to who can be a part of my personal space and who I need to leave alone. I do not need negativity in my life at this point. It still has taken me time to ‘unmask’ my autism and feel comfortable to share it with others. I love going to kiddy events, watching kid movies, and listening to kiddy songs. I love bubbles a lot! I embrace who I am and do not allow others to make me feel bad about it.

The advice I would give other undiagnosed adults is to not be afraid to get tested. In communities of color, especially the black race, there is a negative stigma around having autism. I think the more people of color get tested, the more research can be done to help the next generation to thrive. I believe in making things better for those coming after me. 

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