‘Speechless’ is the first book written by Irish author Fiacre Ryan, who shares his journey as an autistic man and non-verbal writer in this non-fiction memoir and poetry collection.
Published in 2022, ‘Speechless’ is a striking collection of poems and reflections from Fiacre’s unique point of view as a non-verbal autistic man living in Ireland. Diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, and non-verbal for his entire life, Fiacre seeks to defy the odds stacked against him as an autistic author in this, his first book.
Fiacre started writing at the age of 16 using Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), a tool used to help non-speaking children and adults communicate using a letterboard. Whilst his family had tried lots of methods to communicate with Fiacre, they had begun to lose hope. With RPM, Fiacre’s world opened up, shocking his family with his knowledge and understanding. Speaking in the RTE Documentary, ‘Speechless,’ aired in March 2022, Fiacre’s sister Becky says that by using the letterboard to communicate with Fiacre, ‘We’ve been able to know a new person.’
As the first non-verbal autistic student to sit (and pass – with flying colours) the Irish Leaving Certificate exams, Fiacre felt enormous pressure to fit in and prove his intelligence to his peers and to society at large. In his book, Fiacre reflects on feeling held back by other people’s perceptions of what he is capable of.
He describes his efforts to pass his exams as an attempt to ‘verify’ himself in the eyes of society; that by proving his intelligence, he could prove his value, and show that he deserves the respect and understanding shown to his peers.
‘Needing some type of assistance does not make someone less of a person. Being different does not impact my label of human.’
Describing himself as an ‘accidental advocate,’ Fiacre’s story has resonated with many autistic people struggling to be afforded the same opportunities in education as their neurotypical peers. In his book, he speaks of being separated from other learners, and not being given the same opportunities to flourish and thrive:
‘I am so weary and bored doing stupid autism things at the unit. Others eat their lunch each day at the canteen but I am always at the unit, alone.’
Fiacre’s prose is heart breaking at times, and he seems to resent being autistic – not because it makes him less, but because of how society views him through that lens. He writes, ‘Yes I cry each day – autism wet tears. Stupid useless autistic waste. Yet I am awesome.’ Whilst Fiacre understands that he is of value and worth, society’s perceptions of his worth swarm around him uncomfortably as he fights to break free of the restrictions placed upon him. Advocating more understanding and acceptance for autistic learners, he asks the reader to find new ways of teaching which are tailored towards better understanding and supporting autistic people to unlock their potential.
‘Teach us appropriately and everyone can learn.’
He further points out that the focus on certain subjects and exam settings in education does not give autistic people the opportunity to showcase their intelligence:
‘Tests are neurotypical, and I am not typical. I am unable to speak, voiceless… Caution, and re-test in a different way, then see my autistic brain show my intelligence.’
Fiacre says that RPM has ‘enabled’ his intelligence to be recognised by others, but that it was always there: that it exists whether society recognises it or not. By sharing his personal reflections and journey as a young non-verbal autistic man traversing life, he tells us plainly not to assume that because someone is non-verbal, they have nothing to say.
Whilst Fiacre’s communication abilities are beyond what his family had imagined, his writing skills are extraordinary in their own right. Evoking his inner world with a unique and masterful command of language and imagery, Fiacre’s poems in particular are emotive and arresting. Fiacre’s main source of inspiration is nature, a place where he feels calm and content, and his poems convey his personal experiences with a clarity and beauty that is thought-provoking. The following extract from his poem ‘Spring Walk’ is just one example from the book where Fiacre takes his own experiences and translates them, devastatingly, into a universal struggle to be understood and to survive in a world which can be chaotic and hostile:
‘Sticky catkin buds tell of life Secretly hiding every day, Waiting to reveal, hastening to leaf. Crocus bursts orange crush petals by a stump. Early daffodil ragged wind – torn, broken – Tries to hold up her head. Teased by each gust she stays, A promise of strength.’
Here Fiacre evokes the strong imagery of budding flowers struggling to bloom to convey his own struggle to flourish in the harsh and often challenging environments of school and social life. His poetry speaks with its own clarity and beauty, and Fiacre believes that writing has ‘tamed’ his busy thoughts, which felt like a ‘tsunami’ in his brain.
‘I paddle under the waves Treading deep bobbing anxiety, Wet tears, yet each day, surviving’ – from ‘Swan Eulogy’
In particular, the short piece of prose entitled ‘My Experience of Living with Autism’ provides an insight into Fiacre’s perception of the world when he is stressed and anxious, which can make life extremely chaotic at those times. Colleague and friend of Studio 3 Peter Vermeulen often says that the world can be a VUCA place for autistic people – volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. Fiacre’s writing brings this experience to life in an evocative and powerful way. ‘Speechless’ is not only a memoir detailing Fiacre’s experiences of being autistic and trying to fit in to a world that does not accommodate or understand him; it is a declaration and celebration of difference.
‘It is too easy to exclude people who cannot speak up for themselves. We have a right to be treated with respect. Our opinions matter, our lives matter. No one has the right to silence our unheard voices.’
Fiacre’s message is clear: ‘Nothing is impossible if I get support and understanding.’ His message is one that has resonated strongly with many autistic people, and our hope is that by sharing his story further more people can be inspired and moved by his writing.
We would particularly recommend this book to people working in schools, and to autistic people who sometimes feel like they cannot achieve their goals – believe, like Fiacre, that you can, with the right support and self-confidence.
‘I believe that there are no limits to what young people with a disability can achieve, we just need to believe in ourselves, and for others to believe in us.’
There is also a documentary on Fiacre’s journey available to watch on RTE player: https://www.rte.ie/player/movie/speechless-s1-e1/264381992324
Written by Rachel McDermott
Studio 3 Social Media and Information Co-ordinator