Saugerties man uses poetry to communicate about the autism-spectrum experience

Brian Liston (photo by Stacey Estrella)

Both in practice and prose, local poet Brian Liston has established himself as an advocate for area residents on the autism spectrum.

In Through Autistic Eyes, a chapbook of poetry written over the last 20 years and published in April, Liston, 38, hopes to imbue confidence in others on the autism spectrum who may yet not have found their creative voice. Rather than resting on the laurels of his newfound poetic success, however, Liston sees his work and its impact as serving a greater purpose to inspire and pay deference. Proceeds from his book sales will go to the Global and Regional Asperger’s Syndrome Partnership.

“I’m lucky to be in the community I’m in right now,” said Liston of the local artistic community’s support. “I know there are people [on the autism spectrum] who feel like they don’t matter or that their voices and viewpoints don’t matter. Through Autistic Eyes is my way of saying that you’re not alone and that there’s a community that cares about you. Wherever that is is wherever you need to look. People think of autism and they think of Rain Man — He isn’t the only voice when it comes to people on the spectrum.”


In what he calls his “signature” poem, “Autistic Superkid,” Liston calls himself a “Half-Citizen of Earth; Half-Citizen of Wallbrook.” This refers to fictitious mental institution in Rain Main where Raymond Babbit lived, and ultimately returned. The cover of his book, designed by friend George Nicholson, features a yellow smiley face with an eye of Horus, meant to symbolize clarity in vision.

Liston’s work has been published in the Chronogram, the now-defunct Post Star and in Riverine: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Poets.

“I start with some ideas. First of all it helps to have a way to go about the poem itself,” said Liston of his process. “Do you write an acrostic, a haiku, a sestina, free verse? One of the things I like to do first, I like to see if the poem I’m working on fits into a form [of poetry]. I can fit it in the quiver and focus the ideas on what I have. I try to incorporate as much as I can inside the poem before I let it go and hopefully it hits the target. Some poems are ready simultaneously, some need time to summer.”

At the interview for this story, Liston wore a Center for Spectrum Services hat, where he attended school as a child when it was still called the Children’s Annex. On his finger he wore a gold cladaugh ring, a memento for his poet grandfather from Limerick, Ireland. He also sported ARC of Ulster-Greene gear, which provides him with local housing. This charitable paying-forward of Liston’s own experience is no more evident than in the author’s work with the ARC, where he is a devoted literacy instructor, and in his service as an advisory board member of the Global and Regional Asperger’s Syndrome Partnership, or GRASP. 

Through these groups, Liston wants to instill the same passion for the arts and literary community in individuals with spectrum-related disorders that he has.

Although he was trained by the Ulster Literacy Association, he said he has a unique approach to teaching adults to read.

“One of the things I like to do is games,” said Liston. “I’ll base them on classic game shows, which is one of my fascinations. It’s one of the things that I like. I like game shows, but I like to do things that make it easier for the people there, but not make it so easy that it becomes boring.”

Included in his literary repertoire are games that resemble Pyramid, Password and The Price is Right.  Game shows are a recurring theme in Liston’s work — in his poem “Flashback at the Local Library,” Liston compares himself to Charles Van Doren, a man who testified in U.S. Supreme Court that the producers of a 1959 TV game show provided him with correct answers before the competition. In the same poem, he calls his mentor, the late Ulster County Community College librarian Larry Burke, “the Van Doren of the library world,” referring to American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Van Doren.

Having written his first poems in the formative days of his time at Saugerties High School (Class of 1999), Liston went on befriend Burke, who Liston calls a “bastion in the library and arts community in Ulster County” in college. Burke headed up an innovative information literacy program at SUNY Ulster’s library, which recruited campus professors to instruct patrons on a wide range of reading and research topics. When Burke, whose own children were diagnosed with autism, read some of Liston’s poetry, he was struck by the creative potential that he saw his own children might one day aspire to.

Although Burke passed away 12 years ago, Liston is still intensely grateful for the guidance and dedication that his mentor showed. “To have been working with someone that was such a giant in the library and arts communities, I kind of feel like I’m making him proud. I want to be as good as he was, but he’s such a tough act to follow,” recalled Liston. “He was such an inspiration to me when it came to learning more about poetry and learning more about the arts, that when I saw other people who needed help, when it came to helping them to read and learn, I wanted to help them as best I could.”

Liston’s book can be purchased at Liston will perform readings from his chapbook at 6 p.m., on Monday, Nov. 19 at Mudd Puddle Coffee Roasters on Main Street in New Paltz.

Autistic Superkid

I am and have always been

the autistic superkid

I am one of the first

But not the last

And I am always trying to improve

I am an ambassador of two worlds

Half-citizen of Earth; Half-citizen of Wallbrook.

This is how I truly am

Even though it’s not how I look


Humanity: Different and the Same

Each person is the same, and in a way unique

From they way they act to the way they speak

From the different ways they dress

To they way they confess a mess

Some may have a different station in life

Others might have had it hard in their strife

And yet, we are all interlinked

Some in a way of life, others in the way they think.

We autistic people inside an earthen rainbow —

Different and yet the same, this I truly know.