The Voice: Fall 2002

The Voice

Romkema publishes book of poetry

Craig Romkema is gifted with words. With one book of poetry already under his belt, his talent as a writer is apparent, but his relationship with the written word goes beyond that. As a young man dealing with autism and cerebral palsy, Craig communicates with those around him primarily through typing.

Slipping into autism between four and six months of age, Craig was essentially trapped inside his body, unable to communicate freely with those around him. His initial difficulty with communication made it easy for others to label him “retarded.” He seems to have lived his life to prove them wrong.

Speaking about Embracing the Sky, his new book of poetry, Craig says, “I hope someday to be known as a writer who happens to struggle with autism, not an autistic person who happens to write.” His outward appearance may make it hard for people to realize this, but, as Craig points out, in the world of disabilities, appearances can be deceiving.

Craig has worked to be taken seriously by others his whole life. At a very early age, a psychologist gave him an I.Q. test, but one based on motor skills that Craig could not perform. When he first went to school, he started working one-on-one with a teacher and was eventually moved to classes for the learning disabled.

Despite these early frustrations, Craig’s family knew that he understood more than people thought. According to Barb, Craig’s mom, “He gave us clues that he was there and that he was really smart.” A family that loves books, the Romkemas taught Craig to read at age three and a half, and suspected that he was absorbing what they taught. When they asked Craig to bring them a certain book, he would find the right one, evidence that he could read the titles and identify shape and color.

These beliefs were confirmed when the Romkemas found that, with the help of touch support, he could type on an alphabet board. An aide would provide wrist support so that Craig could type, one letter at a time, the things he wanted to say. Then, in the fifth grade, Craig came home and typed that he “didn’t want to be in those baby classes anymore.” He was taken out of the learning disabled classes and put back into regular classes with the help of an aide. Craig thrived, and since then has graduated from MOC-Floyd Valley High School in Orange City, Iowa, with honors and has earned twelve credits at Dordt.

Classes at Dordt have brought their own set of challenges and joys. “I love learning about any topic in depth,” says Craig. Because of ongoing medical treatments, he is presently taking four classes a year. “I’m overwhelmed at first,” he says, “but soon I enjoy the fruits of my work.” In the future, Craig would like to add more classes to his schedule.

Classes also have their frustrations, though. “The most frustrating part,” he says, “is the fact that I can’t freely talk with my mouth, and my hand isn’t very fast in typing out my answers.” As a result, Craig often can’t respond to interesting questions before another student has answered them.

“The second most frustrating part is the way my body responds to stress, sometimes with silliness or obsessive behavior,” says Craig. He tries very hard to control these behaviors, and has worked with relaxation techniques over the years, which have helped somewhat. Craig’s main concern, though, is for his fellow students. “I am aware of my obligation to the other students not to hinder their education by my presence among them,” he says.

These problems, although frustrating, have provided much of the inspiration for the poetry in Embracing the Sky. “I chose to begin by writing about my life experience,” says Craig. The poems were painful to write at first, he admits, but soon he got used to sharing his life and recalling moments along the way.

Craig hopes to write more books in the future, and to experiment with other forms of writing. For now, though, he simply hopes that his perspective can touch those who share his life situation, and help others better understand autism.

“I know there are thousands of families who have just discovered that their son or daughter is autistic, and I can help them with my insights into this condition,” says Craig. “Hopefully, my perspective can add some measure of grace to the world.”

by Craig Romkema

The glance
richocheting into thought,
assaying my appearance,
combined with misconceptions
about people like

I am here beside you
thinking, learning,
while my body,
like some freakish
other self,
carries out ridiculous
silly games,
rubbish routines,
which you see,

And I see
the glance,
disbelief reflected
in your eyes
leading to
further craziness,