(c) Melinda Smith 2011

A prehistory of autism

In Autism Poem on August 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm
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Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

This poem is in the voice of a tribal elder from long ago, describing some of the special members of the tribe who display ASD-like behaviours.

As the mother of a child with ASD I have often wondered how my son would be perceived if we were living in a different place and time – one without a mass education system, where the main societal unit was a small community or tribe.  Of course no one can ever know the answer to that question, but my hunch is that his ‘deficits’ would not be as much of a problem, and would be tolerated better because his ‘gifts’ would be thought of as supremely useful. What follows is a poetic response to that thought experiment.

UPDATE: Since writing this poem I have come across an article published in May 2011 in the Journal of Evolutionary NeuroPsychology by Dr Jared Reser, hypothesising pretty much the same thing. Here is a summary of the article and here is the article itself. When this poem first appeared on my other blog, Dr Reser was kind enough to comment on it (in a good way).  Great minds think alike…

A prehistory of autism

This one can run and run, never tiring;
climb trees and cliffs until the gibbons are afraid for him.
Even when he falls he feels no pain.  He has little need of sleep.
He speaks only by repeating what he hears
but he is the best of nightwatchmen
and in the hunt he is magnificent.

That one scents the lions on the wind;
smells the poison in the berries.
If her special stone is taken away
she makes wounded beast howls
but she can spot a snake’s hole at forty paces
from three newly bent twigs and a fresh hollow in the dust.

This other knows the places of the stars by heart.
He speaks often of the wandering ones:
he can see their journeys as clear as the track to the waterhole
although he will not look any man in the eye.
He sits alone all day, dotting sky pictures on pieces of bark.
Only he knows the day when the wildebeest will move.

That one over there has no love but for making spears.
He chips stone after stone until the sun is low;
walks far to find strong wood for the shafts.
He does not join the hunt: he is slow and clumsy
and does not do what he is told – but in the hands of others
his weapons fly true and bring down many of the running herd.

Another has the gift of singing –
all melodies are hers at one hearing.
She has mastered the speech of those over the mountain
and of the fishers by the lake.
She will not let men come to her, although she is grown.
She screams and spits at any who try.  Her kind smiles are only for small children
and for those who bring her new songs.

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  1. your poetry is making me cry today.

    i hope when your book is published i can read it again with joy. We are in our first 6 months of diagnosis with an 11yr old aspergers boy.

    • Oh Tricia, my heart goes out to you and your family. Have you met other ASD families in your area ? Honestly that is the one thing that has saved us many times – just knowing there is someone else not far away who you can call and vent to. I hope for a wonderful future for you and your boy and I would be honoured if my book found a home on your bookshelf one day. Melinda x

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