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. It will form part of my book of poems about autism (coming out in April 2012 - Autism Awareness Month).
UPDATE: Since writing this poem I have come across an article published in May 2011 in the Journal of Evolutionary NeuroPsychology, hypothesising pretty much the same thing. Here is a summary of the article and here is the article itself. Jared Reser, the author, weighs in on the comments below this post. 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 for 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 good 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 gazelle.
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.
(c) Melinda Smith 2011