The General Assembly of the United Nations has declared April 2 as World Autism Day beginning in 2008. In the United States, April also represents Autism Awareness Month. Since this coincides with National Poetry Month, I felt the following poem would provide complementary recognition of both poetry and the increasing epidemic of autism. Ten years ago autism struck 1 in 10,000 children; today 1 in less than 150 children may be diagnosed with the disorder, and a conservative estimate suggests 35 million people worldwide are autistic. In the foreword to her book, Changing the Course of Autism: A Scientific Approach for Parents and Physicians, Katie Wright concludes that every 20 minutes another family is confronted by the discovery of autism in a child.
AUTISM: SEEKING INKLINGS IN AN OLD VIDEO
He held mussel shells—indigo blue inside and black
on back—or those round pebbles he had
found rolling like dark marbles in the tidewater
wash, as if he had a handful of hard candy.
The wind’s speed picked up, the sea shining behind
him, each wave displayed like a crinkled
sheet of tinfoil unfurled under that day’s final
splay of sunlight. Every one of our son’s
uneasy steps at the ocean’s edge left an impression,
still refilling with water—even as I witness
it now, in midwinter three years later. We could
not have known then to watch for the few
symptoms we would soon learn to view with fear.
Even those little hints we missed, a lack
of balance whenever he would lean to lift another
stick of driftwood, as if the shoreline’s
slant had suddenly become too steep, or the tipped
head and sideways glance he’d give us,
though we thought he only wanted reassurance,
were never seen as dubious sorts of acts
that ought to indicate a reason to have misgivings.
But to the two of us, now so suspicious,
feeling guilt, every unsure move that camera caught
appears to be uninvestigated evidence left
behind, even in this scene when the tape runs to its end.
He sits on the sand, back toward the shore,
counting out his collection of shells in a single file,
as if pretending every one of them were part
of some private treasure, the way anyone might
arrange family keepsakes, jewels or gems
kept as heirlooms somewhere in a darkened drawer,
brought out for comfort in a time of grief.
[“Autism: Seeking Inklings in an Old Video” appeared as part of a sequence of poems, “Whole Notes and Half Tones: Songs for My Son,” in my collection, Tidal Air, published by Pecan Grove Press in 2002.]