Three poems about my son, who has autism

Meltdown in a shopping mall


The security guards

who circle my son

look at me for guidance.

Their authority has crumbled.


I’m in total control

of these four young men,

three in grey uniforms,

one in jeans, T-shirt and hoodie

thrashing on the polished floor




frightening the shoppers.


I want to tell them they’re in no danger:

I can easily get him to attack me.

He prefers to attack the people he loves.


My son wants two date scones

from Bakers Delight

and to eat them in the food court.

Daay sc-ON! Daay sc-ON! Daay sc-ON!

he chanted from the back of the car.


We’ve aborted our mission

on the lower-ground concourse

halfway between

Target and Golden Banana

where he’s been felled by

the fluorescent lights that beat down on him

the white noise that roars all around him

the shoppers and trolleys

that confuse and disorient him.


My son’s face has gone from purple to blue.

His squeals are now screams.

Shoppers are running.

The security guards look at me:

they’re starting to panic.


Back away from him, I tell them.

Clear the area, I tell them.

We have to get him to the car, I tell them.

Each time, they obey.


They obey this older father

with his short grey beard

and his teenage son

reed thin

writhing like a fish

hauled out from another world.



By force of reason


After the diagnosis

I walked back

from the community health centre

under Ashfield Mall

and I made the decision

by force of reason

that I would love my son

for the rest of my life.


I made the decision

that his nervous system

would be my nervous system.

That I would see

that I would try to see

how I thought he might see

with his bright-eyed absorption

a ladybird on a leaf

the glint of a crushed foil packet

in the gutter.


I made the decision

that I would feel

that I would try to feel

the driving rain

the tidal waves

the electrical storms

that coursed through his senses.

That I would watch

over and over and over again

the burnt-orange sunsets

the blue-shadowed ice floes

from The Lion King

and The Pebble and the Penguin.


After the diagnosis

I made the decision

by force of reason

that because he would be forced

to be neurotypical

to pretend to be neurotypical

to largely fail

at being neurotypical,

then it was only fair

that I should be autistic

that I should try to be autistic

that I should guess

what it might be like

to see the world in fragments

that I must forever

slowly, painfully



So I got down on my knees

and magnified the small

until no part could be connected

to any other.

Then I stood tall

and stared down from on high

and raised the earth to the sky

and abolished the horizon.

Then I flattened the world

onto an endless plain

and twisted it like a kaleidoscope

and became drunk,

blissfully drunk,

on its ruby colours.


After the diagnosis

I made the decision

by force of reason

to give my life to someone

who might never

know my name.


The finitude

of the overlap

of the lifespan

of parent and child

is time’s cruellest gesture.



My son’s mother


If I tried to count how many hours

his mother has sat beside him

at different tables

in different houses

trying to reconstruct

his shattered senses

I could only guess at a total.


Let’s say an average

of two hours a day

for fifteen years.

That’s approximately

10,950 hours and counting.


Her hand over his

he traces

letters and numbers,

flowers and fish.

He copies

clocks and cars,

houses and sunsets.

His eyes trained on her lips

he mouths sounds,

strains to form them

into vowels, consonants,

syllables, words.


When she let’s go of his hand

the pictures are scrambled, distorted.

When he forms his own words

the sounds are chunked, fragmented.


But there are words.

‘Maah naayym…ees Aaa-LEX!’

he whoops.

And there are pictures –

diligently drawn,

perfectly recognisable pictures

of a bee, a bat, a cockatoo.


At the table beside her son

his mother’s patience

has no limit.

His drawings climb the wall:

sheets of A4, Blu-Tacked ceiling high.

They’re filled with tangled lines

that somehow form

the twist of a snake,

the bill of a toucan,

the head of kangaroo,

the flaking Corinthian columns

on the front landing

of our brick veneer house

that he loves to lean against

when his lessons are over,

until he’s drawn back inside

by the smell of Vegemite toast

his mother or I have made him

for afternoon tea.


Later, she’ll come to where

I’m sitting at my desk and say

‘Look at this.’

It’s the drawing of the day.

On the left of the page

an emu stands tall and still,

on the right

our son has set it dancing.



Author’s note: The poem ‘Meltdown in a shopping mall’ reflects a period during my son’s adolescence when he experienced severe sensory overload in noisy, busy places. As he has grown older, and with the help of various programs and interventions, his ability to cope has significantly improved.

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