Ottaway, Esther. she doesn’t seem autistic. Puncher & Wattman, 2023. RRP: $25.00, 80pp, ISBN: 9781922571762.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo
I want, through these poems, to show you a profile of autism that you are not familiar with: an autistic girl and woman. Please allow her to exist, in your mind, and in the world around you. (Ottoway 7)
Can poetry change our minds? This is the hope Tasmanian poet Esther Ottoway holds onto as she offers us the poems in her third collection she doesn’t seem autistic (SDSA).
Changing minds is a daunting task, especially when it comes to autism, which is still a mystery to many. Autism is complex: both a disability and a form of neurodivergence1. As Ottoway shows, there are many reasons why people with autism might pretend that nothing is wrong, particularly if they are women:
You’re clearly well, don’t waste the doctor’s time.
Autistics do not look the way you do.
A woman wearing makeup must be fine.
There’s no disabled girls with style like mine.
(‘There’s no disabled girls with style like mine’ 14)
Most of the poems in this book do the work of illuminating experiences of autism and related syndromes, particularly from an embodied female perspective. Ottoway frequently elects to place the medical names for these syndromes as epigraphs to the poem titles:
Dysavowal: the basic human emotions
Alexithymia, empathy overarousal, situational mutism (19)
This can give the impression of a poetry excursion into a medical textbook. It certainly sent this reader rushing for the online dictionary. What saves this book from being as tedious as a textbook is Ottoway’s virtuoso performance with poetry. Ottoway exploits poetry’s capacity to draw readers into experience through the lyric ‘I’:
but I am a door wide open
to the ocean of lightcolourmovementtalktexturepressuretastebalance
my house is sodden, filled to the ceiling where I thrash
face-up in the air-pocket
(‘Elegy for a fun childhood’ 30)
Ottoway’s lyric ‘I’ is not purely autobiographical, but composite: drawing on multiple experiences of other autistic girls and women as well as her own and those of her daughter (7). As Ottoway deploys her composite ‘I’, readers encounter life with a range of crippling disorders: struggles to process sensory data, struggles to communicate, struggles to sleep, struggles to eat, struggles to remember things. We feel the consequences of these disorders: the financial cost, the relational cost, the life-span cost.
Ottoway amplifies the immersive effect of the lyric ‘I’ by using all the resources of poetry. She displays her characteristic brilliance with imagery and takes us through a bravura performance with poetic form, deploying quatrains, sonnets, list-poems, pantoums, prose poems, found poems, unique organic forms and, not one, but five villanelles. It is this artfulness, this poetic beauty, that sustains us through the terror of the journey into the lived experience of female autism.
This is especially so for this reader, who shares Ottoway’s experience of a late-diagnosed daughter. The prose poem ‘Night vision: apology to a late-diagnosed daughter’ is particularly resonant:
for setting you up to fail with reward charts you could only manage for a day for scolding and enforcing consequences […] for anything I did to you to assuage my own distress for being a new parent who had no language for what you were, for being slow to see you, I’m sorry. You are parallax, shoal, diaspora. You are percipience, cloud-measurer, reverie. You are love-scar, bioluminescence. (33)
Ottoway uses poetry to take readers deep into the pain and anguish of female experiences of autism, and, right at the point where readers might fall over the edge, overwhelmed, she rescues them with hope. This is a calculated risk: there is the chance she could lose readers before they reach the late turning point of this book. However, one could equally argue that the reprieve only has meaning in the context of the journey.
Ottoway’s poems embody the paradox of autism: their virtuosity shows us the blessing of genius, their content shows us the curse of disability. Can poetry change our minds about female autism? There is hope, with these poems, that it can.
1 Neurodivergence: a ‘naturally occurring’ cognitive variation ‘with distinctive strengths’ (Silberman 16).
Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: the legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. New York City: Avery Publishing Group, 2016.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo is a mixed-race mixed-place writer. She has an honours degree from The University of Western Australia and a PhD from the University of Queensland. Her latest poetry collection is Who Comes Calling? (WA Poets, 2023). She is interested in female experience and writes from a faith perspective open to finding common ground with others.