ESSAY Tracey Rhys

NWR Issue 120

Unpicking the Locks

Last year, a message on our answerphone for our twelve-year-old son took us all by surprise. It was from the Poetry Society and told Morgan that his poem ‘Sker Beach’ had been chosen as one of the commended entries in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. He was unfazed until we were in the Southbank Centre for the ceremony, with no real concept beforehand of what it meant – but I knew. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks: my boy, my clever boy. When he was three years old and barely speaking, he had strolled around the garden with his hands linked behind his back like an old man ruminating. ‘He’s one of life’s thinkers,’ my brother said as we watched him and his cousins avoiding each other. ‘Yes,’ I agreed, although I knew that, for his part, he was counting ants.

For years, Morgan couldn’t write well. He held his pencil awkwardly and he seemed to lack control. Over and over, we’d practise his letters at home, then he’d go off to school and write in his workbook as if we’d never done any of it: back to the malformed shapes in his wobbly hand. And that was when he could work at all. He was frequently found roaming the class, touching item after item while the teacher taught on. Sometimes, he hid under desks or had to leave the room in hysteria, unable to find the words to explain. Often, he wouldn’t reply when spoken to, as if the sounds passed straight through him. But he was also unconventionally bright.

He learned the Latin names of every dinosaur in his encyclopaedia. He knew their measurements, diets and anatomy, and he read adult non-fiction about science and space. When he was five or six, he took to sitting quietly on the cold porch floor, reading The Family Guide to Common Illnesses. In fact, he read so effortlessly, I hardly noticed how or when he’d learned. Maths remained his Achilles’ heel but, even so, he figured out the concept of minus numbers without being taught. In Year 5, he ran staff ragged, sprinting around the yard, unpicking the padlock combinations on the secure gates. They changed the codes: he did it again. That skill came in handy when the headmaster was locked out of the shed where they housed the koi carp. Morgan’s small voice amongst the gaggle of fish feeders piped up with some digits. The headmaster gave them a try. The door popped open.

Morgan’s diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder arrived at age six. If autism is a communication disorder, then the signs were there. When my husband was at work, mine was the only voice in the house. I commentated my way through chores and games, unpacking the shopping and running the bath. Occasionally, I’d pause – he might reply at any moment. When, aged two, he began to babble, it became apparent that he wasn’t mimicking speech but rather the sounds of the outside world. In my poem ‘Echolalia’ I yearned for him to learn the power of communication: ‘Listen, listen. It’s more than a drone. / It’s a roar. Can you hear it? Listen.’

When he finally did, his voice was small and sweet, carefully enunciating. At three years old, he spoke in the tones and sentences of an eighteen-month-old. He was quiet and absorbed, difficult and exhausting. Back then, I knew little about autism. I’d read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. If this was what it meant to be autistic – maths skills, an obsession with patterns – then no wonder I found it hard to relate these descriptions to my mathematically challenged, affectionate, distracted little boy. Morgan didn’t present like Christopher Boone but then, as the saying goes, once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism...


Tracey Rhys’ poetry pamphlet Teaching a Bird to Sing, featured in the TLS as part of the judge’s round-up of favourites from the Michael Marks Award submissions for 2017. She collaborates with Winterlight Theatre, her poetry was exhibited at the Senedd for Autism Awareness Month, and she is published in journals. She is currently working on her next poetry collection. You can visit her website here

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