March 2024

Back to Issue 15

she doesn’t seem autistic

By Esther Ottaway

Puncher & Wattman (2023)

Reviewed by Jane Frank, StylusLit.

Tasmanian poet Esther Ottaway’s latest collection is brave, experimental and brimming with power and artistry. Her poems reveal the truth of her own autistic experience but also the embodied experiences of a multitude of undiagnosed women and girls who are neurodivergent.

The first poem in the collection ‘After writing a book on female autism, I decide to bury it’ [13] addresses the main premise of the book — that autistic women and girls in Australia are forced to hide what are regarded as the shameful traits of autism to meet unreasonable social expectations.

This is a confessional poem of the struggle of speaking out about an issue that has impacted the life of the poet and her now adult daughter, both afflicted by autism and its disabling complexities. It is also a call to action about the inequity of the ‘gender data gap’ in autism studies that have always focused on diagnosis of the condition in men and boys. 

In this pithy short poem structured as four couplets, the poet metaphorises the risks of bringing this knowledge of her own experience into the world:

            Truth-pregnant, I laboured. Her name is Repercussions.

            My fear: that this child kicks, draws breath to cry.

In the Foreword to the book, the poet tells us that ‘by the age of forty, I was tired of feeling actively dishonest when I answered “good” to the question “how are you?” [12]

A standout poem in the collection is the villanelle ‘There’s no disabled girls with style like mine’ [14] where this pretence of wellness is unpacked through the mantra young autistic girls and women recite, as if by rote, to themselves:

           A woman wearing makeup must be fine.

           They tell me there is nothing wrong with you.

           Disabled girls cannot have style like mine …


                                    … No girls with style like mine


           have hidden disabilities, or climb

           up mountains of distress. From birth we knew

           that little girls in dresses must be fine

Poems throughout the book address the various debilitating syndromes and afflictions that autism sufferers face, though the poet makes clear that the “I” in these poems is the composite voice of the autistic woman and girl. Ottaway has researched and gleaned a wide range of experiences to make these poems representative of the multiple challenges that are encountered by this cohort that include:

empathy over arousal, rejection sensitive dysphoria, alexithymia, situational mutism, mashing, echolalia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, avoidant / restrictive food intake syndrome (ARFID), Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, delayed sleep phase disorder, narcolepsy, working memory issues, pathological demand avoidance (PDA), chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression and neuroplasticity.

These medical terms precede poems that address them, almost like subtitles, but intriguingly, there are no further notes to the poems. It is as if once the name of the syndrome is supplied, the poet takes a creative dive away from medical textbook-like fact and into sensory and sensual territory of lived experience.

There is a staggering array of poem types in this book that surprise and delight, despite the gravity of the subject matter—prose poems such as Small Talk [24], a number of other villanelles including ‘mealanelle’ [31] and ‘illanelle’ [53], punchy one-word-to-a-line poems such as ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a waxwork girl’ with a nod to Wallace Stevens, poems that sprawl across the page, making use of white space like ‘How autism may present in adult female siblings’ [58-59] and erasure poems such as ‘Materials handling sheet for an artistic meltdown’ [60].

Particularly striking is ‘Miss Communication’ [21-23] which tells us so much about the challenge of communicating for those with autism, focussing on the expectation that women should be able to verbally communicate and have a ‘bubbly personality’ irrespective of issues like masking, situational mutism and ADHD. The first five lines are dramatically pared back to leave the reader with an unforgettable image:



          intense concentration

          a butterfly can fly

          with seventy percent of its wings missing …


At one point, the poet speaks of the ‘ADHD button’ where:


            In the right cranial weather I can talk flat out

            sharing much more than I wanted to

             mouth spilling coins


and later in the poem:


          I’m craniate, gill-bearing

          mouthing in speechless ocean


                                                       can’t talk too often: friendship is a colander

                                                       let you close, you’ll see all these holes


so the autism-sufferer’s insecurities are laid bare.

‘Field notes on the autistic seahorse’ [15-16] is a wonderful poem that plays on the fact that the hippocampus is affected in autism but is also the name for seahorses. It is curated into a shape reminiscent of the movement of a seahorse incorporating factual statements from the website and is part of a poem pair written with poet and Prime Minister’s Awardwinner Andy Jackson who describes this collection as ‘a revelation, not just in terms of our understanding of autistic experience, but of what is possible with poetry’. High praise indeed.

Ottaway has also collaborated with artist, singer and poet, Rachael Wenona Guy and responded to her work. A raft of poems in the collection reference writers she admires including Melinda Smith, Claire Delahunty, Kerry Shying, W.S. Merwin, Maya Angelou, Christopher Smart and William Shakespeare so there is a feeling that many poetic conversations are occurring as we move through these pages.

There is also an ingenious concrete /list poem referencing Abraham Maslow’s seminal Hierarchy of Needs theory (1954) called ‘Maslow’s Hierautism of Needs’ [69] where the well-known pyramid prioritising five types of human needs —physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation —is altered to reflect the life of an autistic woman or girl. Against ‘safety needs’, for example, there are a list of ailments and concerns including ‘string of exploitative relationships, under-employed, hounding scant government resources, financially crippled by high health expenses, will never own property’ and, very sobering, ‘suicide twice the rate of autistic men’. Against the top rung of the pyramid – ‘self-actualisation’, the poet has written ‘ all the best with that.’

The most moving poems in this collection, in my opinion, are the tender poems where the poet touches on the relationship with her daughter, such as ‘Now you are eighteen’ [77] where:

                                    I call up your sleep-sweetened face,

            how it rested and turned in the half-light

            in the bed beside me for so many years

While this poem is about autism, it is a nostalgic experience to read for anyone who is grieving the loss of their now-grown child, but is magnified for the poet after the fierce protection and care she has needed to provide through the child’s challenging autistic youth. She writes of feeling a new kind of concern now, still willing to put her body on the line to

                                   bear whatever impact

          would shield you. And it is still ready, my darling

          as you sit now at the tipping point of those years

          and the next eighteen, of loves, and loves lost, perhaps of children.


The last line has lingered with me during the weeks and months since reading the poem, as it hints at the potential repeat of this cycle for the next generation.

I felt an immediate sense of connection with these poems just as I did with Ottaway’s previous book Intimate, low-voiced, delicate things (Puncher & Wattman, 2021). I read her new collection in one sitting, immobilised by the anguish of many of the experiences she writes about but at the same time, drawn in by her inventiveness, and carried along by her superb sense of play and imagery.

After risking the repercussions and delivering her message about the ordeals of women and girls with autism by drawing attention to their lived experiences and stories, Ottaway’s collection ends on a hopeful note.  She concludes her final poem ‘The autistic woman’s self-compassion blessing’ [80] with these lines of advice:

            Lay down the paper doll of stereotype

            May fierce determination create your singular success.