THE AUTISTIC SPECTRUM is one that has become fashionably injected into common parlance. While there may be clinical value in its assertions, the terminology is too easily used by the lay man, resulting in a blunted understanding or crudely simple reflection of what this actually means. David Robbins explores autism in his most recent publication, Walking to Australia: 21st century excursions into humanity’s greatest migration, armed not with clinical tools or quick and dirty pop psychology, but with a real love for a real child who is autistic.
It is always the mark of wise writing if the premise of a text can be summed up in language short, simple and clean enough for a child to imbibe. From the very first page of Walking to Australia, you know you are in not only strong and sophisticated hands, but safe ones too. This is a book of great magic and empathy, of descriptions so bold and fresh and sacred you will want to hold them in your heart forever, and of an understanding of absence and perceived flaws in the fabric of existence that will make you ponder your own loves and losses.
More than a travel diary, as its title implies, this is a foray through the eyes of the author’s autistic grandson. It takes you, the reader, on foot, as it were, through many of the geographical pit stops between South Africa and Australia. Almost evocative of Paul Theroux’s 2002 book Dark Star Safari, it lends itself to the texture and ether of places ranging from Yazd to Bali, Cambodia to Banda Aceh and the site of killing fields and the 2004 tsunami, to name but a few.
Unlike Theroux’s book, however, this is not a contemplation of the crude and broken bureaucracy that soils Africa’s reputation, but rather, an immersion into the textures and swarming stars, the religious vibrations and impressive gods of the areas he visits. Even though the language is deliberate and lucid and pleasant on the mind’s ear as you read it, you will not want to allow yourself to read it too rapidly, for fear of missing something or of not allowing yourself time to savour something else.
Robbins’s grandchild Dylan is the cipher through which he engages the dangers and values of his travelling trajectory. The child lives with his parents in Australia, but he is on the mind and in the notebook of his granddad in a way that evokes loss and absence with great meaning. When someone very dear to you passes from your life, you continue to hold their hand. You continue to attempt to reflect on how that person would respond to the things that interested them – or frightened them – when they were a part of your life. Robbins does this with his grandchild in a way that never slips into a sense of artifice.
Of late, in the theatre industry in particular, there have been several forays into representing and understanding the psychiatric conditions. While they may be earnest in their intent, not one of them is able to step away from basic assumptions and an understanding of flaws in the autistic character. Robbins achieves this, lending his reflections on his grandchild an archaic depth, an age-old understanding of values that will make you think differently about how people behave in the world and how they relate.
This beautiful book will sit proudly among Robbins’s prolific body of work; it offers a sense of authenticity which reaches into the writer’s humanity. He writes in the first person with immense skill, taking you not only across the Indian Ocean, step by proverbial step, but deep into the heart of whirligigs of woven threads and mountain paths, of deep obscure history and myth and of dinosaurs that are actually goats. It’s a journey from within and without and a beautifully crafted reflection on what it may be to be autistic, or to have a child afflicted in this way. This book is an unparalleled gem.
- Walking to Australia by David Robbins is published by Porcupine Press, Johannesburg (2018).