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World Autism Awareness Week 2021: Henry Normal shares poems to, and inspired by, his son Johnny

March 31, 2021 Books Comments Off on World Autism Awareness Week 2021: Henry Normal shares poems to, and inspired by, his son Johnny
Henry Normal and his son, Johnny

Henry Normal, co-writer and producer of award-winning TV shows and films such as The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show, The Parole Officer, Paul Calf, Gavin & Stacey, Alan Partridge, among many others, shares some of his brilliant poems written for, and inspired by, his son, Johnny, as part of World Autism Awareness Week 2021.

Pioneered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), World Autism Awareness Week, which runs from March 29 until April 2, aims to draw attention to the 700,000 people living with autism in the UK, both to educate those unaware of the condition and to help make the world friendlier to those who are affected by it.


I’m not sure how much weight

my head can support


but I enjoy the familiarity

the casual lack of boundaries


Without a word

we get a sense of someone


If you should ever climb a tree

I will be your low hanging branch

I want that to be unquestioned


If my neck snaps

it was meant to be


It is the most important thing

to know


In the absence of sufficient language

I would rather seek out trees 

to remind you




My psoriasis does not qualify 

for priority parking


My wife eases her dodgy back

out of the vehicle


As eyes view us with suspicion

a blue badge authorises the windscreen


My father-in-law reveals nothing

of his need for Statins


Only my mother-in-law looks the part 

leaning heavily on her stick


A stroke and heart attack at the same time

qualifies her for a shorter walk to the supermarket


Earlier I saw her lift the weight from the world 

Immersed in water 


her limbs as free as summer

no time limitation in sight


Once inside the shop we are in public

A world of plenty is laid out before us


Fridges hum, tills bleep 

Musak underscores decisions made


A little girl with no physical ailments 

squeals constantly for attention


She too has her story


My son wears his ear defenders

as the two of us sit back in the car

out of the way

and wait


in the disability space



My camera can’t capture the breadth 

of this wind-teased ocean

or the authority of volcanic mounds 

that fall away far beyond the beach


180 degrees of untamed depth

180 degrees of fire made solid


Johnny pinches his mum’s skin

playful in this physical domain 


Small barnacles polka dot 

black boulders on the beach

smoothed by abrasion 


All this ground upon which I stand

is just a bigger rock rising out of the sea  


I am anchored in the present by family

We whoop and shout into the high wide sky


For a full 360 degrees our world 

remains beautifully autistic 




From the outside a whirlpool

looks an impossibility


like the mapping of milk in coffee

but there is beauty in this energy


The simple draining of a bath

or the passing of an airplane


can curl the elements. My son

brings out the best in people


I see the curl in them 

as he enters the room


as if he gives each permission

to be themselves




I have one photo of you crying

a sole tear preserved in black and white

your cheek as yet soft canvas 

sunlight surrounding your understanding


There appears a question 

in the window of your eye

your pupil un-dilated

a confusion perhaps leaking out


This interaction is in close up 

the background lacking focus

your pale lips unmoved

unable to control the tide


In the fifteen years since

you have not shed saltwater 

on the outside



occasionally I catch the same look 

on that same child face

only fleeting

as though unsure of the flood




It must have taken some time to build that wall 

and there are so many walls

and there’ve been so many lives spent building them


We sit together 

our backs to the stones

each in our own breath


No-one can see what catches our eyes

only a quiet body language

You could be any teenager


I could be any dad

neither revealing superpowers of

good or evil


Your hand hovers 

unconcerned with personal space

We are not afraid to touch in passing


We have arrived at an understanding

almost unnoticed

we are on the same side of the wall




As you climb the podium 

we applaud

there is no grand speech


We are the only witnesses

if you discount

the shrubs and the sky of course


This is for fun

but motivation is there

balance and co-ordination


You are the hero

you have overcome

you are ready to play


There are no medals big enough

no metals shiny enough

to do you justice


Two wooden boxes 

on a piece of grass

make you taller



you are already taller

you are already taller




Sand suspended in mid air

defies the natural order


Johnny presses his teeth

against the back of his hand

to contain the excitement


My wife stands ready 

as I bash the bottom of the 

sun lounger once more


We can only see the effect 

captured by a single frame


I’m unsure what delight

my son is experiencing


We can only see the effect 

captured by a single frame.




Your hands are together

as though in prayer


The image before you

has his arms raised

as though wanting to be picked up


Without trespass

I try not to project my hopes

and accept all possibility


Your hands might be caught mid clap

The image might be exalting the sky

You are more than my perception


You may be warming your hands

against the weather

The image may well be waving


You could be rubbing chalk between your palms

The image could simply be trying to surrender




Drawn back to the lagoon

two shaved apes


neither of which speak the language

doing nothing much 

not a thunderbolt in sight


This day wouldn’t fill a postcard

The landscape lounges


We are happy mutants

sixty percent water

three percent orange juice


The sea and sky

an agreed grey


Elephant clouds

stepping the Pillars of Hercules

pale amber kissing the dunes


The smile on my son’s face

making the moment immortal




When my dad died

I was given his watch


Strange, as we never 

spent that much time together

absent within the same room


Our days were marked by

coins stacked on the mantlepiece

electric, gas, bread and milk


I won’t leave the watch to my son

he has no need to measure hours

days are marked with meals and sleep


outside time or in perfect sync

a zone uncharted in any atlas


We are in the world as wide as it is

side by side


He chooses to walk with me

I choose to walk with him


With Johnny’s arm around my shoulder

the spin of the Earth slows




Too small to be a snowman

this could be a snow child


I hold onto your hands

partly to warm them

but partly not


Two brussels sprouts

a lemon for a nose

scarf and cap


We are not going to win any prizes

This is a family photo

of family

for family


It need be of no interest to anyone else

If you saw it in an album

you might well flick past without comment

a little embarrassed 

that we would consider this worth presenting


Whether we are on a downhill slope

or uphill 

is a matter of perspective


Our faces white as hoar frost

haunt these early learnings


When you were a baby

I put your name down for a school place

paid a deposit


The money is no loss at all




I don’t need to see his face to know it’s him

the light has its own plans


In reality nothing is still as elements compete

A split second away there is another poem


If I want I can see a trail of silver 

at the spill


or the ominous underbelly of distant concentrations

Everything I see is a reflection of this love


I can home in on the dislocation of arms

in motion


or glory in the contrast

of chemistry as liquid and gas


We may not see the same world at all

I hope yours is as full of splendour




An empty bottle for bashing

better than any toy

You are in control

there is no pretence at role play


This is nature unreserved

You lean forward

your brim upturned

not only the sun lights your face


This is a choice 

not a compromise

This is authentic

not a substitute or a version


Expressing, playing, stimming

whatever name I give it

is only my invention

and won’t alter the fun one bit  


If the bottle was made of precious metal

it wouldn’t necessarily be any better

The red dust complements the bright blue 

of living water


You are no longer apart from the topography



If I tilt my head to the side

you are perpendicular

and the rest of this unholy mess

is at a slant


Italic trees in parallel 

mark the degrees

ten past the hour


Dry leaves defy gravity

There is no slide to the east


Shadows brave the slope

The Sun no longer certain

of its position 


Toes grip for balance

Legs lengthen or shorten

to compensate


Fire-engine red you stand out

amid the muted woodland


You lean against the sky like Atlas

carrying all on your back 



Johnny is not interested in having his

photo taken


When prompted he will look at the lens

His hand is likely to move at any moment


I suspect he is not sure what is expected of him

‘Smile’, he says


He doesn’t smile

he just says smile


echoing the words

from behind the camera



In a room with no windows

I am given a leaflet


The word incurable

is printed in bold on the first page


This is the only time I will spend in this room

This is the only time I will speak to this person


Autism is a spectrum

there are degrees


Your son is mildly severe

What does that mean ?


It means he will always live at home

it means he will never have a job


never have a girlfriend

never be capable of taking care of himself


You will never have a conversation with him



It means you will worry about him everyday

you will worry if he’s happy


you will worry if he’s lonely

you will worry what will happen to him when you die


Mildly severe

benignly savage


kindly cruel

none of this appeared on the leaflet



Taking your own chair to the beach

is a commitment

fleecy on

hood up


Better to keep your limbs moving 

some might say

but sitting is a definite statement


We are not just passing through

we are making a stand

sitting firm


Day trippers we are not

nor ill prepared tourists 

We are stones amongst scattered pebbles

rocks amongst shingle


Bring on your highest wave

the glory is ours 

we live here

we own this weather



I’m not sure how much weight

my head can support


but I enjoy the familiarity

the casual lack of boundaries


Without a word

we get a sense of someone


If you should ever climb a tree

I will be your low hanging branch

I want that to be unquestioned


If my neck snaps

it was meant to be


It is the most important thing

to know


In the absence of sufficient language

I would rather seek out trees 

to remind you



This might not seem that different a picture to you

but this is the look of a mother

to her autistic child

taking his first photo


The look of a mother

anticipating success


the coal face of optimism

the body language of hope


If I was susceptible to joy

this could easily affect me


Unlike my wife

I have immunity 

to all forms of jubilation


I err towards caution

bordering scepticism 

on matters of good fortune or progress


This condition we embrace 

I’ve learnt is not linear

not predictable like neurotypical behaviour


Five minutes after you leave us

you will turn to one another and say

‘Well, we can see where that comes from’



Monkey bin

is a huge monkey head on a bin


It’s not a real monkey

it doesn’t move or make a noise

it has no arms or legs or body

just a head on top of a waste bin


This is Johnny’s favourite bit of the zoo

Mine too


Johnny did like the penguins

It’s a relief to know what he likes

or doesn’t like

it’s probably the basis of all



He hates erratic noise

dogs and babies or

young girls who can’t get what they want


I was drawn to the infant giraffes

awkward and strangely poetic

Johnny wasn’t impressed

the moment came and went


The tiger intimidated

I could see in his eyes

he’d fuck me up if he could


I’m sure there were other animals

real monkeys and shit


but the only animals I remember

apart from monkey bin


are the giraffes, the tiger and

the penguins

and what I felt when I saw them


It’s more the feeling I recall

and a yearning

for connection


For more information about World Autism Awareness Week 2021, click here

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