I would predict that the universal desire to protect one’s child is particularly pronounced in parents in (or circling) the autism universe. My inner voice certainly announces with cut through clarity instructions to guard my little boy’s hard earned happiness with my life.
Isaac is the unabashed star of his own show, and his star needs some major pampering. As his head hits the pillow every night, the next day’s lines and events (an always rehearsed, fascinating mix of the familiar and the new) are finalising themselves into a detailed script that will be engraved in his mind by the morning. The script calls for a diligent director (at times hands-off, at times hands-on) who knows him inside out and can respond accurately to the many, many cues. From ‘I need to shake my flannel for a little bit’, to inquisitively but continuously confirming between 8 and 830am that ‘daddy, you’re having breakfast at work!’ to recounting in forensic detail the contents of his lunchbox down to the last piece of mango or sausage. Any improvisation is highly sensitive and has to be handled as such.
So my now hard-wired autism-informed thinking obsesses that his daily schedules strictly follow the routine, learned phrases (with their set tones) embedded in his mind – and, most importantly, that they are stress free. I am adamant his activities are micro-managed to the point of mollycoddling.
The first threads of this deeply woven, impenetrable security blanket that I shamelessly smother him in were sown in the Paediatrician’s surgery moments after diagnosis (two years ago). Ground Zero. When as much as the ground falling from beneath us, there was an uplifting, almost spiritual release of so many anxieties that could be now attributed to autism. And therefore laid to rest.
Fussy eating redefined itself as a need for identikit dinners, uniform shapes and colours. No longer would I fret about his narrow, ‘tut-tutting’ diet, now that I understood a mish mash of sloppy, multi-coloured and multi-textured food could be a physical assault on someone with his taste (and other sensory) processing limitations. With his only option to shut down.
The socially unacceptable ipad accompaniment to food we could accept with alacrity, realising this was a coping device for him to shut out the lights, sounds and colours of everyday life that we can so seamlessly bed into our environment but would be such an uncomfortable clash of aural and visual misery for him.
Pushing a scooter incessantly (for what would seem like hours at a time) the wrong way was the right and logical way for someone who learns bottom up; someone who’s creating his own self-contained patterns; someone who’s establishing how to make his own peculiar way in the world. This pushing of the scooter, one of an arsenal of repetitive behaviours, and the difficulty to remove himself from it, I could gladly, calmly and confidently cope with. Getting to lateral – for others, natural and effortless – solutions like riding a scooter meant an exhaustion of all the other workings of said scooter first. Now he rides it seamlessly and gloriously; I never thought that would happen.
Transition is tremendously testing for him. If we never got to leave the park before dusk, so be it. If getting out the house and away from what he happened to be doing, got to him too much, we’d stay put and miss parties, school, appointments, whatever.
Whilst the explanation of these eccentricities gave me the resolve and permission to adapt myself to Isaac’s behaviours and needs, it was one specific autistic trait that raised by determination to shield Isaac from this harsh, harsh world; the one that cemented the diagnosis and that I’d not seen: the non-playing with peer group trait.
Playing with peer groups is perhaps the first and fiercest test of imagination, improvisation and intuition a child can face. And a child with autism will often flounder. This knowledge, vividly clear in the following weeks and months by Isaac’s lack of social impulse and disinterest of kids at nursery, brought to the surface the deeply held anxiety that he may struggle with friendships. This observation contributes to my cosseting of Isaac to the current day.
Hearing his propensity to play solo at school saddens me. Seeing kids his age roam together at family functions, heady with the thrill of burgeoning bonds, causes me a degree of upset I have to admit. It can still take enormous endeavour for me to not to envy. And I am a little ashamed to say that this, too, has contributed to my approach as an over protective parent.
That it’s an approach that’s been absolutely and totally instructed and informed by autism I have no doubt. But it’s debateable that it’s a wholly brave approach. Unlike the approach of my wife. My wife, who’s not just a colossal force for good in Isaac’s life. But in recent months, a colossal force for change in it too.
There’s not been a singular, resonant event where she’s forsaken protection for pro-action. But a succession of tiny ones, very often barely noticeable by a dad blinkered to cushion his boy from anything resembling a challenge. Somewhat regrettably I may not have noticed that the little, regular challenges my wife puts Isaac through, are the fuel behind the bigger steps:
Somewhat splendidly, Isaac eats a mouthful of food, finishes, and then says with aplomb ‘I’ve finished, I can speak now!’. Table manners, something I would be happy to shield him from, are with us, uniquely Isaac type table manners, but table manners nevertheless. Which, combined with his plethora of pleases, thank yous and you’re welcomes, make him sound and behave like a charming little robot.
Exuberance is Isaac’s chosen form of expression. Squeezing, joyful slapping, physicality, screaming. I have thoughtlessly tended towards revelling in this slapstick and got physical with him. Showing him few boundaries. This behaviour isn’t best placed in the company of unimpressed teachers and non-complicit children. When hearing Isaac jokily repeat ‘don’t do that!’ at home, clearly not understanding the call of frustration from a fellow child, I feel tormented love for Isaac and do little to rectify it.
However, my wife’s dedication to giving our son alternatives and solutions has softened the exuberance, made it acceptable, socialised it. So she’s taught Isaac to claps effusively when he’s overwhelmed and overexcited. Which he’s managing to do a lot. And takes bows. Not necessarily prompted. It’s rather heart melting and his antidote to physical, inappropriate expression. But it’s not always forthcoming and it’s often hard work.
Another example is the power cut that recently put at risk Isaac’s breakfast diet of train clips on YouTube. Fiddling with my phone, fearful for Isaac (and for me given the consequences), I couldn’t entertain anything but a desperate attempt to salvage some train footage from somewhere, anywhere. My wife, aware how stories are now impacting on Isaac, referred to the power cut on the kids’ programme Peppa Pig which he loves, feeding his imagination, whilst contextualising something. She consoled him, knowing he’s responding strongly to emotional language. After a tough, tearful few minutes, the situation made sense in his mind. Proudly he compared the power cut to the Peppa story and he had a coping strategy in place.
One last thought: My wife listens out for Isaac’s new sayings and uses them as tools to push him to do more, go on bigger outings, permeate some elasticity into the routine. ‘Can we tell daddy?’ is something Isaac says a lot right now. The danger of constant repetition for a child with autism is that it can rapidly become a meaningless habit. But she grasps his sayings and uses the tiny window between learning it and then habitually repeating it, hence giving it a real meaning. More than a meaning, she’ll use it as a device, a punctuation to help navigate the day and therefore fit more in, widening his and our horizons. In other words, ‘can we tell daddy?’ has become seriously useful for Isaac’s movement and appetite for moving on during a day:
“Let’s go to the dry cleaner, then we see trains.” “Can we tell daddy?” “Of course. Then we’ll go to the butcher’s and play in the park.” “Can we tell daddy?” “Absolutely!”
And that is how the day pans out. A simple saying has become an invaluable transition tool, enriching and enhancing the day’s activities.
Isaac has only flourished as a result of this little but continual pushing from my wife, this considered and careful challenging of him, this loosening of the protective grip.
For Isaac’s sake, I need to also let go. Just a little.
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