Autism and thinking differently

For the mood music in my family’s life to be jolly and upbeat, Isaac’s autism has to be acknowledged to at all times. Slip ups in routine, plans going awry or excessive elements of surprise, and the rhythm’s lost. There’s disharmony. Probably upset.

And as we increasingly attempt to take Isaac ever so slightly out of his comfort zone, a complete grasp of the condition is demanded more than ever. When to take stock of his sensory needs and rein in the physicality? To simply embrace his considerable ability to memorise vast quantities of information, or to evolve it into something more challenging? Grip a pen, knowing the limits of his motor skills? Or let the tablet be his writing tool? Our responses to these types of challenges oscillate by the day.

So Isaac’s autism informs my every move. I think about it at all times. It dictates my decision making, dominates my diary. What we’re doing, where we’re going, how we’re doing it. Food, family, fun.

In short, take autism for granted – and it take you places you don’t want to go (again).

But what about my deeper thoughts and even attitudes. Beyond the day to day running (about) of family life. Autism has altered my behaviour, but has it influenced my beliefs? After all, whilst I’ve always had causes that are close to my heart, autism is something that clings to my heart.

Well, there has been a very visceral effect of that emotional connection. One that’s been forced on me by others as much as myself. Which is a heightened sense of sympathy – sometimes shamefully bordering on sorrow – for any act of defiance in a child. Tantrums, visible frustration – where some think a kid brattish, I, rightly or wrongly, imagine a child in need of comfort, comprehension and consideration.

This now entrenched opinion is of course based on early experiences. When I would be forcibly manhandling a fighting but forlorn Isaac in the days where we were both fumbling about at the condition’s fringes. When time suspended, the traffic stood still, and everyone stared our way. These events are not so often now, but the experiences wrote themselves indelibly into my consciousness.

I do feel a sadness at people’s paucity of generosity of spirit. Imagine if a supermarket meltdown was seen as a misunderstood child rather than a misbehaving one. Imagine giving the child the benefit of the doubt?

Children with autism are not often naughty; that’s an official description of a trait that can form part of a diagnosis. How unfortunate that naughtiness in a mistaken label that children with autism are so often given before any diagnosis. It’s a hard fact that’s contributed to the softening of my attitude to children, however boisterous and seemingly antisocial.

So any deviance of behaviour in a child I see as vulnerable and needs treating as such. It can weigh heavily on me. Just seeing a screaming child being dragged along by an exhausted mother can depress me for hours.

Building on this new found sympathy is a compassion for – and appreciation of – vulnerable adults too. Nutters, weirdos, loners. Odd bods talking to themselves, loons howling at the moon. Observations and language that may once have been the preserve of the comical, is for me, now cruel. Where I now see someone who could be on the spectrum I used to see someone who’s probably ‘a bit mad’ – whatever that meant.

Isaac has his own dialect of train sounds, counting numbers and repeating phrases coupled with his compulsive commentary of events, quizzing people for confirmation. He runs by walls, rolling his eyes to satisfy his sensory seeking. To manage stressful scenarios. To block out cacophonous noises. We see these as a coping mechanism crucial to his equanimity. That may diminish as opposed to disappear as he gets older. Benign souls may see these behaviours in a near six year old as cute quirks. The time could well come when the majority witness what they feel must be weird tics and deluded dins; the hilarious chit chat of a fruitcake.

As a person then, my moral compass has perhaps been pulled towards a more sympathetic and compassionate place by an autism force (and quite possibly other special needs as well as mental illness). But there is something more profound at play than this. Isaac’s place in society, as someone with special educational needs, has been shifted to the margins, a breeding ground for prejudice and judgement. Where, unsurprisingly underachievement is rife. I daren’t decipher the dependency, unemployment and exclusion narratives associated with children and adults on the autistic spectrum. The budget cuts, worrying lack of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision, the need to normalise and more.

Through Isaac, I have assumed the role of the underdog in society. Which has had a significant impact on my beliefs and attitudes.

Autism doesn’t discriminate. And therefore, nor can I. Our family is now part of a society glued together by what our children are experiencing and we are battling. The apparatus we need to build and maintain our lives, an anathema to other people’s. Helping galvanise our voice, and aid us individually, are speech therapists, nurses, outreach workers and teachers. Inspiring, determined professionals. Who use their encyclopaedic knowledge to help Isaac thrive – for example through tailored and group speech therapy sessions that teach parents techniques and strategies too. And who also bravely and courageously carve out the opportunities my boy deserves. Be they one on one support, teaching assistant hours, a place in the correct school.

Because by entering the landscape of autism the asymmetry of society been so glaring to me. Perhaps for the first time, I find myself on the losing side. And the constant quest to win rights for Isaac, just to get him to a level playing field, has given my attitudes and beliefs a re-boot. To strip myself of stereotypes because I’ve had to, but also to not pre-judge in a singular, straightforward pursuit of fairness. For me and for all. Through a fairness prism is how I now view the world, what I want from it, things I commend and things I deplore. An unreconstructed sense of fairness. Which is of course subjective; my sense of fairness will be different to anybody else’s.


The best articulation of this is through my experiences with the educational system. A system that’s complex, contradictory and confused.

If I didn’t have a child with SEN, like so many others I would be entrapped by the oppressive catchment area system. But with Isaac’s diagnosis, we have a wider choice of school in the borough. That seems fair.

Not everyone would agree. In an extraordinary episode, a local mum, perplexed that we were looking at a specific school not in our catchment area, quizzed my wife. When she was told that Isaac and his special needs allowed us to look at the school without having to live in the pricey catchment area, she brazenly and boldly said ‘how incredibly lucky’ we were. Everything rotten and unfair about the educational system was encapsulated there and then.

The big irony though was despite our opportunity for Isaac to leapfrog his way into an exclusive but state run school we chose not to. Why? Not because this non-selective school was hostage to the well-heeled inhabitants of one neighbourhood. (Though that I did deem unfair). But because it had a weak, fairly periphery SEN provision.

Isaac is actually at a school that has a dynamic, brilliant SEN provision. It also has a high proportion of pupils who have English as a second language. That pernicious phrase used to mercilessly flog Inner London failing schools with. But something I only see as a healthy feature of multi-cultural living.

When Isaac started school, his English language was limited and weak, considerably weaker that many kids with English as their second language. The prejudice of course compounds when the talk is of parents at home not speaking English to their children. As parents, we were struggling with the modelling and other techniques therapists had taught us, to assist Isaac with his specific learning. Effectively another language. By seeking what’s best and fair for Isaac, I’ve always seek to dismantle the discriminations that clog up chatter.

My hope has not been lessened though as a result of Isaac’s autism. On the contrary. When Isaac left what was a private nursery that morphed into high achieving factory for private schools, there could have been a formal, awkward parting of ways. His time there, during and after diagnosis, had been fraught and emotional for all parties. He was going to a school less than a mile away geographically, many more miles away metaphorically – the schools had never communicated. At all.

But the head of the nursery, enlightened by her first experience of autism, reached out to the head of Isaac’s new school. A relationship started between two previous strangers. One assistant at the nursery even being invited to do a placement at his new school. This show of compassion and thoughtfulness between two very different schools would not have happened without Isaac and his autism.

More importantly, Isaac had built a bridge. A small one possibly. But a bridge nevertheless towards a fairer, more open world.

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11 thoughts on “Autism and thinking differently”

  1. Hey Matt – thanks for such a fantastic, insightful read. As the father of a beautiful 3 year old autitstic boy myself, reading your blog has made me feel empowered, refreshed, moved and not so alone.
    You manage to pinpoint exactly how I am feeling, and I am sure many others like me. Your phrase "Autism doesn’t discriminate. And therefore, nor can I" really hit home. This is a life changing experience for me as a Dad, and, like you, I find that my son's autism pulls me towards kindness and empathy, and in some way this provides a silver lining amongst the many clouds.
    Please keep up these fantastic blogs – they are so beautifully written, and make me face the day with an extra spring in my step. Yours, Matt

  2. Hey Matt, as a fellow dad with an autistic son and blogger on the subject, congrats on this. As dads we try to be the strong ones for our children, but it's not always easy. My son Luke is 14 now and was diagnosed when he was 2 and a half and we have seen a lot of changes in those 12 years, more so just recently as Luke has started to pull away from me emotionally about 6 months ago. Just after this started he was diagnosed with epilepsy, which was heart-breaking. Writing the blog, 'Living with Luke' has been emotional for me and helpful to a lot of the readers all over the world, so it's nice to have another view on this seemingly rare topic from 'OUR' point of view! Congrats again, Steve.

  3. Hi Matt
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful, evocative comments. They mean an enormous amount. So glad they the blogs seems to resonate with you. I agree when you say that kindness and empathy provides a 'silver lining among the many clouds'.

  4. Hi Steve
    Thanks for your honest and revealing words. I will be checking your blog out for sure. And I agree about the need for dads' voices. I wish you and Luke all the very best.

  5. Hi Matt, I read your article in the Sunday Telegraph Style Magazine, Australia. I am so intrigued and inspired by your attitude and motivation! I am a single mother to four children on the ASD spectrum. My eldest is 19 and she works and studies, but remains recluse from the social circles of her peers. She is a clever artist. My 11 year old boy has ASpergers and actually is very clever, sociable(on his terms)but does suffer really high anxiety and contol issues. He is a natural events co-ordinator and oftens organises events at home. My next son has suffered global developmental delays, dyspraxia and Autism. I have spent many hours singing with him till at 6years, he sang back to me. He is now 9, walks, talks, rides a bike and has a friend. He is very clever with technology. He is gorgeous. My youngest is 7 and sauvant. Everything is a pallette and a canvas. He sees people as distorted creative creatures, and although thrives on the routine and people at school, would rather be in a hall with every possible resource for creating. So, my eldest two have Aspergers, like me, and my yongest two have High Functioning Autism. I have had my breakdowns and struggles, and I suffer almost complete social isolation from neurotypicals. Everyone I know is on the spectrum somehow. I have actually found my niche and they now call me the leggo lady as I am good at solving issues for intervention, problems and environmental difficulties. I have been studying for years and really want to work with children and adults on the spectrum. At this point, defintitely children as I have no support to help care for my children outside of school hours. You have inspired and motivated me to keep going. I have always tried to find joy in places so dark, and to connect with my children in a way they desire. Hence, I have had wonderful success as much as they have. I have my own difficulties with processing written words, and social anxiety as well as hyperactivity.(Yes, the world moves too slow for me!) I don't find these traits an issue, but others do, so I have learnt to moderate(not necessarily liking it, but still doing it). My theory for how my life has turned out, is I was raised by two parents. One with Aspergers, one with High Functioning Autism. Then, I attracted partners with High functioning autism and now I am raising children on the spectrum. Like my daughter, we have missed out on diagnosis, but we know we are. We have hidden our traits well when we have had to, so it is our own fault diagnosis evaded us. All of my boys had so many physical and behavioural difficulties, they were all diagnosed by the age of two and placed in intervention. They have had alot of help and support from our community and government resources. I am now their advocate, carer, mother and mate as well as their provider and disciplinarian. The road has seemed so long at times, and other times, so narrow, but mostly the view has been amazing! Thanks for your article. I really appreciated reading about your son and your relationship with him! Cheers, Connie

  6. Hi Connie
    Thank you so, so much for your message. Your experiences sound fascinating. And you paint such a vivid picture of your day to day life and the challenges faced by each of your wonderful children. I am impressed and moved by how you describe yourself – advocate, carer and mother, disciplinarian, friend etc. I can absolutely see this and have a rich picture of how your family is immersed in autism and all its guises.Your life and the life of your children is informative and inspiring. Thank you, Matt

  7. Hey Matt,

    Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. As inspired as you might be by me and my family, I too am inspired by your story. I love meeting people on the spectrum or the families affected by it. It is a newfound culture and lifestyle that intrigues me! After researching what is available in your country, I feel Australia is still young and immature in how they support people on the spectrum and their families. There is still a lack of knowledge within communities and intervention is hardest to access in our cities. The expense is massive and people lose their homes, sanity and dignity trying to afford it.I live in a little country town called Casino in the eastern part of Australia, and I was blessed with intervention assistance right on my doorstep. I always had a mind of my own and a creative way of thinking, so took alot of the work of the boys and my daughter on with an invesstigative nature. I can remember days where I would sit for hours with them biting myself, banging my head and spinning or flapping with them just so I could connect and feel what they felt. They have always inspired and pushed me to go on and the more I study and the more people I meet, the desire to instigate changes of thinking and the image of autism, grows so strong! It is immensely rewarding when you connect and thr trust begins. It is my adrenalin every time I hear my kids talk that I am addicted to and the rush of joy I feel when someone on the spectrum trusts me enough to support them a little closer to the people they need and somehow love. Even a few days ago, a little boy I have been working with voluntarily, finally spoke and held my hand. His mum just cried and the joy was so pure! Autism to me is not a diagnosis of something wrong so much, but something intense, clever and completely amazing! Keep doing what you are doing. People everywhere need you to! Never stop talking or educating others Matt, both for the sake of our children and those yet to arrive on this planet! Thanks agiain for sharing so much of you and your sons world and the intimate parts of your relationships and days together. Cheers, Connie Scholl

  8. The lack of manners, the lack of empathy. I know some highly educated individuals with AS who have made other peoples lives a complete misery with their coarse arrogance and lack of understanding where personal matters are concerned… to the point where their victims have been reduced to breakdown. Those at the severe end of the scale shouldn't be in managerial positions.

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