Why I keep talking about Isaac’s autism

Will I feel comfortable with Isaac being aware of this blog as and when he acquires the ability to?

That I’m actually penning this pontification suggests futility writ large. It’s too late for any lamentations on my part. Fortunately I’m far from beating myself up for publicly tussling with his autism and its many manifestations. For his, and our, sake, sensitivities that shouldn’t be shared are silenced by a thorough filtering process. My instinct for appropriateness remains impact.

The question (nuanced rather than in unreconstructed form) has therefore acted as a gentle leaver on the moral compass if you like. Not that it was needed at all in his early days. Chronicling them demanded a frank, exposing honesty such was our raggedness – with raging against society’s stares going hand in hand with amplifying autism’s awareness a matter of Isaac’s human rights. Intensity informed everything and I felt compelled to communicate all we learned. I wouldn’t change a smidgen.

Indeed, Isaac’s physical and mental being is full to the brim of ever changing behaviours and abilities. That will continue to be themes of his autism and dyspraxia throughout his life. His impairments, sensory challenges, obsessions and anxieties; his charm, magnetism and magical memory; the logic and literal, the deliberate language delivery and fabulous turns of phrase. To understand his wiring is to (metaphorically) untangle it. Neurological, social and physical truths I’ll forever feel the need to talk about, however tough and testing.

As he approaches nine however, the question devolves from what I singularly (as a father) say about him to something more pluralistic. Maybe not a question, more a constant consideration that whatever I say needs a degree of respect and parity with his own opinions, profile and personality. How, if at all, will he feel, be aware of, love, hate, tolerate, tame, embrace, enforce, his autism. It’s his journey, my part must, as much as possible, be curated by – at least be in conjunction with – him.

The trigger for treading this, if not new, then perhaps more tentative, path was a peculiar phrase Isaac brought home from school recently. Delivered in a learnt silly voice, with scripted accompanying laugh, he announced (over and over):

“Willy Wonka’s got autism.”

Bizarre sayings besiege Isaac (a modicum of meaning is barely called for; there’s a compulsion and repetition that satisfies an urge). Hearing him say one with (the word) autism in it gave it uncommon clout; the decibels dealt quite a blow. Engaging him in what he thought autism meant led to a dead-end however. Conversations often call for Isaac’s control; the to and fro-ing of fluent dialogue disorientate him – especially when it’s all a little abstract and unattainable. With no natural start or finish, the flow of chat must seem like a whirlpool. This would be one of those occasions where he won’t dip his toe. Effortless for me, endeavour for him.

Such is our real time – forever on and forever fruitful – relationship with school, they are always alert to little aberrations like this.  Isaac probably didn’t have a knowledge of autism, some boys in his class may have. There was certainly no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory revelatory autism story though.  A semblance of self-awareness was seeping into him. A healthy, in hand, observable occurrence that always happened to boys at Isaac’s school.

Isaac’s school. If, as from his bewildered, tiny face seconds after birth, through the distress, social challenges, seeking for patterns, rigidity and more, it can sometimes feel like Isaac is the boy that fell to earth, then his school is the gift from heaven. They’ve assiduously assembled an apparatus around him that’s robust, inspired and ingenious. Cementing their second to none autism knowledge is a pastoral care, appreciation of the condition’s mystery, as well as a dose of resolve and reality.

So much so that on the occasions I pick him up, I find myself in a jubilant state – flushed with the endorphins of expanded expectations; his jolly, sociable, developing self being clear to see. In fact the narrative right now is Isaac is nowhere near his glass ceiling and deserving of lofty ambitions.

And it is in the context of Isaac’s school that I return defiant to the question of my confidence in Isaac being aware of my public utterances about him and indeed openly discussing autism full stop. It appears part of the school’s wider strategy to confront the comfort zone of autism without compromising it. That, whilst appearing paradoxical, to push him is to protect him.

 

 

Seemingly the standard bearers of autism’s place in the world, the school’s stance offers me a tonal road map. As I say, I don’t believe I’ve strolled off it too much these last few years. It’s just that for now, in this moment, everything I say feels like it deserved to be through the prism of potential.

 

“I love trains. They make me happy. Do men drive trains or are there machines inside that do it? Do the engineers build the track? I want to be the engineer. Knock, knock, who’s there? Morden. Morden who? Modern via Bank”.

Isaac is often in possession of a one rail-track mind. To stem it is to leave him ferociously frustrated, unfairly so. Equally, as championed by school, to dwell on the obsessions, means they fester, he gets entrapped in them.

He’s taken to – “as a way to relax after school, daddy, I need to write about transport” – typing the entire tube map completely from memory; effortlessly, at break neck speed. All the stops, their intersections listed, in perfect order; of all the lines; north, south, east and westbound. It’s a preposterous skill really. Mindboggling in its depth and dimensions. His photographic memory transposing the visual into perfect verbal form.

Cognisant of his obsessive need to create such pieces of unconventional prose, I don’t compliment him too much, despite an inability for my pride in his talents to not reach preening levels. Besides, he desires no congratulations and would deflect then to the point of disobedience. “No, no, it’s not clever. It’s transport, I want to put the piece of printed paper I’ve typed the information on in my room, so no-one can touch it,” he’ll hurl with typical histrionics.

So how to harness this passion that can be on the precipice of pointlessness?

In this case, success has been achieved by introducing some social skills. His octogenarian grandfather, Papa Paul, is an enthusiastic, kindly man, whose interests and generosity are varied. One of which, trains of all shapes and sizes and vintage, is something I, in a previous less informed, less responsible life, gently ribbed him about. Now I strongly reinforce it, aware as I am its vital purpose as a social tool.

Isaac and Papa Paul watch train DVDs quizzing each other on stations, chewing the cud over stable sidings, musing signal systems. It’s liberated Isaac from a tight school pick up schedule, Papa Paul collecting him a day a week now with the promise of train talk. “I want to be like Papa Paul,” he’ll say with vivifying sincerity and honesty.

This marshalling of an obsession into something positive and social, is one of many small but significant steps Isaac is making. Repetition is different from routine. He’ll always thrive from and need routine. So a regular collection from school incentivised with train stimulation is a wholly positive development.

Social learning can be laborious and counterintuitive for Isaac. But his place in the world depends on reaching a certain level. Being importunate with social learning is therefore of the utmost importance. Whilst noting the differences of course:

Reward of friendship is wayward with Isaac – the innate skills of reading body language are invisible, regulating himself from cavorting, physical play is a fierce challenge, reciprocation is not part of his natural make-up. Perhaps all this goes hand in hand with the esoteric concept of social currency; something so yearned for in typical children, appearing of limited value to his self-confidence. Yet we do have some foundations in place that could start to paint the broad brushstrokes of potential. Music, he loves; cataloguing and remembering in the main. Any playlist on popular radio he knows in full, “this song we’ve heard already, sometimes you hear things more than once,” I hear a lot on a long journey, DJs’ propensities to play songs over and over, a lack of imagination irritating Isaac slightly. His knowledge, I know, could stand him in prime social pecking order, in time, “this is Hair by Little Mix featuring Sean Paul – I’ve seen it on music television and am listening now to Capital Radio Extra.”

Just being a minor part of the conversation about autism – with Isaac implicit naturally – feels current. In a world where adults with autism are becoming advocates, employers are being encouraged and the Lancet talks of neurodiversity, the public consciousness is rightly being prized open by a previously marginalised autism world. Equally, awareness remains too low, rights are abused, integration can be pitiful, appropriate education denied. A degree of postcode lottery and council inconsistencies mean Isaac has the fortune of a deserved education. It’s devastating to think of the swathes of children with autism who sit inappropriately in a mainstream, unfocused world. For that alone, speaking openly, loudly, disruptively, about autism and Isaac feels crucial.

 
(I always try to respond)

Peter Mishcon

Dearest Matty… Another chapter in your log of Isaac’s struggles and achievements is out there. With so many good reasons you praise his remarkable school and highlight the unfairness of the inconsistency in local provision, but, as usual, you underplay (and not just in your public utterances!) your and Eliza’s consistent, strong guidance through the enormously challenging labyrinth that is Isaac’s autism.We know first-hand of the exhaustion, frustration and worry for the future, yet increasingly (and often magnificently) we get a glimpse of Isaac’s extraordinary – and developing – qualities and abilities.Today Isaac, through your hand and voice, lit up the page as never before. For him – and for so many others – keep talking. ‘Crucial’!
Aug 24, 2016 6:45pm

 

Matthew Davis

Bless you, Peter. I so appreciate this thoughtful, elegantly written message. x 
Aug 25, 2016 4:51pm

 

Can Judaism play a role in Isaac’s life?

As a fairly steadfast secular Jew, religion in its singular, most fundamental form was never going to be an (al)mighty force in Isaac’s upbringing. Secular Judaism serves up head-scratchers of, well, biblical proportions though. Anyone well versed in it knows that psalms, texts and liturgy form but a slither in Judaism’s complex cultural kaleidoscope.

Even though I’ve always dwelled in the ‘barely-believer’ camp, like so many others an arcane Jewishness has run through my family’s veins. From child to adult, I gorged on the rich pickings of a decisively pick and mix approach. Where a wholesome embrace of certain traditions over others appears arbitrary yet is utterly expected and rather effortless.

If this fluid yet full-of-foibles approach to religion is round holed, then autism is, of course, resolutely square-pegged – meaning Isaac’s Judaism has never really taken shape. Random festivals, sing-songs, all-join-in stories and surprises, full on Friday night dinners, the synagogue as social hub and more, ours is a brand of Judaism that’s more party than preachy. What it isn’t is logical, descriptive, sensible, straightforward.

As such, the cornerstone of the (secular, religious, whatever) Jewish calendar, Passover, passes us by. As the extended family sit down to celebrate, we’re seated elsewhere. It’s a giddy and glorious affair. Children the heart and soul. Colourful stories of Jewish emancipation are read by everybody, symbolic foods – bitter, sweet and worst – are eaten, dares are made. Wine is tasted, the youngest child sings, presents are hidden. 

We tried a fair few years ago, ever so slightly. But raised the white flag early on when the hurricane of noise and food and frolics blew Isaac into major over stimulation. The spartan surroundings of a spare room the only solace. Since when we’ve retreated into risk averse avoiders.

I’m denying him something precious I know. But Passover is so bound up with trip wires. Familiar family houses lose their familiarity; people jovially jostling for space and sound. Dinner tables become sinisterly ceremonial with plates and dishes, colour and spice, and much mystique. Groaning – literally for Isaac – with foreign foods that fizz and froth at him. Cutlery, crockery, glass, china – clinking, smells overriding, people shouting, picture books of cartoonish death and destruction howling at him. Not just a sensory sickness. The scalding blur of all this clutter, audibly and visibly also blighting any order, any uniformity he yearns. Comprehension can collapse like a house of cards.

Unreconstructed, this type of boisterous Jewish cultural onslaught is not on for Isaac. The collateral damage too much. For now. Denying can actually be a decent thing to do also. Even the most basic tenets of Judaism have seemed to favour isolation over congregation for us as a family. Synagogues are bustling, busy places with singing and chanting that can become exuberant and painfully loud to many ears, sensitive or not. The protocols are potty. There’s a haphazard nature of services that can mean a swift swing from loud informality to hushed seriousness.

Our one religious-ish experience five or so years ago, around diagnosis time, had been torrid. It was at an informal service in a synagogue for parents and their little ones. Jollily conducted by an expressive teacher, wide-eyed, miming motions that enriched and complemented tales of adventure and imagination. Restless, Isaac was disengaged. The tut tut brigade were on tenterhooks. Unaware as I was of his visual struggles to decode gesticulations (how my daughter instinctively, understandingly, unlike Isaac, apes hand movements and body moves with glee is so instructive). I attempted and failed to inspire him. Leaving in collective anguish meant no return.

Maybe the sorrow of this occasion has amplified in my mind. It happened during the epoch in our familial narrative of unknowledgeable nursery stuff, nasty stares and nerves fraying. There’s an element of self-infliction with all this avoidance, knowing how many, many Jewish communities boast an inclusivity – full of intention and with a degree of success. Welcoming is ubiquitous I know that. But instinct, sociability and illogical rituals are the dominant currencies in so many synagogue environments, making the battle for someone with autism appear demanding. My stance on Judaism therefore remains devoutly in stasis.

Nevertheless, I have a daughter to add to the complicated equation now. Who will nimbly fit into our faith’s idiosyncratic offerings that are full of warmth, love and family dynamics. Issues around identity that I could put off start to surface too – I have a responsibility to at least inform and open opportunities for both my children. And quite frankly, I am laden with a sadness about the absence of Judaism in my house; the silence haunting me a little like a lingering and lost Hebrew melody. So I am beyond grateful to two recent events that forced me out of this spiritual vacuum. And have proposed potential aplenty.

The first being the invitation to Ellie’s Bat Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for girls). Ellie being a 12 year old first cousin Isaac adores with all his heart. And she loves him back just as much with a quite startling tenderness and understanding. Seizing on the solemnity of the day with brilliant simplicity, Isaac would announce with gusto for days and weeks before that “on Saturday November the 28th, Ellie will become a grown up”. Religion and sermons, ceremony and celebration, heritage, family, culture, discussion, children, a spirited and spiritual unique flavour – Bat Mitzvahs encapsulate that brand of Judaism I’ve talked about with its dynamism, dialogue and general richness. However, just this once, any amount of dwelling on the fissures that a visit could very possibly force failed to begin to chip away at Isaac’s absolute need to be there.

We arrived to witness men and women sitting  separately in the synagogue. An irrational concept to most people, let alone purveyors of logic like Isaac. He grasped this potential hurdle neatly however, leaping between my wife and me; utilising it as an opportunity to orientate himself in a new setting as opposed to processing any peculiarity. The mechanism of manically moving about a new location is one he often sets in motion on first visits. It is a method of focussing and stabilising – sometimes with success, sometimes not. My wife, admirably, courageously, unexpectedly, remained composed in the face of his energy. The physicality and enthusiasm was in the main treated with a compassion by most of the congregants.

Indeed, Isaac’s reactions and conversation, sparkling with honesty, spoke mischievously to some of them. “This singing is silly. It doesn’t work”.

His usual candidness induced humour: “Daddy, why are you kissing everybody, stop kissing the women.” “You don’t kiss grown-ups, you only kiss adult cousins and you mustn’t hug teachers,” checking himself before deciding who best to hug.

Regularly he enquired, “where’s Ellie, I need to see her, she’s becoming an adult.” A bit predictably and not a little pathetically, I was displaying a very detectable (by Isaac as well) anxiety. His mini mood shifts and irritations were manageable but always felt on the urge. A few rotten reprimanding voices in the congregation agitated me.

But there were a few moments to really cherish – which were when there was most jeopardy: when Ellie took to the stage to talk to everybody and share her learnings, and the subsequent address by the Rabbi. After some excited cries of “it’s Ellie”, he settled into a calm reverie as she spoke. Bewitched almost by her oratory.

And then the Rabbi spoke, and Isaac, with (as usual) not a trace of timidity, felt the urge to copy him a little as he spoke to the congregation. Isaac announced the Rabbi’s presence with aplomb and sincerity. The kind rabbi asked if he had “a sidekick somewhere”, an “echo perhaps”. To a now warmed up audience there was much merriment as Isaac repeated “echo” a few times and then hushed. Borrowing his school learning, he must have internally compared being at synagogue to being in an assembly, which, the two events now aligned in his head, made himself be quiet and disciplined. A real feat. We were proud and humbled.

Ellie concluded proceedings by announcing that to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, she was making a donation to the charity, Ambitious about Autism, in honour of her cousin Isaac. “It was an easy decision,” she said, “as he’d taught me so much.” The hullabaloo at the end was a little hellish, what with people rushing around, snacks and wine, the crowd. Leaving via a playground and a neat finish as internally articulated by him, didn’t occur. The distress was transient, as we managed to manoeuvre out of the hectic synagogue, kind of in one piece give or take a lost skullcap or two. All in all it was quite a moment in ours and Isaac’s lives.

Which was built upon considerably a month or so later when my wife and I had the privilege of attending the Bar Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for boys) of the wonderful Reuben – very similar yet very different to Isaac – who attends the same school. Electing not to take Isaac made sense to him; Reuben is a friend he sees at school, why would he see him not at school? He is a ‘School. Friend.’

A judgement-free, relaxed and open community, in a space dripping with inclusive spirituality, Reuben was honoured and seemed comfortable and comforted in his family’s unique synagogue. Reuben’s year’s preparation of chanting a significant Hebrew portion of the bible came to fruition fabulously. A beautiful voice resounding round the synagogue, a community delighted, heritage honoured, joy everywhere.

The Rabbi’s sermon sent me into emotional raptures. Veering between absorption and a little distraction, Reuben looked on whilst being celebrated completely: “We love you,” said the Rabbi. “You’re kind. Your personality so special. The room lights up when you enter.” “You’ve taught me what the scariest film in the world is!” At which point, unabashed Reuben climbed the pulpit and exchanged hugs with the Rabbi. Afterwards, a lambent Reuben told me, “I did my Bar Mitzvah. Everyone is very proud of me; I made no mistakes.”

This perhaps more than anything has created a path in my mind I can follow to drip a bit of Judaism in my family’s life. This could be Isaac. Yes, we have to show the devotion and immersion of Reuben’s family. Yes that me be unobtainable, unsuitable and a million miles off. Do I have the strength?

But with all the complications and randomness and individuality that comes with both, autism and Judaism can be joined. They can be bedfellows. And that is rather astonishing.

(I always try to respond)

Paul Davis ·

Wonderful and so moving. So proud xxxx
Apr 12, 2016 9:09am

Paul Davis ·

Superb, son. A most impressive analysis, and quite optimistic too – a stunning story. Dad xxx
Apr 12, 2016 9:35am

Matthew Davis

Bless you. V grateful for comments. X
Apr 14, 2016 10:23pm

Debbie Cantor ·

A very moving story. We take our ASD 13 yo son to synagogue most weeks. He now loves the routine of the service and manages really well, shaking hands with all his ‘friends’ the men who always sit in their regular seats. He hated the children’s services and we soon gave up on those – too much noise and unexpected behaviour. His Bar Mitzvah last year was special for us and the whole community.
Apr 12, 2016 11:26am

Matthew Davis

Thank you. That’s lovely and inspiring to hear. So glad he likes it and had a Bar Mitzvah too. Thanks for sharing..
Apr 12, 2016 10:18pm

Sam Matthews ·

Matt, you need to write a book (maybe you already have?). I haven’t come across a blogger who writes so beautifully.
Apr 13, 2016 9:22am

Matthew Davis

Hi Sam, thanks for that. Means a lot. Not written a book, no. Idea of one day writing about Isaac does appeal.
Apr 14, 2016 10:22pm

Ben Carlish ·

This truly was a beautiful and moving piece of writing, Matty, thank you! It had me crying all over my keyboard reading it at lunchtime at work to the bemusement of some of my colleagues! I think you so eloquently captured the rich joy to be had in peering through Judaism’s “complex cultural kaleidoscope” and conveyed the heartfelt sadness that you have felt in feeling being denied of passing that legacy on to Isaac. However, there is so much optimism too – making it a very Jewish piece of writing! My probably naive and ill-informed thought for what it’s worth, is that given Isaac’s accute awareness of his surrounding environment and given both of your strong Jewish identies, he will absorb much of that via psychological and spiritual osmosis – if that makes sense. While some of the ritualism of Judaism in a formal religious setting remains out of reach for now, you will continue to imbue him with the basic loving, embracing and compassionate values we hold so dear. For me Judaism is in the soul, not just in the mind and not just in subscription to the rituals…and this lad, I believe, has a profoundly Jewish soul.
Apr 14, 2016 6:20am

Matthew Davis

Love you brother (in law). Precious words, thank you x
Apr 29, 2016 5:07pm

Penny Madden ·

You write with such clarity, empathy and love, Matt. I have been reading some of your past posts and they are extraordinary. An amazing insight into Isaac’s world.
Apr 28, 2016 8:08am

Matthew Davis

Hi Penny
Thanks so much for your message. So nicely put – so appreciated.
Matt
Apr 29, 2016 5:06pm

Kiwi and Spoon

So very moving, thank you for sharing.
Apr 29, 2016 1:01pm

Sarah Driver ·

Beautiful and eloquent as ever Matty. Offering insight and understanding in to the world of raising children outside of society’s narrow norms and expectations. A wonderful boy with a wonderful and very lo Ioving family around him. X
Aug 23, 2016 3:58pm

My review of In A Different Key – The Story of Autism

I was delighted to be asked to review In A Different Key for the publisher, Pelican Books. Here’s what I wrote:

There’s a brief but reflective detour in this hugely ambitious, perhaps definitive, telling of the autism story, some hundred or so pages in. Steering from the text’s omnipresent objectivity and exhaustively researched facts, the authors make a personal observation that, I believe, has universal resonance. Whilst discussing a depressingly common occurrence, where parents were battling for inclusion and rights for their child (this time in the 1970s, but it could be any time before or after then), they muse:

“It almost never occurs to people raising kids of “normal” health and abilities to ask where all of the other children are.”

I’m not sure the authors totally meant it, but there’s a subtext here that distils the entire purpose of the book for me. Only when people question where the people with autism are can we live in a society that fully embraces the condition. And only a book like this can help to achieve that world; a book that doesn’t cease in tackling a history as complicated as it can be thanks to an ever changing diagnosis, heroes and villains, trends, science, supposed science, misplaced research, the list mounts.



At times it reads like a human rights tome with sensitivity stamped on every page. It becomes heartrendingly personal; an ode to the generations of pioneering parents who fought for people like me. I’d always had more than a hunch that a semblance of fortune was dispensed on my family that my son was born in the 21st century. Trawling through the at times barbaric environment (from Kanner’s refrigerator mothers to vaccine and mercury controversies) my hunch took hold and became a conviction.
The story is bookended with the account of Donald, the first person to be diagnosed in the 1930s and who’s still alive now. It means there’s an emphasis on humanity that offsets the often harsh truths of the book. Indeed a human filter covers most of the rigorously backed up prose. Turns of phrase – from the off – nicely fatten facts that could be starved of comprehension. For example, we are told that the very thing that rattles Donald most, is the ‘raucous rush of unpredictability’, something that chimes with my son, some 75 years and a world of discovery later. 
Taking a linear approach must have been the only option open to telling the authentic autism history. And the sense of a comprehension of this complex condition mutating and morphing over time is clear.


We discover the cruel and psychoanalytical interpretations of the 1950s and 60s that were so damaging and devastating for parents. Reading about Bruno Bettelheim, whose book The Empty Fortress likened children with autism to the prisoners’ gaze he’d seen in concentration camps, thus likening mothers to vessels of neglect, is particularly upsetting. It makes my awe at the fortitude shown by people like Ruth Sullivan whose determination to better the world (and succeed in doing so) even greater.

The book forensically dismantles these and later pernicious theories and falsified treatments that lacked any science. And we move deliberately and diligently to the modern world of autism advocates, adults as part of the debate and a true understanding of the condition as organically distinctive. The positive positioning as the book ends is in many ways thanks to the generations of parents and professionals who fought the battle.

The one troublesome theme is as a result of that linear approach. Yes, there’s a loose curve which strengthens the story. But by not being able to land on Lorna Wing’s inspired ‘triad of impairments’ and first articulation of ‘autistic spectrum disorder’ till two thirds of the way through, it’s difficult to grasp autism’s symptoms ‘infinite shades of intensity’. It’s a journey of discovery I guess, and the reader can make no conclusions till the end. Perhaps not a problem.
Revisiting Donald as he reaches his 80th birthday is the most poignant and beautiful end to this important book. Learning that he’s grown up in a town that seeks him out, celebrates him and honours him, is life affirming stuff. A microcosm of a perfect world where it does occur to people to ask where the other children and adults are.

(I always try to respond)

Father’s Day 2015

With Father’s Day beckoning, now could be the time to indulge in fatherhood musings. How my son, Isaac, has affected any perceptions I may have had. How he enriches the experience. And challenges it. How his autism may have sent us off course for a bit. How my role as a father in my universe sits slightly out of kilter with others’ universes.

But that feels unnecessary and unimportant right now. What feels very right and very relevant this father’s day is to celebrate something, dare I say it, more fundamental to Isaac.

His mother.

His mother, who gave birth to him in barbaric conditions. And balanced recuperation with a stressed baby from day one.

His mother, who from that day to, well, perhaps forever, bats off judgemental glares and tuts from people who should know better but know nothing at all.

His mother, who had no place to hide from what felt like hell, when her husband could escape daily.

His mother whose instinct told her something was wrong but battled on because what else could you do? Who nodded unknowingly when other’s shared their similar stories; because in reality they were different.

His mother, who ferried around her sinking and struggling son to therapists and doctors. His mother, who never flinched in her unrequited love for her unresponsive son.

His mother, who kept calm when diagnosis was delivered. Seeing a future not finality.

His mother, who learnt and listened and devoured and dissected. So she was armed to the teeth with rights and knowledge.

His mother, who made the system fear her and not vice versa. Who got Isaac the right support, his statement of needs and who never ceases in improving his life.

His mother, who found him a school that was right. And another one when it all went wrong.

His mother, who campaigned not just on his behalf but on the many like him. Spreading awareness, sharing, inspiring, strengthening, surviving.

His mother, who sensibly delayed having a second child for the sake of her first. Before finding the inner strength to create a sibling for Isaac. Mixing nature with counter-intuition and most of all courage.

His mother, who tolerates swings in behaviour of an epic scale. Experiencing outpourings of love, bundles of anxiety and no little cruelty, day in, day out.

His mother, who knows how to push not punish. Comfort not compromise. Who can temper frustrations with empathy. Whose maternal instinct never wavers.

At best I play second fiddle to my wife’s orchestration of Isaac. Managing his days, taking him places, speaking to his school, arranging his time. She is mum, mentor, therapist and teacher. His absolute anchor. Which is why I see this Father’s day more than ever for what it is. An affirmation that what I do as a father is enabled and enhanced by the miracles managed by his Mother.

(I always try to respond)

What’s normal?

Ruthless logic, repetition and rigidity may pervade Isaac’s behaviour, but interwoven is an element of mystery. Flowing in, out and around the factual chunks that constitute the bulk of his thinking, is an indescribable, impregnable strand of his personality that we can’t hope to get a handle of. This otherworldly trait – this outlier of a feature in his brain – can at times cast a spell on Isaac, making him rarely readable, obstructive and ever so slightly out of reach.

Often, on close inspection, when there is a mysterious onset of distress, discomfort, defiance or aggressive avoidance that can so baffle us, so weary us, it can actually be attributed to autism. Albeit in its most extreme and fascinating form. Like when he witnesses a barely noticeable change to a thing or things that we haven’t accounted for or think we can dodge.

For example, he has close to a hundred small video clips he’s made on an iphone of his train trips. Handing him the phone, his after school treat he’d spent the day fantasizing about, I realised I may have deleted or discarded one. But it was too late to reason with him as he swiped and mentally scanned the swoosh of barely distinguishable mini-still images of clips in one fell swoop of his skinny finger. Noticing in a split second one wasn’t there. Cue tears, frustration and collapse. Kicking with rage. A demonstration, not particularly appreciated by us at the time, of his extraordinary visual, photographic memory – particular to autism of course. An eye for this type of detail is practically incomprehensible to me.

Talking of his visual capabilities, any tampering with his visual mind map (which connects him to the world) places his world out of kilter – eliciting rash behaviour that can appear mysterious without a forensic done on its causes. (He sees the world the way an unfocused camera does, taking it all in, painting a picture in his mind, so everyone and everything he sees for a second time or more is in context; it’s one of the reasons he yearns repetition and feels safe and sound with it).

So when a rushing tube train was missing a tiny yellow sticker warning of objects being trapped in between doors – something I had been blissfully unaware in all my decades travelling the tube – on a stationery train let alone a moving one – he was uncontrollable with sadness and insecurity. Now, he’s learnt to put a positive spin on anomalies like this, becoming uncontrollable with glee and giggles, when he sees it ‘Look, daddy! No sticker! Train’s got no sticker!!’ Progress.

Equally, he can appear summoned by strange – invisible to me – similarities, like the time he became agitated at dinner because there was ‘a monster, with big starey eyes’. Things settled when we realised two innocent bagels and a bread knife sitting in close proximity to one another, were the culprits.

The triggers therefore for what can appear mysterious behaviour can be located in a semblance of logic. But only with exhaustive analysis. And often, when he throws himself into a prolonged bout of stimming (self-stimulating behaviour) of train sounds, flapping hands, seeking reflections and sensory fulfilment, one can but be mesmerised by his whole, daunting world. Autism is a sensory processing disorder, and often the chaos and colours of our world simply bamboozle him. He needs to retreat and reboot for whatever reason he cannot articulate. In his time, in his way. “Don’t talk to me, daddy. I’m a little bit busy” will be his delivery to us, in earnest.

Maybe all this mystery is what led Autism expert, Uta Frith, to evocatively refer to children with autism as having a ‘fairy tale like quality’. There’s certainly a perceived magic to autism, a wondrous quality. So much so that some people honourably celebrate it above all else.

It would be dishonest however of me to make the same claims. To talk endearingly and exclusively about the magic of Isaac’s autism would be a sleight of hand. I would be deceiving myself. The truth being that in the early days, if I could have waved a wand and made ‘the magic of autism’ go away, I may have done.

Too much pain has occurred, too much worry lies ahead for such sentiment. Too much pining for little pleasures like play dates, parties, and knock about care free fun that I’m too feeble to supress successfully; the consolation that he’s content to miss out, tepid comfort at best. Too many experiences where we just can’t brook the dam-breaking tears. Too much time selfishly feeling stultified by the shackles of routine, the hours spent on trains (a treat for Isaac, at times a tedium chamber for me) weekends at home spend wondering, What if?

No, autism, for me, is about reality, not magic.

Our obsessing of Tabitha, Isaac’s sister, lands a heavy blow to any beautifying of autism anyway. At six months old, assessing any signs of the condition is perhaps futile. Still, we struggle to not put an autism filter over every tiny thing she does or doesn’t do. Eye contact, eating, initiating gestures. Poring over pictures of Isaac at the same age, looking for clues, doing detective work like some sort of a crank doctor. It’s driven by an oppressive fear that if not tamed, could override everything we do, feel or think. So far, so controlled. But when I can’t halt my darker trains of thought of imagined missed developmental cues and subsequent similarities with Isaac, I hurtle to a precipice.

Which all bears out the truth that autism is not something I wish for. However, wishing autism away from Isaac? That’s something different entirely.

 

Autism is a condition to respect if not revere; restricting it would be doing Isaac a great disservice. And yet, I find myself in a place where it’s felt Isaac’s autism should be managed somewhat. At worse, this feels like a normalisation process, where fitting him into our world is the ambition. At best, it may push him comfortably, towards that oft-repeated but vitally important position of ‘reaching his potential’.

This quandary hit me like a rocket in a whirlwind 24 hours very recently. We had a meeting with his teacher at his mainstream school, where the talk and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Our hearts melted as his teacher told us how Isaac had ‘pressed a soft button in his heart’. Small steps to socialising were taking place. His learning was improving speedily and convincingly. Discipline wise, things were looking up. He ‘didn’t have a naughty bone in his body’. Tantrums happened but diffused with minimal fuss. Misunderstandings were being ironed out.

But then, the talk teetered on pushing Isaac that little bit harder, challenging that little bit more. I can’t stress the goodwill, application and drive of his teacher and the school in general. But my sensitivities arose, my ‘normalising’ autism antennae were on high alert. Isaac was coping in the playground on his own better; less and quieter stimming, was seen as a major positive.

Underneath this steely resolve Isaac was showing, is there, however, a fragility that ferments until set free at home? After school he has become tremendously trying. Mysterious bouts of negativity ooze from him, desperately hanging on to the minutiae of routine, hoarding his magazines, eating even less than normal. His lunchbox often remains untouched despite his now ‘integration’ into the dinner hall. The noise he may be managing, but to the detriment of his diet. These are the fine details of autism not everyone grasps.

His playing with other kids was seen as another positive but was in a context of obsessive dependency on certain children that they were ‘dealing with’ by separating him. Isaac’s gambolling when I drop him off clearly grates the other kids. How much do they know about autism? Where are we going with all this?

 

A kind of conclusion to our meeting was a nod to how you couldn’t spot some of the kids with autism in the school. This assimilation as a kind of badge of honour. This attitude was indeed honourable if not misplaced. I felt some concern. 

The antidote to this was the next day and a visit to one of a very few schools specifically for kids with high functioning autism and Asperger’s – kids like Isaac.

As we were shown around by one of those people whose affinity with autism is astounding, I struggled to stem the tears of hope. Expressive and reacting to the teaching, full of questions, these pupils’ autism was being handled exquisitely as they were able to break free when need be, talk in their own way, receive occupational therapy; at all times they were cajoled by professionals correctly and compassionately.

Highly, highly emotional, I could see they were happy, focused, cared for and celebrated. In fact, I could actually see Isaac in them. This was something I hadn’t experienced before. Usually, when I’m peering in from the periphery at family functions, disconnected from the dads-and-lads larks and japes, the boys I witness seem a different species to Isaac at times, so made-for-the-world they are, so conventionally developed with their dialogue.
In short, when I entered the school I felt like I’d discovered an autism-friendly, safe and very special whole world of learning and love. Normalising, the pressure to conform had no place. Yet life skills and the curriculum were at the core. Somewhere full of potential, free from the burden of fitting in.

Isaac has a lifelong condition that, for all its peculiarities – some predictable, some mysterious – means he will always be different to a degree. My job is not to smooth out those differences, however hard they frustrate me and him. Isaac is an effervescent boy – to crudely normalise him to fit into our world, would be to flatten that sparkle in him. And that would be unforgiveable.

Schools of thought

The autism journey is anything but straightforward, perhaps the sole certainty being a succession of learning curves lurking at every juncture. The ones that kicked off concurrently from diagnosis we’ve conquered competently. Like a basic understanding of the traits, and a persuasive narrative for friends, family, and teachers at the time. Whether they’d been previously disturbed by his development (or lack of it) or in denial about it, or indeed, both.

Other learning curves linger longer and there’s no correct way to climb them. Like how to campaign for awareness appropriately; a political and sensitive issue, with something bordering on a consensus to acknowledge. Similarly, the (ironically complex) curve of dealing positively with the very unlearned concept of prejudice and its many forms is a tough one. Multiple, mini mountains of misinformation abound.

But, for me, attempting to understand autism’s effect on learning itself – and specifically Isaac’s – is the one learning curve that dominates, overriding most others. Informing and instructing them. A learning curve we’re lumped with for life it would seem.  It’s resilient and recurring. Stubborn, steep and something we slip down, just when we think we’ve mastered it.

Isaac’s learning abilities are riddled with contradictions. He has a fascinating facility to absorb information, process it and repeat it back. That seems to be multiplying by the day. His latest skill being a walking-talking calendar describing the dates and days ahead in substantial, miniscule detail. Delivered earnestly by rote with formal verbal flourishes like ‘hmm, that will be a very good idea’ and ‘now, daddy, please listen, on October 4 you’ll collect me from school with Daddy’s phone in your pocket. Please say yes’.

Idiosyncrasies are arising of course, like his incredulity at inconsistencies, impossible to explain, such as the number of days in the month: ‘but 31 has to happen’ was his opening gambit on October 1. And any event in the past whether 10 minutes ago or 10 months previously has to be referred to as ‘yesterday’. That I’m going to give him a bath on December 25, after Father Christmas has been, is not so much pencilled in as tattooed into his mind.

The benefits of his brain’s linear and logical leaps of learning are felt enormously for my family. With our collective abilities to successfully plan and keep to a routine now comprehensive. Without a doubt day to day living is calmer and more joyful as a result.

Yet other, more opaque areas of his learning appear to not be keeping up. He can count rapidly to way beyond 100 in groups of 3s, 5, 7s, but unless he’s literally and visually learnt the simplest of sums, he will struggle to answer them. Similarly he can read and read back pieces of text, thanks to his vast visual memory. Phonics are his strength so his sight reading is improving. But he cannot write or create words. And plots of stories however simple seems to pass him by.

Inquiry and imagination are in their infancy. As is improvisation in dialogue. Responses are phrases learnt – sometimes charmingly jumbled. Anything demanding coordination and motor skills from riding a bike, to tying shoelaces, to handwriting, are beyond his ability and interest. However when it comes to naming things like tube trains, their lines, and being able to recognise them, he’s a scholar.

I can only compare him to a hardworking, functional computer whose operating system is about words, numbers and storage. Vast amounts of it. Its capacity for inputting and processing data considerable. But lateral, abstract, hard-to-pin down human dissection and discussion not apparent features. Indeed, try to programme intuition and sociability, and his operating system slows to a halt.

Complicating things further is his unpredictable propensity to apply himself. Head first, focused, obsessive if he wants to, and the environment is sensitive to his sensory inconsistencies, enabling him to utilise his visceral desire to document and memorise. (Making films on an iPhone of him watching trains or in fact doing anything mundane and then watching back many, many times is his current passion. And is the most effective incentive when we want him to so something – anything!)

But equally he can be distracted and perhaps perceived as disobedient, if he’s not 100% absorbed in the task at hand. Extremes.

So the strands of learning that align in most minds and as a result everyday life caters for, is simply not his experience. He doesn’t have a collage of cognition in the way typical children do.

And it’s within the landscape of a muddied education system that these inconsistencies of his learning will be most severely tested. School is the lightning rod for a child’s immediate, long term and wider development, his potential, his place in the world. A balanced and responsive-to-his-needs learning environment will create a smooth a path to what we yearn for him. However, I’m aware how challenging that can be, his brain wired so differently to a typical child. My greatest fear is he doesn’t receive the extra support and care he needs if he’s at a mainstream school; or that wider learning and sociability may evade him at a specialist school. And either could leave him stranded in an education hinterland.

I abandoned dreams of him cutting a swathe through school a while ago (should I have though?). It doesn’t mean he should be cut adrift in an education system that can’t deal with the vagaries of autism.

The truth is, at this exact moment in time, as he begins Year 1, I am grateful that Isaac is receiving an appropriate education in a mainstream school that is adapted around him as much as it can possibly be – when you take into account 25 classmates, none on the spectrum. I appreciate I have barely dipped my toe into the rough, unpredictable waters of an education system that so many parents are drowning in unfairly. This is my personal experience and it could all change tomorrow, literally. I know that.

Based in Brent, where Isaac was diagnosed, professionals have mobilised around my little boy with a verve and industry that I rarely experience. Accessing these professionals, a high and daunting hurdle through no fault of themselves, was a mission singlehandedly fought by my wife. And once achieved, critical interventions like speech therapy pretty much saved Isaac and transformed him. The Brent Outreach Autism Team (BOAT), is a battalion for parents like us, its purpose representing children with autism in the mainstream education system. Lobbying for them, getting the right teachers, training them, getting support, linking with the school. Always on the end of a phone, the slightest autism unfriendly event can be reported to them and acted on with alacrity.

The yield of this is Isaac is a contented pupil at a school well versed in autism and special educational needs (SEN).  An enthusiastic, accepting yet firm approach means he is pushed but not too hard. His 26 hours designated extra support from a Teaching Assistant (TA) is always at hand but autonomy for Isaac is advised wherever possible. His teacher is confident with him, with his own strategy for what Isaac can and can’t do, one not swayed by potentially over concerned parents. Indeed little bits of independence like walking without us into class have been put in place, successfully and without distress. Our anxieties in the main have been assuaged.

It’s a critical year, of course. With this age group on the cusp of major numeracy and literacy sophistication. His teacher has faith in Isaac and I must. He’s holding a pen and ‘squiggling’ which I wasn’t confident would happen. Despite him clearly being behind his age group in these areas, he is having support in them and developing.

His professorial speech and memory are acutely autistic though. One of Isaac’s outreach workers, Jemma, whose championing of Isaac is unswerving and inspiring, observed something intriguing about how his methods defy mainstream ways of learning. She explained that there is a conventional wisdom that links handwriting with how most kids learn to read – whereby making the shapes of the letters liberates words off the page so to speak. However, she noticed that this is not the case with Isaac. He can read – not just competently but well above average for his age group – yet can barely use a pen, let alone write a word. Perhaps this is due to a mixture of taught phonics and his own self-taught marvellous mind at play.

An ambivalence towards teaching methods creeps in, rightly or wrongly. Does his autism demand alternative approaches? Is he missing things that are being taught and are the school missing things that he’s picking up? (However, teaching at his school does benefit him broadly, giving him opportunities for reading, numbers, behavioural cues – that’s for sure.)

So I have reservations. A raft of them.

Occupational Therapy is something he’s (physically) crying out for. Traces of it are hazy. Would an intensive, continual course of this complement his main learning? Actually, is this an area that must be incorporated into his curriculum, a permanent feature and even support worker?

Having one on one support in the form of a TA is vital. Especially at lunch, when he can attempt to eat in a small group away from noise and disruption. But the TA is of course not a trained autism specialist. Would that make a difference? Play too his strengths more? Or could it hold him back if he’s kept too cosseted?

In a specialist school, where they understand the autistic brain supremely, may they be better placed to furnish his mind with skills better suited for him? Make more use of his obsessional approach. Or is this fanciful?

At school, they are having a modicum of success weaning Isaac off his repetitive behaviour – rapidly waving his hand in front of his face, making train noises. This is a behaviour he needs and it relaxes him. Would another school embrace it and tolerate it more. Is there an answer? Probably not.

Hugely helpfully, the issue of Isaac’s learning has recently been best summed up by the head of Isaac’s school. Only the parents of a child with autism know exactly what’s right or wrong for their child. If they are lucky enough to have choices they are the only ones to make them. What we must do, he advised us, is try to avoid a time when we have no choices. When we must make a ‘distress’ purchase and leave a school because it’s unbearable, with nowhere to go. And with that he advised us to always seek out different learning environments, schools to his own, so we’re prepared. Which is what we do, keeping us just ahead of the learning curve.

How do you value friendship?

Calculating Isaac’s capacity to conduct conventional friendships is as head scratching as the most complex of conundrums. He possesses scant ability to adhere to the rules and formulas of sociability innate in most of us. Explaining the essence of friendship such as sharing and symbiosis is tantamount to talking in a foreign unlearned, un-contextualised language. Fruitless and thankless.

Yet so often, Isaac is a roaring and adoring, larger than life social animal. Attentive to absurd games, ball throwing and bouncing, often his creation, always on his terms. All eye contact and breathless laughter. Infecting all in his wake with his own particular brand of jumping joy. Just ask his autism-informed, well drilled army of cousins.
It’s just that he can retreat into the solitude from the social swiftly and alarmingly. His universe-falling-apart meltdowns may appear indiscriminate, immediate and scary. His is a topsy turvy world where we are not what we seem to him, and him to us. Where who he’s touched by and who he touches seems arbitrary. People are bewitched by his personality or beaten by it.

A forensic of Isaac’s behaviours throws a spotlight on how ill-equipped he is for maintaining a friendship in the way we, as typical humans, believe they need to be. And may explain a reluctance to initiate friends, rarely referencing them, appearing content in his world.

Take eating. Isaac doesn’t appreciate his appetite; he’s barely aware of it. Articulating hunger is extremely unusual, unless repeating a phrase he’s heard. As such he has a finely balanced diet – resolutely at room temperature, ordered, bland, fiercely familiar – if anything’s off balance, it’s all off limits. Profoundly, from a social perspective, the process of eating is as fussy as the food itself. If the circumstances aren’t particular, he simply won’t eat. Or engage.

And of course, eating is that most convivial of acts. An organised chaos that slots into a code of human togetherness. Right from the early years birthday parties, eating is a focus – where kids feed their friendships as much as themselves.

Before diagnosis, we’d despair of the malcontent Isaac, screaming, not eating, not still, whilst his peers ate cake, giggled, bonded, shouted and got this rite of passage totally right. Now, unless seriously stage managed, these gaudy, noisy affairs are avoided. Just hearing Happy Birthday sung differently to how he last heard (which it invariably will be) sends his strict, catalogued mind into mutiny.

His visual memory antagonises further, I would guess, so whenever he witnesses eating in groups now, he associates it with chaos and discomfort, thus explaining his unwillingness to be a part of things more often than not. Family functions see Isaac eat alone and away with only an iPad for company. Not eating together means not forming friendships, alliances and mischief.

This is magnified at school, where the dinner hall, with its clutter and shrill sounds, disturbs him too much, meaning he has a picnic with his Teaching Assistant. Quiet and separate. As a tactic, thoughtful and heart-warming. Ultimately though, him missing out eating with others is him missing out on making friendships.

The school lunches have fed his obsession for repetition. He mentions lunchtime the minute he arrives at school, needing affirmations and confirmations throughout the morning. By seeking safety and security through this lunchtime routine, friendship has perhaps been sacrificed.

Isaac’s physicality, his love of jumping and squeezing and bundling, has probably landed a blow for friendship too. It may just be over zealous hugs, but unable to channel these acts into organised physical play, the coordination, motor skills and learning perhaps too demanding, it can express itself keenly onto the other children. Despite never having an aggressive or sinister flavour, at worse he can be seen as a pugnacious presence that teachers attempt to manage through the toothless tools of explanation and discipline. He’s rather left out on a limb.

So eating, obsessions, repetition, routine as well as rough play – all critical to conventional sociability – must go some way to explain his lack of friendships. They mean he is missing important windows to learning social cues. The proof is his persona, and how he is – and isn’t – with his peers. Isaac’s propensity to play with his peer group is paltry. He appears to have no need for them.

Who knows when and if he’ll need them, and in what form. When I dare to look ahead, lying in wait are scary realities that risk a friendship desert. Isaac could well be the chief teller of tales, considering how honest he is and will remain. Not a perfect role for the playground. As sarcasm gains serious traction, Isaac could lose whatever hold he has of childhood chatter. However much he adapts to surroundings, he could well need to flap, and chant, ape and repeat. Right now there appears to be a fondness of Isaac’s foibles among his school group. Indeed, the school do say he is beginning to show the signs of forming friendships; with adult support this could happen. But will they be in place before the currency of friendship shifts from accepting to alienating?

Maybe friendships are and could remain just too onerous for him. The codes impossible to decipher. Intuitive and conflicting. It explains why he seeks the solidity of inanimate objects as opposed to the unpredictability of animate ones. Stuff over folk.

How about this though: What if reading people and all their peculiarities is only half the story to making genuine friendships and connections. Or indeed the wrong half. Perhaps how we view and define peer group friendship is narrow and niche.

Because as I’ve said, Isaac is very much a social soul. And it’s who his visceral and intense playful experiences are with that’s instructive. When friendship is distilled to a simple positive interaction with laughter as rewards and absolute attentiveness, Isaac’s connections can be electric.

Demonstrating his wonky position in the world, Isaac thrives with kids younger or older than him. And adults. Like that of his sixty-something grandfather. One of Isaac’s truly authentic, unreconstructed best friends. Someone who will be the centre of Isaac’s world when he’s with him, because that’s where he plonks himself. In Isaac’s eye line, responding, cajoling, communicating, and collaborating. Large and loud and in each other’s faces, this pure play is rewarding for both grandfather and grandson, because both give their simple, uninterrupted all.

It’s not just about getting on Isaac’s level (literally). It’s about entering and immersing himself in Isaac’s knock about, shouty, loving, learn-through-zaniness personality. Words and numbers jostle with japes and slapstick. It’s exuberant and exhausting. And give or take some flung spectacles, hugely, hugely positive.

 

These shows of affection and connection demonstrate how, rearticulated and redefined, friendship is obtainable and straightforward for Isaac. In fact, distil friendship further into a simple altruistic act of being tender and loving though, and Isaac’s sociability is supreme.

Because nothing demonstrates Isaac’s huge reserves of love and affection than the adoration – and little obsession – of his newly arrived younger sister, Tabitha.

Isaac was perfectly programmed for her arrival. To be tender with touch and to show love. To not be alarmed by crying. To know that mummy would always be with her. Brotherly instructions were inscribed into him. And now he behaves utterly beautifully with her. It’s as if a conscious learning to show love has brought out a dormant but vast natural ability.

“Can I kiss Tabitha?” is the question most heard in our household. Followed closely by “Can I carry Tabitha…all by myself.” Both of which he does do determinedly and intently, but, I would fathom, without an ounce of malice or revenge or attention grabbing. All emotions I imagine can play a part, but have been absent here.

(Now’s not the time to mention his insecurities that are running amok. Manifesting themselves into a heightened need for routine, defiance and more inflexibility than usual. The point is that there is a pure love for Tabitha.)

His responses to the crying are to implore us to change a nappy, or feed her. He observes a lot, and comments on what he sees.

 

“Can Tabitha come with us?” has become as much a request as a need for reassurance. He loves the way she smells and feels. He talks to her: “Look at the train Tabitha”. It’s ever so gentle and true to his focus and obsessions, a scream from Tabitha will have to be particularly ear-piercing to halt a train he’s playing with. He talks of nappies and cleaning. He needs to know she’s about. A permanent presence.

 

And whether I am seeing it or choosing to imagine it, there’s a definite and distinct way she looks at her older brother. For long periods of time. Knowingly, lovingly, protectively. What I like to believe is she’s detected his compassion, and is communicating it back. What I’m sure of is it’s the beginning of a most wholesome and genuine and transparent friendship.

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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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Am I smothering Isaac with love?

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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Connecting trains

Puzzling over Isaac’s future is a hazardous pursuit. It’s not just envisioning him in a socialised yet unforgiving world, a contradictory place of competition and compassion, which can set me off course for a day. Keeping a grip on reality has also meant putting any hopes and dreams on hold.

Actually, those abstract – seemingly starting in utero – educational aspirations, and their accompanying agonies of catchment areas and private schools, never became more than that: abstract. Before abating to absolute non-existence as autism and its challenges took over (schooling becomes an obsession of course but for very different reasons). 


Much tougher to shake off have been the softer dreams that smooth the childhood journey. Like the first best friend, sleepovers, magic shows, dressing up, leaps of imagination, signs of independence. And overwhelmingly, that bastion of father son bonding, football.


Pre-Isaac I’d been pretty sure that I’d have a little boy who, like me, loved the game, and specifically, Crystal Palace Football Club. It’s good old-fashioned dad fodder. Taking a son to watch his (and your) heroes is a wonderful part of our country’s DNA. Surely it would be in my DNA too.


For now though I have to live with the truth that football and Isaac are not ideally suited. Playing will play havoc with his hypo sensitivity and permanent off balance sensibility; not to mention his currently clumsy coordination. Rules that are frequently flounced and fairly flexible will collide horribly with his rigid system – however developed it becomes. Teamwork as a concept for his age group is in its infancy, but still he would miss its rudiments of complex social cues, reciprocity, instinct and competitiveness risking him being a misfit.


Watching football demands fluid sensory capabilities, a stark contrast to his see-and-hear-all take on the world. Successfully spectating involves real time visual editing of looking this way and that, from periphery to centre stage, in and out of focus, blurring, ignoring, focusing again. In the full and frenzied nature of a football match, the difficulty he’ll have deciphering means his coping mechanism of singular repetitive behaviour would be the only remedy. All this explains why the presence of any football in his vicinity has been a little bewildering and pretty much blocked out.


And although individually surmountable, he could well crumble under the combined effects of a live game such as the crowds, lights, noise, stewards shepherding us about, unpredictability, flowing narrative, oscillating moods, partisanship, nuanced comment. Why do patterns of play always change; why aren’t outcomes identical? Altogether an avalanche of autism un-friendly attributes. So the heralded visit to first game with my son is perhaps the last thing I’d contemplate.


Which means I have to currently live with this clipped dream. Contentedly it has to be said when compared to the distress I’d put him in by seeking some sort of paternal utopia. The dream is indeed on hold. But I’m not too bereft.



Anyway, we have trains. Our very own father, son pastime.

Isaac would happily live his entire life on a train. At times he’ll go through days and weeks as if permanently on the Jubilee line with a twin recital of pitch perfect engine sounds and station names, and it can be difficult getting him to alight. Except to an ipad for some blasts of YouTube clips of filmed tube journeys.


It’s not too difficult to see why tube trains satisfy the not-very-enquiring mind. Identical length journeys. Predictable destinations. Regularity. For the sensory seeker, they also provide the manna of moving lights, same sounds and perpetual motion; things Isaac replicates when not on a tube train by deftly but ferociously flapping his blue flannel inches from his eyes.


Travelling on and watching tube trains have therefore always featured in Isaac’s life. Starting as some sort of sedative, the only location that would still his troubled soul, they have evolved to be something much more. Because whilst Isaac may not have been ready for my ritual of watching football, I made myself readily available for his ritual of train journeys. 


They have become a fully-fledged, regular joint activity that has facilitated conversation and learning, allowed new experiences to be introduced, offered me a glimmer of his considerable memory (with the side-effect of me glowing with delight). They have also enabled him to be downright, deliriously happy.


Our almost weekly trips around the London Underground have cultivated a cause-and-effect dependency and neatly developed it into a something deeper and more meaningful. Our bond was born on the Bakerloo line and has blossomed throughout the entire London Underground network and its multiple journeys and destinations. It’s highly possible that with every train connection we experience together, we connect more.


Somewhat unsurprisingly, once we accomplished our first 3 hour round trip from Kensal Green, his expectation was to do it identically the next time.  From watching three red trains heading for Elephant and Castle and at least one orange train for Euston, before urgently and enthusiastically boarding the next one. As well as cracking into crackers at Euston, waiting for Harrow and Wealdstone for milk, and then hovering at Kensal Green to witness one last southbound train. The minute detail and order he recalls is fundamental to the experience and fascinating to behold.  And not only do I need to follow him as I invariably forget facts, I must treat it with respect too as he rapidly gets concerned if it wavers in any way.


Of course, this craving of repetition and routine could compromise his learning. Subsequent trips playing out exactly the same with no discoveries or new dialogue between us. But whilst any visit to Kensal Green is pretty much limited to the journey described, there’s nothing to stop us starting at different destinations and stretching his seeming limitless capacity to remember, absorb and repeat back.


We have five or six trips now. Each mutually exclusive from one another.


The gospel at Gospel Oak? “Sandwich with yellow cheese please. Let’s get off and go to Barking, daddy.”


What to do at Dollis Hill? “Quick, quick, we must get on and go to Westminster. I love the Jubilee line daddy.  Daddy, can we cross the train bridge and see the big wheel? …Lift me up, lift me up! This is such fun!”


Then there’s Brondsbury Park, Golders Green…you get the picture. The scripts for each journey unique, thorough and painstakingly thought through.


There is room to embrace new things. Once he has the solid foundations in place, windows of opportunity for adding a detour to the trip are rare but do exist. This became clear on the amble from Westminster to Waterloo, where passing a café I suggested we could sit in and eat some chocolate buttons. He was open to it, sat down, shared some bread with me and that became a fixed part of that trip. Bringing Isaac to a café, to sit and have a meal is difficult and challenging. On the rehearsed journey from Dollis Hill to Waterloo via Westminster and the train bridge, it’s become a doddle; in fact it absolutely has to happen.


It’s all part of a (self-explanatory) process called bar coding; which is how he processes and recalls events. It sheds more light on his mind, which in turn empowers us.


There is a parallel with the father son football bond just witnessing his wide eyed elation and sharing it with me. I feel he’ll never tire of appearing to discover seeing a “train, train….Daddy, the train for Elephant and Castle is coming. We’re not getting on!” Or observing happenings during the trip with the poise and particularity of, well, a train announcer. “The driver’s speaking. Tell mummy, we heard the driver speaking…let’s tell mummy!” (Of course different drivers speaking at different times could be incendiary. But admirably he’s started to accept minor deviations in his life like this; something I’m extraordinarily impressed by him achieving and my wife for teaching).


Also, the tube map has become our football stickers; pouring over it, recognising points, querying each other about what’s where. An affirmation of his burgeoning photographic memory.


I abhor the autism-for-all, we’re all on the spectrum, school of (lazy) thought. But appreciating his way of thinking has accessed a systemised sense to my cognition that, delightfully, provides quite a substitute to the paraphernalia, information based adoration football allows.


I’m proud of Isaac for his proficiency for what some would deem prosaic but I see as full of purpose. Often on a train he’ll stop me in his tracks with his exhaustive delivery of all the stations, in order, on a whole line. And when one of those stations is Crystal Palace, I do let myself dream – one day, maybe one day. Not for now though. There are trains to catch.