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

 

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)

Always feeling autism’s presence

There’s an invisibility shrouding autism that I see vividly, as if in neon lights, so evident is it.

People will themselves to perceive anything but autism. Whether through well meaning, a fear of difference, or simple (and maybe most often) unawareness. I will myself to always use my autism viewfinder, and usually spot a symptom, reason or peculiarity that forms a line, bold or dotted, back to the condition – so embedded in its world am I.

What I am witnessing now in my 21 month old daughter, Tabitha, seemingly on a typical developmental trajectory, emphasizes the functioning of a toddler without autism versus one with. She points at things, babbles back and forth with me. She waves and plays appropriately, with imagination, impetus and meaning. Tea parties, pottering around, blowing kisses, feeding dolls. She seeks interaction and play with other children. My, she gains my attention – and in a confident, communicative manner (some would say diva-ish). She shows a powerful instinct and intuition for moving around, responding, creating, learning.

There’s a loud and clear, forever hovering, question mark around her speech, or lack of it though. She’s sort of making out words, sounds and syllables. But probably not whole words. The nagging concerns around this single developmental drag remain just that. Just. I’m sure people in our situation seek out questions where answers aren’t needed or don’t even exist. And the reality I’m anchored to is that so, so much of what she does do, Isaac didn’t at a similar age.

In those early years then, whilst I saw all what was atypical and was silently alarmed, autism awareness wasn’t there to provide me with any sort of solution. Not till his diagnosis just after his third birthday. More telling, I believe others – friends, family, professionals – perhaps saw very little in the little he was doing; unrelated ‘delays’, toddler tantrums, maybe indiscipline, rogue parenting.

Because what was the most potent display of this alternative, different, disturbing (to me) behaviour? Simple upset. Tabitha’s tears don’t tear through me like Isaac’s always did (and on occasion, still do. Not being prepared for a haircut. A disruption to routine. Autism’s sting always lurks). And therein lies the subtlety. People don’t analyse tears and anger. After all, they just appear to be, well, tears and anger.

When Tabitha cries not wanting to get off a train, or let go of a toy, the toddler tears subside rapidly. In similar occasions Isaac wept and wept and screeched and shouted. His despair was dogged.

Fast forward to now and of course the intense intervention – speech and language, the one on one at school, life skills and more – Isaac has been subjected to, coordinated with comprehensive home parental ‘work’ (my wife the unsung, utter hero here), has set him on a journey where his behaviour and interactions bear little resemblance to those early deficiencies. However it’s not that he’s simply caught up or performs tasks typically – not when you delve and decipher, peering behind the person, assessing the actions.

What has come naturally to Tabitha, took, and can still take, painstaking endeavour and laborious learning for Isaac. Even now her holding of a pen or cutlery, physical gestures, reciprocal cues and more come easier and more fluidly for this little girl. Compared to Isaac’s heavy, laden, elaborate approach – remembering to share, comprehending the definition of it, why it’s a good, nice thing to do; moving his hand back and forth as it signals hello or goodbye. The defaults for Isaac are so unspontaneous, everything needs accurate recall, industry, an all-encompassing literal-ness that can be construed as one dimensional. That’s before accounting for the myriad sensory processing challenges and absolute engrained commitment to memorising, parrot fashion learning of every speck of detail, important or not, and of course, repetitive (not productive) play. It’s all so burdensome.

Someone with autism (and by proxy, family members) experiences life to the extreme, its daily ups and downs. Autism quite often feels like life on the edge. Mundane and maddening often, but on the edge nevertheless. Outside the norm. Marginalised. Unregulated, uncomfortable, unstuck. Envious and enraged on the bad days.

Maybe people are uncomfortable, or more probably, unaware of this and seek to smooth out. Making invisibility of the condition as glaringly visible to me as it’s always been:

Isaac’s acute anxiety means hearing a firework can trigger impossible-to-sedate fear at bedtime. But all kids get a bit frightened at night, right? Perhaps not to the extent that obsessing over Firework night runs well into March and beyond. Regularly enforcing that next ‘November I’ll sleep with mummy and daddy’’ and that each night imploring me to say, identically to yesterday that ‘no, there won’t be fireworks’, and ‘if there are, I won’t see them?’. Over and over and over again.

What about love for train leaflets and maps (identical, similar, functional, whatever); the need to possess and pore over. Surely lots of boys collect and catalogue stuff, don’t they? Maybe, but not when that hunger for hoarding cannot, will not, be sated, masking a deeper, more traumatic struggle with the world. Pinpointing Oyster contactless payment leaflets at stations and demanding I take 20 – that he already has – can lead to calm and a transient contentment. But the paraphernalia rapidly turns to a crutch, joining the untouchable hundreds that populate his room. Inanimate but perilous, should they vanish from his watch.

To say haircuts were my least preferred of enforced chores as a 7 year old would be an understatement. To say I hated them wouldn’t. But that’s absolutely not to say they were harrowing like they clearly are for Isaac. The feeling of circus knives scraping his scalp and bright lights blinding his eyes. Gaudy mirrors, nightmares from the last horrific haircut swirling. A scraped neck because of the hairdresser’s inability to control his angry, enraged body contortions. And worse of all, afterwards; hairs, swarming and crawling into every nook and cranny of the poor boy’s body. Only changing clothes there and then into new soft fresh ones would suffice.

Food phobias, at times an inability to eat, only eating specific foods in specific locations at specific times. Well, we all know fussy eaters. Not to the extent where hunger can be pretty much bridled thanks to the maelstrom of other irritating, infuriating issues clawing away at him. Hunger almost becomes a controlling comfort for Isaac – I guess.
Indeed, food ensures we have a daily taste of the complexities and conundrums of Isaac’s autism. When he wakes up and even before his usual, daily reciting to me of ‘today’s timetable at school daddy’ is a strangely forlorn ‘my tummy is full, I don’t need breakfast’, what’s imminent is an unleashing of emotion verging – or hurtling into – a breakdown.

His wonky food narrative that distorts and disrupts mainly my wife’s days is increasingly difficult to follow. There are the textural, colour and sensual challenges. There’s also the need to not talk about his lunchtime, odd counterintuitive games, where we mustn’t mention what he’s ate at school. Even if praising for eating something healthy.

In fact, the lunchbox rules are oddly simple, just very tricky to adhere to. We can’t make his lunchbox in front of him and there must be no mention of its contents. At all. It needs to magic itself into his school bag, out of sight, out of mind. If that happens he eats the contents at school, every last bite. If he sees any of it being made and/or any of what’s inside, he refuses to eat it.

The old adage ‘They’ll eat when they’re hungry’ is riddled with falsities. As my wife very cleverly deduced – nerves and anxiety suppress the appetite. However hungry one should be.

There is a flip side to all these behaviours that seem similar to typical children but are so different. The reigned-in ups. Rare but as not as rare as they used to be. His liberated joy when all goes to plan. Like a Sunday session at my spacious workplace. A warming, server-whirring silence. The environment as he expects, calm and sensitive, with people accepting his questioning of names and addresses and nearest stations, adoringly enjoying his descriptions of them as ‘handsome men’ or ‘lovely ladies’. The sometimes bizarre conversation starters, minutiae infused comments, squeezing and infectious physicality can be seen as the eccentric behaviour of a young child (he looks young for 7). For example, his phrasing (‘my eyes are wet’ when he laughs and laughs, ‘will my head come off’ when someone tries to explain ‘open mind’) can make people enchanted by him. But I wonder, is his age a big factor in this generosity of spirit?

There’s an all or nothingness about invisibility and autism. That’s probably to do with age. I imagine a point when he’s older that the invisibility I’ve talked about morphs into something visible, exaggeratedly so. Where all that people see is autism – and in epic proportions.

This is a hunch, I admit. But I suspect a reality thanks to the stats around bullying, exclusion, lack of provision, low educational achievement, poorly trained teachers, homelessness, unemployment, depression and more. Not to mention pure labelling and stereotyping.

I guess a healthy awareness, acceptance and an appreciation of difference is what we can strive for. A young teen at Isaac’s school, when Isaac was bombarding him with odd questions said strangely joyfully ‘this place is weird… it’s probably why I belong here’. It made me smile – a self-aware comment on difference, and why it’s ok.

For now just giving Isaac the tools to balance his behaviour can feel like ploughing through treacle. The effort and endeavour by us and him to display effortless behaviours is monumental. Maybe that’s why what we see clearly, others can’t at all. It’s why only if you’re living with autism 24/7 can you really be exposed to the peculiarities, torment and turbulence. To its shear relentlessness.

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(I always try to respond)

The weight of the world on tiny shoulders

Being in possession of a single care in the world should be one concern too many for any seven year old. Let alone a seven year old buttressed by physical health, familial security, stability and comfort. But part and parcel of autism’s package is some wayward brain wiring that seems to spark major anxiety not to mention a very real possibility of mental health issues. From an incredibly unfair, early age.

Isaac loads his days, and quite possibly nights, with an assortment of cares, frets and stresses – too many to numerate – that take counter intuition and patience to even begin to quell. Many of them, of course, centre on his desperate, pathological need to manage and compose his days with strict, sequential events he’s familiar with. And he will prowl after my wife and me seeking clarification and confirmation and minute by minute commentary. Over and over and over again.

“Mummy, who’s looking after Tabitha after her sleep number one?”

“Is daddy going to work now or very soon?”

“Can we go to Costa Coffee on Finchley Road before the clock clicks to PM?”
“Daddy, where are your friends? Are they at home or going to work?”

The harrying begins before breakfast. With many questions and answers compiled – out of necessity – during the previous 24 hours. Scripted, by him, without ambiguity, tonally specific, not a word out of place. With all the information needing regular reinforcement in the form of repetition. To not conform, to answer without precision or attempt to divert, is to risk agitation at best, most likely meltdown. To therefore execute any plan is a highwire act, the more mundane the more menacing; such is his need to control, dictate and deliver, the tiniest deviation will trigger upset. We are hostage to who goes where, when and how. Popping to the papershop on the way to the station when it hasn’t been planned and discussed and repeated? Forget it.

There’s no let up. No respite from a need to balance his ever computing mind, the oxygen of literal information his survival. Survival, not satisfaction. Or contentment really. Answers provide transient reassurance, ephemeral composure, as opposed to any overt happiness on his part. These cares of his, these things he really, really, really worries about with their terrifying capacity to dominate him and therefore us.

There’s an overriding need to control everything that means the routine obsession has mutated into other forms of repetition, detail and description. He mines me for minutiae, mainly things I’ve told him time and time again. (Offering up new information, even in the factual, dry way he desires so desperately is hit and miss. The discoveries of detail need to be initiated by him in the main). People’s addresses, their whereabouts, train stations, street names, bus routes, places we’ve been. Things people have said, announcements train drivers have made, announcements train drivers should have said but didn’t. And dates. Of all events. All unerringly accurate. And all of this, this avalanche, delivered at pace from the moment he awakes, identically, forcefully.

“Daddy when you go to your office near Oxford Street, will you touch Oyster at Dollis hill and Piccadilly? Why?”

“Why has Tabitha got no clothes on?”

“On the Jubilee line, why does the man say stand clear of the doors? Why ,Why?”

“Can I tell you something…The light bulb on the street post in Chestnut Road doesn’t work? When will it work? Now or very soon?”

He knows the answers, they’re facts burned into his brain. But it’s not as simple as information over imagination. Everything seems in visual, photographic form, a moving tapestry he seeks to maintain. Like when he listed (off the cuff and unprompted) all the stations on the Jubilee Line that have a letter ‘p’ in them. This info had come to him effortlessly but pressingly; and of course, correctly. So as ever, a small light is shined into his big brain, that when I’m being positive and embracing enjoy and marvel at. Which is not always. Too often his attempts to make us answer everything, try our patience – and we come up short.

Despite all this, I can’t make as bold a statement as Isaac is not a happy child. He implores happiness in us after any distress. Or even randomly. He will flood with delight at unexpected moments, demanding ‘cuddles’. But authentic joy has a manic, frenzied edge; a kind of chemically induced hysteria if we comply consistently with his commands. And within seconds, he could be grasping his ears, full of tears, punching or pushing, screaming.

(The closest he comes to a relaxed joy, when the tempo of his thinking slackens and settles a little, is, as I’ve said before, when journeying anywhere on the London Underground. He exhaustedly reads all signs, memorises announcements and is energised by intersections. The whole tube map seems to appear in his mind’s eye, each station, line and colour, a kaleidoscope he lives and breathes.)

It’s as if he has a different setting or temperature to us. Swinging in seconds from radiating elation to reaching boiling point. Acclimatising to his meandering mental state can be unachievable.

During the long, drawn out, empty summer break (his baby sister a permanent, chaotic presence too) this perpetual state of botheredness my son has been in has persecuted the whole family. Knowing his despair and demands – but having blunt tools at best to deal with them is a numbing, powerless state of mind to be habiting. Bogging my mind down with Isaac’s fragile and frazzled mindset has been like brutal combat.

But mercifully hope is revealing itself from this dark, deranged place.

It comes in the form of his new school that he has just started. A rather beautiful, inspiring place that battles for around 40 children with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. After the mainstream struggles – despite admirable intentions – I have faith that Isaac will flourish here. Focus will be on his unique strengths and interests. Strategies tailored to overcome difficulties will be at the fore. Academic achievement will sit side by side with social, emotional and personal development.

Here, perhaps happiness for Isaac can be attained. A place made up of people who will discover him – and him, himself – in a way no one has before. Because a condition as perplexing and otherworldly as autism needs professionals and carers to lay the groundwork for others to tread carefully.

I hear of a holistic approach, where he is solely in the hands of experts. A joined up support where he’ll benefit from occupational and speech therapy, yoga, sensory integration and more. Where there’s a necessary and welcome very low ratio between pupil and teacher. Plus a pastoral care that sits above everything. Knowledge of autism unparalleled. The condition respected so the child can be pushed appropriately. A balance that only the most skilled and informed professionals can perhaps keep.

There’s psychotherapy too – a potentially unsettling idea for a parent. However, when aligned with strategies emanating from the school, the thought becomes bracing.

Some preliminary sessions with the psychotherapist have told us what we expected. That the battle between autistic and non-autistic traits is being lost. Obeying his orders means living in a regime that’s doing none of us favours. That the relentless repetition leads to mindlessness. That we are accommodating not addressing this mindlessness. That, above all, he’s anxious, worried, on edge primarily because the world and its vagaries simply doesn’t work for him.

And making the world work for him will be painstaking and harsh and challenging. Just assessing the sensory processing hell he clearly experiences (beyond the straightforward autistic ones of routine, order, self-stimulation) makes me realise the urgent intervention needed. Streaking through his body and mind are sensitivities that need dealing with. Wanting to be squeezed, demanding pressure. Aversion to so much clothing and all labels. Needing to smell people. His many food phobias. Freaked by dirt. Terrorised by the irrational movements of animals. Pigeons in particular and therefore anywhere associated with them. His clumsy and poor motor skills and lack of body awareness work against him in ways I can only imagine. The torment he gets from certain noise and smells. All unpredictable, all potentially everywhere.

Now, at last, I know a team is in place. One week in, I sense an ever so subtle aura of delight is emerging from him. Replacing the mainstream school scrabbling about, are the people who will know what’s best and truly deliver for him. Now he’s somewhere that possesses the tools to make my boy happy. Which is the least he deserves.

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(I always try to respond)

Blog of the day on Mumsnet – 2nd April 2014

 

Today is World Autism Awareness Day. In this guest post, MN blogger Matt Davis shares what his son’s autism has meant for his family, and argues that there’s still much to do to ensure that people with an autistic spectrum disorder are treated with understanding and respect.

A year-long, punishing process of tests finally came to its conclusion with the words “autism spectrum disorder”, delivered in a paediatrician’s room. It was a tongue-twister that deliberately acted as a soft landing for the harsher truth: “your child has autism”.


The diagnosis assuaged the regular bouts of heartbreak I felt at Isaac’s regular bouts of distress. It was the alibi for his perceived anti-social behaviour. But I came to realise quite swiftly that a chasm existed between what some people knew about autism and what most people didn’t. If the condition hadn’t touched someone, it just wasn’t on their radar; autism awareness was minimal at best. On the other hand, professionals, experts and parents who had accepted their child’s diagnosis were awash with facts and immersed in the world of autism.


I joined Ambitious about Autism’s online community ‘Talk about Autism’ and quickly benefited; questions were posed and answered, discussions launched and new people nurtured with the help of its Community Champions. It became a safe haven from the everyday assault course of discrimination, generalisations, judgements, ignorance, exhaustion and difficulties that parents of children with autism battle.


So what is autism? An impossible question to answer with any semblance of brevity. For last year’s World Autism Awareness Day, Ambitious about Autism ran a Twitter campaign called ‘Autism is…’ asking everyone to share their thoughts, feelings and perspectives on what autism is to them. The answers tweeted invoked honesty, warmth, sadness and happiness – a pretty accurate flavour of what autism really is.


The campaign was such a success that the charity is repeating it this World Autism Awareness Day. I’m supporting it again because awareness is a big deal for me. Things have improved drastically over the last 20 years, but there’s still a long way to go. People just don’t know enough about autism. It affects 1 in 100 children, yet the condition is often misunderstood.


Autism’s myths are myriad. People assume Isaac won’t have eye contact, that he’ll be quiet and introverted, or that he must have mind-boggling talents. None of these statements are correct. Isaac is a boy you remember when you meet him. He is funny, inquisitive, determined – at moments tender and full of wonderment, but also unable to know his own strength at times. He loves to learn (if allowed to in his own way) and he never forgets anything.


For my family, autism has been a game-changer – but certainly not in a bad way. We don’t only have a bright, funny little boy – we have a heightened understanding of disability and other people’s needs too. For me #AutismIs heightened everything – love, sadness, stress, happiness.


My wife and I wanted to do something else to mark the day – the more people know about autism the easier life can be made for everyone affected by it, and of course we wanted to raise money for Ambitious about Autism, too. 


The Happy video above came about because my wife, a musician, received a video from her friend Abigail of her son Reuben who also has autism. In the video Reuben was singing Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, on his own, so perfectly, and you could see the joy he experienced as he sang. My wife decided to make a short film set to the song with Isaac and Reuben doing things that made them happy. Simple and honest, just like any other children. We wanted to celebrate the boys. Autism is something to be respected and acknowledged, but we wanted it to be about the boys having a ball.

Long before my son Isaac was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, I saw how the world, with all its peculiarities and obstacles, was that little bit more hostile for him. Seeing him struggle – often articulated as screams, anger and crying – seemed so unfair to me. I didn’t subscribe to the ‘terrible twos’ or ‘naughty toddlers view’; there was something about Isaac’s tears that was different. 

 

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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Autism and the facts of life

I sometimes feel I’m forever stuck in a storm of autism statistics. Raining down are brutal truths that affect all about bullying, exclusion, lack of provision, low educational achievement, poorly trained teachers, homelessness, unemployment, depression and more. Facts and figures that seem designed to floor people at worst or fuel their fight at best.

Then there’s the genetics research and studies around that swirl about in people’s peripheries and remain there until they become relevant. Like the likelihood of a younger sibling being diagnosed with autism.
The dilemma of a second child had weighed heavy on me and my wife. Not so much setting the weather of our well-being, but certainly unbalancing it somewhat. Pretty much from the day Isaac was born.

Isaac’s birth was barbaric. After a lifetime in labour, the doctors, brandishing ghoulish looking implements, set about extrapolating our distressed boy. Prodding, plunging, pulling. At one stage, the doctor was yanking at an instrument suctioned to my boy’s head in the manner of dislodging a particularly stubborn cork from a bottle of wine. With such force that his temples were throbbing, arms’ shaking, and veins pumping. Eventually, Isaac was dragged out of my poor, poor wife, resembling a bewildered creature washed up from sea.


I’m not aware of any conclusive research linking traumatic births with autism. Anyway, it’s not somewhere I can psychologically afford to go.
My wife talks of numbness and delayed shock. Of horrific memories. That, in some sort of perfect storm of parental crisis, surfaced violently and vividly at exactly the time Isaac started missing developmental cues. Whilst other mothers talked of amazing times, emerging from the first year with a fabulously alert and exploring child, Isaac seemed stuck. As well as being beaten by his behaviour and full of anxiety, my wife somewhat cruelly was given the added burden of terrible birth memories.

Being selfish and ashamedly self-pitying, I felt practically punished by being around family and friends jollily procreating at a rate of knots. Defensive and depressed, comments like ‘Isaac would benefit from a sibling’ cut through me. I felt sorry for myself, my wife and Isaac. My wife had more humility. But perhaps felt it more personally. A sense of failure swamped her. We were in a rotten place if truth be told. We had a distressed, delayed child who was disrupting our lives, if not to breaking point, then not far off. Did not having a second highlight our pragmatism or shine a harsh light on our inability to cope with parenthood?


And then at diagnosis, the second child issue got a little more complex. As sensitively handled as possible, the paediatrician’s parting shot was to tell us that if we had another child he or she would be 5% more likely to have autism. Unlikely, but still (kind of) significantly more likely than the standard one in 100 that Isaac had become. Now there was a whole new imponderable – another child might have autism.

Yet I don’t actually recall us dwelling on this in the days, weeks, and months after diagnosis. Perhaps autism had liberated us from the corrosive second child obsessing. It certainly ceased the questioning of our parenting abilities. What we were unified on was a steadfast focus on Isaac’s welfare. To embrace the condition; to fight for him; to make up for his troubled first years. And in doing so, we’d become a confident ‘one child’ family. Proud to say it to people. Solely concentrating on Isaac was the sensible thing to do. It sapped all our energy and time. It was best for us, and best for him.
That was the case for the best part of 18 months. It started to dawn on me though that I’d perhaps mis-read – or not read – my wife on the issue. Yes, I believed autism allowed her to dial down the intensity of desiring a second child. Yes, I witnessed her brilliance with Isaac and love for him, making a mockery of any mothering doubts she’d possessed. Yes, she had confronted Isaac’s birth and was dealing with the demons.

But behind our professing peace with having one child, had she really let go? Somehow I had assumed that, like me, she had. The risk of another child with autism was too great. Surely she agreed?


Confronting it not out of the blue, but certainly unexpectedly, I think I’d got things a little wrong. She welcomed the conversation. All conversation in fact.  Indeed, back to that torrent of autism truths, one that’s particularly torrid is how many parents of children with autism split up. 7 out of ten. I by no means feel threatened by that, but it’s a useful tool to remind myself that where autism is concerned, transparent and honest discussion is encouraged at all times.


My concerns were now all centred on the not so solid stat (some say higher, others lower) of likelihood of autism in a sibling. She countered me at every turn.

Autism is a spectrum. Children with autism are as individual from each other as children without it are. So if a sibling does have autism, he or she will be different from Isaac.

Indeed, Isaac, as my wife puts it, now comes with his own instruction manual. We know how to handle him, what pushes his buttons, makes him happy, sad, calm, whatever. That manual won’t be applicable if we were to have another child with autism; it definitely won’t if we have a child without.

What about the stress of seeking signs that a sibling would have autism? Yes, she agreed, that would be something to watch for. But it’s totally and utterly out of our control and the likelihood is incredibly low. Remain strong. If something is out of sorts, seek help. So much strain with Isaac was because we didn’t know. Should these challenges repeat themselves with another, we will be equipped to a certain degree.  

Seemingly swiftly, but actually deliberately and methodically, she had confronted the second child issues, the probabilities and problems, and emerged confident and content.
I was flummoxed. If she could accept the risk, I surely could too. What was stopping us?

Isaac knows there’s a baby in mummy’s tummy. He processed the information early on. Processed as opposed to comprehended. Even with the baby weeks away, what he really understands I’m not sure. However, his loving, caring behaviour with a baby nephew is reassuring.


The baby’s called Paul Isaac tells us, even though it’s a girl. A girl is statistically less likely to have autism, but more likely to be underdiagnosed. More information that is baffling and not enormously helpful.
I worry that when the baby cries Isaac will be upset because that’s how his mind works. I don’t fear jealousy or vying for attention though because that’s not really in his nature.  

What I do know is that as a unit we are prepared as well as we can be. Which means, above and beyond, sticking to the rigid routine for Isaac and not swaying from it. Now, when the baby’s born, and beyond. To always appreciate his autism, so he and we can cope.
Maybe that’s what enabled us to eventually entertain the possibility of a second child. An awareness of Isaac’s autism not a fear of a sibling having it.

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