Discovering problems, creating potential

Isaac’s immersion into his specialist school (for children with high functioning autism) has shown some of the marks of a fairly bruising process. And the onerous work has only just begun. We’re seeing a sensitive but substantial stripping back of some seriously stubborn layers of entrenched behaviours, habits, limitations, fears. I have no doubt that so many areas of his development have until now been neglected, denting his constitution. Physically and mentally. A shudder is sent down my spine, contemplating what would happen if he were to remain saddled with certain, what are rightly classified as, deficits.

These deficits, in areas such as strength and touch, have selfishly taken away a realm of positivity I may have always possessed. Dissecting them dispels any romanticism of autism, or ‘he’ll catch up’ that may have roamed, well-intentioned and benignly, in mainstream. They provide a reality check that until now the day to day handling of Isaac’s lifelong condition has been lackadaisical.

He blended as well as he could at his old (mainstream) school considering the pastoral approach that was necessitated by class size, desired integration, and non-qualified staff. Such were the goodwill and intentions and support, I hesitate to cite his considerable developments were in spite of the imposed ethos not because of it. However, his current school’s classroom assessments jettison any ambiguity about a need for intense and individually tailored programmes.

He has what occupational therapists report as ‘definite dysfunctions’ in social participation, hearing, touch, body awareness and balance. At his previous (mainstream) school, both Isaac and his teachers must have needed to adopt crude compensation mechanisms to integrate with the workings of a curriculum that couldn’t adapt appropriately.

I’m imagining that he was sensitively placed in the periphery for physical exercise and any ball sports so his underdeveloped body awareness and balance stayed that way. His stretched teachers must have tolerated rare scribbles when he attempted handwriting because there was no one to provide the one on one labour intensity required.

Through no fault of anyone, Isaac would have been drifting in activities, seemingly content and being involved ever so slightly. But this drift, this surface deep thinly veiled non-developmental behaviour, easy to repeat for him, easier to accept for teachers, would have been insidiously stunting and indeed marginalising. There was daily fall out in terms of his moods that I’ve talked about before. Knowing that long term damage was clearly happening too has unsettled me somewhat.

Social participation and playtimes expose brightest the folly of the non-specific, wholly inclusive approach. Galloping around making train sounds was his self-stimulating behaviour for surviving the furious environment that is the school playground. The soothing repetition went way beyond its initial positive effects, explaining precisely his deficits in play and social areas.

Indeed, in one of our more heart crushing sessions with Isaac’s psychotherapist, she made the knocked-me-for-six observation that Isaac doesn’t know how to play. He simply hasn’t ever done it. Play, a natural, sought after, intuitive, life affirming activity for typical children. An alien, complicated, bamboozling concept for Isaac.

(And how’s this for a topsy turvy thought: Isaac taking his sister’s toys and studiously playing with them alone is a good thing. Sublimating what appears to be jealousy into a desire to ape and learn.)

Heart breaking by the psychotherapist. But, as with so much emanating from his new school, enlightening too – offering up glimmers of hope. Specialist school is bruising for its pinpointing of challenges, healing for how it deals with them.

Like a slow turning tanker, sent ever so slightly off course, I’ve discovered riding waves of positivity and potential, knowing real, honest insight can reap so much.

Take handwriting. My inclination was to wallow in reports of inabilities to develop finger separation, his frustrations at the necessary tripod grip, the clear need for major work with fine motor skills. Whereas Isaac’s tenacious teacher pushes and compliments and improves and stimulates. His writing has literally transformed. At night he deliberately and defiantly stretches his fingers, discovering a dexterity, before formally announcing to me, “Daddy, today a certificate has been awarded to Isaac Davis for holding a pen properly. Well done Isaac.”

Isaac’s weekly certificates, which he avidly collects and collates, reveal so much of the school’s (and therefore his) industry. ‘Having three bites of a carrot’, ‘dealing with change’, ‘good listening and not having to repeat’ – in short, he’s working, and being worked, very hard in those areas that appear an anathema to his autism. Non-intervention is these areas has led to the deficits and therefore habits and limitations. Everyone, myself very much included, had given up, kept a blind hope, or consciously avoided these life skills with Isaac. Now life skills form part of his week, with patient, single minded professionals giving him the tools to succeed. Which in turn gives us the confidence to carry on the work at home – knowing when he can deal with something new, or eating his dinner at the table, tasting a new food he may have tried at school, maybe parking in a different place to a previous time. It’s far from easy, we’re fine perfecting the skill of distinguishing real distress from autistic like behaviours he can learn to manage. He will always have the generic sensory processing difficulties. The meltdowns are still explosive, world ending and catastrophic –  in many ways they are amplified and more gruelling for all parties. Transition, people leaving, will always be testing. But we are learning, just like him, a little more what his capabilities are and where discipline works.

 

All this is not to say autism is not championed, celebrated and respected. Indeed, it’s the filter upon which the school appears to make and evaluate every decision. They’ve seen vividly Isaac’s visual approach to learning – playing to this strength, they use the visual timetable which he rattles off to me, the whole week, in order, at least twelve subjects a day. He enchants teachers and pupils alike with his brilliant recollection of facts. This part of his autism is nourished and cherished.

Yet at times he can struggle to answer a simple question. He can be caught in a self-imposed routine and repetition rut.

The school will slavishly break down each topic in his timetable into explicitly described and audited mini chunks that he knows and expects. But then they may introduce a ‘surprise’ activity within this tight framework. Like learning comprehension in a reading class – about a certain book and character he’s prepared for. So he’s developing thinking skills and small change in one brilliantly efficient ten minute session. Totally, utterly inspired and priceless.

Likewise, his repetition needs are an ingrained feature of Isaac’s very existence. Always will be. But gentle easing out of, not so heavy reliance on, can take place. The genius strategy here is mentoring sessions with the elder boys. Who “like to repeat; we did when we were young like Isaac, but we don’t anymore. Isaac won’t always need to.” Who better to understand a little boy with autism than a big boy with autism? Who knows the desires and impulses and defaults. And can integrate them with socially appropriate behaviour. This is life enhancing stuff of a dizzying degree.

One massive truth is Isaac’s autism has never seemed as tangible as it is now. Despite all the intervention. And that feels correct and just how it should be. His vocabulary continues to expand to significant levels with it all appearing learnt like one would learn a foreign language. He seems to rapidly search his abundance of learnt phrases when needing to express something. “I’m going to read a book, just once, because it will tire me out. Then we won’t do it for a while.” Or when he senses change: “Yes daddy, I have changed my mind, you can drive on that road, because it is like a diversion.” And when he’s happy: “I love school, I want to go there today and forever, I want to give the building kisses.” In the morning: “Is it morning time? Good morning daddy< I haven’t been asleep for a while…”

His order can always be jumbled, with tenses astray. “Where’s the 302 bus, I might have lost it.” And it’s all delivered with a clunky, metronomic rhythm. This is him. It has an almost beautiful realism and logic. When I said to him “come on mister” recently and he got agitated and countered “No! I’m Isaac. Mister is for teachers”, I could but go concur (kind of) apologise and go with him. The school seem on the same page – it feels like they write the pages. Gloriously they’re as smitten as we are by my son.

His interests remain at best perfunctory. He loves lampposts; they light up his life. “But I love lampposts daddy, they make me happy.” Counting, spotting anomalies, one’s on during the day, off at night; he has a photographic recollection of locations, types, flickering ones – every single permutation of a lamppost’s life. They offer so much. And this dry information floods our airwaves as it does bus facts and general commentary and comings and goings.  

These sort of passions – their pros, their pitfalls – inform the armoury of knowledge the school possess about Isaac. They can then work with him, push buttons, reward and restrict, so accelerating to a potential. Teaching him life skills for example in a methodical, easy to digest, autism friendly manner, gives his preparation for an integrated, inclusive life. This is what I feel when I hear: “Today I did life skills. I made toast, daddy do you want toast? With honey or marmalade. In a toast rack, that’s where toast is made. Do you want toast?”

This is no political polemic about specialist schools versus mainstream. It’s about finding the best possible place for my son and his autism – with the best possible professionals and best possible environment for him to develop, and who knows, work towards a brilliant future.

A pertinent comment his teacher made to us when discussing his substantial handwriting training said it all really:

“He needs to write. He will need to write a job application form one day.”

(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)

Leaps in development, bound by autism

From around one year old, milestones around Isaac’s development became millstones around my neck. Waving, exploring, walking, talking – the lack of – burdens that bore down on me. Isaac’s angelic looks and throaty, totally contagious cackle was countered by a thunderous and tortuous, impossible to read despair and sadness. There was little else in terms of human interaction.

Indeed, global delay was Isaac’s first diagnosis, at around two and a half, with walking, succeeded at two, the only real milestone accomplished. The flow of his development from this point officially entered muddy waters, where what he’d achieve and when was impossible to predict. The many early learning devices and contraptions for coordination and comprehension were receiving scant attention from Isaac. The concept of cause and effect evading him. He babbled, but words did come, bizarre words mainly, bit by bit.

Then the diagnosis of autism. One mammoth milestone. The confirmation of a lifelong condition that would deposit many a milestone into a morass of maybes. Yet forlornly foraging around in the mental fallout from the diagnosis – after the shock, the tears, the reassurance, the genesis of readjustment – I did discover a perhaps perverse positive in this. A relief even. That maybes and milestones are ok. I broke free from the tyrannical mindset of ‘things must happen’ or ‘things must not happen’ ‘at certain times’. The anxiety ebbed somewhat.

After all, we’d entered the autism world, to all intents and purposes, an alternative world. Where, as someone once lyrically put, as a parent you arrived in Amsterdam, thinking you were going to Paris. Your stride, pace and flavour of life shifts.

This sat very comfortably with a paradox that is bang, smack in the centre of parenting a child like Isaac. Every minute of every day is planned assiduously. You learn to leave no stone unturned. No surprises. Events, visits, meeting people – all scripted tirelessly. Respect autism and expect no rebuttal. Yet, beyond the here and now, well, you don’t think in those terms. Days can be predicted, life’s journey – with its milestones around everything from riding a bike, to first friends, to birthday parties, to swimming, to teams and clubs, to sleepovers, to school plays, to hobbies, to exams, to parties – anything but. You take each heavily itemised, meticulously audited day at a time.

Life can loom large, instead, the limbo of treading water suited me well; stopping me sinking in fear over the future or sorrow over the past.
Very recently however, Isaac arrived at a milestone that struck me as fairly profound, and one that needed wrestling with.
Isaac has had the autism diagnosis for half his life.

 

It’s at once arbitrary and hugely monumental. And it’s the latter that’s taken command of my mind. I’ve never cowered from the gravity of Isaac’s autism. But with it being a massive part of all of us for half his eventful life, I’ve sensed the need to shift my sentiments of late, seeing it in some sort of bigger context. To step back from the day to day and look backwards as well as forwards. Milestones are back on my mental menu.

 

We have also been in the eye of a tumultuous, tense time with his anguish and insecurity. His ability to slump in seconds from a blissful state to genuinely crestfallen, never fails to surprise or upset me. I don’t doubt a conscious coming together of heightened challenges from him with the acknowledgement of this latest milestone. In a series of eureka moments (with a lower case e) the need has been impressed on me to objectively evaluate Isaac’s autism.

And what I see heartens me as much as it hurts me. Because I see autism amplified whenever developments are achieved.
A tremendous truth is that Isaac has reached many a milestone with aplomb.

He is developing into a social animal (did I ever think he would?). Initiating interaction. Starting conversations. Showing warmth. At school, this social juggernaut of a boy appears catapulted into the playground. With not mere gusto but the gust of a hurricane. The mini-monologues demonstrated both his vocabulary and propensity to repetition that can restrict him. “Welcome back. What’s your name? Who’s picking you up today? Say your mum, say your mum” These are said daily, with a charm – and a compulsion for confirmation. And frankly, other kids can be riled by the repetition. Not all. But walls of silence and huffs of irritation, are more than detectable. I worry, but my powers of doing anything are impotent.

Repetition comes with the autism territory. There’s a lot of it in my house. A side effect of the developing autistic brain. This is commensurate with not just diagnostic criteria, but anecdotal and empirical evidence from self-advocates (people with autism). It’s just one example of the double edged sword of a milestone accomplished in an autistic context.
Another being Isaac’s cognitive developments. The raw facts are promising and I hold them tightly. He reads (did I ever think he would?). Quite beautifully. Swiftly. To say (as a committed Thames Estuarian) I’m proud of his regal pronunciation is an understatement in the realms of the epic. His photographic memory is the engine that’s driven such a development. He gives short shrift to the typical learning of phonics – using sounds to make a word. It’s the whole word or nothing. So when he saw the word avenue for the first time, he preferred to say adventure than try and spell it out. Words like ‘Crescent’ for him is a breeze; once a word’s been seen and been told to him it’s in his head.
What seems to be in deficit is comprehension. Even a willingness or desire to imagine, immerse himself in the storytelling bit. Anything abstract of involving a need for analysis. Attempts to engage in these discussions irks him, it seems off his radar. This out of kilter way of learning could mean him coming unstuck mainstream learning, if no major attempt to galvanise his lesser abilities to inquire.

 

As with all things autistic, though, you’re never a million miles away from a little mirth. He insists on reading the ‘written by and illustrated by’ bye-lines at all time. And will end reading a book with ‘and now it’s time for the blurb’ paying little interest in the contents of said blurb. Imagination wise, he had no time for tooth fairies with the tooth being pragmatically exchanged with either parent for a gold coin. Dressing up day at school held no sway. On arrival at school, he proudly declared, “I’ve come as Isaac”. And then there was his dismay that there was no sign that said “Try something new today”, mummy, where is it?” on a visit to a poorly branded Sainsbury’s. It’s situations like these where his observational skills and outsider status are original and need no sorrow, only joy.

 

Where his long, logical learning march can lose momentum at best, at worst come crashing to a standstill, is his need to obsessively follow order and detail. You can practically hear the hum and whirl of his programming brain as he both processes his facts and then resolutely holds on to them and repeats them, somehow needing to say and say again, to give himself a psychological balance. His way of keeping calm in a chaotic, illogical world, perhaps.

 

And the smallest of anomalies are akin to mini crashes to his computer, with the ability to reboot, cloudy. Days, weeks, months, pm or am, the expansion to his temporal learning of late is extraordinary (nothing makes him more elated than the first day of the month, hurling himself out of bed to “see the clock, see the clock, it’s the 1st. So exciting. Wow. Daddy”).

 

“Daddy, on Feb 13, pm, you collected me from school and read books”. A fact plucked at random from this mind, he said yesterday, unprompted.

 

“Look at me daddy. Tomorrow when we wake up we will talk about going to Golders Green on the northern line. We did it yesterday, do you remember?”

 

“You are giving me a bath on April 21. Say yes!”

His days are punctuated with the need to affirm small events like this – from the past and about the future. To keep that equanimity in his consciousness. They are the tentacles of this ever more complicated calendar that inflicts his mind. With no margin for error. Again the unambiguous nature of autism diagnosis will always anchor Isaac to this behaviour that if not handled delicately with a finesse, can tip into the negative. In fact brain mapping and imaging research echoes this too and more – with evidence for overdevelopment in the regions that deal with decision making and the sorting of information.

An abundance of anxiety comes when there are inconsistencies to the detail. Which can implode in the form of a vicious circle. Hoarding, needing to locate a specific, meaningless toy he was playing with at the same time last week. Becoming agitated when it’s not there. Eschewing food. Refusing to do anything. Ignoring behaviour charts. Shamefully, I can’t help but be infuriated. The challenge, the real battle, is to see positive milestones reached, as opposed to bad, defiant behaviour. That, I think, needs a bigger picture, to view Isaac’s development – actually, it’s a critical coping mechanism. Face up to his changes, embrace milestones. Ones I once thought he’d never reach.

With all these emotional, social, and cognitive leaps he’s accomplishing then, autism has remained a tenacious presence. Even his self-awareness too with a new found ability to articulate his sensory discomforts. “It’s too strong, too strong, no thank you” referring to any clothes that aren’t super soft. Or “I banged my head” if he has, I think, a headache. Learned cues versus intuition and instinct induced expression.

Milestones in Isaac’s world come with an autistic sting in the tail. Controlling that sting will always be hard. Our levers of change restricted to simply ‘knowing it’s coming’. So sensing autism’s arrival is critical. Which means expecting him to keep on developing and reaching milestones is crucial too.

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.

A Grand Day Out

This article originally appeared on Enable Magazine

Family days out should be dreamy affairs, not the stuff of nightmares. But with the autism-unfriendly attributes of spontaneity, crowds, noise and the unexpected staples of any trip or mission, going anywhere can be a high wire act.

Which means when venturing out, seeking sameness becomes a priority. With Isaac’s default setting being the solace of repetition, uniformity and no surprises, train trips are a regular outing. Tube trains to be specific.
Positive side
The structured map, identical carriages and sounds, and general order and logic play to his linear mind. I don’t quell his exuberance for the arrival of a train because it’s a genuine expression of joy. I do feel a sense of tedium during journeys that can be for hours at a time, but this is balanced by a positivity.
The whole tube map seems to appear in his mind’s eye, each station, line and colour, a kaleidoscope he lives and breathes. And as a platform for dealing with change – however minor – trains provide a useful tool. He can  manage delays and lines temporarily suspended as they make sense in his safe and completely comprehensible world. Just about.
However, forever catching trains means missing out on other, perhaps more constructive, days out. Which is why I’m grateful for two recent conventional days out that managed to align the often mutually exclusive child-friendly and autism-friendly features.
Sense of ease
Our first successful foray was to The Science Museum for a special morning for children on the autistic spectrum. It was a wondrous few hours. Roaming free in the sensitively lit crucible to discovery, Isaac could interact or  detract at his will.
It meant he could expend energy riding in the lift, loudly read stories and displays, and not queue to play with exhibits. The sense of ease, lack of crowds and noise, plus having the space to be, all contributed to a stimulating morning.
Then a few weeks ago was the annual day for children with autism supported by our borough. It’s as much the peace of mind knowing boundaries are minimal, people are understanding and sensory overload is less likely. In the fluid environment of a modern well-equipped children’s centre, there was a healthy mix of organised fun, relaxation areas, and, critically, autism professionals to diffuse or cajole. Managing to cover me in paints and liquids and goodness knows what, Isaac received hoots of laughter as opposed to disagreeable tut-tutting.
Sadly, specially designed days out like these are few and far between. With fear of the unknown fuelling my cautiousness perhaps too much, most of our days out remain predictable and prosaic. Perhaps environments that lend themselves to autism together with a little bravery on my side would let us have a healthier diet of the all-important days out.

A New Kind Of Holiday

This article originally appeared on www.enablemagazine.com  

 
This year we took a holiday from holidays, so to speak. It was at times arduous (mainly for my wife Eliza), relentless and repetitive. But it was also as relaxing as it could be and reassuringly routine for our son Isaac, who has autism. And that was all that mattered. 
 
LOSING BATTLE 
 
Since Isaac was born, my relationship with holidays has been fractious. A trip to a peaceful Mediterranean resort a few months before his diagnosis reached the pinnacle of distress for him and despair for us. What we know now – that routine is his oxygen, his thinking rigid, and he’s never a second away from sensory overload – means we were fighting a losing battle daily. 
 
It rips my heart out how we were (unknowingly) letting him down. From forceful shepherding through maddening airports, to inconsistent mealtimes, to improvising the day’s events, to a need for armbands in the pool. 
 
But out of the chaos came the calm of successive UK-based holidays. Where mapping out the journey right down to the service station visited, meant Isaac knew what, where and when, and was a delight and delighted as a result. Photos of the cottage before we got there, his favourite books, specific foods. We’ve had an all-out autism-friendly couple of holidays. 
 
BREAKTHROUGH 
 
And then, last year – a big bold breakthrough. Engineered and orchestrated by my wife, we ventured on to a plane to a little house we knew in a cosy complex with a swimming pool. Despite Isaac being able to learn and speak in his own way and express himself better all the time, he and we are very much governed by autism. So meticulous planning was absolutely critical with visual cards navigating us through the hardest bit: the airport with all its twists and turns. 
 
He knew we were going “in an aeroplane, in the sky, to somewhere hot”. He could “splash about with pants and a jacket” (an inflatable one). He’d have all his books and DVDs and food with us. 
 
NO SURPRISE 
 
My wife’s preparation meant minimal surprise and small but consistent rewards led to a successful experience. A half hour – allowed for in the schedule – going up and down the escalators, provided sensory relief for him. On the plane, he actually enjoyed the turbulence which confirmed how topsy-turvy his balance and physical being is. It was a liberating and lovely holiday. 
 
We stayed put this year. Isaac was fine with it – he doesn’t seek adventure, escape from the norm. His holiday was blissful as he went on the tube every day, printed pictures, and was thrilled that days were panning out as planned. He also got to kiss his new baby sister Tabitha every day, which was enough change for him to deal with for one summer.