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:
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 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.
The very things that many people think make the world go round, actually make the world go wrong for anyone associated with autism. Hustle and bustle, chin-wagging, dropping everything to do nothing, spontaneity, chilling, trusting instinct, nous, crackling atmospheres, surprises, adventure. Society is bred and nurtured on wholesome truths like variety is the spice of life. When for so many touched by autism, variety is the spectre of life. A world where the primers of improvisation and intuition make it a world wrought with bafflement and, quite, frankly, danger. Off script, on high alert – us and Isaac.
Battening down the hatches has its appeal, believe me. Burying our heads in quicksand, getting lost to a limited life of fierce logic, linear living and uniformity. Scripts, structure, rigidity, predictability. Repetition, repetition, over and over.
And revealed to me in these positive and proactive moments – when brightness seeps in and there’s buoyancy and a bouncy spring in all our steps – is that Isaac’s existence can be one to really revel in. That despite how ill-fitting the world can be for his autism and dyspraxia (from sensory overload to the ubiquity of physical and visual disorder) right now, permeating this 8 year old boy’s climate is an extraordinary kindness. We are discovering microclimates of care and love orchestrated by friends, family, even strangers. At this very particular moment in time.
Out and about, his turn of phrase, turns heads. Bringing joy more often than not. Who can’t fail to warm to a young boy earnestly commenting that he is “so happy when I’m on a bus; having such a lovely time. Can we watch a little bit of buses and trains please daddy when we leave this bus for the street near the station at Highgate? Highgate has a capital H. Capital letters are for restaurants, people, names and places.”
Thoughtfulness can be found in the least expected places. Some recent repair work to our house meant a cavalcade of builders disbanding in his space – and disrupting. The noise and mess could easily have accelerated in Isaac’s troubled mind to a torpedoed home landscape. Step in builder Jim and his innate appreciation of autism, and perception of Isaac.
Fanciful maybe, but it even felt he allowed for Isaac’s visual perception and motor skills challenges, showing him where work would happen, bricks moved, tools left, mess cleared. Unifying for him this tapestry of disturbance to his world into a digestible, comprehendible whole.
But what if he arrives there and it’s not yet open? A kink to the flow of the punctiliously prepared day exposed already. Like a cumbersome computer ever expanding its ram capacity, Isaac’s ability to store information increases by the day; the flip side being a crash when the storage malfunctions will be ever more dramatic.
Talking of trains (which Isaac rarely doesn’t do) Isaac’s monologues of multiple station names and their adjacent roads are – at the times when he’s open to communicating this extraordinarily processed and recalled information – received with relish by friends. In awe of his photographic memory and encyclopaedic knowledge, blessed by his idiosyncrasies, these fleeting episodes affirm the value of his ‘difference’ and how it can instil optimism in all.
When things are good, it’s an extended family micro climate where his exuberance, eccentricity and infectious hysterics, just makes them smile and laugh. It’s so gloriously spirited.
They clash, of course. My wife mediating magically. But there is a kind of beautiful complementary nature to their interactions. Her typically evolving play is imaginative, implying the fine spatial and visual skills that he is so bravely battling with. Compering her mini tea parties can become quite chaotic – she creates, he crash, bang wallops. But Tabitha loves his rebellion somehow.
As she was, as if seated breathlessly in an atmospheric auditorium, by his extraordinary delivery, word perfect and completely from memory, of the entire Gruffalo story; most amazingly, in the exact tone and tenor of the film they’d both been rapt by. This sublime skill of his – entertaining and enthralling Tabitha (and us) in equal measure.
All these events and relationships emphasize just how safe and comforting the many man made microclimates of kindness, openness and awareness are, when we are lucky enough to find ourselves in them. Sometimes in public, usually not. Where awareness has been impressed upon people with vigour.
Who knows the longevity of this not impossible to locate kindness? I feel tears when recollecting the tantrums that people interpreted abjectly in the early years, when kindness was at best evasive. I block out the din of inner dread when contemplating him getting older. Where the world is one of dipping in and out of things; with intuitive filters and edits life-saving tools for folk – anathemas to how Isaac sees the world, pursuing excessively, fixating, immersing, obsessing. When his quirks may be not as refreshingly received. A crushingly conformist world at odds with those deemed odd.
I am about information for GSH as I mentioned. I was contacted in July of this year from a Pediatric Immunologist and Allergist in Turkey, she has a 4 yr old autistic son. She has done an amazing amount of research on her own and then found me in this research she was doing. She decided to accept my information, science and aid in helping her son. Her name is Dr. Dr. ilke Topcu. She is also the head GAP doctor in Turkey heading about 40 doctors.
She decided to try as I suggested and her son has gone from nonverbal, non social, not really sleeping, slight seizure activity to a young son that is verbalizing, socializing with all his prekindergarden mates, he is sleeping very well and is also tolerating many more foods than he use to. He is on his way as his EEG this mth showed no signs of activity. His life is becoming so much easier and he is able to show his high intelligence.
This is because as he replenishes his GSH daily he is allowing his body to clear his toxic overload, his metals, pollutants etc. He has not been sick a day from the first mth he started to replenish. His Digestive system is becoming intact and so able to give his body the nutrients that should be absorbing.
I pray that you will take time to contact me, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org I am having an excellent amount of successes in Turkey children as their parents are starting to see benefits as their children clear. Each body is unique no matter the size, the toxin overload is differant in each body and each body clears in its own time. I am about information, science, once you have that then you can make up your own mind as to if this is good for you or not. I do not bug anyone, I do not need to, this is so important, I care and am an excellent communicator, I get to know my clients and become friends as I so enjoy their roads to recovery. It makes my heart sing to hear their stories.
I know you are active in your blog, so this next step is yours to contact me. I will hope to hear from you soon, in the meantime do hope your days are good. take care.
Is it too severe to say autism serves up a degree of daily dread on parents? Perhaps not. There’s certainly a never ending sense of uncertainty.
He can sway between extremes alarmingly swiftly; middle ground is rarely inhabited by Isaac. Hence our every day, every waking hour default is ‘on edge’. Always prepared for some heavy lifting.
Our nervousness will vary vastly in terms of intensity. Weekends and holidays, where a lack of routine can take Isaac hostage in horrible ways, could mean it’s heightened. A precisely prepared school day with plans aplenty and a sense of cautious calm could even kickstart the day – although my stoic wife may have to suppress post school potential fallout.
Very likely compounding the need to confirm the day’s itinerary, something will be mentally fidgeting him which he will attempt to articulate through his repetition or recollection of facts:
Like a train journey he recently did that stopped at an unannounced station: “daddy, why did the train stop at Basingtoke on the way to St. Ives on the national rail services? Why didn’t the driver say so? Because he did say the train stops at Reading and… (lists them all)?”
Maybe it’s his grandmother’s new journey to work. Something someone said at school. Events, dates, buses, trains.
My wife possesses a particular patience with connected tenacity to confidently locate his real worry about the day ahead: maybe he knows nothing’s on in the afternoon and that’s scary, perhaps he’s going somewhere there may be a dog (he hates and is scared and repelled by them and their, I imagine, erraticism: “dogs are rubbish…,” he’ll say, “they have to go away…stupid dogs”). Or is it a day when I might be home late from work (because I was on the same day last week). Whatever he’s recalling – however long ago – will mean he’s experiencing the same stress levels as if it’s happening there and then, in the moment. His mind can appear a minefield where treading carefully guarantees little in the way of protection from unexpected explosions.
Because at vulnerable times the inventory of knowledge and experience I’ve harnessed about Isaac emits mental tremors in me before I attempt to do pretty much anything. I can catastrophize to the point of crippling anxiety. Indeed I’m certainly not the first person to comment that parents behave in autistic ways so absorbed are they in their child’s autism and its attributes. And so keen are they for an antidote to the chaotic autism-unfriendly, spontaneous society we live in. It’s common sense damage limitation. But it can also be damaging. I know that.
A recent holiday triggered that survival tactic which then overstayed its welcome so suffocating was its nature. The first half of the holiday was as care free and conventional a holiday I believe we’ve had. With extended family nearby, we stayed in a cottage on a cute little farm; it was symmetrical, organised with well-behaved animals. Which family members visited us and when could be plotted and itemised by him. Every day the chickens and sheep and ducks, safe behind fences, could be fed with Farmer Tim at the same time. His previous blanket wariness of the animals became an accepted awareness. No feeding of course, and a demand that the animals ‘stay away please’ but it was an (somewhat edited) idyllic few days.
Making Isaac authentically happy (as opposed the faux happiness of transport talk or being boisterous) is hard to come by. When I offered an early return from the holiday he visibly loosened like a tight knot magically undoing itself. He played nicely with his sister, ate a sandwich and even went outside. But was that happiness or so-big-it’s-impossible-to-quantify relief?
A process of marginal losses happens. Isaac’s limited eating, limits further. His propensity to do anything lessens. We all follow a strict routine. Meltdowns aplenty. Ipads are a relief. Life contracts to very little when all these compromises are made.
And liberating us from this not so long ago were the objective Custodians of Isaac’s potential and welfare and hope. His therapists and teachers at his sanctuary, his school. Who eased us in from the autism waste ground we were scrabbling about in. They spoke of his timetables, how he’s loving laughing and socialising at school. Their pride in him. His hilarity, imagination. Mostly though, they implored us to own our lives. Leave him with grandparents. Indulge but know when not to. We innately know what he can and can’t do, when to or to not push him.
Importantly, the next time I’m caught in an autism rut, where I lose myself to its supposed traits, I’ll try to tell myself it’s too complex a condition for such, well, crass simplification.
We really can lighten his mood with a slightly more muscular approach. I barter with him – eat, play, see certain folk; and you can then tell me whatever fascinating encyclopaedic bit of travel trivia you absolutely have to tell me (like that there are three Streathams on the national rail services which he’ll list, before naming linking bus numbers and more.) We can dampen that daily dread – it’s possible on occasions.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a beauty and creativity and unpredictability to him too – and what he says that, maybe, just maybe, we can embrace and foster and ‘go with’. This was illustrated when my wife talked to him last week about where he came from. “My tummy” she said, as you would. “Why, did you eat me?” he asked back.
Matt – I want to recommed a few websites that will give you additional support and insight. www.adiaryofamom.wordpress.com – is wonderful – mom of an autistic and a neurotypical daughter – supportive community and very insightful blog. Also, this site is a collection of blogs by autistic people of various ages on various subjects – their insight may help a lot in understanding how your son perceives the world – www.autistikids.com
Your son may be picking up on your fret, fear, confusion, which makes him more on edge – it’s a downward spiral. In the blogs I mention, you’ll find a lot of insight into how he’s processing the world from the AUTISTIC perspective, which may help a LOT to manage the stress all around. Your son may not be able to articulate how he perceives the world, but other autistic people are sharing their stories and they are there to help 🙂 I hope this helps you!
With Father’s Day beckoning, now could be the time to indulge in fatherhood musings. How my son, Isaac, has affected any perceptions I may have had. How he enriches the experience. And challenges it. How his autism may have sent us off course for a bit. How my role as a father in my universe sits slightly out of kilter with others’ universes.
But that feels unnecessary and unimportant right now. What feels very right and very relevant this father’s day is to celebrate something, dare I say it, more fundamental to Isaac.
His mother, who gave birth to him in barbaric conditions. And balanced recuperation with a stressed baby from day one.
His mother, who from that day to, well, perhaps forever, bats off judgemental glares and tuts from people who should know better but know nothing at all.
His mother, who had no place to hide from what felt like hell, when her husband could escape daily.
His mother whose instinct told her something was wrong but battled on because what else could you do? Who nodded unknowingly when other’s shared their similar stories; because in reality they were different.
His mother, who ferried around her sinking and struggling son to therapists and doctors. His mother, who never flinched in her unrequited love for her unresponsive son.
His mother, who kept calm when diagnosis was delivered. Seeing a future not finality.
His mother, who learnt and listened and devoured and dissected. So she was armed to the teeth with rights and knowledge.
His mother, who made the system fear her and not vice versa. Who got Isaac the right support, his statement of needs and who never ceases in improving his life.
His mother, who found him a school that was right. And another one when it all went wrong.
His mother, who campaigned not just on his behalf but on the many like him. Spreading awareness, sharing, inspiring, strengthening, surviving.
His mother, who sensibly delayed having a second child for the sake of her first. Before finding the inner strength to create a sibling for Isaac. Mixing nature with counter-intuition and most of all courage.
His mother, who tolerates swings in behaviour of an epic scale. Experiencing outpourings of love, bundles of anxiety and no little cruelty, day in, day out.
His mother, who knows how to push not punish. Comfort not compromise. Who can temper frustrations with empathy. Whose maternal instinct never wavers.
At best I play second fiddle to my wife’s orchestration of Isaac. Managing his days, taking him places, speaking to his school, arranging his time. She is mum, mentor, therapist and teacher. His absolute anchor. Which is why I see this Father’s day more than ever for what it is. An affirmation that what I do as a father is enabled and enhanced by the miracles managed by his Mother.
There’s an invisibility shrouding autism that I see vividly, as if in neon lights, so evident is it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“Mummy, who’s looking after Tabitha after her sleep number one?”
“Is daddy going to work now or very soon?”
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 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.
“Why has Tabitha got no clothes on?”
“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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
(I always try to respond)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.