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 email@example.com 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.
How Isaac’s autism plays out physically never used to weigh too heavily on me. Mainly because it was as a mental condition that I’d feel its full force.
With diagnosis and subsequent treatments clustering around social interaction, speech delay, obsession and routine that’s no surprise. It’s not that there haven’t been noticeable physical manifestations. There absolutely have – from simple coordination issues, to how he holds objects for everyday tasks, to sport and more. It’s just that the more domineering psychological and social effects have tended to force physicality onto the periphery. The toil demanded to study the workings of Isaac’s wildly complicated mind took precedence.
Sensory processing difficulties similarly perched on the sidelines; grouped in one amorphous, mysterious whole. The challenges have shouted much louder and clearer than explicitly physical ones. But there’s been little in the way of genuine understanding and treatment.
Our unreconstructed knowledge of Isaac means always front of mind is: obtaining order in a chaotic world, heightened senses, stimulation seeking, and discomfort distinguishing noise and sound, food phobias and maddeningly narrow diet. However, true tangibility has been difficult to track somehow.
But that changed when he entered his specialist school some 3-4 years later. The primary goal of occupational therapy is to enable people to participate in the activities of everyday life, so it encompasses the whole gamut of physical skills. Balance, touch, vision, coordination, strength. Programming in people with disabilities what is so instinctive in people without.
Which is that Isaac has a diagnosis of dyspraxia. A developmental disorder of the brain (in childhood) that causes difficulty in activities requiring coordination and movement. Profoundly physical symptoms then.
Saying his autism, in my mind at least, has parlayed into a more complex mental and physical condition is purposefully dramatic. The physical and sensory struggles Isaac has have a tangibility now. I can’t help but feel the unlevel playing field he’s on anyway has got that bit more wonky.
Fortunately this new discovery of dyspraxia, this new label to process and live with, comes with a confidence that it’s awash with the sea of knowledge we need to get by and get on. It all slots in to his autism too.
The facts are fierce though, focussing as they do around sensory over-responsiveness, weak balance, lack of body awareness, visual and auditory struggles.
During the last school year, it became clear that structured motor movements in PE such as balancing, running from cone to cone, passing and catching a ball, throwing with one hand were arduous for him. Progress has been made but problems like these together with fine motor skills difficulties will perhaps always be part of him. Part of his autism. Handwriting, holding implements, a cup, a plate. Running, sport, any type of physical interaction with the world around him. Leaps of improvement happen, but it’s not always linear. A fluid approach is best.
Highlighting all these physical and sensory problems is instructive. However, viewing them in isolation is a misleading and miserable process. What has actually happened with the detailed, expert reporting of dyspraxia is a crystallisation of my confusion with sensory processing difficulties and nagging physical concerns into a more complete, coherent understanding of his autism. Into an interlinked mental, physical and sensory condition.
Because at the heart of what’s been discovered is that Isaac’s difficulties are due to sensory processing and integration difficulties which are impacting on his ability to conceive, plan and actually execute movements. A direct link between sensory processing and physicality in other words. With myriad psychological and social implications – that we’ve always known, but now have added context.
He’s also learnt that hugging has a social element, but its intricacies are still maybe alien. So his desire to touch and squeeze is to align his physical sense of gravity. But the social reward he’s had from parents and grandparents cannot be transferred to teachers, which he has had trouble learning. One step forward, one back. How complicated, how cruel.
Visual perception and visual motor skills are equally major challenges for him. Copying simple physical actions (in PE for example) – something so instinctive to typical people – is fraught for him.
Then there’s the implications for food we need to digest. Why he needs it uniform and ideally beige for visual soothing. Touch, taste and smell of course. That’s without venturing into battles we have always known about; the phobias, anxiety, routine and more.Finding one item in a bag when he can’t see all the items laid out in front of him is next to impossible. I can’t assuage the guilt I feel when pondering the times I’ve casually and impatiently asked him to pick something up, told him to ‘look, it’s straight in front of you’.
The school year ahead will have a heavy focus on the physical and sensory. It will be exercising my mind like never before, knowing we need to adapt a lot to support him properly. Sensory integration and action skills that are so critical to life and come so laboriously unnaturally to him. Life skills – dressing, eating, basic participation in activities. These will be painstakingly practiced by him. There will be frustration and anger. Impatience will trump patience most of the time.
Isaac’s sensory and physical realities – their toughness, their realities – have knocked me a little. Life was far from easy for Isaac. Now the burden has got that bit bigger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Yet at times he can struggle to answer a simple question. He can be caught in a self-imposed routine and repetition rut.
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.
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.
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?”
A pertinent comment his teacher made to us when discussing his substantial handwriting training said it all really:
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)
Tabitha, Isaac’s sister, recently turned one – to a cringey chorus of proudly cooing parents. A mother and father whose propensity for a more phlegmatic parenting profile had shrivelled ever so slightly. Overly emotional and overwhelmed as we were by what thousands of other babies up and down the land would be doing identically.
Hesitancy holds us back most of the time though. If only because I’m not quite sure what emotion to access when pondering her typicality. Joy? Relief? Guilt at being joyful or relieved? Sad for Isaac? Happy for her?
Our experiences with wider family have been instructive here. Ours is a big, boisterous, effortlessly loving brood. Idealistic and inclusive, with kids of similar ages sparring, socialising, discovering. For typical young families who thrive in a spontaneous, soulful and healthy environment, one couldn’t wish for anything more.
But over recent weeks and months our immediate family has become a microcosm of the wider one. With all the hullabaloo of free flowing family life that our slightly solitary existence had managed to avoid, having entered our four walls. At a time when many areas of Isaac’s life are similarly anxiety inducing, calling for a flexibility he cannot fathom.
Belongings are in peril always. Hers of course. He’s adopted an obsession with peppa pig, books, DVDs, magazines – hoarding, cataloguing. As always with the capricious nature of autism, he’ll sink into silence and the security of his phone, tube maps, leaflets, and an almost eerie calm at any moment – which fails to never put me on edge a little.
As is so often, explanation, survival strategies and lateral solutions have emanated from the people of BOAT (Brent Outreach Autism Team) who doubted the jealousy argument choosing instead to discuss the arrival of a knockabout, crawling, messy, clumsy, unpredictable, presence, that test all parents and siblings alike – but who have the tools to manage. He doesn’t.
As such, BOAT looked for problems elsewhere. Like his experiences at daily school lunch; a break from the nicely regimented school day. An echoey, cluttered bundle. When his teaching assistant is stretched. Kids run amok. He stims, flaps and seeks solace. But it’s a façade that crumbles on his return home, my wife left to pick up the pieces.
And after any event – at which the stress for him could have been imperceptible for anyone else – when he sets about recharging his battered batteries, carnage can ensue. A state of autism-induced frenzy. Rage, sadness, insecurity. His autistic traits reaching a fever pitch that we cannot douse. Rituals are rife. His routine having taken such a bashing, he’ll fixate on a memory, something specific, so desperate he is to control his environment.
“We’ll travel on Minster Road – looks like Westminster on the jubilee like train. What does it look like daddy? Say Westminster. Then after Minster Road, Cricklewood Broadway. What line is it, is it the Over ground. Say yes, of course…”
(He can rattle off 10, 20, 30 road names in perfect sequence to describe a journey. Together with the name of the borough that, I hadn’t even noticed, appears on all road signs. Likewise he knows from memory the entire tube map, which line each station is on. Yet, when asked he may not answer if he doesn’t feel like it. Even, or especially, to parents wanting to show off his skills. The sense of reward that we may feel imparting knowledge, a foreign concept to him).
One small step that’s yielding, for now, some small gains in coping mechanisms is him doing half days at school as suggested by BOAT. The effect on my wife in terms of childcare is clearly arduous as is the exhaustion she experiences tending to his ever need, focusing on him solely – help from our part-time nanny taking Tabitha but rarely both kids such are his demands. The good news is he’s fortified confidence wise. Less likely to be knocked sideways by his inability make it through the day unscathed and not too discombobulated from proceedings. The acuteness of his autism doesn’t abate though. And of course Tabitha is around anyway.
Many days, my wife has to simply claw her way through catastrophe to get to even keel.
And the upshot? A segregated, slightly sad family life. Where my wife and I split duties of a weekend and during holidays. Like ships, with one child on board, passing in the night. That way, Isaac has a 100% focus, him calling the shots. Rituals and repetition running the show, but with slightly less intensity. A tiny bit easier to manage.
We cower for insularity for self-preservation’s sake not selfishness. I personally get tangled taming the sorrow of solitude with the desire to grasp the nettle of sociability – knowing the stings can be more than skin deep.
It needs a doggedness that I’ve not developed. It can feel like we are two islands within an island some weekends. That’s fine for now. We’re still the proud parents of two children going about our business – just slightly apart. For now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
(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.)