Can Judaism play a role in Isaac’s life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I always try to respond)

Paul Davis ·

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

Paul Davis ·

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

Matthew Davis

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

Debbie Cantor ·

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

Matthew Davis

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

Sam Matthews ·

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

Matthew Davis

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

Ben Carlish ·

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

Matthew Davis

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

Penny Madden ·

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

Matthew Davis

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

Kiwi and Spoon

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

Sarah Driver ·

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

Leaps in development, bound by autism

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

What’s normal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Autism and thinking differently

For the mood music in my family’s life to be jolly and upbeat, Isaac’s autism has to be acknowledged to at all times. Slip ups in routine, plans going awry or excessive elements of surprise, and the rhythm’s lost. There’s disharmony. Probably upset.

And as we increasingly attempt to take Isaac ever so slightly out of his comfort zone, a complete grasp of the condition is demanded more than ever. When to take stock of his sensory needs and rein in the physicality? To simply embrace his considerable ability to memorise vast quantities of information, or to evolve it into something more challenging? Grip a pen, knowing the limits of his motor skills? Or let the tablet be his writing tool? Our responses to these types of challenges oscillate by the day.


So Isaac’s autism informs my every move. I think about it at all times. It dictates my decision making, dominates my diary. What we’re doing, where we’re going, how we’re doing it. Food, family, fun.


In short, take autism for granted – and it take you places you don’t want to go (again).

But what about my deeper thoughts and even attitudes. Beyond the day to day running (about) of family life. Autism has altered my behaviour, but has it influenced my beliefs? After all, whilst I’ve always had causes that are close to my heart, autism is something that clings to my heart.


Well, there has been a very visceral effect of that emotional connection. One that’s been forced on me by others as much as myself. Which is a heightened sense of sympathy – sometimes shamefully bordering on sorrow – for any act of defiance in a child. Tantrums, visible frustration – where some think a kid brattish, I, rightly or wrongly, imagine a child in need of comfort, comprehension and consideration.


This now entrenched opinion is of course based on early experiences. When I would be forcibly manhandling a fighting but forlorn Isaac in the days where we were both fumbling about at the condition’s fringes. When time suspended, the traffic stood still, and everyone stared our way. These events are not so often now, but the experiences wrote themselves indelibly into my consciousness.


I do feel a sadness at people’s paucity of generosity of spirit. Imagine if a supermarket meltdown was seen as a misunderstood child rather than a misbehaving one. Imagine giving the child the benefit of the doubt?


Children with autism are not often naughty; that’s an official description of a trait that can form part of a diagnosis. How unfortunate that naughtiness in a mistaken label that children with autism are so often given before any diagnosis. It’s a hard fact that’s contributed to the softening of my attitude to children, however boisterous and seemingly antisocial.


So any deviance of behaviour in a child I see as vulnerable and needs treating as such. It can weigh heavily on me. Just seeing a screaming child being dragged along by an exhausted mother can depress me for hours.


Building on this new found sympathy is a compassion for – and appreciation of – vulnerable adults too. Nutters, weirdos, loners. Odd bods talking to themselves, loons howling at the moon. Observations and language that may once have been the preserve of the comical, is for me, now cruel. Where I now see someone who could be on the spectrum I used to see someone who’s probably ‘a bit mad’ – whatever that meant.


Isaac has his own dialect of train sounds, counting numbers and repeating phrases coupled with his compulsive commentary of events, quizzing people for confirmation. He runs by walls, rolling his eyes to satisfy his sensory seeking. To manage stressful scenarios. To block out cacophonous noises. We see these as a coping mechanism crucial to his equanimity. That may diminish as opposed to disappear as he gets older. Benign souls may see these behaviours in a near six year old as cute quirks. The time could well come when the majority witness what they feel must be weird tics and deluded dins; the hilarious chit chat of a fruitcake.


As a person then, my moral compass has perhaps been pulled towards a more sympathetic and compassionate place by an autism force (and quite possibly other special needs as well as mental illness). But there is something more profound at play than this. Isaac’s place in society, as someone with special educational needs, has been shifted to the margins, a breeding ground for prejudice and judgement. Where, unsurprisingly underachievement is rife. I daren’t decipher the dependency, unemployment and exclusion narratives associated with children and adults on the autistic spectrum. The budget cuts, worrying lack of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision, the need to normalise and more.


Through Isaac, I have assumed the role of the underdog in society. Which has had a significant impact on my beliefs and attitudes.


Autism doesn’t discriminate. And therefore, nor can I. Our family is now part of a society glued together by what our children are experiencing and we are battling. The apparatus we need to build and maintain our lives, an anathema to other people’s. Helping galvanise our voice, and aid us individually, are speech therapists, nurses, outreach workers and teachers. Inspiring, determined professionals. Who use their encyclopaedic knowledge to help Isaac thrive – for example through tailored and group speech therapy sessions that teach parents techniques and strategies too. And who also bravely and courageously carve out the opportunities my boy deserves. Be they one on one support, teaching assistant hours, a place in the correct school.


Because by entering the landscape of autism the asymmetry of society been so glaring to me. Perhaps for the first time, I find myself on the losing side. And the constant quest to win rights for Isaac, just to get him to a level playing field, has given my attitudes and beliefs a re-boot. To strip myself of stereotypes because I’ve had to, but also to not pre-judge in a singular, straightforward pursuit of fairness. For me and for all. Through a fairness prism is how I now view the world, what I want from it, things I commend and things I deplore. An unreconstructed sense of fairness. Which is of course subjective; my sense of fairness will be different to anybody else’s.


 



The best articulation of this is through my experiences with the educational system. A system that’s complex, contradictory and confused.


If I didn’t have a child with SEN, like so many others I would be entrapped by the oppressive catchment area system. But with Isaac’s diagnosis, we have a wider choice of school in the borough. That seems fair.


Not everyone would agree. In an extraordinary episode, a local mum, perplexed that we were looking at a specific school not in our catchment area, quizzed my wife. When she was told that Isaac and his special needs allowed us to look at the school without having to live in the pricey catchment area, she brazenly and boldly said ‘how incredibly lucky’ we were. Everything rotten and unfair about the educational system was encapsulated there and then.


The big irony though was despite our opportunity for Isaac to leapfrog his way into an exclusive but state run school we chose not to. Why? Not because this non-selective school was hostage to the well-heeled inhabitants of one neighbourhood. (Though that I did deem unfair). But because it had a weak, fairly periphery SEN provision.


Isaac is actually at a school that has a dynamic, brilliant SEN provision. It also has a high proportion of pupils who have English as a second language. That pernicious phrase used to mercilessly flog Inner London failing schools with. But something I only see as a healthy feature of multi-cultural living.


When Isaac started school, his English language was limited and weak, considerably weaker that many kids with English as their second language. The prejudice of course compounds when the talk is of parents at home not speaking English to their children. As parents, we were struggling with the modelling and other techniques therapists had taught us, to assist Isaac with his specific learning. Effectively another language. By seeking what’s best and fair for Isaac, I’ve always seek to dismantle the discriminations that clog up chatter.


My hope has not been lessened though as a result of Isaac’s autism. On the contrary. When Isaac left what was a private nursery that morphed into high achieving factory for private schools, there could have been a formal, awkward parting of ways. His time there, during and after diagnosis, had been fraught and emotional for all parties. He was going to a school less than a mile away geographically, many more miles away metaphorically – the schools had never communicated. At all.


But the head of the nursery, enlightened by her first experience of autism, reached out to the head of Isaac’s new school. A relationship started between two previous strangers. One assistant at the nursery even being invited to do a placement at his new school. This show of compassion and thoughtfulness between two very different schools would not have happened without Isaac and his autism.


More importantly, Isaac had built a bridge. A small one possibly. But a bridge nevertheless towards a fairer, more open world.


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Am I smothering Isaac with love?

I would predict that the universal desire to protect one’s child is particularly pronounced in parents in (or circling) the autism universe. My inner voice certainly announces with cut through clarity instructions to guard my little boy’s hard earned happiness with my life.

Isaac is the unabashed star of his own show, and his star needs some major pampering. As his head hits the pillow every night, the next day’s lines and events (an always rehearsed, fascinating mix of the familiar and the new) are finalising themselves into a detailed script that will be engraved in his mind by the morning. The script calls for a diligent director (at times hands-off, at times hands-on) who knows him inside out and can respond accurately to the many, many cues. From ‘I need to shake my flannel for a little bit’, to inquisitively but continuously confirming between 8 and 830am that ‘daddy, you’re having breakfast at work!’ to recounting in forensic detail the contents of his lunchbox down to the last piece of mango or sausage. Any improvisation is highly sensitive and has to be handled as such.


So my now hard-wired autism-informed thinking obsesses that his daily schedules strictly follow the routine, learned phrases (with their set tones) embedded in his mind – and, most importantly, that they are stress free. I am adamant his activities are micro-managed to the point of mollycoddling.
The first threads of this deeply woven, impenetrable security blanket that I shamelessly smother him in were sown in the Paediatrician’s surgery moments after diagnosis (two years ago). Ground Zero. When as much as the ground falling from beneath us, there was an uplifting, almost spiritual release of so many anxieties that could be now attributed to autism. And therefore laid to rest.

Fussy eating redefined itself as a need for identikit dinners, uniform shapes and colours. No longer would I fret about his narrow, ‘tut-tutting’ diet, now that I understood a mish mash of sloppy, multi-coloured and multi-textured food could be a physical assault on someone with his taste (and other sensory) processing limitations. With his only option to shut down.


The socially unacceptable ipad accompaniment to food we could accept with alacrity, realising this was a coping device for him to shut out the lights, sounds and colours of everyday life that we can so seamlessly bed into our environment but would be such an uncomfortable clash of aural and visual misery for him.


Pushing a scooter incessantly (for what would seem like hours at a time) the wrong way was the right and logical way for someone who learns bottom up; someone who’s creating his own self-contained patterns; someone who’s establishing how to make his own peculiar way in the world. This pushing of the scooter, one of an arsenal of repetitive behaviours, and the difficulty to remove himself from it, I could gladly, calmly and confidently cope with. Getting to lateral – for others, natural and effortless – solutions like riding a scooter meant an exhaustion of all the other workings of said scooter first. Now he rides it seamlessly and gloriously; I never thought that would happen.


Transition is tremendously testing for him. If we never got to leave the park before dusk, so be it. If getting out the house and away from what he happened to be doing, got to him too much, we’d stay put and miss parties, school, appointments, whatever.


Whilst the explanation of these eccentricities gave me the resolve and permission to adapt myself to Isaac’s behaviours and needs, it was one specific autistic trait that raised by determination to shield Isaac from this harsh, harsh world; the one that cemented the diagnosis and that I’d not seen: the non-playing with peer group trait.


Playing with peer groups is perhaps the first and fiercest test of imagination, improvisation and intuition a child can face. And a child with autism will often flounder. This knowledge, vividly clear in the following weeks and months by Isaac’s lack of social impulse and disinterest of kids at nursery, brought to the surface the deeply held anxiety that he may struggle with friendships. This observation contributes to my cosseting of Isaac to the current day.


Hearing his propensity to play solo at school saddens me. Seeing kids his age roam together at family functions, heady with the thrill of burgeoning bonds, causes me a degree of upset I have to admit.  It can still take enormous endeavour for me to not to envy. And I am a little ashamed to say that this, too, has contributed to my approach as an over protective parent.

That it’s an approach that’s been absolutely and totally instructed and informed by autism I have no doubt. But it’s debateable that it’s a wholly brave approach. Unlike the approach of my wife.  My wife, who’s not just a colossal force for good in Isaac’s life. But in recent months, a colossal force for change in it too.

There’s not been a singular, resonant event where she’s forsaken protection for pro-action. But a succession of tiny ones, very often barely noticeable by a dad blinkered to cushion his boy from anything resembling a challenge. Somewhat regrettably I may not have noticed that the little, regular challenges my wife puts Isaac through, are the fuel behind the bigger steps:

Somewhat splendidly, Isaac eats a mouthful of food, finishes, and then says with aplomb ‘I’ve finished, I can speak now!’. Table manners, something I would be happy to shield him from, are with us, uniquely Isaac type table manners, but table manners nevertheless.  Which, combined with his plethora of pleases, thank yous and you’re welcomes, make him sound and behave like a charming little robot.

Exuberance is Isaac’s chosen form of expression. Squeezing, joyful slapping, physicality, screaming. I have thoughtlessly tended towards revelling in this slapstick and got physical with him. Showing him few boundaries. This behaviour isn’t best placed in the company of unimpressed teachers and non-complicit children. When hearing Isaac jokily repeat ‘don’t do that!’  at home, clearly not understanding the call of frustration from a fellow child, I feel tormented love for Isaac and do little to rectify it.


However, my wife’s dedication to giving our son alternatives and solutions has softened the exuberance, made it acceptable, socialised it. So she’s taught Isaac to claps effusively when he’s overwhelmed and overexcited. Which he’s managing to do a lot. And takes bows. Not necessarily prompted. It’s rather heart melting and his antidote to physical, inappropriate expression.  But it’s not always forthcoming and it’s often hard work.


Another example is the power cut that recently put at risk Isaac’s breakfast diet of train clips on YouTube. Fiddling with my phone, fearful for Isaac (and for me given the consequences), I couldn’t entertain anything but a desperate attempt to salvage some train footage from somewhere, anywhere. My wife, aware how stories are now impacting on Isaac, referred to the power cut on the kids’ programme Peppa Pig which he loves, feeding his imagination, whilst contextualising something. She consoled him, knowing he’s responding strongly to emotional language. After a tough, tearful few minutes, the situation made sense in his mind. Proudly he compared the power cut to the Peppa story and he had a coping strategy in place.  

One last thought: My wife listens out for Isaac’s new sayings and uses them as tools to push him to do more, go on bigger outings, permeate some elasticity into the routine. ‘Can we tell daddy?’ is something Isaac says a lot right now. The danger of constant repetition for a child with autism is that it can rapidly become a meaningless habit. But she grasps his sayings and uses the tiny window between learning it and then habitually repeating it, hence giving it a real meaning. More than a meaning, she’ll use it as a device, a punctuation to help navigate the day and therefore fit more in, widening his and our horizons. In other words, ‘can we tell daddy?’ has become seriously useful for Isaac’s movement and appetite for moving on during a day:
“Let’s go to the dry cleaner, then we see trains.” “Can we tell daddy?” “Of course. Then we’ll go to the butcher’s and play in the park.” “Can we tell daddy?” “Absolutely!”

And that is how the day pans out. A simple saying has become an invaluable transition tool, enriching and enhancing the day’s activities.


Isaac has only flourished as a result of this little but continual pushing from my wife, this considered  and careful challenging of him, this loosening of the protective grip.

For Isaac’s sake, I need to also let go. Just a little.

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Connecting trains

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Not knowing which way to turn

What are we doing wrong? It’s a common cry from parents like us about our screaming children. Particularly around the time of diagnosis. A blurry, murky time that seems a world away from where we as a family are now. When computing and comprehending the facts is what I needed to do; but in actual fact I was doing anything but. Getting Isaac to do the simplest of tasks was too taxing for us and too demanding for him. Questioning our parenting skills was the obvious, but ultimately futile, place to look for an answer.

Compounding our parenting crisis at this harrowing junction in our lives were people’s misconceptions that Isaac was misbehaving. Isaac may have been at a hot house of a nursery, but they struggled when he was in a boiling rage. One of these rages was often triggered by something as small as whether he would be starting the day upstairs or in the garden (you’d be told on arrival every day). And so it was on this particular day in early 2011, in the narrow corridors of a neat townhouse, with the steady stream of over achieving three year olds orderly walking in, Isaac collapsed, back arched, yelling, with arms flailing, desperate to let me know he didn’t want to go upstairs. Which was where his class was starting that day.


My hold of him rapidly turned into restraint, especially as he was adding hitting and scratching to his repertoire. Meaning other parents disapproving glances were now not just towards Isaac, and implicitly me, but now explicitly me as well; I can’t control my child, and when I do, I do it forcefully. On this fairly horrific occasion, when Isaac’s tear-fuelled plea to explain his despair didn’t work, he forcefully threw himself at me like a wild wrestler, in the cross fire knocking over a little girl. The stare a mother gave me that day will stay with me forever; a look of confused shock that a little boy could be so repulsive and his father so wretched. 


When I eventually managed to calm him and deposit his disorientated little self with his teacher, he commenced laps of the classroom chanting train sounds and seeking stimulation for his eyes. Marginalised from the other children sitting well behaved on the floor. Marooned in his own world of repetitive behaviour; his only way of coping and de-stressing from the hell he’d clearly been through.


I walked out of the nursery. Before, completely out of character, breaking down. 

It was days after diagnosis. When, as I’ve said, we were still hesitant of the label, trying to come to terms with our new life, learning a little, scrabbling round in the dark a lot. Yet the nursery (who had no experience of autism) were looking to us to lead the way. As I wiped away my tears, I was jolted into action. I had to confront the tutting parents and reticent nursery staff: Isaac has autism, these transitions, this behaviour, he struggles with it, please understand. Starting with a determined effort to solve this morning problem. How can such a trivial thing like whether he’s upstairs or outside cause so much uproar. Neither I nor Isaac knew which way to turn. But we both needed to find out.  


Serendipitously we had a parents’ session with nurses who specialise with autism that very day.  The first of many with extraordinary professionals who would educate and cajole, strengthening our resolve. Little step by little step. Having wept and then wondered, I was in a heightened state. Searching for sympathy, empathy and answers. I actually got all those, it feeling like a momentous first foray into living with autism. And what illustrates this best, is that I was given a simple, quick solution to the problem that had made me so upset. When the nurse told me it, I wanted to hug him and not let go. He’d found what I’d been blindly seeking for. It was an answer that was like the ABC of autism. A brilliant preface to our own new story that was just beginning.


Isaac needed to know whether he went upstairs in the morning, or in the garden. It was that simple. If we didn’t plan his day for him, he would. And it wasn’t just speech difficulties that meant this structuring, this absolute desire to stave of change would be internalised. Isaac’s default is to forever lay down his own temporal foundations. Piece together his roadmap. His routine. So every morning, Isaac would be formulating his day. With every little episode being set in cognitive stone the minute he conceived it. It perfectly explained why whether he would be going upstairs or in the garden felt like a game of roulette for me – it genuinely was.

Nearly two years down the line, preparation is his and our lifeblood. The pulse that keeps our lives beating to some sort of rhythm. His progress with speech helps, but without consistent commentary from him (about what the day entails) and confirmation from us, things become hopeless.


The nurse’s conclusion was a seminal moment for me. A moment when I understood that sometimes the world has to adapt for autism. The Nursery needed to make allowances and let Isaac always do one or the other. So there was no ambiguity; he’d know where he’d be starting the day. Emboldened, I spoke to the nursery who maybe a little anxiously agreed that we’d tell Isaac he could go outside every day. Which he did, and there was never a highly visible, tortuous breakdown in the glare of other parents again. By taking one unknown from Isaac away, we’d erased the unimpressed and uncomfortable looks of parents for this one very public part of the day. We’d not educated the parents really, just not given them a reason to judge. One step as a time, I felt.


It was ever so small, barely a microcosm of one aspect of autism, but by dealing with it effectively, as parents just starting on this life long, daunting journey, we’d absolutely done the right thing.

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Does Isaac need to be flexible for yoga?

In the year before diagnosis, appointments with a plethora of professionals came thick and fast. But any revealing results were slow in coming and thin on the ground. The only real discovery we made was that one of us taking Isaac was better than both. A distraught child can elicit antagonism between the most harmonious of couples. With screaming and scratching focused on whoever was closest, the other parent becomes as helpless as the advice they are trying to give. A negative vortex of emotions ensue.

My wife did the lion’s share of these trips that were always met with a roar of disapproval from Isaac. Each one a nightmare with everything stacked up clumsily against him. His specific traits that we knew little of then were being completely compromised and this contaminated his mood and sensibility severely. His strict, systemised mind had to deal with variable waiting times, confined spaces, no entry zones, toys he wasn’t used to, toys he was, and toys he had to stop playing with. And his intense sensory seeking was bombarded with bright lights, beeping sounds, buttons, flashes, people milling about and more. (All this was probably even more disorientating to him than the actual therapy, blood tests, occasional scans, lights shone in his eyes, and people testing – or simply misreading – him.)

Isaac would surface from these gruelling sessions puffy eyed, exhausted and sad. This disgruntlement with the world left him out of sync and out of action for the rest of the day. The same can be said for my wife, and on the occasions I took him, me too. At least one of us had been spared, knowing that our presence would have made things worse.
My perceived clarity of these events benefits from hindsight of course. Was it that bad? Most probably. Knowing now what I didn’t then makes it all crystal clear. It also provides something very instructive – that the contrast to the visits to professionals where the environments accommodate him as opposed to alienate him is stark.

We still split activities between the two of us, as much for reasons of time efficiency as damage limitation. And Yoga is an activity my wife has been taking Isaac to that he simply adores. Now it was my turn. I would be taking him to this appointment with a professional on my own.

The instructions from my wife were, as always, deep and detailed. Isaac’s daily schedules need to be carried out to the letter – surprises spell disaster more often than not. That much we know. I absorbed the instructions, fully preparing to apply them consciously. But then I had a thought. And it came from the comparable anxiety and dread I used to experience – when I would at some point physically drag this boy into and out of meetings; him screeching, disapproving people everywhere. What’s the polar opposite of deliberately and forcefully having to navigate Isaac around when he least expects it? Letting him lead the way is.

Something he does with mummy, he knows daddy is taking him this week – why not let him apply his exacting daily schedule to this event he so enjoys. Put him in a position of control. I’d be the flexible one for the yoga trip. Ambitious and daring maybe. But, as I say, the contrast to where we were brings things into focus.


From the moment we pulled up at the yoga centre – that I’d never been to before – Isaac started to orchestrate proceedings in his (currently) clipped tones and precise manner. “Daddy, stop the car please! This is Charlotte’s house! We are going to do yoga now. Daddy can you stay outside, please. Isaac kisses knee. Now we are going up in lift. Okay??” His commentary style of speaking means that right now he resembles a 1950s TV football reporter. With a slightly higher voice. There’s a purpose and momentum to all his discourse. “Isaac, where are we going?” I asked, genuinely baffled by the different doors, stairs and alley ways. “This way, please. Through the door, daddy. To Charlotte, OK”, he said skipping adeptly through a door and up some stairs.

Inside this predictably tranquil and composed centre, Isaac ran into the arms of Charlotte. There was a shared happiness and appreciation that something extraordinarily brilliant and fun was about to happen between them. He took his shoes off in a swift way that I’d barely seen, and slotted them neatly in a box in a way I’d never seen. And then together, Charlotte and Isaac skipped into a room and closed the door. The smoothness and speed of everything left me surprised but as serene as the surroundings.

When, pre-diagnosis, Isaac was being examined or having therapy – or whatever –waiting to hear the next scream was heart in the mouth stuff. Conversely, there’s nothing more heart warming than hearing the giggles and elation of your at-peace son emanating from a room where he’s being stimulated, developed and understood.

After twenty minutes, the door opened and Isaac, with a sublime smile, eyes wide, delighted and fixed on mine, sprinted into my arms. We hugged and I held him tightly, overcome. A five year old running into a parents arms may be an everyday occurrence; probably not when the child has autism though. And whilst Isaac is hugely affectionate (with ‘learned’ cuddles the latest addition to his evolving physical language) this run and hug had a more profound feel – and felt amazing. He ran because he was desperate to tell me about what happened and I sensed that gorgeous anticipation, the connection which was so constrained in his early years. I saw it in his eyes. Charlotte read the situation immaculately, teasing out little questions for Isaac to answer and sow together a little narrative from his session: “What did you kiss Isaac?” “I kissed my knee” “What did you say?” “I said Isaac om..” “How do you feel Isaac?” “I feel fantastic!”

Isaac took me to the big, clunky lift (I remembered that going up in the stairs and down in the lift was the routine) and we waved goodbye to Charlotte. Then barely keeping up with him, we went to the car. And as we drove off, I reminded myself of the disgruntled, out of sorts, sad boy of pre-diagnosis, and then looked at this now calm and collected boy. He was content, I imagine, as much from the yoga as from knowing that his specific plans had been executed with the precision he yearns.

But as with all things autism, I made a note to appreciate the moment and not look too far ahead. A trip to the opticians with all its discomfort, unpredictability and need for Isaac to be flexible is on the horizon.Leave a Reply

Welcome. I’m going to Talk about Autism.

This blog will try to be truthful. There will be painful episodes. That are tinged with regret and envy, frustration and the need to forget. Equally posts will talk of promise and potential. My wonder at the workings of my son’s brain. The many triumphs that autism brings. The positive tears.

Because what I want to share is the everyday role autism plays in my life. When it takes centre stage, like the end of term school play with all its associated anxieties. Or when the parts played by a supporting cast of family, friends and professionals inspire, impact or irritate.

And as if to demonstrate the non-linear, ever changing nature of autism, I may flit from the current to any time since diagnosis, in January 2011, and back again. Themes may be revisited. In the colourful world of autism, discipline is never black and white, and always something to discuss, evaluate and discuss some more. Likewise learning and language. Not to mention denial. What about what ifs? They exist and will be personally examined for sure.

My first post is about the organisation, Ambitious about Autism, and more specifically their online resource, Talk About Autism, who’ve kindly agreed to promote the blog within their community and beyond:


When I first heard Ambitious about Autism, I thought ‘what an alluring alliteration’. But this was before autism affected me in any way. The advertising agency I’d previously worked at had done the charity’s branding, and I’d always kept an eye out for their work. I liked what I’d seen. Marketing wise.

So when my son, Isaac, was diagnosed in early 2011, and we emerged from the paediatrician’s meeting drained and drowning in a sea of information, that alluring alliteration rose to my mind’s surface and proceeded to be a lifeboat of sorts.

Eighteen months on and my wife and I are fully immersed in the organisation as Parent Patrons. And it’s Talk about Autism (TAA), the vibrant online community within Ambitious about Autism that has perhaps been most critical to helping us come to terms with Isaac’s autism.

In its most basic form, TAA is a forum (ever so gently) moderated by the brilliantly enthusiastic Mike. Where questions are posed and answered, conversations launched and new people nurtured with the help of the community champions. It’s actually a lot more than that. It’s a safe haven from the everyday assault course of discrimination, generalisations, judgements, ignorance and, well, exhaustion and difficulties, that parents of children with autism battle with (to varying degrees) day in, day out.

The sense of isolation that we feel having a son with autism is quite subtle. Friends and families are accepting and alert. But we can’t expect them to appreciate or even understand the intricacies that can be so defining yet, if handled wrongly, debilitating. Rigid routine, peculiar diet and sensory stimulation are on the face of it easy concepts to digest, right? Wrong.

There’s the Isaac who people see as grumpy, bad tempered, and badly behaved – and therefore unable to sit and interact at a birthday party. Then there’s the real Isaac who we know is disorientated because the room looks radically different to when he was last there, over stimulated by bright lights, noise and a plethora of unknown people – and therefore unable to sit and interact at a birthday party.

In the TAA community, everyone knows that we are living the latter; and that reassurance literally gives us strength. It can also give us answers. Pushing scooters the wrong way, flapping flannels, licking, microwave obsessions, repeating words, requesting that I smile many times a day to confirm I’m happy (because in his specific mind, if I’m not smiling I’m not happy), Isaac’s autism changes from month to month. Someone in the community will always be able to explain or empathise or both.

TAA stretches beyond the forum of course. It acts as a diligent and discerning curator of the multitude of autism information online. A measured number of relevant stories are posted that help us to continue our understanding. Only recently Mike posted a piece that articulated succinctly the difficulty people with autism have with discriminating stimuli. How they struggle to ignore what may be irrelevant because they are visually bombarded by lots and lots of stuff all the time.

This helped me understand – and explain – why Isaac might find himself focussing on a book on a crowded bookshelf as opposed to the big and loud children’s entertainer performing in front of the barely noticeable bookshelf (let alone book). It’s his way of making sense of his environment at that point in time.

And one last point to make about TAA, is that it puts people with autism’s well-being at the heart of everything – by enabling healthy debate. People have different views and experiences. Which will happen with this complex, life-long condition. By listening to other’s advice and choosing to agree or disagree, discount or discuss, we are all moving in the right direction towards a better life for the whole autism community.Leave a Reply