Adopting autistic traits

Is it too severe to say autism serves up a degree of daily dread on parents? Perhaps not. There’s certainly a never ending sense of uncertainty.

We awake to thoughts of ‘what will we face today –anxiety, disobedience, delirium, depression?’ Equally we’ll be aware he may elicit his extraordinary bouts of compassion. Heavily physical with kisses, cuddles and unreconstructed, purely learnt and 100%-felt talk of ‘mummy you’re such a pretty princess; daddy you’re a lovely boy’. But they could be surpassed by a sadness just as swiftly. Cruelty can creep in too.

He can sway between extremes alarmingly swiftly; middle ground is rarely inhabited by Isaac. Hence our every day, every waking hour default is ‘on edge’. Always prepared for some heavy lifting.

Our nervousness will vary vastly in terms of intensity. Weekends and holidays, where a lack of routine can take Isaac hostage in horrible ways, could mean it’s heightened. A precisely prepared school day with plans aplenty and a sense of cautious calm could even kickstart the day – although my stoic wife may have to suppress post school potential fallout.

Every morning on awaking, Isaac religiously stays in bed – still and silent – waiting for me to venture into his room (a behaviour so ingrained and important to him that he won’t entertain any alternative). So I always go in early, never lulled by what could be construed as contented quiet, anticipating his strange state of mind. Which then needs some diligent and delicate unpicking.

Very likely compounding the need to confirm the day’s itinerary, something will be mentally fidgeting him which he will attempt to articulate through his repetition or recollection of facts:

Like a train journey he recently did that stopped at an unannounced station: “daddy, why did the train stop at Basingtoke on the way to St. Ives on the national rail services? Why didn’t the driver say so? Because he did say the train stops at Reading and… (lists them all)?”

Or something about me and my work; that “last Thursday when you left your office it was when I was having dinner not after I brushed my teeth…”

Maybe it’s his grandmother’s new journey to work. Something someone said at school. Events, dates, buses, trains.

All matters of fact. Delivered and endlessly repeated in a matter of fact way. But, paradoxically, defying a manic-ness in his head that needs dissembling. Because incubated within this solid, samey information is a fluid, frenzied pool of concern. The facts mere codes and triggers for what could be at first a whine, then a wail.

My wife possesses a particular patience with connected tenacity to confidently locate his real worry about the day ahead: maybe he knows nothing’s on in the afternoon and that’s scary, perhaps he’s going somewhere there may be a dog (he hates and is scared and repelled by them and their, I imagine, erraticism: “dogs are rubbish…,” he’ll say, “they have to go away…stupid dogs”). Or is it a day when I might be home late from work (because I was on the same day last week). Whatever he’s recalling – however long ago – will mean he’s experiencing the same stress levels as if it’s happening there and then, in the moment. His mind can appear a minefield where treading carefully guarantees little in the way of protection from unexpected explosions.

The arrival of his boisterous sister in the room may see him swing into overly disruptive, tough to manage, ebullient behaviour (hysteria, silly toilet humour (I know this is typical for all children!) soon spills into being unmanageably hyper). Before a bout of train sound and station naming stimming (repetitive behaviour) to regulate his mental state and insulate himself from the world. The onset of stimming, this most autistic of trait, a welcome sedative for us all. Affording us a shelter from the slipstream of the condition’s rampant hurricanes. And therein lies a truth about the daily dread autism can unleash. You seek, and take solace in, autistic solutions. The fine line between it constructively dictating your life and destructively defining it starting to fade.

Because at vulnerable times the inventory of knowledge and experience I’ve harnessed about Isaac emits mental tremors in me before I attempt to do pretty much anything. I can catastrophize to the point of crippling anxiety. Indeed I’m certainly not the first person to comment that parents behave in autistic ways so absorbed are they in their child’s autism and its attributes. And so keen are they for an antidote to the chaotic autism-unfriendly, spontaneous society we live in. It’s common sense damage limitation. But it can also be damaging. I know that.

Whatever, wherever, whenever, whoever, the first thing I will always do is second guess what Isaac’s autism has in store. Forever. But when the guessing overrides everything, when it becomes a survival tactic in torrid times, you retreat into a risk averse bubble of inaction and inertia for fear of the helter skelter.

A recent holiday triggered that survival tactic which then overstayed its welcome so suffocating was its nature. The first half of the holiday was as care free and conventional a holiday I believe we’ve had. With extended family nearby, we stayed in a cottage on a cute little farm; it was symmetrical, organised with well-behaved animals. Which family members visited us and when could be plotted and itemised by him. Every day the chickens and sheep and ducks, safe behind fences, could be fed with Farmer Tim at the same time. His previous blanket wariness of the animals became an accepted awareness. No feeding of course, and a demand that the animals ‘stay away please’ but it was an (somewhat edited) idyllic few days.

Then, a mini adventure to the beach, and the fun he’d been working so hard to have, turned sinister for him. Chucking pebbles crazily into the sea one minute. Throwing an almighty tantrum the next. All because a gallivanting dog brushed past him. His structured world invaded by random disorder. He screamed and screamed. We returned to the cottage, all attempts to appease failed. I strive to empathise sometimes. Feebly, I imagine his never abating sense of fear when something like this has tipped him is like I’d be if I knew a rat was in a room I was in. Permanently.

 

 

And from that point on we kind of lost him, and perhaps ourselves, to the trammelled existence that a blinkered adherence to autism can serve you. Windows shut for fear of flies. Gulls swooping outside sending shivers; even stopping the daily feeding, detected by my wife who sensed Isaac torn between routine and fear. When fear wins, you’re in a dark place. His eating pretty much ended. Stimming became the only respite, but even that would only satisfy him for so long.

Making Isaac authentically happy (as opposed the faux happiness of transport talk or being boisterous) is hard to come by. When I offered an early return from the holiday he visibly loosened like a tight knot magically undoing itself. He played nicely with his sister, ate a sandwich and even went outside. But was that happiness or so-big-it’s-impossible-to-quantify relief?

Home wasn’t the pure remedy. We spent a good few weeks at the mercy of autism anxiety. Behaving too under its spell. Clumsily, almost unconsciously. Its traits, or our literal interpretation of them, pervading our thoughts. Always second guessing. Always a little too on edge.

A process of marginal losses happens. Isaac’s limited eating, limits further. His propensity to do anything lessens. We all follow a strict routine. Meltdowns aplenty. Ipads are a relief. Life contracts to very little when all these compromises are made.

And liberating us from this not so long ago were the objective Custodians of Isaac’s potential and welfare and hope. His therapists and teachers at his sanctuary, his school. Who eased us in from the autism waste ground we were scrabbling about in. They spoke of his timetables, how he’s loving laughing and socialising at school. Their pride in him. His hilarity, imagination. Mostly though, they implored us to own our lives. Leave him with grandparents. Indulge but know when not to. We innately know what he can and can’t do, when to or to not push him.

I’ve tried to psychologically reframe some of my knowledge about him. Revisit the times he’s done the unexpected and brave. Like allow the dentist to pull and clean and scrape before boldly saying, “it’s a bit difficult having them cleaned. Can you clean them next time please.” Or managing the sensory discomfort of a swimming cap and noise of the pool and engage joyously in a swimming class (but my frustration then at the flat lining in lessons, his desire to repeat in the lesson and stim frustrating me. Unfairly.) Transient times where he courageously leaves his comfort zone.

Importantly, the next time I’m caught in an autism rut, where I lose myself to its supposed traits, I’ll try to tell myself it’s too complex a condition for such, well, crass simplification.

When I need to dig deep, because the desire to anything has disappeared, perhaps a way of positive thinking is to believe in autism’s difference. Isaac’s hard wiring means he deals in hard facts. They often belie inner stresses, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. But sometimes they don’t.

We really can lighten his mood with a slightly more muscular approach. I barter with him – eat, play, see certain folk; and you can then tell me whatever fascinating encyclopaedic bit of travel trivia you absolutely have to tell me (like that there are three Streathams on the national rail services which he’ll list, before naming linking bus numbers and more.) We can dampen that daily dread – it’s possible on occasions.

Because we can’t always unpick, always fret. Maybe there is simple joy for him in the concrete and whole. His mindboggling knowledge of the UK transport system defies belief so thorough and accurate is it. His inner eye visualises the coherence of lines and roads and tracks and numbers and sounds across the whole country. And feeling like a feat of memory he reports it all back. All the time. It can be a wonder.

 

But that doesn’t mean there’s a beauty and creativity and unpredictability to him too – and what he says that, maybe, just maybe, we can embrace and foster and ‘go with’. This was illustrated when my wife talked to him last week about where he came from. “My tummy” she said, as you would. “Why, did you eat me?” he asked back.

 
(I always try to respond)
Dear Matt, you write so beautifully! It was almost poetic to read – meaning it was so heartfelt and moving. Thank you for sharing and inspiring so many of us. Love to Isaac and your family 🙂
Jun 11, 2015 5:52pm

 

Matthew Davis

Thank youso much. Means such a lot hearing feedback like that.
Jun 14, 2015 2:25pm

 

Walkin’ on the Edge

Matt – I want to recommed a few websites that will give you additional support and insight. www.adiaryofamom.wordpress.com – is wonderful – mom of an autistic and a neurotypical daughter – supportive community and very insightful blog. Also, this site is a collection of blogs by autistic people of various ages on various subjects – their insight may help a lot in understanding how your son perceives the world – www.autistikids.com

Your son may be picking up on your fret, fear, confusion, which makes him more on edge – it’s a downward spiral. In the blogs I mention, you’ll find a lot of insight into how he’s processing the world from the AUTISTIC perspective, which may help a LOT to manage the stress all around. Your son may not be able to articulate how he perceives the world, but other autistic people are sharing their stories and they are there to help 🙂 I hope this helps you!

Jun 11, 2015 7:22pm

 

John Murray

Dear Matt,

Thank you for sharing so much about your family. As a grandparent of a lovely boy ( age 12 .. diagnoseed at age three) who has similar traits as Isaac I have some understanding of your joys and your frustrations. Our experince is that there is help, assistance and lots of good people out there who make positive impacts on our lives…. Three steps forward and two backwards is a common experience but we do now get a few forward without any backwards! Autism is an amazing subject and has told me more about the human condition than anything else i have touched.
Keep going… & very best wishes.
John
Jun 18, 2015 11:08pm

 

Matthew Davis

Hi John, that’s an inspiring message, thank you. So great to hear your positive experiences. Isaac’s grandparents are invoolved like you – they can play such an important role. Thank you and best wishes to you too.
Jun 24, 2015 1:22pm

 

Lindsey Barry

Hi Matt,
You write beautifully and I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying. Thanks 🙂
Aug 7, 2015 10:31am

 

Matthew Davis

Thank you – so glad when people can relate to my experiences
Aug 25, 2015 2:29pm

 

Pamela Buller

I only found your story today and you explain everything how my granddaughters world is through your sons because it was like you were talking about her to which we cannot get any help for, even though the school picked up her fine and gross motor skills were very poor.
They are not interested in helping to get her assessed or give help to her.
I know her fingers and hands hurt her when writing and she is behind the other children, and she still cant dress herself after PE in school and that upsets her because shes not quick enough.
The nightmare of her using her hands to eat her food despite being coaxed to use her cutlery, and the mess all over her clothes in school and home, after eating .to the awful depression and self esteem is rock bottom on certain days, the hateful words she says when shes quarrelling in which she has to have the last word,
.From birth she was an irritable baby who hardly slept she seemed to be in pain, but the drs said she was fine, she was always sick up until age 4 when we put her on semi skimmed milk and the sickness stopped
She goes nuts over any change in her life and you cannot pacify her and its pitiful, you can see the distress in her face.
She cant bare any loud noise and panics. she gaggs with some food smells. she cannot say her L’s ,
The frustration we feel because we dont know how to help her.
We avoid telling her anything in advance as she gets into such a state and will repeat over and over are we going yet, or worry about it, so we are learning to help in ways, but not in the depression/self esteem part and it upsets us to see her like it.
She knew all the bus numbers and their destinations of our local town at 3-4 yr old.
Can you please tell me how you got your help so we can hopefully try and have the help too.
Sep 21, 2015 1:33pm

Always feeling autism’s presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(I always try to respond)

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.

Autism and thinking differently

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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Autism and the facts of life

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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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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