Isaac’s new hobby is music to our ears

“Daddy, Eric Clapton is not a great man.”

It was one of Isaac’s straight-faced sirens-to-attention. Sincere and serious. Thrust out of thin air and declared in his testing, testing 1-2 1-2 cadence.

Before the resolve to this big sweeping statement:

“He sings a song called cocaine that also has the word cocaine in it. It’s only for grown-ups. It’s not a nice word. It’s not appropriate. He’s not a bad man. But he’s not a great man.”

A spraying of logic, staccato style. Stunning me into conversational barbed wire, with nowhere to turn. As is often the case after something unexpected like this, Isaac then commandeered an arbitrary way out (on his terms). Controlling the dialogue with quick-fire cause and effect questions:

“Does he live in London? What’s your favourite song that’s not for grownups? Leila? Is that sad or is it soft music? Is Eric Clapton still alive?”

My predictable responses give him his dollop of dopamine. Truths he knows, facts borne out of repetition that offer reassurance. The same questions he asks over and over; his solace from anything unforeseeable.

(How do we wean him off this incessant (irritating if I’m honest – sorry) and recurring behaviour. Can we? Should we? That’s a question for another (every) day.)

But what of that humdinger of a sentence that posited the greatest guitarist of his generation may not be great after all. Unambiguous facts constructed over time in Isaac’s head – about rude words, children and adults, song titles, fame – have concluded with this delicious super-rational statement. One that could stick with the saliency of bullet tested advertising line. Off kilter whilst veering not a jot from veracity. At once bafflingly lateral yet undeniably logical. His neutral, perfunctory delivery spicing it up with sublime humour. Let’s hear it again: “Eric Clapton is not a great man.”

Isaac’s not short of these gems that don’t so much punctuate his predictable prose as pierce it. But short of shadowing him at all times, ready to scribble at a second’s notice, I can’t hope to capture each one. In fact if I attempted to, I’d mirror him in his obsession to log events in his daily journal. Where he perfectly articulates and executes hundreds and hundreds of words of small, highly accurate details about his day (as opposed to précising a big picture). Another day, another chapter of exact dialogue at numerous times of the day, what he’s heard, what he’s seen, everywhere he’s been. We’re on chapter 63 now and, quite literally, counting.

Half perched on a chair, head cocked and squinting at the computer screen, rapidly typing with one hand, Isaac coheres physically and visually the disconnected components of his space with the delicacy of a torn up newspaper that’s been hastily sellotaped back together again. His dyspraxic compensation.

And there, as he concentrates and crafts, he resembles a court reporter tap-tap-tapping the minutiae of a case. The minutiae of the day being the major feature of his testimony that’s for sure. And my how I adore him reciting his new chapter from his journal every evening.

Whilst not in possession of these transcription and memory skills, I do subconsciously stockpile the particularly sparkly verbal festoons in the aforementioned Clapton mould. Another:

“Is heaven a planet?”

Parental platitudes about going up to heaven together with some embryonic astronomy have led to this? Possibly.

And a different take on the thorny theme of mortality:

“George Michael had a fragile heart as it has broken. Did he not eat vegetables? It’s a bit of a shame he died.”

Sayings absorbed, interpretations made, heartfelt emotion accessed. Resulting in vocabulary that feels both coldly constructed and warmly caressed. And uniquely Isaac.

Eric Clapton, George Michael, many a musician make up Isaac’s lyrical maxims. Which isn’t that surprising, what with the background (mid and foreground) music to Isaac’s life being just that right now. His need to nourish his musical nous can never be tempered.

Of course, his autistic mind has to march to a militaristic beat, so what he listens to where and when is bar coded. Before bed it’s MTV Rocks; in the car it’s the contradictory seductive and grating sounds of Smooth FM; out and about, wireless permitting, Spotify, the never ending virtual songbook.

Music is his all senses-satisfied playground. He’ll settle gently on a genre before hopscotching to an alternative. Then back and forth and sideways. Data gathering all the way. Song learning. Band members, their details, all failing to fill up his unassuageable appetite. Everything meticulously memorised. From the Stone Roses to Rolling Stones, Elton John to Elbow, Bobby Gillespie to Bob Marley, Luther Vandross to John Legend, The Pogues to The Prodigy – that’s just some alliterations I’ve plucked amid the A to Z.

One question that Isaac always asks during musical musings is whether Paul has worked with said artist; Paul being a music producer and song writer friend of ours. I often don’t know the answer, but knowing Paul as I do, err on the side of “yes, probably. But write to him to find out.”

The subsequent long letters from Isaac that only really seek monosyllabic yes or no responses are diligently replied with interesting – indeed iridescent – information. For example, despite not having worked with Oasis, Paul reports that as a very young man he was making tea when Oasis penned Wonderwall. And Isaac also learnt that Primal Scream were getting some production panache from Paul whilst Isaac’s mummy was in hospital giving birth to…Isaac.

Harbouring this human link to music has helped Isaac’s social skills for absolute sure. A friendship with Paul as well as the adoption to his musical mind armoury of less concrete, more conversational, narrative ‘stuff’ that pampers and personalises his explicitly factual knowledge.

And all the time, Isaac’s unconditional need to tell us back everything he’s absorbed from all musical sources mentioned (often via those closed questions once he knows we are in possession of the answers). Softening the rile of the regurgitation, for me, is the possibility of the dexterous linguistic detours that I’ve been talking about – Isaac semantic smashers that stop and squeeze you with a benign but bear like hug. Another: “David Furnish is married to Elton John so that must not be his name, he must be called David John.”

This Isaac. With his musical interests and diction-to-die-for in gale force flow is something to go with. Our journey has, is, and will be, anything but plain sailing. Coasting on castors, laid back parenting it isn’t. Nothing is linear. But when (for an hour, a day, a week, a month, time’s fluid at best) the handbrake turns an unexpected corner like this, there’s a free-wheeling, wind in the hair, rapture to the parenting ride.

Further embroidering this experience has been Isaac’s ever flourishing singing voice, melodic and beautifully choral, thus ramping up my dad jubilation to 11. Yes, it’s his sleep companion and handy stress release mechanism. It’s also his talent he’s started to share, that expresses, emotes, and spreads delight.

But with this parenting rush racing headily, always comes the risk of a pivot, a pot hole, a jolt. The auguries to any event around the corner always possess a degree of dread when autism is involved. How one handles them can best be quantified on an inner-self continuum of calm to catastrophe.

my son isaac singing

I was relatively calm contemplating Isaac’s recent school show, coming as it did during this magically musical time. Such is Isaac’s school’s celebration of, and tenacious sticking to, the concepts of difference and inclusivity and individuality, his music teacher had helped him create and rehearse an extraordinary piece. A performance, to accompanied bongos and light-techno backing track, of the 1990s Swedish Euro Dance aficionado Bass Hunter, ‘Now you’re gone’. It being from the dance, electronic genre, I imagine Isaac’s Spotify sessions had sourced it; the school obliged, encouraged.

Behind his bedroom door I heard him sing and practice. School sung his praises about his rehearsals during music class. Engaging Isaac on it would lead to evasiveness on his part as ever. But with such a foundation in place, with the time and date set, I erred towards calm over catastrophe.

And on the day of the show, from nowhere, a blanket refusal. An empty stage bar from the intro to the song on loop and a large projection of Bass Hunter. Lights, camera, no action. The ambience possessing the sorrow of a Pinteresque pause to proceedings. Any discomforting whispers in the audience barely muffing Isaac’s off stage screeching and shrieking of “I’m not doing the stupid Bass Hunter. It’s rubbish!!”

Nothing, no teacher, no parent, no persuasive elder pupil, would get him up there. No one had a clue why, or has since.

A little discombobulated, we all departed after the show. However sensitive, any mention was met with silence, or responded to with a different subject. Isaac showed no signs of regret, sorrow or ‘missed out’ syndrome.

Sympathetic teachers reassured us, emphasizing that the elaborate as-if-for-real dress rehearsal had been superb. And when I saw the clip they’d filmed of it, I was so bowled over I bawled my eyes out. Sung beautifully, funnily, extravagantly. Dancing, comic dancing. In the mic, pumping out the vocals, playing the crowd. Truly, honestly, beyond my wildest dreams.

My wife tentatively showed Isaac the clip. He smiled and enjoyed it; in a low key, ephemeral, don’t-need-to-revisit kind of way.

And that was that. The music plays on in our house. Isaac propels, reverses, stays still, propels. Sometimes all in a day. The speech is as eloquent and unexpected as ever.

So at this point, things get selfish. (Limiting my complete despair, the show had started with Isaac performing the narrator role in a wacky interpretation of The Hare and the Sloth with aplomb – except for distrust of the audience’s genuinely loving laughter, and not wanting us to look at him, so he’d hiss “stop staring” at us in between his lines).)

I can’t deny upset at his rejection. The chorus of empathy from parents of typical children connected with me for sure. All children rebel, show stage fright, are defiant.

Still, I’m sad. Still, the outright, impossible to remedy refusal seems as much autistic as not.

I’m not seeking to cauterise any confusion around Isaac. There’s just an acknowledgement of befuddlement. Where, sometimes, does his behaviour, feelings, expression come from? Will we forever feel the farrago of what are and what are not autistic behaviours?

The out of the blue nature affirms the complicated colour to our lives. Both in his impossible to predict actions like at the school show; but also with the wondrous Eric Clapton type phrases and blessed way of interacting with us and the world.

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The little sister who’s teaching us lots

The everyday lexicon of parenting has seldom spoken to me. Rather than chiming, the toddler-and-beyond truisms would detonate my brittle mind. “They grow up so quickly”, “she changes all the time”, “such a little chatterbox”, “blink and you miss it”. Being utterly unable to relate riled me and filled me with fear. Resentment would latterly rear its head, through the nursery and early primary years. Maybe it will always ripple ever so softly.

I imagine as Isaac progresses, the conventional parent chit chat will continue to gain little purchase; it will always sound more other tongue than mother tongue. Sleepovers and shenanigans, peer pressure, moody pre-teen; the offstead opining and turbulent sports trials; holiday camps, the haranguing and the hanging out. I might take the odd gulp, attune as I am to how different the sound track to our life with Isaac can seem. I may well be prone to ponder that put crudely, but kind of correctly, autism could amplify the more harrowing dimension of all this dialogue – puberty, adulthood, independence, the big, wide world. Another gulp.

In the main however, I believe in Isaac and his autism with my every fibre of being. Which means never ceasing to symbolise his difference, his otherness, his uniqueness, in the most dynamic, shining manner. What this does – and will always – mean is a mental resilience to refract fleeting temptations to relate (or not) to other people’s normality.

In reality, I can’t retain this resilience all of the time. Sometimes this mindset I’ve cultivated of a dedication to difference gets turned on its head. When I can’t help but listen to everyday stuff and compare to our journey with Isaac. It can leave me somewhat bereft, weighed down with what-ifs. Witnessing care-free kid activities close at hand can upset me. A picture, a social media post. Holidays packed with adventure and spontaneity and exploration. Typical, run of the mill stuff, effortlessly, chaotically experienced by so many. A world we don’t reside in.

And there’s been one such bit of ‘everyday parental experience’ recently that I’ve been forced to acknowledge in relation to Isaac. Something too close to home to ignore. Initially stark, subsequently maybe not. It’s been quite a force. A force of a filial nature:

Isaac’s sister, Tabitha, turned three and four months. Precisely the age that Isaac was diagnosed. Her typical behaviours so blanketly at odds with his at the same age; our experience as parents, the polar opposite. My vivid recollections of Isaac can’t help but vie with my current observations of Tabitha, a typically developing child.

The exhaustive year up to Isaac’s diagnosis I’ve talked extensively about. The crazed concern I felt in my marrow; the relief but realisation of something fundamental as the diagnosis was made; the daunting dawning of this new life with autism. If Isaac’s diagnosis felt like the ominous shifting of our universe’s tectonic plates, with Tabitha it’s more the universal spinning of plates associated with any young family (albeit with a time to time toppling of them). Such a contrast.

Thinking singularly about that time with Isaac will always burn like a fire. Learning the new language of autism strained and stressed: the rigours of routine, the speech therapy, the repetitive play. His limited social interaction needing unpicking and diligently putting together piece by piece, as it always will. Slow, deliberate, word by word, phrase by phrase, language acquisition was laborious and fraught. Seeing his sensory overloads in hyper real multicolour was torrid. Explanations alleviated our sadness ephemerally. Accessing the arcane services system took its toll; indeed, practically poleaxed by the process, if it wasn’t for my wife’s tenacity I may have tanked.

Versus, now, and our parental experience with Tabitha. This little, nutty, chatty, knock about girl amuses, annoys, shouts, smiles, hugs, stomps, moans. She dresses like a princess shrieking ‘Frozen’ lyrics, melting no-one’s heart but my own, waking weeping neighbours. She munches carrots and greens on the sofa, licks marmite from the jar, and yells, “No bed! It’s not fair” at ten at night. It’s exhausting and elating. In a simple, straightforward, binary way.

On the surface, as I say, two polar opposite parental experiences. Yet there’s so much more to these two parallel parenting streams. There’s a convergence occurring that’s edifying. The interplay of typical and difference.

I’ll start with something selfish, my confidence as a parent. The seething sense I had as a misunderstood parent has been soothed once and for all by the light Tabitha’s typicality has bathed on Isaac. Never have I felt so sanguine about my parenting skills. I now understand those parents (of non-autistic children) who tried, honestly but ill-informedly, to empathise with Isaac’s meltdowns and peculiar eating and slow developments. With no context, seeing solely Tabitha, I’d be the same. She can be picky about food, but confident choice giving by us and her diet expands, she’s cajoled. Like all kids, she’ll erupt, but we are able to fan the flames instead fuelling the fire. Autism in a non-autism friendly world will always be complex and challenging – and easy to mis-read if you’re not in it. I was doing the best anyone could do. I one hundred per cent know that now.

And if I’m wearing my parental pride like a gloating child garlanded with a gold medal it’s not at Isaac’s expense. Far from it. My pride in him propels by the day. Firstly, there’s the stuff he thrives on, thanks to his neurological difference to his sister:

“Daddy, because your office is northbound on Goswell Street, you can get the 143 bus to Archway and then 43 bus to Finchley Central and then walk to our home,” he responded instantly (referring to nothing other than, I surmise, his mind’s eye) when I told him my new office’s address for the first time.

And secondly, there’s the progress he’s making in everything he finds tough, because of the neurological difference to his sister. Everything from being able to loosen his literal learning, to chatting off the cuff.

For example, he has been harnessing his (awesome) ability to list literally dozens of band names and songs perfectly from memory, as a way of computing very basic things:

“The song by Bastille with the lead singer Danny Smith is called Good Grief. But the words Good Grief are not actually words in the song. And the singer’s name is different to the Band’s name, which sometimes happens. Like Chris Martin and Coldplay, and REM and…”

The facts, then, a catalyst for elasticising his literalness so he can decipher the slackness and illogic of so much speak. As well as being handy head-starters for him in joining the carousel of conversation that he finds so difficult to step on or off.

Plus he’s doing some nascent treading around more pertinent life themes:

“Nirvana died but there isn’t a statue because not everyone has a statue. Some just die and sleep forever. I’m a bit sad that Michael Jackson died. Noel Gallagher lives in London but the band Oasis are from Manchester.”

What appear to be non-sequiturs are actually ventriloquists for him making sense of big life issues – where people live, mortality, and more. All wrapped up with sociable intent. Him wanting to engage.

siblings_line_artOffsetting all this of course, is Tabitha’s world. The new normal for me.

There’s a flexibility, connectivity and versatility to Tabitha. That allow for a fluidity of movement, speech and general life. Where improvisation, shifting, adapting, reacting, are behaviours that simply occur. It’s apparent that even in its infancy, her language acquisition is so much more nuanced, malleable and multi-layered; further highlighting Isaac’s need for continued speech therapy alone.

She can accommodate the swirl and whirl to life that makes for a very human, meaningful and telepathic existence. One, of course, I took for granted before Isaac, before autism. The human condition in its most maddeningly impossible-to-define way. The to, the fro, the flow. Tabitha is naturally absorbed in it.

We can drop in on a kiddy disco, all bright, flashing lights, noise, copying dance moves, and Tabitha will take it seamlessly in her ever enlarging stride. Similarly, at ‘little kickers’ football classes, she scampers around an echoey hall, dribbling the ball, scoring goals, balancing, bounding, obeying orders.

Spatial skills, bodily awareness, coordination, sensory processing – issues and neurological abilities Isaac toils at admirably, but progress can be painstakingly slow. A raft of complexities (from taking visual instructions to imitating physical movements to fine motor skills) around everyday actions demanding years of occupational therapy.

Conversely for her, innate skills and cognitive abilities that seem to never stop multiplying. A mysterious osmosis informing her development, absorbing all around her. An immersion in her environment. The testing nature of transition between events not even a question.

One of those parenting phrases I’d previously abhorred – “she changes by the day” – is one I apply, ironically, daily. Picking so much up. Independence, curiosity, tangents to her sentences of 7, 8, 9 words and more. She infers and will summarise a morning at nursery.

Her filtering, editing, managing of space, sights, colours, shapes. Laying out clothes, learning to use a zip, putting things in their place. She continually, intuitively unifies her world. In a way that’s so abstract, often alien, to her brother.

The contrast is so acute. Only recently Isaac was carrying his big bag with a few books in and got edgy because he wanted to take his cap off. “Put it in your bag,” I nonchalantly said. “Can I daddy? Can I do that? Can I put my hat in my bag? Tell me please.”

Not only had it not occurred to him, it then seemed an impossible task. That his small hat would fit in his bag. The ample space in no way made sense to him in relation to his small hat. So innate, it’s deemed obvious. Yet complicated to the extent of nonsensical for him that he can’t access such a figuration.

If there’s not a degree of dolorousness I feel seeing – compared to Isaac – how Tabitha follows this path of expectedness, I’d be in denial. Much more powerfully, it serves a purpose as I’ve said, regards my parenting esteem and also adorer of Isaac’s extraordinary abilities. Put simply, comparison helps comprehension – of Isaac, of autism, of Tabitha, of typicality.

All in all, looking at Isaac through Tabitha’s eyes – and vice versa – has been less soul searching and more understanding. Ultimately though it’s been life affirming – because their bond transcends everything. For example, at the end of a (good) week, he’ll write a detailed letter to the family of his day at school. Heavy on detail, a not easy to decipher literal brain dump of what he’s been reading at school, comments heard, music listened to. And Isaac will bossily get Tabitha to read bits, to join in. They’ll perform.

At times, he may fume in her face if she gets too close or encroaches in his territory. Respecting his pleas for “personal space, Tabitha!” she has an almost mystical detection as to whether this is genuine. If she perceives his frenzied stockpiling of transport books is sending out serious distressed signals for example, she’ll decode that Isaac is “not happy, needs quiet time.” And patiently leave him be. Alternatively she’ll somehow know when to show stoicism which can give way to cuddles, “I love you Tabitha… do you want to play with my train set?” Either way, truces take place very swiftly.

Right now, there is a (behavioural and social) developmental alignment between the two of them in many ways. Watching similar cartoons, playing together, being creative together. Her a catalyst for his modus operandi of unabashed affection giver. No one kisses, strokes, says I love you, quite like my son.

Seeing Tabitha’s typical behaviour in relation to Isaac has liberated and lead my soul in an enlightened direction; with harmony the acid test. Sure there are pyrotechnics. (Anxiety, surprise, change, noise will always stalk Isaac, and he could retreat suddenly or react wildly or both). But it can be quite something when the two of them blend. Something symphonic.

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