April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day - and across the world buildings are being lit up with blue light to "Light it up blue" for Autism Awareness.
ADHD is a condition which is commonly co-morbid (often occurs with) with Autism, and certainly we have both here. So for us, it's "Light it up PURPLE" day as we raise awareness for both conditions. Both very real, both still very misunderstood. I recently wrote about ADHD Awareness here and there is an excellent online leaflet about Autism Awareness here.
Living with Autism
It didn’t start well.
After a traumatic labour with my eldest son four years earlier I was extremely apprehensive at the thought of going through a similar thirty hour labour. Given the inescapable fact that I was hurtling past full term carrying what the scans testified was a baby with a large bowling ball for a head I wasn’t desperately encouraged that the obstetrician's view that “second time was usually easier” could possibly be true.
It wasn’t. Nearly three weeks overdue I was induced and my baby became very, very stuck. Like so many mothers of children with disabilities I frequently find myself wondering what, if anything, might have “caused” his difficulties? What could I, should I have done differently? Because nearly losing your baby before he even makes it into the world is not a good start. Not emotionally, not physically...... For either of you.
It was a traumatic first few months. Reflux aside, I knew things were not quite “right”.
Picture the scene - there is a crying baby, sounding inconsolable and you know its mother is in the room. You would be forgiven for assuming the baby is crying because its mother is not (yet) holding him/her. However you would be wrong. Harry cried when you held him close, settled when put down (as long as he wasn’t refluxing) and detested being fed as that involved restricting his movements. Weaning was a revelation to him, food without cuddles, no eye contact required. Solids from 5 months, by 8 months he was having ab-so-lute-ly nothing more to do with adults feeding him, despite lacking the dexterity to self feed effectively. Where there’s a will and all that - and boy was there a WILL.
Children on the Autism Spectrum frequently feel out of control of their environment, and constantly seek to exert control to feel safe and less anxious. This is our biggest challenge now Harry is older. There are frequent tantrums and outbursts, and the more challenging prolonged, emotionally all-consuming displays of anguish often referred to as “Meltdowns” are still common and have escalated over the years. We really struggled when he was younger, it can be unbelievably isolating having a child with Autism. My child would be the one hitting and biting well beyond toddlerhood, non verbal until he was nearly school age. Of course I asked for help, but high functioning children all too often slip through the net. So I blamed myself. - Well it’s what Mums do, isn’t it? And sadly, it’s what so many outsiders do too.
I remember well being told that I “Shouldn’t have been “allowed” more children as I couldn’t control my son. Nice. Really depth of understanding there. There were times when I wanted a badge to say “It’s not HIS fault and it’s not MY fault”. Then the National Autistic Society produced controversial T Shirts along the same lines. What a Godsend. Stop the conversation before it even starts….
We fought the system, obtained a full Statement (35 hours a week currently in Year 7) and have considerable support now. But it doesn’t detract from the exhausting, often overwhelming task of parenting a child on the Autism Spectrum.
So imagine what it is like actuating LIVING with it.
Partly for this article, and partly to try and help understand the social difficulties my son is currently having I decided to ask him. And this is what he said in a rare moment of self-awareness:-
“I just want people to like me. But often I cannot remember what I should say, what is the right thing to do and when I’m hearing nothing but the clock ticking, am aware of the smell of everything in the room and listening to my breathing get faster I just can’t THINK or decide.”He is desperate to be socially accepted - and he does have friends, but his difficulties do undoubtedly get in the way. Someone with Autism has delayed social and emotional development. They will and do make progress, with those who are high functioning progressing at a faster rate and to a higher end point, but it’s exhausting. All too often I hear other parents of children on the spectrum repeat the accepted fact that evening behaviour is really challenging, often after a long day of “holding it all together” in school. And the end of each half term is often more challenging than the beginning, children are on their knees and in desperate need of a break.
Sensory issues are common in those with Autism, when younger Harry would identify his school sweatshirt from the “Jumper Box” by smell alone. He couldn’t access the school hall (where lunch was eaten) any time before or after lunch or he would retch, and the sound of an aeroplane would send him to the ground on his knees with his hands over his ears. He hates seams in his clothes, cannot bear to be tucked in and for a long time would only wear blue. He would need familiar smells from home with him in school, and a dark, safe space (pop up tent) to hide in and calm down when distressed. We have undoubtedly come a long, long way.
Those with Autism find prioritising inputs extremely difficult. I imagine life is like having several hundred emails in your inbox at once, all flagged as high priority. It’s utterly overwhelming. Harry still, at twelve, needs me to lay his clothes out in order, pack his school bag and either text him lists/reminders or leave him notes. He has progressed from visual picture timetables to written ones, with laminated visual reminders blue-tacked on his wall. Organisation is a massive issue. He has only just begun to complete homework at home too - because it’s school work which surely should be done at school?!
None of this makes you socially more acceptable. Despite a wicked sense of humour and the ability to understand incredibly complex issues he isn’t excelling social or academically. There is always that necessary coping which must come first - and doesn’t always leave much energy for social or academic success.
Kids with ASD are emotionally needy and oh-so-young. They need families, need support, nurturing and understanding. There isn't a magic wand, there often isn't an alternative to mainstream school - particularly for the high functioning. It’s a struggle, for them and their parents.
I’m told H might not reach his "academic potential" as he is undoubtedly very bright, but what is that in reality? This twelve year old son of mine is programming Java using IntelliJ, teaching himself coding via YouTube and adapting the code (and cursing loudly) when the offered code fails to work. His current skills would earn him a IT GCSE if he could see the point in taking the exam, almost A level grade and I have no doubt whatsoever that he will be extremely successful in life.
So we will muddle on, learning from each other, taking the rough with the smooth. You see, when it comes to support it isn't *just* about resources, it's about people. It's about what makes our children who they are, their individual quirks and needs. My son needs free Java flirtation time, space to keep the world out, time to bake and to cook curry with his mum, knitting with his Granny and gardening with his Grandpa. He needs to watch Tracy Beaker on loop for four hours at a time on a challenging day, guard his Pokemon Card collection and sleep with his Polar Bear close at night, under the photo of his beloved hamster. How in the world can the hope of any academic qualification top those achievements and securities?
A child with (high functioning) Autism is a jumbled up mixture of super intelligence, emotionally and socially compromised functioning, in a patience lacking, control seeking, security craving, sensory obsessed or impaired individual desperate to be accepted. Normal is only what we define it to be - there is really no such thing as neuro-typical, we are all quirky in our own way. And the more we attempt to define and partition personality, ability and individuality the more we leave people out. Difference should be embraced and celebrated.
So I will leave you with this photograph. I cannot tell you how much this photo means to me.
This is H, doing his homework. Now that in itself is a major miracle - but this is voluntarily doing his homework. At 4pm, not 9.30pm at night after an hour-long meltdown. One of those very rare and special occasions, when you just look, and smile, breathe deeply and relax because this is a GOOD moment.
(Please note the absence of coercive techniques. No bribery was used in this scene.)