I said no, it's because he's autistic. Lo and behold, she didn't know. Her eyes opened wide, she took a step towards us, hands outstreched, palms upwards. We'd just informed her that a tragedy had struck our family. She was confused and wanted to make us feel better. 'But he looks so normal', she said. 'And he's very clever.' Yes, I said. Autistic people are not abnormal, and some of them are very clever. I was probably a bit short. It had been a long day. I'm sorry for it as her reaction came from the heart. It was well meant.
For a lot of people - including most of us parents, for a few weeks after we find out - an autism diagnosis is a tragedy. An autistic child is perceived as a failure and a liability. A failure not because parents could have done better and produced a more 'normal'child, but because people feel that a child with autism will never be happy or fulfilled. That child's future is already crossed off in black in their mind.
Now, I don't go for autism 'cures' and all that claptrap. I fail to see how a condition that is fundamentally a set of facts about how the brain functions could be eradicated. As I wrote in a previous post, the closest to something resembling a cure you can come to is that you learn to deal with sensory overload, learn to behave as neuro-typicals would, you learn to respond in certain ways and you learn to suppress inclinations to behave in ways that would be perceived as weird or disruptive.
But none of that means that I believe my child's future as an autistic adult is hopeless. Except for the most severe cases of autism, there's really no reason why an autistic adult shouldn't leave a fulfilling independent life. Sure, they're going to have problems that neuro-typicals don't typically encounter. And that's to do with the fact that they'll be part of a not very well understood or accepted minority.
So it's not rare that I get the suffering silent stare when I tell people my son has autism. By contrast, if I try and talk to them about actual problems we face because of his autism they tend to trivialise them.
- We have sleeping problems, I say.For each of these problems people will tell me that their children are going through exactly the same thing. Well they're probably not, not all of them together, anyhow. Not unless their children are autistic too.
- So do we.
- Potty training is hard.
- Yes, it is for all of us.
- He doesn't like to go to school.
- Well, lots of children don't.
- He won't brush his teeth and has to go to the dentist. He has big tantrums. He's not speaking well.
- Yes, yes, we have all these problems too.
Take the tooth brushing thing. Throughout his early childhood Max regularly got abcesses because of his teeth. At the dentist, we were told he had to be operated under anaesthesia. They got pissed off with him because he wouldn't stay still enough to take an X-ray. They couldn't understand why we wouldn't just make him. They took out four teeth and repaired several others. When we went back to have placeholders put in his mouth so that the teeth wouldn't move around too much, he refused to open his mouth. So now god knows what will happen.
Take the tantrums. Autistic children have meltdowns, not tantrums. They're brought on by their inabitlity to cope with the sensory input from the environment. They're unstoppable - really - and often violent. The only thing you can do about them is try to prevent them from happening by controlling their environment, and, if you can't, then try to make sure they don't injure themselves or others. Max broke my glasses twice. I've had countless painful bruises. He's had marks on his forehead from the banging. He's a lot less twitchy now about noises and crowds and things, and a lot better at keeping his cool, and the tantrums are rarer and shorter.We' re breathing again.
Potty training is hard for every one, is it? Well, I just got Max sitting on the toilet every evening this summer. He hasn't had soiled underwear for going on for 14 weeks now. He's eight. I can tell you that before that we washed a lot of dirty knickers.
The sleeping thing isn't resolved yet. He still needs me to be with him as he falls asleep - in our bed - and he wakes up every night and moves from his bed where we transported him, back to ours. We play musical beds all night, and we're considering buying a camp bed to make life a bit easier.
He really likes school this year. It's the same school as last year - same class, in fact, he's now two years behind, and he's gotten used to it. He goes willingly every morning. Last year, and the year before that, there were some days he didn't want to go. If we tried to make him he would scream, then meltdown. There was nothing we could do. One of us had to stay home, rearrange meetings until we could get our childminder to come and take over. We were exhausted by the impredictabity of it, and it didn't help when people wondered why we simply didn't make him go. Or lock him in his room with nothing to do so he understood not going to school was not going to be fun. He couldn't hack it. He did his best but some days it was too much. Punishing him at home probably wouldn't have worked, even if we'd been willing to have him scream the whole day long (which he was perfectly capable of doing, he has very healthy lungs).
Our life isn't a tragedy because Max has autism. But it's been hard. And it helps if people understand that Max isn't some lost soul who'll never have a proper human life, but that he's a little boy who's struggling to deal with every day things he's expected to learn to do. Our difficulties are trivial, for the most part, in that they concern details of every day life. But that's a great part of what autism is about, not being confortable with the minutiae of what every one else regards as normal. At least, that's what it seems to be about for our son. *
* I seem to find myself carried away by generalisations when I get stroppy in writing. Please remember tbat autism is spectrum, and that people who are on the spectrum are very different from each other.
At the centre where I wait for Max, a little boy just finished his lesson. His mother and grandmother crowding around him, trying to make him say 'bye-bye' to his teacher. He won't say it, then he'll wave the hand but say nothing, then he'll say it without looking at the teacher. Eventually he gets it near enough right and they let go. The teacher leaves, the grandmother walks out. I say 'bye' to the boy. He stops in his tracks, turns around, slowly, looks me in the face, breaks into a smile and says: 'bye-bye', with a wave. His mum bends down to him and asks him to use the proper Turkish word. 'Say 'Hosce Kalin, Hos-ce Kal-in' '.
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