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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Discovering problems, creating potential

Isaac’s immersion into his specialist school (for children with high functioning autism) has shown some of the marks of a fairly bruising process. And the onerous work has only just begun. We’re seeing a sensitive but substantial stripping back of some seriously stubborn layers of entrenched behaviours, habits, limitations, fears. I have no doubt that so many areas of his development have until now been neglected, denting his constitution. Physically and mentally. A shudder is sent down my spine, contemplating what would happen if he were to remain saddled with certain, what are rightly classified as, deficits.

These deficits, in areas such as strength and touch, have selfishly taken away a realm of positivity I may have always possessed. Dissecting them dispels any romanticism of autism, or ‘he’ll catch up’ that may have roamed, well-intentioned and benignly, in mainstream. They provide a reality check that until now the day to day handling of Isaac’s lifelong condition has been lackadaisical.
He blended as well as he could at his old (mainstream) school considering the pastoral approach that was necessitated by class size, desired integration, and non-qualified staff. Such were the goodwill and intentions and support, I hesitate to cite his considerable developments were in spite of the imposed ethos not because of it. However, his current school’s classroom assessments jettison any ambiguity about a need for intense and individually tailored programmes.

He has what occupational therapists report as ‘definite dysfunctions’ in social participation, hearing, touch, body awareness and balance. At his previous (mainstream) school, both Isaac and his teachers must have needed to adopt crude compensation mechanisms to integrate with the workings of a curriculum that couldn’t adapt appropriately.
I’m imagining that he was sensitively placed in the periphery for physical exercise and any ball sports so his underdeveloped body awareness and balance stayed that way. His stretched teachers must have tolerated rare scribbles when he attempted handwriting because there was no one to provide the one on one labour intensity required.

Through no fault of anyone, Isaac would have been drifting in activities, seemingly content and being involved ever so slightly. But this drift, this surface deep thinly veiled non-developmental behaviour, easy to repeat for him, easier to accept for teachers, would have been insidiously stunting and indeed marginalising. There was daily fall out in terms of his moods that I’ve talked about before. Knowing that long term damage was clearly happening too has unsettled me somewhat.

Social participation and playtimes expose brightest the folly of the non-specific, wholly inclusive approach. Galloping around making train sounds was his self-stimulating behaviour for surviving the furious environment that is the school playground. The soothing repetition went way beyond its initial positive effects, explaining precisely his deficits in play and social areas.
Indeed, in one of our more heart crushing sessions with Isaac’s psychotherapist, she made the knocked-me-for-six observation that Isaac doesn’t know how to play. He simply hasn’t ever done it. Play, a natural, sought after, intuitive, life affirming activity for typical children. An alien, complicated, bamboozling concept for Isaac.

(And how’s this for a topsy turvy thought: Isaac taking his sister’s toys and studiously playing with them alone is a good thing. Sublimating what appears to be jealousy into a desire to ape and learn.)
Heart breaking by the psychotherapist. But, as with so much emanating from his new school, enlightening too - offering up glimmers of hope. Specialist school is bruising for its pinpointing of challenges, healing for how it deals with them.

Like a slow turning tanker, sent ever so slightly off course, I’ve discovered riding waves of positivity and potential, knowing real, honest insight can reap so much.

Take handwriting. My inclination was to wallow in reports of inabilities to develop finger separation, his frustrations at the necessary tripod grip, the clear need for major work with fine motor skills. Whereas Isaac’s tenacious teacher pushes and compliments and improves and stimulates. His writing has literally transformed. At night he deliberately and defiantly stretches his fingers, discovering a dexterity, before formally announcing to me, “Daddy, today a certificate has been awarded to Isaac Davis for holding a pen properly. Well done Isaac.”

Isaac’s weekly certificates, which he avidly collects and collates, reveal so much of the school’s (and therefore his) industry. ‘Having three bites of a carrot’, ‘dealing with change’, 'good listening and not having to repeat’ - in short, he’s working, and being worked, very hard in those areas that appear an anathema to his autism. Non-intervention is these areas has led to the deficits and therefore habits and limitations. Everyone, myself very much included, had given up, kept a blind hope, or consciously avoided these life skills with Isaac. Now life skills form part of his week, with patient, single minded professionals giving him the tools to succeed. Which in turn gives us the confidence to carry on the work at home - knowing when he can deal with something new, or eating his dinner at the table, tasting a new food he may have tried at school, maybe parking in a different place to a previous time. It’s far from easy, we’re fine perfecting the skill of distinguishing real distress from autistic like behaviours he can learn to manage. He will always have the generic sensory processing difficulties. The meltdowns are still explosive, world ending and catastrophic -  in many ways they are amplified and more gruelling for all parties. Transition, people leaving, will always be testing. But we are learning, just like him, a little more what his capabilities are and where discipline works.

All this is not to say autism is not championed, celebrated and respected. Indeed, it’s the filter upon which the school appears to make and evaluate every decision. They’ve seen vividly Isaac’s visual approach to learning - playing to this strength, they use the visual timetable which he rattles off to me, the whole week, in order, at least twelve subjects a day. He enchants teachers and pupils alike with his brilliant recollection of facts. This part of his autism is nourished and cherished.
Yet at times he can struggle to answer a simple question. He can be caught in a self-imposed routine and repetition rut.

The school will slavishly break down each topic in his timetable into explicitly described and audited mini chunks that he knows and expects. But then they may introduce a ‘surprise’ activity within this tight framework. Like learning comprehension in a reading class – about a certain book and character he’s prepared for. So he’s developing thinking skills and small change in one brilliantly efficient ten minute session. Totally, utterly inspired and priceless.
Likewise, his repetition needs are an ingrained feature of Isaac’s very existence. Always will be. But gentle easing out of, not so heavy reliance on, can take place. The genius strategy here is mentoring sessions with the elder boys. Who "like to repeat; we did when we were young like Isaac, but we don’t anymore. Isaac won’t always need to." Who better to understand a little boy with autism than a big boy with autism? Who knows the desires and impulses and defaults. And can integrate them with socially appropriate behaviour. This is life enhancing stuff of a dizzying degree.

One massive truth is Isaac’s autism has never seemed as tangible as it is now. Despite all the intervention. And that feels correct and just how it should be. His vocabulary continues to expand to significant levels with it all appearing learnt like one would learn a foreign language. He seems to rapidly search his abundance of learnt phrases when needing to express something. “I’m going to read a book, just once, because it will tire me out. Then we won’t do it for a while.” Or when he senses change: “Yes daddy, I have changed my mind, you can drive on that road, because it is like a diversion.” And when he’s happy: “I love school, I want to go there today and forever, I want to give the building kisses.” In the morning: “Is it morning time? Good morning daddy< I haven't been asleep for a while…”
His order can always be jumbled, with tenses astray. “Where’s the 302 bus, I might have lost it.” And it’s all delivered with a clunky, metronomic rhythm. This is him. It has an almost beautiful realism and logic. When I said to him “come on mister” recently and he got agitated and countered “No! I’m Isaac. Mister is for teachers”, I could but go concur (kind of) apologise and go with him. The school seem on the same page – it feels like they write the pages. Gloriously they’re as smitten as we are by my son.

His interests remain at best perfunctory. He loves lampposts; they light up his life. “But I love lampposts daddy, they make me happy.” Counting, spotting anomalies, one’s on during the day, off at night; he has a photographic recollection of locations, types, flickering ones - every single permutation of a lamppost's life. They offer so much. And this dry information floods our airwaves as it does bus facts and general commentary and comings and goings.  
These sort of passions – their pros, their pitfalls - inform the armoury of knowledge the school possess about Isaac. They can then work with him, push buttons, reward and restrict, so accelerating to a potential. Teaching him life skills for example in a methodical, easy to digest, autism friendly manner, gives his preparation for an integrated, inclusive life. This is what I feel when I hear: “Today I did life skills. I made toast, daddy do you want toast? With honey or marmalade. In a toast rack, that’s where toast is made. Do you want toast?”

This is no political polemic about specialist schools versus mainstream. It’s about finding the best possible place for my son and his autism - with the best possible professionals and best possible environment for him to develop, and who knows, work towards a brilliant future.
A pertinent comment his teacher made to us when discussing his substantial handwriting training said it all really:

“He needs to write. He will need to write a job application form one day.”



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The weight of the world on tiny shoulders

Being in possession of a single care in the world should be one concern too many for any seven year old. Let alone a seven year old buttressed by physical health, familial security, stability and comfort. But part and parcel of autism’s package is some wayward brain wiring that seems to spark major anxiety not to mention a very real possibility of mental health issues. From an incredibly unfair, early age.

Isaac loads his days, and quite possibly nights, with an assortment of cares, frets and stresses - too many to numerate – that take counter intuition and patience to even begin to quell. Many of them, of course, centre on his desperate, pathological need to manage and compose his days with strict, sequential events he’s familiar with. And he will prowl after my wife and me seeking clarification and confirmation and minute by minute commentary. Over and over and over again.
“Mummy, who’s looking after Tabitha after her sleep number one?”

“Is daddy going to work now or very soon?”

“Can we go to Costa Coffee on Finchley Road before the clock clicks to PM?”
“Daddy, where are your friends? Are they at home or going to work?”
The harrying begins before breakfast. With many questions and answers compiled – out of necessity – during the previous 24 hours. Scripted, by him, without ambiguity, tonally specific, not a word out of place. With all the information needing regular reinforcement in the form of repetition. To not conform, to answer without precision or attempt to divert, is to risk agitation at best, most likely meltdown. To therefore execute any plan is a highwire act, the more mundane the more menacing; such is his need to control, dictate and deliver, the tiniest deviation will trigger upset. We are hostage to who goes where, when and how. Popping to the papershop on the way to the station when it hasn’t been planned and discussed and repeated? Forget it.

There’s no let up. No respite from a need to balance his ever computing mind, the oxygen of literal information his survival. Survival, not satisfaction. Or contentment really. Answers provide transient reassurance, ephemeral composure, as opposed to any overt happiness on his part. These cares of his, these things he really, really, really worries about with their terrifying capacity to dominate him and therefore us.
There’s an overriding need to control everything that means the routine obsession has mutated into other forms of repetition, detail and description. He mines me for minutiae, mainly things I’ve told him time and time again. (Offering up new information, even in the factual, dry way he desires so desperately is hit and miss. The discoveries of detail need to be initiated by him in the main). People’s addresses, their whereabouts, train stations, street names, bus routes, places we’ve been. Things people have said, announcements train drivers have made, announcements train drivers should have said but didn’t. And dates. Of all events. All unerringly accurate. And all of this, this avalanche, delivered at pace from the moment he awakes, identically, forcefully.

“Daddy when you go to your office near Oxford Street, will you touch Oyster at Dollis hill and Piccadilly? Why?”
“Why has Tabitha got no clothes on?”

“On the Jubilee line, why does the man say stand clear of the doors? Why ,Why?”
“Can I tell you something…The light bulb on the street post in Chestnut Road doesn’t work? When will it work? Now or very soon?”

He knows the answers, they’re facts burned into his brain. But it’s not as simple as information over imagination. Everything seems in visual, photographic form, a moving tapestry he seeks to maintain. Like when he listed (off the cuff and unprompted) all the stations on the Jubilee Line that have a letter ‘p’ in them. This info had come to him effortlessly but pressingly; and of course, correctly. So as ever, a small light is shined into his big brain, that when I’m being positive and embracing enjoy and marvel at. Which is not always. Too often his attempts to make us answer everything, try our patience - and we come up short.

Despite all this, I can’t make as bold a statement as Isaac is not a happy child. He implores happiness in us after any distress. Or even randomly. He will flood with delight at unexpected moments, demanding ‘cuddles’. But authentic joy has a manic, frenzied edge; a kind of chemically induced hysteria if we comply consistently with his commands. And within seconds, he could be grasping his ears, full of tears, punching or pushing, screaming.
(The closest he comes to a relaxed joy, when the tempo of his thinking slackens and settles a little, is, as I’ve said before, when journeying anywhere on the London Underground. He exhaustedly reads all signs, memorises announcements and is energised by intersections. The whole tube map seems to appear in his mind’s eye, each station, line and colour, a kaleidoscope he lives and breathes.)

It’s as if he has a different setting or temperature to us. Swinging in seconds from radiating elation to reaching boiling point. Acclimatising to his meandering mental state can be unachievable.
During the long, drawn out, empty summer break (his baby sister a permanent, chaotic presence too) this perpetual state of botheredness my son has been in has persecuted the whole family. Knowing his despair and demands - but having blunt tools at best to deal with them is a numbing, powerless state of mind to be habiting. Bogging my mind down with Isaac’s fragile and frazzled mindset has been like brutal combat.

But mercifully hope is revealing itself from this dark, deranged place.

It comes in the form of his new school that he has just started. A rather beautiful, inspiring place that battles for around 40 children with high functioning autism and Asperger's Syndrome. After the mainstream struggles – despite admirable intentions – I have faith that Isaac will flourish here. Focus will be on his unique strengths and interests. Strategies tailored to overcome difficulties will be at the fore. Academic achievement will sit side by side with social, emotional and personal development.

Here, perhaps happiness for Isaac can be attained. A place made up of people who will discover him - and him, himself - in a way no one has before. Because a condition as perplexing and otherworldly as autism needs professionals and carers to lay the groundwork for others to tread carefully.
I hear of a holistic approach, where he is solely in the hands of experts. A joined up support where he’ll benefit from occupational and speech therapy, yoga, sensory integration and more. Where there’s a necessary and welcome very low ratio between pupil and teacher. Plus a pastoral care that sits above everything. Knowledge of autism unparalleled. The condition respected so the child can be pushed appropriately. A balance that only the most skilled and informed professionals can perhaps keep.

There’s psychotherapy too – a potentially unsettling idea for a parent. However, when aligned with strategies emanating from the school, the thought becomes bracing.
Some preliminary sessions with the psychotherapist have told us what we expected. That the battle between autistic and non-autistic traits is being lost. Obeying his orders means living in a regime that’s doing none of us favours. That the relentless repetition leads to mindlessness. That we are accommodating not addressing this mindlessness. That, above all, he’s anxious, worried, on edge primarily because the world and its vagaries simply doesn’t work for him.

And making the world work for him will be painstaking and harsh and challenging. Just assessing the sensory processing hell he clearly experiences (beyond the straightforward autistic ones of routine, order, self-stimulation) makes me realise the urgent intervention needed. Streaking through his body and mind are sensitivities that need dealing with. Wanting to be squeezed, demanding pressure. Aversion to so much clothing and all labels. Needing to smell people. His many food phobias. Freaked by dirt. Terrorised by the irrational movements of animals. Pigeons in particular and therefore anywhere associated with them. His clumsy and poor motor skills and lack of body awareness work against him in ways I can only imagine. The torment he gets from certain noise and smells. All unpredictable, all potentially everywhere.
Now, at last, I know a team is in place. One week in, I sense an ever so subtle aura of delight is emerging from him. Replacing the mainstream school scrabbling about, are the people who will know what’s best and truly deliver for him. Now he’s somewhere that possesses the tools to make my boy happy. Which is the least he deserves.
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Family dynamics

Tabitha, Isaac’s sister, recently turned one – to a cringey chorus of proudly cooing parents. A mother and father whose propensity for a more phlegmatic parenting profile had shrivelled ever so slightly. Overly emotional and overwhelmed as we were by what thousands of other babies up and down the land would be doing identically.

Crawling with intent, reaching and grabbing, interrogating for a micro second, disrupting, waving, waving back, indiscriminately squishing fresh vegetable, fruits, pasta bakes – you name it – and making great ceremony by sticking them firmly and forcibly in her mouth, and the surrounding areas of cheeks, eyes and hair. Wanting to use a spoon for goodness sake. And, diametrically opposed to a sizeable smattering of responsible and committed dads, a mini-behaviour that comforts me considerably: the pointing of the remote to commence an episode of Peppa Pig. Cause and effect – tick.
Tabitha’s interactions, instinctive learning and determination for independence, contrast harshly with Isaac at one. Viewing this behaviour is as soothing as witnessing Isaac’s atypical behaviour was agitating. So when we paused to briefly take stock and analyse Tabitha at one, we allowed ourselves to take some much deserved pleasure in our little girl’s developments. A brief pit stop in sentimentality-soaked mummy and daddy land if you like.
Hesitancy holds us back most of the time though. If only because I’m not quite sure what emotion to access when pondering her typicality. Joy? Relief? Guilt at being joyful or relieved? Sad for Isaac? Happy for her?

None of the above in unreconstructed form. Isaac is Isaac. Unimaginable in anything other than his irresistible, incandescent, intriguing form. Autism is part of him. Seeped into his whole being, his psyche, his sensibility. Tabitha seems to be jolly and moving in a healthy and straightforward manner. A kind of contentment is about as close as I can get to emotional quantification.
Anyway, there’s not a great deal of headspace for pointlessly monitoring a sibling of a child with autism. Not when occupying us, testing us and at times defeating us, is Isaac’s role in all this. His place within this small, nuclear family. Made all the more vivid for him since Tabitha has started roaming unpredictably around the house. How we behave and interact as a family has become a quandary that I fear will never expire. Despite a great, enduring love between Isaac and Tabitha.
It's not that 'family time' is something I imagine conjures up sepia images of blissful harmony for most people. It’s just that with autism, the concept of quality family time is an odd one. Pulled as so many of us are by convention to deliver memories that demonstrate a beautiful unity – when in reality the accomplishment of such magic is hopelessly unobtainable.
Our experiences with wider family have been instructive here. Ours is a big, boisterous, effortlessly loving brood. Idealistic and inclusive, with kids of similar ages sparring, socialising, discovering. For typical young families who thrive in a spontaneous, soulful and healthy environment, one couldn’t wish for anything more.

A thread of unambiguous visceral love runs through the amorphous ensemble. Bonds, mutual, respect and instinct – traits not associated with autism at all - the spine that solidifies any hiccups, misunderstandings or mischief. Which has made Isaac’s position all the more precarious for him and, equally, me. The social challenges of Isaac’s autism are often the ones that marginalise him the most. And amplify over time, confounding us all. Despite both the kids and adults being (incredibly) well-versed in autism, the natural social forums of family life are a bafflement for Isaac no matter the extent of endeavour by all to integrate him.

So I’ve come to terms with being absentees at get togethers. Why would we put Isaac through it? Him desperately trying to block out the sensory hell of noise and conversation he can’t decipher. And despite his cousins knowing the reasons behind his removal and supposed special treatment, there must be thoughts that this is some sort of mutinous behaviour by him.  How can they not ogle at his oddness – of, for example, his current coping mechanism doing ‘train’, where he relives, exactly and exuberantly, a plethora of train journeys loudly to himself; sounds, announcements, the lot; the accuracy, as ever, extraordinary. Normal, urgent behaviour to extrapolate himself from the surrounding madness. Where he sees madness, others see normality. And vice versa. A chasm.
But over recent weeks and months our immediate family has become a microcosm of the wider one. With all the hullabaloo of free flowing family life that our slightly solitary existence had managed to avoid, having entered our four walls. At a time when many areas of Isaac’s life are similarly anxiety inducing, calling for a flexibility he cannot fathom.

His shear physical force around Tabitha is one manifestation. Hugging, hysterics, squeezing of her. He’ll show perfect ‘baby’ behaviour, no allowances made for his bigger age and height, aping quite brilliantly her movements and gestures, so collapse is tantalisingly close. Perhaps like twins? Double trouble, an ebullient double act. Our fear for her littleness is massive of course. There’s risk everywhere. And yet, we can count on one hand the number of times he’s made her cry. Her resilience to his repetitive teasing, snatching of toys and overzealous tickling is uncanny. Maybe she knows malice is non-existent. But he’s a force around her that needs containing. And what’s around the corner?
Belongings are in peril always. Hers of course. He’s adopted an obsession with peppa pig, books, DVDs, magazines – hoarding, cataloguing. As always with the capricious nature of autism, he’ll sink into silence and the security of his phone, tube maps, leaflets, and an almost eerie calm at any moment – which fails to never put me on edge a little.

I don’t doubt a strand of jealousy. And I appreciate the keenness by so many to stress that Isaac must be showing jealousy; how normal it is and, indeed, isn’t it rather reassuring it must be the reason for his wayward, difficult to control behaviour. Well, yes. But it is a whole lot more complex than that.
As is so often, explanation, survival strategies and lateral solutions have emanated from the people of BOAT (Brent Outreach Autism Team) who doubted the jealousy argument choosing instead to discuss the arrival of a knockabout, crawling, messy, clumsy, unpredictable, presence, that test all parents and siblings alike – but who have the tools to manage. He doesn’t.

And then there is all the other parts of his life contributing to the melee. Tabitha is one cog of a complicated wheel that risks running him over if we don’t navigate it competently and coherently.
As such, BOAT looked for problems elsewhere. Like his experiences at daily school lunch; a break from the nicely regimented school day. An echoey, cluttered bundle. When his teaching assistant is stretched. Kids run amok. He stims, flaps and seeks solace. But it’s a faƧade that crumbles on his return home, my wife left to pick up the pieces.

It is clear his shifts in defiant, dictating behaviour, ferocity of frustration, anger and not knowing his own strength, come from a simple place that Tabitha can trigger, or school lunch, or family outings, or unexpected visitors, or pretty much anything when the day’s minute-by-minute planning has not been executed meticulously. Which is chaos, disorder, noise – any deviation from the absolute known. Any coping he has done in public is camouflaging internal insecurities and agonies brought on by sensory-processing difficulties, his non-grasping of social language, or, mainly, a lack of order. A need for pure reason and logic perhaps – his lifeblood in scant supply.
And after any event - at which the stress for him could have been imperceptible for anyone else - when he sets about recharging his battered batteries, carnage can ensue. A state of autism-induced frenzy. Rage, sadness, insecurity. His autistic traits reaching a fever pitch that we cannot douse. Rituals are rife. His routine having taken such a bashing, he’ll fixate on a memory, something specific, so desperate he is to control his environment. 

Perhaps on the journey home from a supposed innocuous park visit. Roads are a latest obsession. He is showing a black taxi like knowledge of journeys. Each, though, once completed needs to be completedidentically. Road works, a shortcut, diversions – can be critical. Scripted responses firmly and dogmatically directed by him are demanded.
 “We’ll travel on Minster Road – looks like Westminster on the jubilee like train. What does it look like daddy? Say Westminster. Then after Minster Road, Cricklewood Broadway. What line is it, is it the Over ground. Say yes, of course…”

Monologues delivered in a heightened state, where if you don’t play your part or follow the instructions he may scream, become agitated, freak out and become impossible to do anything with other than restrain and hug. If I get the specific reason a bus is not in service (“because the driver has gone home for his tea, daddy – say it”) wrong, then there’s thunder.
(He can rattle off 10, 20, 30 road names in perfect sequence to describe a journey. Together with the name of the borough that, I hadn’t even noticed, appears on all road signs. Likewise he knows from memory the entire tube map, which line each station is on. Yet, when asked he may not answer if he doesn’t feel like it. Even, or especially, to parents wanting to show off his skills. The sense of reward that we may feel imparting knowledge, a foreign concept to him).

Rituals proliferate just to relax him; having the opposite effect on us. Cooking with my wife thrice daily at least, making mini trilogies of videos of preparing specific items at specific times. Then watching them back repeatedly, memorizing and collating. Needing textures of all the foods to be the same, consistencies for stirring identical. Then there’s the journeys to the same shopping centre, set of escalators, coffee shop visited, stuff ordered, books bought, conversations had. All tightly, forcibly adhered to; an iron grip on us. Repeated behaviours that become magnified to epic, end-of-tether for us, end-of-the-world for him, proportions.
One small step that’s yielding, for now, some small gains in coping mechanisms is him doing half days at school as suggested by BOAT. The effect on my wife in terms of childcare is clearly arduous as is the exhaustion she experiences tending to his ever need, focusing on him solely - help from our part-time nanny taking Tabitha but rarely both kids such are his demands. The good news is he’s fortified confidence wise. Less likely to be knocked sideways by his inability make it through the day unscathed and not too discombobulated from proceedings. The acuteness of his autism doesn’t abate though. And of course Tabitha is around anyway.

Weeks on and he’s still confirming “Not lunch today at school?” And only recently did he tell us that at lunchtime there are “too many children in the playground. I didn’t like the noise.”
Many days, my wife has to simply claw her way through catastrophe to get to even keel.

Real life like can be real agony for him, and us, with its irregularity, impossible-to-tune-out noise and lack of structure. It’s that stark, simple and unfair. A hatred of the haphazard. “Give me some space please!!” he can plead. He has an inbred inflexibility that so, so limits what he can do.
And the upshot? A segregated, slightly sad family life. Where my wife and I split duties of a weekend and during holidays. Like ships, with one child on board, passing in the night. That way, Isaac has a 100% focus, him calling the shots. Rituals and repetition running the show, but with slightly less intensity. A tiny bit easier to manage.

It’s where we’re stuck, albeit consciously. Our family we cherish, living a limited to stop it becoming an impossible chore. Now, as we tread water between him attending the new school where we're confident he’ll have the intervention needed. Where we anticipate a new dimension to his life - where less distractions mean his feats of memories, his humour, his extraordinary capacity to learn, communicate and more are coaxed and cajoled, not compromised.
We cower for insularity for self-preservation’s sake not selfishness. I personally get tangled taming the sorrow of solitude with the desire to grasp the nettle of sociability - knowing the stings can be more than skin deep.

It needs a doggedness that I’ve not developed. It can feel like we are two islands within an island some weekends. That’s fine for now. We’re still the proud parents of two children going about our business – just slightly apart. For now.


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.

Blog of the day on Mumsnet - 2nd April 2014



Today is World Autism Awareness Day. In this guest post, MN blogger Matt Davis shares what his son's autism has meant for his family, and argues that there's still much to do to ensure that people with an autistic spectrum disorder are treated with understanding and respect.

A year-long, punishing process of tests finally came to its conclusion with the words “autism spectrum disorder”, delivered in a paediatrician’s room. It was a tongue-twister that deliberately acted as a soft landing for the harsher truth: “your child has autism”.


The diagnosis assuaged the regular bouts of heartbreak I felt at Isaac’s regular bouts of distress. It was the alibi for his perceived anti-social behaviour. But I came to realise quite swiftly that a chasm existed between what some people knew about autism and what most people didn't. If the condition hadn't touched someone, it just wasn't on their radar; autism awareness was minimal at best. On the other hand, professionals, experts and parents who had accepted their child’s diagnosis were awash with facts and immersed in the world of autism.


I joined Ambitious about Autism’s online community 'Talk about Autism' and quickly benefited; questions were posed and answered, discussions launched and new people nurtured with the help of its Community Champions. It became a safe haven from the everyday assault course of discrimination, generalisations, judgements, ignorance, exhaustion and difficulties that parents of children with autism battle.


So what is autism? An impossible question to answer with any semblance of brevity. For last year’s World Autism Awareness Day, Ambitious about Autism ran a Twitter campaign called ‘Autism is…’ asking everyone to share their thoughts, feelings and perspectives on what autism is to them. The answers tweeted invoked honesty, warmth, sadness and happiness – a pretty accurate flavour of what autism really is.


The campaign was such a success that the charity is repeating it this World Autism Awareness Day. I'm supporting it again because awareness is a big deal for me. Things have improved drastically over the last 20 years, but there’s still a long way to go. People just don’t know enough about autism. It affects 1 in 100 children, yet the condition is often misunderstood.


Autism’s myths are myriad. People assume Isaac won’t have eye contact, that he’ll be quiet and introverted, or that he must have mind-boggling talents. None of these statements are correct. Isaac is a boy you remember when you meet him. He is funny, inquisitive, determined - at moments tender and full of wonderment, but also unable to know his own strength at times. He loves to learn (if allowed to in his own way) and he never forgets anything.


For my family, autism has been a game-changer - but certainly not in a bad way. We don’t only have a bright, funny little boy - we have a heightened understanding of disability and other people’s needs too. For me #AutismIs heightened everything – love, sadness, stress, happiness.


My wife and I wanted to do something else to mark the day - the more people know about autism the easier life can be made for everyone affected by it, and of course we wanted to raise money for Ambitious about Autism, too. 


The Happy video above came about because my wife, a musician, received a video from her friend Abigail of her son Reuben who also has autism. In the video Reuben was singing Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, on his own, so perfectly, and you could see the joy he experienced as he sang. My wife decided to make a short film set to the song with Isaac and Reuben doing things that made them happy. Simple and honest, just like any other children. We wanted to celebrate the boys. Autism is something to be respected and acknowledged, but we wanted it to be about the boys having a ball.

Long before my son Isaac was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, I saw how the world, with all its peculiarities and obstacles, was that little bit more hostile for him. Seeing him struggle – often articulated as screams, anger and crying – seemed so unfair to me. I didn't subscribe to the ‘terrible twos’ or ‘naughty toddlers view’; there was something about Isaac’s tears that was different. 

What's normal?

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

Often, on close inspection, when there is a mysterious onset of distress, discomfort, defiance or aggressive avoidance that can so baffle us, so weary us, it can actually be attributed to autism. Albeit in its most extreme and fascinating form. Like when he witnesses a barely noticeable change to a thing or things that we haven’t accounted for or think we can dodge.
For example, he has close to a hundred small video clips he’s made on an iphone of his train trips. Handing him the phone, his after school treat he’d spent the day fantasizing about, I realised I may have deleted or discarded one. But it was too late to reason with him as he swiped and mentally scanned the swoosh of barely distinguishable mini-still images of clips in one fell swoop of his skinny finger. Noticing in a split second one wasn’t there. Cue tears, frustration and collapse. Kicking with rage. A demonstration, not particularly appreciated by us at the time, of his extraordinary visual, photographic memory – particular to autism of course. An eye for this type of detail is practically incomprehensible to me.

Talking of his visual capabilities, any tampering with his visual mind map (which connects him to the world) places his world out of kilter - eliciting rash behaviour that can appear mysterious without a forensic done on its causes. (He sees the world the way an unfocused camera does, taking it all in, painting a picture in his mind, so everyone and everything he sees for a second time or more is in context; it’s one of the reasons he yearns repetition and feels safe and sound with it).
So when a rushing tube train was missing a tiny yellow sticker warning of objects being trapped in between doors – something I had been blissfully unaware in all my decades travelling the tube - on a stationery train let alone a moving one – he was uncontrollable with sadness and insecurity. Now, he’s learnt to put a positive spin on anomalies like this, becoming uncontrollable with glee and giggles, when he sees it ‘Look, daddy! No sticker! Train’s got no sticker!!’ Progress.

Equally, he can appear summoned by strange - invisible to me – similarities, like the time he became agitated at dinner because there was ‘a monster, with big starey eyes’. Things settled when we realised two innocent bagels and a bread knife sitting in close proximity to one another, were the culprits.
The triggers therefore for what can appear mysterious behaviour can be located in a semblance of logic. But only with exhaustive analysis. And often, when he throws himself into a prolonged bout of stimming (self-stimulating behaviour) of train sounds, flapping hands, seeking reflections and sensory fulfilment, one can but be mesmerised by his whole, daunting world. Autism is a sensory processing disorder, and often the chaos and colours of our world simply bamboozle him. He needs to retreat and reboot for whatever reason he cannot articulate. In his time, in his way. “Don’t talk to me, daddy. I’m a little bit busy” will be his delivery to us, in earnest.

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

It would be dishonest however of me to make the same claims. To talk endearingly and exclusively about the magic of Isaac’s autism would be a sleight of hand. I would be deceiving myself. The truth being that in the early days, if I could have waved a wand and made ‘the magic of autism’ go away, I may have done.
Too much pain has occurred, too much worry lies ahead for such sentiment. Too much pining for little pleasures like play dates, parties, and knock about care free fun that I’m too feeble to supress successfully; the consolation that he’s content to miss out, tepid comfort at best. Too many experiences where we just can't brook the dam-breaking tears. Too much time selfishly feeling stultified by the shackles of routine, the hours spent on trains (a treat for Isaac, at times a tedium chamber for me) weekends at home spend wondering, What if?

No, autism, for me, is about reality, not magic.
Our obsessing of Tabitha, Isaac’s sister, lands a heavy blow to any beautifying of autism anyway. At six months old, assessing any signs of the condition is perhaps futile. Still, we struggle to not put an autism filter over every tiny thing she does or doesn’t do. Eye contact, eating, initiating gestures. Poring over pictures of Isaac at the same age, looking for clues, doing detective work like some sort of a crank doctor. It’s driven by an oppressive fear that if not tamed, could override everything we do, feel or think. So far, so controlled. But when I can’t halt my darker trains of thought of imagined missed developmental cues and subsequent similarities with Isaac, I hurtle to a precipice.

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

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

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

But then, the talk teetered on pushing Isaac that little bit harder, challenging that little bit more. I can’t stress the goodwill, application and drive of his teacher and the school in general. But my sensitivities arose, my ‘normalising’ autism antennae were on high alert. Isaac was coping in the playground on his own better; less and quieter stimming, was seen as a major positive.
Underneath this steely resolve Isaac was showing, is there, however, a fragility that ferments until set free at home? After school he has become tremendously trying. Mysterious bouts of negativity ooze from him, desperately hanging on to the minutiae of routine, hoarding his magazines, eating even less than normal. His lunchbox often remains untouched despite his now ‘integration’ into the dinner hall. The noise he may be managing, but to the detriment of his diet. These are the fine details of autism not everyone grasps.

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

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

The antidote to this was the next day and a visit to one of a very few schools specifically for kids with high functioning autism and Asperger’s – kids like Isaac.
As we were shown around by one of those people whose affinity with autism is astounding, I struggled to stem the tears of hope. Expressive and reacting to the teaching, full of questions, these pupils’ autism was being handled exquisitely as they were able to break free when need be, talk in their own way, receive occupational therapy; at all times they were cajoled by professionals correctly and compassionately.

Highly, highly emotional, I could see they were happy, focused, cared for and celebrated. In fact, I could actually see Isaac in them. This was something I hadn’t experienced before. Usually, when I’m peering in from the periphery at family functions, disconnected from the dads-and-lads larks and japes, the boys I witness seem a different species to Isaac at times, so made-for-the-world they are, so conventionally developed with their dialogue.
In short, when I entered the school I felt like I’d discovered an autism-friendly, safe and very special whole world of learning and love. Normalising, the pressure to conform had no place. Yet life skills and the curriculum were at the core. Somewhere full of potential, free from the burden of fitting in.
Isaac has a lifelong condition that, for all its peculiarities - some predictable, some mysterious - means he will always be different to a degree. My job is not to smooth out those differences, however hard they frustrate me and him. Isaac is an effervescent boy – to crudely normalise him to fit into our world, would be to flatten that sparkle in him. And that would be unforgiveable.

Schools of thought

The autism journey is anything but straightforward, perhaps the sole certainty being a succession of learning curves lurking at every juncture. The ones that kicked off concurrently from diagnosis we’ve conquered competently. Like a basic understanding of the traits, and a persuasive narrative for friends, family, and teachers at the time. Whether they’d been previously disturbed by his development (or lack of it) or in denial about it, or indeed, both.

Other learning curves linger longer and there’s no correct way to climb them. Like how to campaign for awareness appropriately; a political and sensitive issue, with something bordering on a consensus to acknowledge. Similarly, the (ironically complex) curve of dealing positively with the very unlearned concept of prejudice and its many forms is a tough one. Multiple, mini mountains of misinformation abound.

But, for me, attempting to understand autism’s effect on learning itself – and specifically Isaac’s - is the one learning curve that dominates, overriding most others. Informing and instructing them. A learning curve we’re lumped with for life it would seem.  It’s resilient and recurring. Stubborn, steep and something we slip down, just when we think we’ve mastered it.

Isaac’s learning abilities are riddled with contradictions. He has a fascinating facility to absorb information, process it and repeat it back. That seems to be multiplying by the day. His latest skill being a walking-talking calendar describing the dates and days ahead in substantial, miniscule detail. Delivered earnestly by rote with formal verbal flourishes like ‘hmm, that will be a very good idea’ and ‘now, daddy, please listen, on October 4 you’ll collect me from school with Daddy’s phone in your pocket. Please say yes’.

Idiosyncrasies are arising of course, like his incredulity at inconsistencies, impossible to explain, such as the number of days in the month: ‘but 31 has to happen’ was his opening gambit on October 1. And any event in the past whether 10 minutes ago or 10 months previously has to be referred to as 'yesterday'. That I’m going to give him a bath on December 25, after Father Christmas has been, is not so much pencilled in as tattooed into his mind.

The benefits of his brain’s linear and logical leaps of learning are felt enormously for my family. With our collective abilities to successfully plan and keep to a routine now comprehensive. Without a doubt day to day living is calmer and more joyful as a result.

Yet other, more opaque areas of his learning appear to not be keeping up. He can count rapidly to way beyond 100 in groups of 3s, 5, 7s, but unless he’s literally and visually learnt the simplest of sums, he will struggle to answer them. Similarly he can read and read back pieces of text, thanks to his vast visual memory. Phonics are his strength so his sight reading is improving. But he cannot write or create words. And plots of stories however simple seems to pass him by.

Inquiry and imagination are in their infancy. As is improvisation in dialogue. Responses are phrases learnt – sometimes charmingly jumbled. Anything demanding coordination and motor skills from riding a bike, to tying shoelaces, to handwriting, are beyond his ability and interest. However when it comes to naming things like tube trains, their lines, and being able to recognise them, he’s a scholar.

I can only compare him to a hardworking, functional computer whose operating system is about words, numbers and storage. Vast amounts of it. Its capacity for inputting and processing data considerable. But lateral, abstract, hard-to-pin down human dissection and discussion not apparent features. Indeed, try to programme intuition and sociability, and his operating system slows to a halt.

Complicating things further is his unpredictable propensity to apply himself. Head first, focused, obsessive if he wants to, and the environment is sensitive to his sensory inconsistencies, enabling him to utilise his visceral desire to document and memorise. (Making films on an iPhone of him watching trains or in fact doing anything mundane and then watching back many, many times is his current passion. And is the most effective incentive when we want him to so something – anything!)

But equally he can be distracted and perhaps perceived as disobedient, if he’s not 100% absorbed in the task at hand. Extremes.

So the strands of learning that align in most minds and as a result everyday life caters for, is simply not his experience. He doesn’t have a collage of cognition in the way typical children do.

And it’s within the landscape of a muddied education system that these inconsistencies of his learning will be most severely tested. School is the lightning rod for a child’s immediate, long term and wider development, his potential, his place in the world. A balanced and responsive-to-his-needs learning environment will create a smooth a path to what we yearn for him. However, I’m aware how challenging that can be, his brain wired so differently to a typical child. My greatest fear is he doesn’t receive the extra support and care he needs if he’s at a mainstream school; or that wider learning and sociability may evade him at a specialist school. And either could leave him stranded in an education hinterland.

I abandoned dreams of him cutting a swathe through school a while ago (should I have though?). It doesn’t mean he should be cut adrift in an education system that can’t deal with the vagaries of autism.

The truth is, at this exact moment in time, as he begins Year 1, I am grateful that Isaac is receiving an appropriate education in a mainstream school that is adapted around him as much as it can possibly be – when you take into account 25 classmates, none on the spectrum. I appreciate I have barely dipped my toe into the rough, unpredictable waters of an education system that so many parents are drowning in unfairly. This is my personal experience and it could all change tomorrow, literally. I know that.

Based in Brent, where Isaac was diagnosed, professionals have mobilised around my little boy with a verve and industry that I rarely experience. Accessing these professionals, a high and daunting hurdle through no fault of themselves, was a mission singlehandedly fought by my wife. And once achieved, critical interventions like speech therapy pretty much saved Isaac and transformed him. The Brent Outreach Autism Team (BOAT), is a battalion for parents like us, its purpose representing children with autism in the mainstream education system. Lobbying for them, getting the right teachers, training them, getting support, linking with the school. Always on the end of a phone, the slightest autism unfriendly event can be reported to them and acted on with alacrity.

The yield of this is Isaac is a contented pupil at a school well versed in autism and special educational needs (SEN).  An enthusiastic, accepting yet firm approach means he is pushed but not too hard. His 26 hours designated extra support from a Teaching Assistant (TA) is always at hand but autonomy for Isaac is advised wherever possible. His teacher is confident with him, with his own strategy for what Isaac can and can’t do, one not swayed by potentially over concerned parents. Indeed little bits of independence like walking without us into class have been put in place, successfully and without distress. Our anxieties in the main have been assuaged.

It’s a critical year, of course. With this age group on the cusp of major numeracy and literacy sophistication. His teacher has faith in Isaac and I must. He’s holding a pen and ‘squiggling’ which I wasn’t confident would happen. Despite him clearly being behind his age group in these areas, he is having support in them and developing.

His professorial speech and memory are acutely autistic though. One of Isaac’s outreach workers, Jemma, whose championing of Isaac is unswerving and inspiring, observed something intriguing about how his methods defy mainstream ways of learning. She explained that there is a conventional wisdom that links handwriting with how most kids learn to read – whereby making the shapes of the letters liberates words off the page so to speak. However, she noticed that this is not the case with Isaac. He can read - not just competently but well above average for his age group - yet can barely use a pen, let alone write a word. Perhaps this is due to a mixture of taught phonics and his own self-taught marvellous mind at play.

An ambivalence towards teaching methods creeps in, rightly or wrongly. Does his autism demand alternative approaches? Is he missing things that are being taught and are the school missing things that he’s picking up? (However, teaching at his school does benefit him broadly, giving him opportunities for reading, numbers, behavioural cues - that’s for sure.)

So I have reservations. A raft of them.

Occupational Therapy is something he’s (physically) crying out for. Traces of it are hazy. Would an intensive, continual course of this complement his main learning? Actually, is this an area that must be incorporated into his curriculum, a permanent feature and even support worker?

Having one on one support in the form of a TA is vital. Especially at lunch, when he can attempt to eat in a small group away from noise and disruption. But the TA is of course not a trained autism specialist. Would that make a difference? Play too his strengths more? Or could it hold him back if he’s kept too cosseted?

In a specialist school, where they understand the autistic brain supremely, may they be better placed to furnish his mind with skills better suited for him? Make more use of his obsessional approach. Or is this fanciful?

At school, they are having a modicum of success weaning Isaac off his repetitive behaviour – rapidly waving his hand in front of his face, making train noises. This is a behaviour he needs and it relaxes him. Would another school embrace it and tolerate it more. Is there an answer? Probably not.

Hugely helpfully, the issue of Isaac’s learning has recently been best summed up by the head of Isaac’s school. Only the parents of a child with autism know exactly what’s right or wrong for their child. If they are lucky enough to have choices they are the only ones to make them. What we must do, he advised us, is try to avoid a time when we have no choices. When we must make a ‘distress’ purchase and leave a school because it’s unbearable, with nowhere to go. And with that he advised us to always seek out different learning environments, schools to his own, so we’re prepared. Which is what we do, keeping us just ahead of the learning curve.