Autism : From the Inside – Chapter One

As there are many people around the world who read this blog, but who will never be able to lay their hands on a copy of my book – sadly because it is no longer available, anywhere – I have decided to publish the chapters on this blog, one by one. And for those who have read the book, you may notice some minor changes and/or improvements which I’ve been able to make in the absence of an outside editor. 😉

So here we go … right back to the very beginning.

Chapter One

Ian was born by Caesarean section at around 2am on the morning of November 24th, 1995, in Durban, South Africa.

The Caesar was elective.

There was a good reason for this: the birth of my first child was just plain awful. That time, after hours of induced labour and many and varied efforts to push the unmoving child out into this world, I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was sleep. And perhaps if I stopped breathing and died, it would all go away.

And then I’d hear my husband’s voice in my ear – “Breathe, dammit! Breathe!” – and I was brought back to the bone-wrenching pain, and realised I couldn’t die just yet.

Later, with the Gynaecologist in attendance, things had taken on a more clinical appearance. I was no longer the Earth Mother pushing her baby easily into the world without help; I was a woman in danger of losing her life, and that of her baby, too. I remember the Gynaecologist snapping at me, “Shut up and push!”, and a variety of terrifying-looking metal implements; and then, after one final gigantic heave which ripped a primal howl from my throat, my first child was dragged reluctantly into the world.

So we wouldn’t we doing that again.

Pregnant again before my son’s first birthday, my second pregnancy was as easy as the first, and I loved it. I wanted to be pregnant forever! Nothing in the world compared to the feeling of a child moving inside my womb. It made me feel utterly complete. However, I had a nagging feeling of disquiet, without being able to pinpoint exactly what the problem was. One evening, we watched a particularly harrowing episode of ‘E.R.’ after which my husband looked at me with a terribly worried frown, put his arms around me, and asked, “Couldn’t you have a Caesar this time?”. Of course the birth of our first child was sitting on my mind! How could I not have realised this? I discussed the matter with the same Gynaecologist who remembered very well how it had been for me the first time, and it was all arranged. The weight was lifted from my shoulders and the remainder of my pregnancy was a breeze.

Ian was born in the small hours, safely, clinically, and easily. Less than an hour after he had made his mewling appearance, I was sitting up in the ward bed holding him in my arms as he slept. I looked at his perfect face, which glowed as if suffused with some inner light, and said quietly to him, “Welcome to the world, my child. You are my little angel sent from heaven just for me.”

I knew nothing about autism at that stage, of course, but Ian wouldn’t breastfeed properly – although I had enough milk to feed every child in the maternity ward – and I began bottle-feeding him when he was only five days old. I look back now and I think, How weird that he created a distance between us, even then.

Ian slept well, right from his very first night. After a first child who had only slept in 10-minute snatches for eighteen long months, a sleeping child was new to me and slightly disconcerting. 

“Should I wake him?” I asked the ward sister, having watched Ian sleeping for six whole hours.  

“Oh no,” she reassured me, “He’s doing brilliantly. Just let him sleep.” 

So I watched him some more. Mostly he slept in my arms or on my chest, fitting there so perfectly and sleeping so soundly that I never wanted to let him go.  He didn’t cry when he awoke, but woke up slowly, taking in his surroundings.  When I think about it now, I struggle to remember him looking directly at me in those early days, but then I’m sure he must have.  

I still maintain, though, that Ian was always autistic. That he was born autistic. There was never a time of regression because there was never any real progression. His milestones were on the late side, but not worryingly so. He played deaf, but we knew he wasn’t. He looked at us frequently, but on his own terms. When we played the fool he gave us a look of such contempt, we couldn’t help but laugh. He wasn’t entirely quiet but there was no speech at all.  We were convinced of one thing, though:  He was most definitely not stupid.

But by the time Ian was a year old I said to Neil, “Ian is slow”, and he hugged me and reassured me that we should wait longer and see.  

By the time Ian was two, I was asking the paediatrician some serious questions. There was still no speech at all, and Ian’s refusal to join in our lives was becoming more and more marked. The doctor’s response was that he felt Ian was heading the same way as his older brother – ADHD – although via a different path. This was reassuring in its way, but I still wasn’t convinced. 

Six months later I had had enough. I faced the paediatrician, frustrated and angry.  

“Today you will tell me what is going on with my child.”

And he sighed and said, “This isn’t my area of expertise, but I strongly suspect Ian may be autistic.”

It’s extraordinary, in retrospect, how you can hear news like this and just smile, say “Thank you”, and walk away, holding the hand of the little child for whom a life sentence has just been pronounced. 

My little angel sent from heaven. 

He still smiled and gurgled, and accepted hugs and curled into our arms like an affectionate little bear, but now everything was different and would never be the same again.

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