Ian was nearly three years old, hugely active, noisy but non-verbal, and isolated from the rest of the world.
In many ways at this stage he behaved exactly like a little animal – I don’t mean that in any insulting way, only that he acted like one. When taken into a new environment, he explored it in the same way a small dog might explore someone else’s house. He fossicked around. He nosed in corners. He looked, but he didn’t touch. He seemed oblivious to the humans around him, completely involved in his own mission.
There wasn’t much about Ian that conformed to typical child development except, perhaps, his acceptance of physical affection. Neil and I continued to hug him at every opportunity. (There had been a period when Ian was about eighteen months old when he tried pushing me away and refusing to be hugged, but I was having none of it. I hugged him anyway and within a couple of weeks he was accepting affection again. This has never changed.)
Knowing that we had to embark on an intensive home therapy programme, I read everything I could find. One book recommended making a list of all the things the child would do, things he wouldn’t do, and behaviours which should be targeted. This sounded like a good place to start and I sat at my computer, thinking.
What commands will Ian respond to promptly? Hmmm … I typed:
What social behaviour will he perform correctly? Oh dear…
What antisocial behaviour does he indulge in?
1. No eye contact when spoken to / name called
2. Shrieking / wailing
Obviously our ‘little angel from heaven’ wasn’t quite such an angel …
And then I got down to the nitty gritty.
‘Manifest Autistic Behaviour’ – i.e. what did he do that the books cited as classic autistic behaviour?
1. Hand flapping
4. Lack of response to commands
5. Absence of speech
6. Toe walking
7. Incessantly picking his skin
9. Throwing objects.
Pretty much a full house then.
Did he have any appropriate behaviour?
Yes, sort of – he intermittently gave eye contact (although it was always on his own terms) and he accepted physical affection. At least we knew where we were starting from, and could pinpoint specific behaviours to target. **
And yet, within this strange, difficult, non-speaking child there lurked extraordinary talent.
Aside from his fascination with the word ‘Tuesday’; his strange visual acuity which enabled him to notice immediately when a book had been moved on one of our many bookshelves; and his ability to do puzzles upside-down – that’s picture-side down, white-side up – I discovered quite by chance that Ian was cleverer than we had ever given him credit for.
One afternoon, I was sitting reading and Ian was playing with magnetic alphabet letters on the carpet. I looked up in time to see him placing three letters on the right hand side of the fridge door: ‘X, Y, Z’. I grinned, thought Yeah, right, and went back to my book. He then selected more letters, so, curious, I stopped reading and watched him. Deliberately leaving a space in front of the X, Ian slowly put up T, S, R and Q, backwards.
I was frozen to the spot.
Then he filled in the U, V and W between the T and the X.
I had forgotten how to breathe.
Still going backwards, Ian placed the P, O and N before the Q and then ran out of fridge door. He got up, stood looking at his handy-work for a moment, and left the room.
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z. In perfect order.
I sat staring.
All I could think was, He knows the alphabet. He knows the alphabet! Bloody hell! He knows the alphabet BACKWARDS!”
Ian was not yet three years old.
** I will talk more about this at the end of the next chapter.