Autism : From the Inside – Chapter Nine

We were finding life in South Africa a great strain. Both Neil and I worried constantly about the other’s safety, and together we worried about our children’s safety and also about their future. Many months of accumulated stress combined one day to force me to say out loud what I had for a long time been thinking: “I don’t want to live in this country any longer”, and to my great surprise Neil answered immediately, “Neither do I”.

But where to go? 

Obviously an English-speaking country was a prerequisite, but neither of us was keen on the usual choices – Australia and New Zealand, America and Canada, or the UK. English by birth, I knew that after so many years away from England I was no longer truly English and wouldn’t fit in as easily as many South Africans might have thought. In South Africa, I was obviously English; in England, perhaps less so.

When Neil suggested Ireland I was very surprised, but pleased too. Living in Durban, I had grown accustomed to an exotic, subtropical land, surrounded by strange and colourful wildlife and strange, colourful and lush plants. I sensed that Ireland, with its aura of romance and mystique, could provide, if not an equally strange and exotic life, then a comparably colourful one. The more we thought about it, the more attractive the idea became.

Neil visited Ireland for two weeks during 2001, attending interviews and having a look around a country neither of us had visited before. He returned home raving about the place!  He also came brandishing pamphlets, which he had picked up along the way, which set out the services available to an autistic child in Ireland.

We devoured these with great interest, reading with growing excitement about the number of State schools which had units specifically set up for autistic children. These promised one teacher and two helpers to every six children, and there appeared to be up to four of these schools in each area. In South Africa in the 1990s, we had been left to make our way entirely on our own. We had never imagined there could be such a variety of help anywhere in the world! Our imaginations fired up and our appetites whetted, we couldn’t wait to get there.

Lock, stock and barrel, we sold up and moved. My enthusiasm for this new venture was dampened only by having to leave behind my precious Border Collies, Meg, Queenie and Skye.

The flight to London was long, and Ian slept for only a few hours of it. Then, wide awake in the small hours, when most people had finally succumbed to an exhausted doze, he needed constant entertainment to keep him quiet. Not many would make allowance for a noisy child at two o’clock in the morning, special needs or no.  

Somehow I managed to keep him busy, going through our entire repertoire of table work, getting Ian to read, write, identify, clarify, draw and colour in – most of which he did incredibly quietly, but it meant that I had to be at the peak of my persuasive powers to keep him focused. Not easy at two, three, four and five o’clock in the morning. When we arrived at Heathrow, I was utterly shattered.  

Our landing at the airport was dreadful – we hit the runway with incredible force and I swear the plane bounced at least twice. Could this journey get any worse, I thought? Yes, apparently it could. Ian promptly vomited all down his front.  

I had no change of clothes for him and everything he was wearing was now quite disgusting.  Who carries a spare set of clothes for a six-year-old? Nothing for it but to strip him completely and dress him in my brightly-coloured, fair-isle cardigan, which reached his ankles and, buttons done up from top to bottom, made him look like a little refugee from Peru.  

It’s tough enough hanging around in an airport with a tired special needs child. Hanging around with a tired special needs child dressed in an eye-catchingly outrageous fashion takes a very thick skin. 

That day I found I had one.

Photo: Taken on the plane, during those few precious hours when Ian was asleep. Rory is drawing, and Neil is in the background, stretching his legs.

Addendum to this Chapter

What I hadn’t included in this story originally was that while we were at Heathrow Airport (in the UK), Neil disappeared. Rory, Ian and I had sailed through customs on our British passports, leaving Neil to go looking for a t-shirt for Ian.

We waited for him downstairs, but he never appeared.

I walked the entire terminal – with both children by my side, Ian still in my brightly-coloured cardigan – trying to find Neil. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. There was no sign of him anywhere.

Hours later, with the time to board our flight to Ireland fast approaching, Neil reappeared, looking pale and shaken. The bastards at Customs had detained him and some officious little prick had grilled him for two hours, refusing to explain why he was being held, refusing to let me know that Neil was in custody, and refusing to make a single telephone call to verify the facts Neil was telling him.

It was an extremely unhappy experience for us all, and we couldn’t wait to catch our connecting flight out of the UK, and into Ireland.

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