Ian was growing up.
At nine years old, his behaviour swung between the perfect child we knew and loved, and an utterly outrageous child we didn’t know at all. He was just coming out of a dreadful phase where the head hitting, hand twitching, shrieking, Teletubbie-thumping had been at an all-time high. I eased off doing school with him because my presence seemed to make his behaviour worse – and I couldn’t blame him, he must have been thoroughly sick of me – and when he was at his worst there was no way I could get through to him in any event so it was pointless trying.
As the days passed, though, he seemed to be improving. He was happier within himself, and calmer all round. Until one morning.
I had suggested that Ian get dressed – a normal everyday suggestion, put to him in a normal everyday way – and I knelt down on his bedroom floor to help him, whereupon Ian threw himself down on his bed, thrashing like a wild thing. Then he launched himself at me and screamed directly into my face. Shrill, long, and very, very loud. It was really quite shocking.
I looked at him sternly when he’d finished and in an upset, constricted voice I said to him, “How dare you scream at me? I don’t get to scream at you. I’m the one who wants to scream …”
Then we both sat in silence. I think I was pinching the bridge of my nose and had my eyes closed (oh, how I longed to be far away at that moment) when all of a sudden this husky little voice next to me said, “I’m sorry.”
Well, I was pretty stunned but I immediately gave Ian a big hug and told him, “It’s okay, my boy. We’re both alright now.” And he hugged me back. Then he took his pyjamas off and was happy to get dressed, and I was left thinking Gosh, the things that happen.
Later that evening I took Ian into the bathroom to brush his teeth. I usually sit on the toilet seat with Ian standing in front of me, but that night when I sat down Ian threw his arms around my neck and clung to me in a really tight hug. I manoeuvred him into my lap and hugged him back. It really gets me when he does this, and I had trouble breathing past the lump in my throat. Then a little voice from my neck asked, “You okay?” which choked me up even more, but I managed to reassure him that I would be fine.
When I opened the bathroom door, Neil was standing there looking a bit concerned. “You were gone for so long I wondered if everything was all right,” and I smiled sadly at him.
“We’re fine,” I said. “Ian wanted hugs.”
This didn’t happen often, but in some strange way it was almost like the opposite of autism. Ian wasn’t shutting me out and holding me at arm’s length; he wanted to join us together, in that moment, in one world, where all was straightforward and clear.
And at that moment, in that hug, I could make it happen.