Love letter to an autistic child

My dearest Ian,

When you were born, I had no clue about the adventures waiting for me or about the challenges you would present, or the things I would need to learn, academically, personally, and emotionally.

I didn’t know then that I would have to watch The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh five hundred times, or that I would enjoy watching it five hundred times, with you.

I didn’t know that I would have a child who would stay home way past his teens, and will quite possibly stay home until the end of my life.

I didn’t know how much joy could be found in the smallest things, like getting a smile out of you, or giving you a hug, or watching your concentration as you try to remember the correct response to a question, or hearing you correct yourself when you misspeak.

I didn’t know then that tears in your eyes would tear me to shreds, or that seeing you in pain was the worst thing for me in the whole wide world, and that each time it happened it would be forever seared into my soul, a psychic wound from which I would struggle to recover.

My ‘little orange boy’, with the fuzz of auburn hair that stuck straight up off your head, with the golden skin and russet-brown eyes. I called you Tiger then. Perhaps I always knew you had a battle ahead of you. Perhaps your rarity of soul just spoke to me. My little angel sent from heaven. My beautiful cuddly teddy bear of a child, who glowed in dreamland as if his aura were his own personal nightlight.

You may never know what you mean to us, and perhaps that doesn’t matter. I just hope you feel safe, and loved, and special. Your autism could have broken us, but somehow it made us stronger, and we – all of us – are better people because of it. You are the keystone of our little family, the heart around which we all revolve.

I have gained so much from knowing you. I have met people I never would have met; I’ve spoken to students about autism, something I never would have dreamed I could do, and never would have done had it not been for you; I have learned about what it means to be a human on a different path; I have learned to laugh in the face of awful adversity, and genuinely crazy situations; I have fought for you; I have cried for you; and I have made friends because of you, and found my soul sister, someone I never would have met but for you.

You are an amazing human being. And your autism is 100% a part of that.

Your life has taken us on an extraordinary journey – at times a bit of a rollercoaster it’s true – but also a journey of love. I am so proud of you, young man.

Until the next time you ask for movies …

… I’ll be here.

Mum xx

Autism: Is there room for normality?

I have spent a lot of time on this blog talking about how autistic Ian is. There can be no doubt, I suppose. It’s pretty much there, in your face, front and centre.

So, in the hope of writing something a little bit different, and perhaps a little more positive, I found myself wondering: What is there about Ian that isn’t autistic?

Is there anything?

Let’s go through some areas of his life, and see …

The way he walks?

Well, almost. Except that he has a way of walking which is … gentle. Almost as though he steps carefully. He toe-walks, of course, he always has, and because of this, his feet are exceptionally broad.

We have his shoes handmade by a company in South Africa who make leather footwear, because they take Ian’s foot measurements seriously, have created perfect lasts of Ian’s feet, and the shoes they make actually fit him.

Even buying them, bespoke, from overseas and paying for delivery to Ireland, the shoes cost us less than handmade shoes would cost here – if we could get someone to believe Ian’s foot measurements, which proved impossible when we tried.

So Ian’s shoes are unusual, and the footprints he leaves are unusual, and the way he walks is unusual, too.

The way he talks?

If we discount the frequent snippets of video footage, and strange other-worldly sounds which emerge, and judge solely on his voice … maybe. If you can hear him.

Ian speaks softly and often quickly, so it’s easy to miss what he says. If he’s reading out loud, there will be strange emphasis on certain words, and no normal cadence to the sentence, so the delivery can seem a little strange.

But he pronounces words beautifully, even a more unusual word, like croissants. He does enjoy a croissant.

The way he looks ?

I suppose in photographs there is nothing to show that Ian is autistic. He looks normal, doesn’t he? Okay, his skin is paler than anyone else in his family, and his eyelashes are longer, and because of his toe-walking he has a marked pelvic tilt, and heaven forbid you ask him to smile for a photograph because you’ll get a grimace, but on the whole, Ian looks okay.

Actually, better than okay. He’s a handsome chap, and draws furtive glances wherever he goes.

The way he eats?

Hooboy. No. Definitely not. Well, not in our culture, anyway. Ian eats almost exclusively with his fingers, and his diet is very limited.

The way he dresses?

Given that Ian would happily spend the day in only his underpants – or even completely naked – he’s on the outskirts of social behaviour with this one. He’d fit right into a nudist colony. He’d be a raving exhibitionist, if he didn’t completely lack the awareness of his own nudity, or what it means to other people or society.

But he does wear normal clothes when we go out, and he wears them well.

The way he reads a book?

Almost. Until you realise that he’s read the same book a hundred times, and is flicking the pages so quickly even a world-class speed reader would have trouble keeping up. Why pause over the words when you already have them in your head?

He’ll occasionally turn the book upside down, just to see the pictures from a different angle. He could probably read it perfectly well. His brain is like that. (Mine too, upside down and backwards – I wonder where I get it from …?)

The way Ian watches a film?

Maybe, if you use the verb ‘to watch’ very loosely, and ignore the intermittent blasts of hand-flapping which appear.

Ian is happy that the film is on in the same way that his dad is happy the sport is on, behind him, with the sound off.

Television as security blanket.

The way he travels in a car?

Potentially, if you ignore the hand movements and his occasional imperious commands of “That way” (complete with pointing finger) when there is more than one road to a particular place.

His car door is locked. The windows are locked too, because he figured out that he could wind the window down and open the door from the outside. Autistic, not stupid. And he has a sticker in his window, just in case there’s ever an accident and I’m unconscious or worse, just to alert emergency services.

So where are we?

We’ve covered a lot of Ian’s life. Of course we haven’t covered every single thing – I’m sure that’s not possible – and some of it (like toileting) I don’t want to cover anyway.

But here are some positives –

Ian gives the best hugs.

He has a really beautiful smile, when it happens spontaneously.

He has a highly developed sense of humour.

He has a very good ear for music, used to sing with near-perfect pitch (before his voice broke), and taught himself to play the keyboard.

And he types like the wind. Really, really fast, accurately, and with only two fingers.

What more could you want?

Autism : The danger of unpredictability

I have been pondering the nature of fear, particularly in a behavioural and anthropological context.

I wrote in my book “… other children stare at [Ian] in the supermarket with a deep intensity, aware of his strangeness and unsure whether he’s to be trusted or feared.”

We fear what we don’t know. We fear what is unpredictable. We fear the strange and the unusual.

“People with a mental illness are typically perceived as being dangerous, unpredictable and different.” https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09585189508409874

And you don’t get more ‘unpredictable and different’ than the behaviour of an autistic person. I mean a profoundly autistic one, not someone on the spectrum who has worked hard at it and managed to control their autistic behaviours and mannerisms, and found a workable niche in society. Good for them. I admire that enormously.

Ian’s behaviour is not predictable. Frequently, it is simply odd. And sometimes, when he gets alarmed, it could – and has been – perceived as threatening. It isn’t. But it has been perceived as such. (See my blog entitled “Autism : Listening to the people who matter”).

Anthropologically, fear has kept us alive, and it takes a lot of nerve to get beyond it.

I’m the kind of person who steps into the strangeness. I’m the one who walks into the dog fight to break it up – call it courage or call it foolishness, your choice – and I’m sure it’s no accident that I ended up with one of the strangest kids on the block, but it has definitely made being Ian’s parent easier. His weirdness doesn’t phase me. If he gets pushy, I’m the one in his face asking him what’s going on and defusing the situation as best I possibly can.

But other people don’t necessarily have the advantages (or craziness) that I have.

“Kids (and adults) with autism behave differently from other people. And if there’s one thing experience teaches us, it’s the fact that differences can be scary. Children with autism are taught to avoid “unexpected” responses to others—not because they are in any way harmful, but because the “unexpected” (rocking, flapping, asking the wrong question, repeating the same words, etc.) frightens people.https://www.verywellhealth.com/why-is-autism-so-scary-260604

The behaviour of some autistic children can be very, very challenging, and it frightens us because we’re meant to be afraid.

“At the basic level fear guides our fight or flight responses and helps to keep us safe and alive. Fear heightens your senses and awareness; it keeps you alert and helps in better preparation.” https://www.thriveyard.com/the-positive-side-of-fear-15-benefits-of-fear/

Wikipedia has a very good dissection of fear at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear and I found this interesting, too — https://www.healthline.com/health/understanding-and-overcoming-fear-of-the-unknown#overcoming-fear

So how do we combat it? How do we encourage our unpredictable ‘frightening’ children to stop scaring people? And – perhaps the most important question – should we?

In some ways, it’s like owning a dog. Bear with me here, it will make sense, I promise …

Imagine you have a big dog. He’s yours; you’ve had him since he was very small. You know he has a heart of gold; you know he loves people and he would never hurt anyone. He might pull on the lead to say hello to someone when you’re out for a walk. He’s strong. You hold him back because it’s polite. You try not to let him just bulldoze his way into that person’s space.

A stranger sees that dog, the size of its teeth, the length of its tongue, and they see you pulling him back. All they can wonder at that moment is: Are you strong enough to hold him?

It doesn’t matter if you say “He’s fine! He’s friendly!” because in the absence of further knowledge (or instinct) that stranger can’t read the dog’s body language. All they are conscious of is unpredictability, and all they hear is their amygdala screaming at them to run.

Now transfer that situation to my child. He’s an adult now. He’s taller than me. He’s slender but he’s a grown-up. That much is obvious – and I have encouraged that notion by helping him cultivate a beard. It’s harder to treat him like a child when he definitely doesn’t look like one, no matter how he behaves.

We are in the supermarket together, Ian and I. Ian decides he wants a particular type of bread. He makes a bee-line for it, regardless of who may be in his way. Social space and autism do not go hand in hand – see https://iancommunity.org/ssc/personal-space-autism. I happen to be holding his arm, and I try to control his forward movement so he doesn’t just push past a stranger.

The stranger turns, and sees Ian lunge towards her. There is a flash of fear in her eyes. It’s quick, there and gone – she’s seen me and she controls the fear in the space of a blink – but I have seen it. And I cannot unsee it. This woman, this stranger, was afraid, even for the merest moment, of my son. Because his behaviour is unpredictable. Because he was behaving outside the socially accepted norm.

Of course, the stranger carries her own history, her own baggage. She may be afraid of men generally. I would never know. The fact remains that in that moment my son engendered a fear response, and all I can do is apologise.

We worked hard, when Ian was in his intensive therapy programme, to modify his behaviour. We reduced the oddities; we encouraged the ‘normal’; we moulded him as best we could – rightly or wrongly – into a socially acceptable human being. For many years, it worked. Ian was as ‘normal’ as he could possibly be.

“Normal is also used to describe individual behavior that conforms to the most common behavior in society (known as conformity). However, normal behavior is often only recognized in contrast to abnormality. In its simplest form, normality is seen as good while abnormality is seen as bad. Someone being seen as normal or not normal can have social ramifications, such as being included, excluded or stigmatized by wider society.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normality_(behavior)

But in the absence of continued pressure – no matter how gentle – to behave this way, Ian reverted to type. Like a turtle, he stuck his head out of his autistic ‘shell’, and played in the real world for a while. But when there were no checks on his behaviour; when he was surrounded by people who – their best intentions aside – accepted however he behaved because he’s autistic and that’s how autistic people behave – he regressed to his personal lowest common denominator, profoundly autistic, and retreated into his carapace once again.

And so I am left with a young man who scares people who don’t know him. People who see him as ‘unpredictable’, and therefore as potentially dangerous.

As I wrote in my book “I see this and my heart is squeezed. How could they know my angel has a gentle soul and wouldn’t hurt a fly?”

It’s a tough one. We know our sons and daughters. We know the limits and nuances of their behaviour. Other people don’t. Perhaps we just have to accept that on some level, our children’s unpredictability will always flick that fear response in strangers.

It’s no fun, but it is one more challenge that we, as the parents of people with autism, have to face.

Autism : mama’s downtime …..

Nothing to do with autism, this one. Just a short story I wrote last week in a quiet moment.

Enjoy … 😉

The Snail who would be King

There was once a snail named Cecil. I don’t know if snails usually have names, but this snail did. He had chosen his own name, of course. It wasn’t a gift from his parents (who he didn’t remember), it was a gift to himself. He thought it was a grand name. Cecil. King Cecil. Yes, very grand indeed. A name dripping with potential.

Cecil had only one problem with his desire to be a King: He was terribly shy.

Luckily, Cecil had his shell to hide in, and hide in it he did. It was smooth, and dark, and safe in his shell, and it smelled good. Sort of snaily, earthy, and nice. It was a rare moment when Cecil peeked out of his shell and looked at the world around him. He found it very scary out there. Open, and exposed.

He still wanted to be King, though.

But a King needs subjects, and he needs to feel safe enough to face them, doesn’t he?

Safe enough.

Safe ….

Cecil didn’t feel safe very often.

There was the Thrush – a terrifying bird. Huge and sharp-beaked, with a creamy-white chest and arrow-head markings all down its front. Arrow-heads! I ask you, how creepy is that? Its beak could pierce a snail’s shell in a single determined thrust. Cecil had seen it happen. He didn’t know the snail it had happened to, but he’d seen it, and he’d learned.

He shivered, and snuggled deeper into his shell.

And feet, he thought, carrying on his monologue of things to be afraid of. Huge flat slabs descending from on high, with the power to flatten not only a shell but a snail too …. bleugh! … and dogs, and lawnmowers, and cows, and hailstones, and cars, and bicycles, and horses, and trucks, and the occasional cat’s paw …

Cecil trembled in the comforting darkness of his sturdy shell. He wanted to be a King, but how could he possibly be King of things which seemed to want nothing more than to destroy him and squash him flat? How could he speak to his subjects when his voice was so small, and they were very, very big?

Cecil took a deep breath, gathered what little courage he had, and popped his head out to look around.

In front of him was a long stretch of open land. Green. He turned an eye to his own brown shell. Not much chance of camouflage out there, he thought. I will be a little brown lump in a sea of green. Obvious. Exposed. I’ll be seen, maybe even – Cecil gasped, and dropped his tiny voice to an even tinier whisper – Maybe even by a thrush! He shuddered.

Determined not to let his fear overwhelm him, Cecil forced his thoughts away from all the things he knew could go wrong, stretched his head high, his eyes prominent on their tentacles, and allowed himself to ponder an important question.

What sort of crown should I wear as King? he thought. I saw a bottle cap once. That looked crown-like. Or the top of an acorn – except that’s more like a helmet, isn’t it? mused Cecil. Perhaps not such a bad idea at that, a helmet … But I want a crown that is obviously a crown, and subjects who love me, and a beautiful kingdom of colour and joy and safety.

Cecil may have been small, but he dreamed big.

He set off across the green expanse of openness. Up and down, up and down, up and down – Grass is a real challenge when you’re a snail – and suddenly a huge brown thing reared up in front of him. Poor Cecil nearly had a heart-attack, but it was only an old leaf. Sanctuary! he cried, as he ducked beneath it to rest.

And rested, and rested, and realised he was avoiding his quest. So he peeped out from underneath the crinkled old leaf, and looked this way and that, and most particularly up, because nearly all threats for a snail came from above.

It looked clear, and Cecil set off again. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down …..

After a long and terrifying journey of about seven feet – 84 gruelling inches if you’re a bee, but many more inches if you’re a snail, and go up and down along the way – Cecil came at last to a flower pot. He slowly climbed up the side of it, leaving a trail of shiny slime behind him – good, healthy-looking slime; he was quite proud of that – and as he crested the lip of the pot, he rested and bravely took a good look around.

He saw plenty of brown to disguise him in the pot, and loads of tall plants to protect him.

My, sighed Cecil with relief, this is paradise. Look! Colours above, and camouflage below, and safety, and food! I could live here forever. This is a place fit for a King!

A breeze stirred the flowers over Cecil’s head, and a daffodil bent low, towards him. Hello, she said. And who are you?

I am Cecil, and I’m here to claim this kingdom, and be your King. King Cecil! That’s me.

The daffodil flower was lifted by the wind, and nodded heads with her sisters as they chatted excitedly amongst themselves. Cecil reached his head up and listened hard – which for a snail is a problem, given that they don’t have ears.

Where’s his crown? rasped a pink tulip. If he’s a king, he ought to have a crown.

Cecil looked around the earth beneath him for something that resembled a crown which he could hastily don and shut up that nasty garish pink tulip, but apart from a couple of small weeds, there was nothing. He was about to make excuses – I lost it on my way; it was so heavy, I couldn’t carry it that far – when the daffodil dipped its head towards him again.

Here, she said, holding out a tiny jagged piece of quartz, your crown shall be this little crystal.

A crystal crown! Presented to him by his subjects themselves! Cecil wouldn’t have been able to believe his ears if he’d had ears, which he didn’t, as you now know – but the crown was there in front of him. All he had to do was put it on …

Would it weigh him down? Of course it would. A crown was a weighty thing, saturated with purpose and responsibilities. All Cecil knew was that the daffodils were cheering his name and nodding their vast golden heads in pleasure and excitement.

At last he had his kingdom, and his subjects, and his crown.

King Cecil!

He didn’t have to be Shy Cecil anymore. Timid Cecil, Scared Cecil, Nervous Cecil, Trembling Cecil – all in the past.

This was a new era, the era of King Cecil of the Crystal Crown!

Cecil closed his eyes to the cheering daffodil heads, and rejoiced in the warm earth of his kingdom beneath his mantle.

A large thrush landed quietly on the lip of the garden planter and, with beady-eyed focus and the delicate precision of a master clockmaker, began lifting daffodil leaves ……….

~ The End ~

A rare photograph of Cecil and his dad. 😉

Autism : a peaceful moment …

Ian today, watching James and the Giant Peach for the umpteenth time. Sound on. Mute. Sound on again. Mute again …

He looked so contented, I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my phone and snapped a couple of pics.

Then Ian looked directly at me, and held the pose – a perfect expression.

What a champ.

❤️

Autism : vaccination, part one

The day did not start off well.

Firstly, I drove to the allocated business park only to discover that the Eircode (post/zip code) I’d been given was for the whole industrial estate, not a specific building. I knew I was looking for Unit 217, but none of the gazillion units had any numbers on them.

Asking for directions didn’t help at all.

I was becoming a bit desperate. We had been given a very specific time, and now I was going to be late.

I spotted someone I thought I recognised, and leapt out the car to ask him where I was supposed to be. Et voilà! I had found it. I saw faces I knew, and was guided into an appropriate parking space.

Secondly, when asked to hand over the relevant forms, I couldn’t find them in my handbag (even though I knew I’d put them in my bag last night), so I had to apologise and fill them out again.

So far, so embarrassing.

We waited in the car until we were called, and we went into the building.

Mistake the third: I’d left our *&#€”@* masks in the car.

Not a problem, said the very helpful nurse, and masks appeared for us to wear.

Ian sat in the big brown chair with his arm bared while I squatted in front of him, resting my hands gently on his arms. The nurse was very quick, and almost before we knew what was happening, the needle was in Ian’s left arm.

He shot to the right – almost out the seat – and the nurse was left holding the syringe and wondering where her patient was.

We tried again. Nope. The minute the needle went in, Ian dodged.

Okay. Time for some reassurance.

I spoke gently to Ian, and then the nurse said “I only have to count to three, and then it will be done. One, two, three.”

“Try three, two, one,” I suggested.

Ian was listening. ‘Three, two, one’ is no time at all. At the dentist, the count starts from twenty …!

Although he twitched while the nurse injected him, Ian sat like a champion. She quickly counted backwards from three, and the job was done.

Thank you all so much for your thoughts, prayers, and good wishes. Ian did really, really well, and I’m sure you would have been as proud of him as I was.

❤️

Autism : a question of ‘Easter ‘

“Easter, please, Mummy.”

“Easter is on Sunday, Ian. Wait til Sunday.”

“Easter,” he insisted. “Easter, please, Mummy.”

Ian loves a party. He always has. Especially if there’s cake and candles and presents – he’s like Eeyore from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, with smaller ears ….. 😉

So in an effort to fulfil Ian’s Easter needs, I bought a cake, decorated with chicks and bunnies and flowers, and got him a new book, which I wrapped, just to make a proper occasion of it.

“Easter, please, Mummy.”

The day finally arrived. Easter Sunday. And Ian had his special cake, looked at his new book, and had a celebratory lunch at his grandmother’s house.

And he was still asking for ‘Easter’.

After lunch, something – perhaps desperation – seeped through Ian’s brain, and he amended his request :

“Backpack, please, Mummy.”

Suddenly, I knew what he was after.

Hidden in his backpack, a gift from his carers at the day center —

An Easter egg.

There was chocolate in his backpack.

I looked at Ian, and smiled. “You mean chocolate, don’t you?”

“Chocolate,” answered Ian with a grin. “Yes, please, Mummy.”

Finally, the ‘Easter’ issue was dealt with. Ian had a chunk of chocolate Easter egg in his hands, and was happy.

And if you’re wondering ‘Why didn’t you give your children their own Easter eggs?’, I knew their grandmother had already bought them enough chocolate to sink a battle ship. There’s only a limited amount of room for chocolate in this house, and the boys don’t eat much of it anyway.

Interestingly, even though Ian got a ginormous Easter egg from his Gran, he was only really interested in the one in his backpack.

The other will keep.

Til next Easter, maybe …..

😊

Autism : the thorny issue of Consent

As I’ve mentioned before, Ian isn’t the ‘may have trouble making friends’ kind of autistic, or the ‘sure, he’s a bit antisocial but god love him, he’ll be okay’ kind of autistic.

Ian is the ‘will never be able to cross the street alone‘ kind of autistic. The ‘hasn’t got a clue what day of the week this is, let alone what year’ kind.

Very autistic.

Profoundly so.

Not stupid, though. There’s a part of Ian’s brain that fires on so many cylinders it would take your breath away, and is capable of loads of very, VERY clever things.

But other areas, specifically the ones we need to function in society … those, not so much.

And now there’s COVID-19, and vaccinations, and the need for consent. Consent from Ian, because in terms of the Law (The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act, 2015) we can’t make the decision for him.

https://inclusionireland.ie/assisted-decision-making/

Ian has to give consent for himself. And I understand why that is. I know that there have been horrendous abuses in the past by people taking away other people’s consent, acting on their behalf, or being their voice – when they may still have had one of their own. I get it. Truly, I do.

But asking Ian to consent to a medical procedure is impossible. Because he doesn’t grasp the concept of what he would be consenting to, and he never will.

Am I doing him a disservice by saying that? I don’t think I am. Ian is many wonderful things, but aware of the world around him he is not.

He does not have ‘capacity’ –

“Capacity refers to an assessment of the individual’s psychological abilities to form rational decisions, specifically the individual’s ability to understand, appreciate, and manipulate information and form rational decisions.”

(https://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/Using-Functional-Assessments-to-Determine-Mental-C )

Section 3 of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 says —

3. (1) Subject to subsections (2) to (6), for the purposes of this Act, a person’s capacity shall be assessed on the basis of his or her ability to understand, at the time that a decision is to be made, the nature and consequences of the decision to be made by him or her in the context of the available choices at that time.

(2) A person lacks the capacity to make a decision if he or she is unable-

(a) to understand the information relevant to the decision,

(b) to retain that information long enough to make a voluntary choice,

(c) to use or weigh that information as part of the process of making the decision, or

(http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2015/act/64/section/3/enacted/en/index.html)

I have spoken to Ian about the situation. Of course I have.

“People are getting sick, and doctors are trying to stop it …” (Ian understands ‘sick’, ‘doctor’, and ‘stop it’) “… and so you have to have a vaccination.”

I say the word twice, and Ian repeats it.

“A doctor will – ” and here my brain leaps ahead with ‘stab you with a needle and it will hurt’, so I take a breath and measure my words again. “A doctor will give you an injection here (I touch Ian’s arm) and then it will all be done.”

I smile at him. I know Ian doesn’t understand the why’s or wherefore’s, but I hope that something will percolate through his brain. Perhaps mummy’s reassuring smile …

So. Paging, paging, paging through all these reams of forms that have been presented to us, with all those pictures that explain nothing to Ian, until finally, we find a section, almost hidden at the back – Aha! Section C.

Finally, somewhere for us to sign on his behalf. Because, in the Act, the important words are “everyone is presumed to be able … unless the opposite is shown”. And in Ian’s case, it most definitely is.

Tuesday, 11.45. That’s when it’s supposed to happen.

Of course, the first vaccination will likely be no problem at all, but I wonder if we’ll get him to sit for a second shot when he knows what to expect.

Think of us …..

Autism : psychological evaluation

I recently found copies of old psychological evaluations of Ian.

I didn’t really want to read them because I knew what I would find – the endless succession of ‘didn’t engage’, ‘scored in the low percentile’, ‘disorganised’, ‘an area of weakness’, or, the classic, ‘his overall development in the area is below that expected of a child his age’ — wait, what, for neuro-typical kids, or compared to others with autism spectrum disorders??? I never did get an answer to that one. But it wasn’t happy reading, and it depressed me as I had known it would.

And then I came across this paragraph –

and it all came flooding back.

Watching my son being tested by a stranger was always a trial for me. An hour or more of exquisite anxiety as I watched Ian deliberately underperform.

As his mother, but also as his teacher, I was always appalled by what Ian thought he could get away with. And make no mistake, he knew what he was doing. It was his ‘thing’ : place him in an environment where he got even the slightest sense he was being tested, and he would shut down.

It was more than just a stranger asking him to do things. It was more than him not knowing what might have been required. There was nothing – absolutely nothing – placed in front of him that we hadn’t covered in the classroom. And he sat there, and played dumb.

During this particular session I was very good, sitting in the corner of the room, pretending to mind my own business, watching, cringing …. I think I physically held my mouth closed when Ian wouldn’t point out a triangle. I didn’t utter a squeak when he wouldn’t name the farmyard animals in a picture. But on and on he went, until I just couldn’t take it any more.

“Ian!” I burst out. “Enough! Answer the question.”

And he did.

The psychologist looked up from the table. Perhaps she could feel my pain from across the room. Perhaps I even had smoke coming out of my ears!

She smiled at me in understanding.

“Would you like to take over?”

Well, I didn’t need to be asked twice. I was in Ian’s face so fast he blinked in surprise.

I turned a couple of pages, and we went back over some of the tasks.

With very little prodding from me, Ian engaged – at least well enough (given that he still knew it was a test) to show the psychologist that he knew the answers and could speak for himself.

Way to go, mum! How to skew a psychology evaluation in one easy step …

But that’s why any evaluation of Ian – and potentially any autistic child on the planet – is so damning. It’s like the observer effect – “In physics, observer effect is the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation”.* In psychology, it’s called the Hawthorn Effect – “The Hawthorne Effect, also called the Observer Effect, is where people in studies change their behavior because they are watched”, although that theory has now been debunked.** (I wonder, though, if it wasn’t debunked more because of the parameters of the test than the lack of validity. We all know that we behave differently when we think someone is watching. I suspect it takes a particularly strong character to not change their behaviour in any way, in any circumstances.)

The fact remains that the minute you try to assess Ian, he changes what you’re trying to assess. Partly because he’s clever. Perhaps also partly because he gets self-conscious — and that term alone opens up a whole can of worms! Self-consciousness and autism do not go hand in hand.*** But again, I call into question – like imagination in autistic people – the notion that just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

And so I skewed the results because I wasn’t prepared to allow Ian to get away with it. I guess I couldn’t sit there and watch him let himself down. He knows so much, and is able to give so much of himself, how could I NOT want to share that? How could I let him score so badly on the psych eval when I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was capable of so much more? Our lessons together had been challenging, but they were also full of fun and laughter, and I wanted to share that. I wanted that to be seen. Yes, my son remains profoundly autistic, but look what he knows. He’s clever and coy, and cheeky, and self-confident. He has a highly developed sense of humour. Look what he can do! Look who he is!

In truth, Ian has no ‘theory of mind’.**** Effectively, he shouldn’t be able to grasp what a stranger expects of him. He shouldn’t BE self conscious. But put him in a standard testing environment – quiet room, table, chairs, psychologist, prescribed forms – and he’ll become about as autistic as you’ll ever see him.

I don’t suppose I’ll be allowed in any more. IF he’s ever evaluated again. He’s an adult now. Do they bother? I wonder …

This morning, as Ian got himself dressed and ready to go to breakfast, I said idly to him “You’re a clever chap, aren’t you?”

Ian’s response?

“Exactly …”

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics)

** https://www.statisticshowto.com/experimental-design/hawthorne-effect/

*** https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.159.8.1422

**** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind )

(“The Leiter-R is an individually administered test designed to assess cognitive functions in children and adolescents ages 2-20. The battery measures nonverbal intelligence in fluid reasoning and visualization, as well as appraisals of visuospatial memory and attention. The test is divided into a visualization and reasoning battery and an attention and memory battery.”) https://libguides.lib.umanitoba.ca/c.php?g=297419&p=2316280

Autism : Intervention from Hell

Today , I nipped into Twitter. Haven’t been there in a while, so I thought I’d see what’s going on in the world around me.

And I got my heart broken into a thousand pieces.

I came across this –

And then I read all the comments that followed it, because I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Was this a real thing?

Could this actually have happened?

Where in the world could something this awful be happening?

And how could it possibly be legal?

❓❓❓❓

Everything I read confirmed my worst fears. Yes, it is real. Yes, it did happen – to many, many people. Yes, it happens in America. And yes, it IS legal.

The slang for it is ‘gooning’ –

There are some things going on in the world which leave me stunned.

Excuse me, I have to go and hold my precious autistic son close to my broken heart, breathe in his beautiful gentle energy, and pray that those poor traumatised people – wherever they may be – will find peace and healing.

With love

❤️