Miss Klaxon

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As my husband will confirm, I tend to have vivid dreams which wake me up, sweating and sometimes gulping for air or shouting. Not a pretty sight, I am sure.

I have a few recurring dreams in my repertoire:

1. Maths O’level exam
I recognised nothing familiar when I turned the exam paper over and went into a panic. I did calm down eventually and produced enough correct answers to scrape through with a Pass grade.

2. Being late for university Finals exam only to realise that I had no idea which building I had to be in and also realising that I had not revised at all for a whole Paper. This one still haunts me at times of stress, 30 years later!

3. Miss Klaxon.

Let me explain. My son had the misfortune to have Miss Klaxon (not her real name, but with a foghorn voice, she would have been aptly named) as his teacher for one year, in primary school. I’m sure we can all remember some amazing and inspirational teachers as well as some nasty ones from our school days. We as children are at the mercy of our primary school teacher. If he or she doesn’t like me, it becomes a very long and miserable year for me. If I am scared of him or her, tough, as there is no alternative.

Miss Klaxon believed her way was the right way and Miss Klaxon decided pretty early in the school year who were her favourites (those who toed the line and offered to sharpen pencils or run errands and fawn over her) and who were clearly and consistently ‘trouble’ and needed to be brought into line. SonOne was diagnosed autistic two years later, and the signs were definitely already there, but she was refusing to acknowledge anything. This boy needed to ‘man up’ (yes, she actually said that) and grow a pair (she did not say that). For an already sensitive child, this was a death sentence and he learned quickly to be silent at school and try to keep under her radar.

Unfortunately the powers higher up were no use either in those days, and saw me as an over-anxious mother no doubt, or a trouble-maker. They kept insisting that the class teacher has observed nothing of note, nothing to cause any concern.

The reason Miss Klaxon figures in my list of recurring nightmares is this: towards the end of the school year, when we had nothing to lose, I requested a meeting. She phoned me in the morning saying that he was being ‘defiant’ and that he was insisting he had not done anything wrong in some altercation that was supposed to have taken place in the playground. So, I already knew that my son would be very agitated and upset by the time we saw him. My husband took the afternoon off work, teacher insisted SonOne was to be present at the meeting. We got ushered into the classroom and had to sit on the ridiculously small chairs while she sat on the normal-sized office chair. Intimidation tactics. Then started the most excruciating half an hour of my life. She proceeded to ask SonOne yes-or-no questions which were impossible for a young autistic boy to answer honestly under pressure. The questions kept being fired at him and he was getting close to tears. And here’s the thing. I did nothing. I was so stunned by this torture, I was waiting for it to end, and it felt as though it would never end. It felt like some awful film clip I was watching as a passive observer. SonOne was stuck between a rock and a hard place: if he told the truth it would displease the dragon he had to spend 6 hours of each day with. If he lied, he knew I would not be pleased. Poor kid.

Finally, I was able to speak up. I told her this was a disgraceful way to speak to a child and to put pressure on him. I told her I was pleased that my husband was also in the room, as was the student teacher, because it meant it was not just my word against hers. She did flinch a little bit at this, but was unrepentant on the whole. We were dismissed.

I didn’t send SonOne to school the following day or for the rest of the week, as he was in a heightened state of stress.

My nightmare, still, comes from my guilt of not standing up to her properly in that meeting, adult to adult. I didn’t confront her enough, I didn’t speak my mind enough. She was smug and confident enough to know that the management would support her side (they did).

A few years later, my son had another overbearing teacher with no empathy skills. Things were a bit different at school by this time, the management had changed hands, and there was a much more nurturing atmosphere. I complained, politely of course at first and through the correct channels, but my son still had to get through the school year with her. At least my complaints were set on record in writing.

Never again will I let his vulnerability be abused. I am his only advocate, I must speak up for his wellbeing, his rights and above all his sanity and happiness.

One would think that the main qualification for a primary school teacher should be to actually LIKE children, and to respect their diversity and individuality.

Saturday

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Saturday was a good day. They said it wasn’t possible. They said it could never happen. But it did.

One of SonOne’s new friends in secondary school not only wanted to meet up with him at the weekend, but wanted mum to meet me too! I was told this virtually never happens and that I just had to accept it.

I feel very proud of my son for choosing such a nice kid as a friend. After all, he has been with the same children around him for seven years in primary, apart from one or two who joined his class along the way. I am not saying he will never encounter horrible people or misjudge some but I am proud of how he is managing this maze of social interactions.

I am also incredibly excited to have made an unexpected new friend in the mum, who is warm and approachable and I feel like she will be someone I will enjoy getting to know more and more over the coming years.

Transition is going so much better than I feared it would, largely thanks to a LOT of preparation behind the scenes in handing him over from primary to secondary. When something goes badly at school we are quick to notice and set blame and complain. When something goes well, it is all too easy to wave it away and for people to say ‘see, I don’t know what you were worried about, he is fine’. But the invisible background effort is essential and ongoing and so very worth it.

Saturday really was a good day.

Invitation

Well, that's a first. I've received my first ever invitation to a Divorce Party. A lifetime ago there were many housewarmings, weddings, christenings, naming ceremonies and, in recent years, even a handful of funerals.

This particular friend's divorce has been amicable and civilised and I must say that my other friends who are divorced have, on the whole, survived pretty well after the initial upheaval of course. Those who met a new partner have gained step-children, new inlaws, a whole new and modern family unit. New influences, new experiences, and a new beginning.

It certainly makes me feel middle-aged to have left the marriages and christenings behind and start to be part of divorces and funerals!

Yes, there is a lot to be said for lifetime commitment to another person. It's wonderful when it works. But equally in the modern world, life feels too short to be lived in unhappiness if there are alternative options.

I'd better get my outfit sorted for the party. I'm looking forward to seeing what these two people have ahead of them in their next life stage and I wish both of them much happiness to come.

Friends

If we don’t have friends, or we fall out with them, we can pretend it doesn’t matter, that we don’t care. But I think friends are everything, whether we see them face-to-face every day, or whether distance separates us.

Good friends take up the friendship where they left off, as if the months or sometimes years of physical separation had not happened.

SonOne had a small group of friends from the start of primary school. In Year 3, three of them left the school and the town. This hit him hard. SonOne is a good and loyal friend, but he struggles to make new friends quickly. Best friend H moved abroad, and we have always tried to meet up when they come back to UK. 

Today is one of those precious days, when H is here, in our house, chatting and laughing and gaming with SonOne as if they saw each other every day.

I am sitting in the garden writing this and feeling very emotional as it strikes me how different SonOne’s departure from primary school and plunge into secondary school would be if H were by his side.

H is exactly what SonOne needs and likes in a friend: funny, kind, familiar, gentle, accepting and easy-going.

And as such, H is the best Best Friend SonOne can ever have. Even if he lives on the other side of the world.

Guest blog

My wonderful friend wrote the following words which will ring true with many.  She has put into words what many are ashamed to admit or acknowledge. 

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I’m really fed up right now of friends (even friends with autism in the family) sharing stuff about how great autism is – that it’s a blessing and only our current culture causes problems for autistic people, and how many amazing talents autistic people have. I’m very glad that that is their experience of autism, but right now, it is *not* mine. H has no amazing talents as a result of his autism. Gods know I have tried to find something for him, a niche, his “thing”, to help him feel better about himself but I haven’t found anything.

And H suffers as a result of his autism, he really suffers, and not just as a result of being misunderstood by wider society, not just in a culturally-induced way. He *suffers* from his own thought processes. He suffers from not being able to identify or process his emotions. He suffers from obsessive thoughts he can’t break out of, and horrible anxiety he can’t cope with.

I’m all for celebrating neurodiversity, and all the gifts and benefits it brings to individuals and wider society, and definitely half the challenges of being neurodiverse are culturally produced. But some are not. My son is not going to be magically “cured” by homeopathy, kiniesiology, a particular diet, or banning screens. He is quite as capable of being anxious to the point of meltdown in the woods as he is of melting down in a busy supermarket.

His autism is not “produced” by the modern world. And I’m sick of hearing a rosy-tinted view that in times gone by, he’d have been much better, in a more predictable world, where villages tolerated “odd” members. In fact, he probably would not have survived to adulthood in times gone by. He would have starved, or ended up in an asylum or prison, given his particular behavioural traits.

So basically, I’m sick of people telling me what a blessing autism is. After another night of him being terrified in the middle of the night for no reason and having to open everyone’s doors to check they’re still there, and put all the lights on and still be too scared to be alone. After a day of trying to persuade him that it’s a good thing to leave the house occasionally and do something. After yet another session of sobbing due to being fixated on some tiny thing which is never going to happen but he’s terrified of and obsessed with and cannot let go. Doesn’t seem like a blessing to him right now ūüė¶

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Rookie mistake


Today has not been a good day. Today I am feeling sorry for myself. Today I am reminded of the perils of comfort eating but the comfort of retail therapy. 

First day of the Easter holidays. SonOne didn’t wake super-early, he made it to an appointment, he ate lunch (with struggle but lunch was eaten). I should have counted my blessings and not asked any more of him. He was meant to go to granny’s in the afternoon but a slight change of plan meant I required him to go to my friend for half an hour till granny got home to look after him. That proved too much. To me, such a tiny thing. To him, meltdown. 

It was a rookie mistake. Two years on, I’m not a rookie any more, yet it surprises me and slaps me in the face every time his inflexibility and lack of theory of mind leap out like this. 

Surely a bit of theory of mind can be learnt over a lifetime? Autism can seem a very selfish thing. 

So, I missed out on a few hours in London with husband and SonTwo. No big deal, right?

Welcome diversion

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I’m looking forward to getting a dog. I don’t know what sort of dog it will turn out to be yet, except that it will be a rescue. I don’t know what size, except that it has to fit comfortably into our house. I don’t know what colour or what markings it will have, except that it is to look kind and sweet, so that my children will feel a rush of love for it and have a bond from the start.

I have plans for this dog. It will be my companion during the day, it will get me out into the fresh air, it will no doubt make us many many new friends on our walks in all weather. It will sleep in my office when I am working, and probably on our bed at night. I have spent many a happy hour (yes, hour) window-shopping for leads, collars, harness, bed, toys… Who knew how much equipment is available for a little canine! Better said, for the little canine’s human of course. The preparation and gathering of ¬†‘stuff’ is part of the excitement for me.

If this dog is friendly and sweet, I intend to take it to old people’s homes to be a befriender, or to school to be a reading-helper dog. If this dog isn’t quite that friendly, as it will no doubt come with a past history we will never fully know the details of, then I will nurture it to confidence and help it feel loved and safe and take every small progress as a massive achievement.

For the last two years, since my son’s autism diagnosis, I have immersed myself in literature on autism, I have attended workshops and training sessions and watched YouTube videos, read blogs, humorous articles and serious books on the subject.

But now I am feeling saturated with information. I don’t want to read another article or another depressing blog or another update on funding cuts of support for the most needy. I want to concentrate on dog leads and quirky canines looking out from my computer screen. I want to look forward to my own dog, wondering which one will choose us.

And before my dog has even been found or before it has even arrived home, it turns out that this dog has already fulfilled its most important role, to distract me from problems and worries, and give me perspective and welcome comfort.

First love

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This is the dog who took me by surprise.

I have always liked cats, always had cats, always admired their independence and cleanliness and beautiful rolling purrs and elegant gait. I have always felt honoured when my cat chooses to come and sit by me or on my lap, when he chooses to chirrup for my attention.

I used to dislike dogs, with their eager enthusiasm about everything, their muddy paws, their unselfconscious habit of pooing anywhere they fancy, safe in the belief that their owner will clear up after them. A cat has self-respect! A cat goes off somewhere discreet and covers up traces of its poo, how civilised.

But then slowly slowly I have got to know a few dogs and have got to truly look into their wise brown eyes, or see for myself their feisty protective instincts towards the young humans in their pack, or their sheer laziness and simple pleasure at a tummy rub. I like the expression in their eyes, the way they use their ears and the whites of their eyes to convey pleading or guilt or just asking for play. In short, they have shown me that of course each one has its own unique character.

So this alien species slowly became fascinating to me. I started saying hello to the dog walkers I encounter on the school run every day. I started looking up dog rescue sites and’#adoptdontshop’ became my mantra. I shed tears over the pictures of horribly mistreated dogs in countries abroad, rescued from roadsides and killing stations by dedicated and caring people who took them in, helped them back to strength, and managed to find forever homes for those who were not too badly emotionally-scarred by their earlier experience. I rejoiced in the ‘after’ photos of dogs successfully re-homed and now enjoying a life of good food and comfy sofas and Christmas jumpers, a far cry from their miserable past. How can these animals¬†still love humans and trust humans, after what they went through? I learned that rescue dogs are often extremely grateful souls who understand that their human chose them out of hundreds.

And then one day I encountered the shaggy, characterful dog in the photo. Something happened, and my heart melted for him. There was something about his expression which reminded me of one of my cats, a soulful and deep look in his eyes. I became a bit obsessed with his photos, I started imagining how my kids and my cats would take to him. I imagined beach day trips with the dog, nice walks in the spring, pub lunches in a beer garden with him, a cuddle with a snoring dog at home on the sofa while the rain lashed the windows. I had spent happy hours window-shopping online for collars and leads and toys. One of my friends commented that I was starting to be a stalker, looking at and commenting on so many dog photos!

But, like many love stories, this one does not have a happy-ever-after ending. When I finally phoned to make an appointment to go and meet this dog, someone had beaten me to it. I was gutted, and asked the charity to let me know either way as soon as the other family had been to see him. I knew of course that, unless the dog had bitten them or been terrified of their children, they were not going to walk away without him. And so it was. They loved the dog and are adopting him into their family.

I have to be honest: I cried. I mourned this dog who was not mine, who I had never met. I had got myself involved in a fantasy existence with my perfect canine companion. Who knows whether the reality would ever have lived up to my expectations? Like any true teenage first love infatuation, the fantasy was probably better than any reality could have been, and is probably best preserved as such.

I will fall in love again, there will be a dog in my life, and if my experience of my cats is anything to go by, a perfect dog will somehow choose me when the time is right for us to meet.

 

 

 

 

Peter and Paul


I have been having a drastic clearout. Maybe it’s a spring clean, maybe it’s one small element of a midlife crisis, or maybe it is simply the impending arrival of builders which is the reason for getting rid of lots of stuff.

I’m getting rid of lots of toys the children have definitely grown out of. I’m in a ruthless mood, essential for this task.

When I came across the city cleaning truck in the photo, it brought back a wave of fond memories. Looking back, it was one of SonOne’s earliest intense and all-consuming obsessions.

Every afternoon, around 4.30pm, he got in his pram, and we went into our town, rain or shine. We tracked down the cleaning vehicle, and we followed it for at least half an hour. When it was dark or raining, it was even better (for him, not me!) as you could experience the headlights. Maybe ‘stalking’ would be a better word for this activity.

The drivers (there were two of them) waved to us every day, gave us a thumbs up. Maybe they felt sorry for me, or maybe they liked SonOne’s obvious fascination.

One day, they stopped the truck and introduced themselves. One was Peter, one was Paul. I’m not making this up. One drove the truck, the other walked alongside picking up leftover litter with a grabber. They were softly-spoken and polite.

Another day, they stopped the truck and invited SonOne to sit inside it. He got in, I took photos of this memorable moment. He said nothing, I think he was barely breathing. Once we were back home, all he wanted to do was play with his toy, no doubt reliving the experience. I was deeply touched by Peter and Paul’s kindness.

Inevitably, this era ended eventually and we stopped going out to follow the cleaning truck.

Very recently I was in the hospital cafe, waiting to pick up my mother after an operation. A man waved at me from a distance away. I waved back but couldn’t place him, even as we had a superficial chat. Then it hit me. It was Peter (or was it Paul?). He said ‘Your lad must be a big boy by now?’ ¬†‘He is 11, I replied’. We said our goodbyes and I felt very moved at that chance encounter, and even more moved that someone remembers us as much as we remember him.

Who would have thought that a city cleaning truck would carry such sentimental value?

Same old, same old

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I realised today that my idea of normality must be very different to most people’s idea of normality. I don’t mean the unrealistic, daydream sort of normality you imagine¬†while pregnant, when you¬†know for certain¬†that¬†your child will never ever scare elderly people by zooming past them on their scooters, your child will eat nicely and chat politely in a restaurant, your child will be clever and musical and popular and sporty.

Reality usually turns out very differently. A good morning for us is one where the children get themselves ready for the day, as they have been doing every day for years. This expectation should not come as a surprise to them but somehow, on most days, it does.
A good morning is one where both boys get to school on time. Staff don’t bat an eyelid when SonOne is late any more, it has become normal. In fact, we all look surprised and relieved when he signs himself in with plenty of time to get to the classroom.

A good pickup from school is one where the teacher does not come out with SonOne to find me in the playground to have a ‘chat’. This generally means that something has ‘happened’ and only occasionally brings with it good news. A good pickup is one where I am not greeted with a murderous glare and a growl from him, rather than a hug and any snippet of¬†news from the day, whether¬†good, bad or neutral.

A good walk home is one where they are not hitting each other constantly, where they can actually tolerate each other’s existence for a brief 10-minute stroll and let each other speak.

It is amazing how I only really know for sure¬†that this is not everyone’s experience, when a friend walks home with us. Usually the presence of a friend¬†has a calming influence, and deflects the brothers’ attention from each other. It¬†gives me a short breather too, in which to savour the afternoon winter sunshine, and remember that the boys are nice people beneath all the fighting and aggression.

On dark days the thought of ‘only ten more years to go’ keeps me going, for SonTwo.
For the other one? Well, let’s not think too much about that and hope for the best.

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