About Time

Dylan in Durham earlier this month…

The trip to Durham might have been successful in all sorts of ways but it didn’t satiate Dylan’s desire for a holiday. We had only been back 24 hours when the questions about ‘cottage’, ‘ sea’ and ‘boat’ started up again.  Dylan enjoyed our city break but it wasn’t the holiday he knows, in his sinew and bone, he has not yet had this year and which he is not going to let me forget.

Are you sure we can’t make him a countdown chart to our Summer holiday? I asked the staff at his care home.  I have booked a holiday on the Isle of Man, which I have an idea might be Dylan heaven: an overnight hotel en route, a ferry boat crossing, holiday cottage, sea all around us and trains, trams and funiculars. But that isn’t until the end of July.  I don’t think we can give him a three month countdown chart, the team leader reflected.  Having a picture of the holiday such a long way off could be difficult for Dylan.

So Dylan has continued with just his weekly programme. When he’s asked ‘cottage’ or ‘sea’ or ‘boat’ we’ve said:  not this week, Dylan, or later, or sometimes (in desperation) soon Dylan. Of course, none of these are easy, or I suspect meaningful, for Dylan. Time, as I have frequently noted, is one of the most difficult concepts for Dylan to grasp.  If you add to this our inability to explain to Dylan the practicalities of work and money, and that we cannot take holidays whenever we want to, then we have a potentially frustrating situation. Dylan is communicating beautifully with us and waiting patiently for a response, but it must feel as if all he is hearing is ‘No’.

The future is a cork board

Cork board with countdown chart added

One of our routines, when I return Dylan to his residential setting after his weekend at home, is to go through his weekly programme.  Dylan’s programme is fastened to his whiteboard and we talk about everything he will do in the week, ending with my arriving to collect him the following weekend. Dylan points to the pictures and I name them, sometimes signing and sometimes pausing to see whether Dylan is able to name them himself.

When I was talking Dylan through his week a couple of weekends ago, however, his finger didn’t stop pointing when we got to my arrival the following Saturday – instead, he gestured at the cork board to the right of his whiteboard.  He walked over to it, stabbing at it with his finger and looking at me quizzically. I’m not sure what you want, Dylan. I said. The member of staff who was with us pointed out that the cork board is where Dylan pins his countdown charts when he has them. He was asking what would happen after next week.  So Dylan does have a sense of future time, albeit in a representational way:  the future is a cork board.

The shop that sells the sea

So I drove away thinking about our summer holiday and how best to support Dylan with this. I calculated that if I speeded up a bit with my marking I could take a couple of days off work later in the month.  Added  to a weekend, this would give Dylan four or five days at the coast. That would do it, surely?  So later that week I booked a few days on the Yorkshire coast; while we won’t need a boat to get there, it is by the sea and we will be staying in a cottage.

That afternoon I received Dylan’s weekly update; this is a summary of Dylan’s week with a particular focus on any ‘incidents’. The email opened : Hi Liz, He’s had a really good week this week no incidents so far he has been trying to get into travel agents while in [nearby town] but he was directed away.  Trying to get into travel agents!  How I laughed.  I have never taken Dylan into a travel agents and to my knowledge he has never been in one. And yet he had figured out  – presumably from the visual clues in the window – that this is a shop that sells the sea. How clever! Visual intelligence. Initiative. Creativity. Communication. And Dylan’s steel will and determination…

Managing time

I replied to the email to say I’d fixed something up for later this month.  The staff were also thinking of ways to respond to Dylan’s requests; his key worker had volunteered to investigate the possibility of taking Dylan on an overnight trip to the coast in June.  With countdown charts to the breaks in May and June, Dylan should hopefully find it easier to manage time.

When I saw Dylan last weekend he had the chart with him and seemed to be enjoying crossing off the days. Back at his care home he requested tape to fasten the chart to his cork board, next to his weekly programme (as in the photo above). Dylan didn’t seem as anxious about his schedule when I left and needed less reassurance than the previous week about the ‘sea’ and  ‘cottage’ (I am trying to play down the issue of a ‘boat’). When I telephoned for an update last night I was told Dylan has been calm and happy all week and that the chart seems to have helped.

The red book

Perhaps, as Dylan’s understanding of time develops, he will need new strategies for managing it? Something which seemed to help Dylan in the past was his filofax. Although this didn’t have countdown charts and schedules in it, Dylan used it as an ‘object of reference’ for the management of time. He was aware, for example, that it contained the key information and cards he needs to access the activities he enjoys. He carried his filofax everywhere and would bring it to us if he wanted to request an activity. The filofax seemed to be such an important part of Dylan’s life, and so precious to him, that I was horrified when he destroyed it one night when he was anxious and upset about something which the support staff, on that occasion, were unable to fathom.

Since then, we have used a notebook to keep records and pass messages between home and care home. Dylan knows these notebooks have replaced his filofax and he keeps them in the same place, but he has never had quite the same attachment to them. Last weekend I noticed we had filled the last page of his current book so I suggested to Dylan that we go to the store to get a new one.  We went to a large Office Supplies shop where Dylan bought his filofax three years ago. As I picked up various notebooks  Dylan pushed my hand back towards the shelf in his ‘put it back, I’m not interested’ gesture. This continued all the way up the aisle. Then Dylan escorted me to the filofax section where, after consideration, he picked one out.  I suggested some alternatives but he wasn’t having it; Dylan hugged the red book to his chest as if to stop me from taking it from him.

Anxious Times

Dylan stood the empty frame in its usual place when he came home…

I hesitated about  buying the filofax for Dylan because it was upsetting when he destroyed the other one – not just for those who care for Dylan, but for Dylan himself. Dylan only ever destroys things which matter to him; he seems to self-regulate,  at times of high anxiety, by channelling his emotion through meaningful objects.  So although we have made  various ‘ripping’ resources available to Dylan, it is his favourite books and DVDs he tears when he is anxious. This means the aftermath of these events is upsetting for Dylan as he realises the loss of things which were important to him.

Dylan tearing possessions to self-regulate could be seen as a positive development in that he used to tear people’s ears when he was anxious, something which he now does only rarely. As the cycle of destroy-replace became increasingly entrenched, however, it no longer felt like a practical strategy. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with not replacing the things which Dylan rips.  This has been partly effective in that Dylan hasn’t been tearing books and DVDs as he used to. What it has meant, however, is that his focus sometimes switches to other things.

I was devastated, a few weeks ago, to hear that Dylan had torn the photo of his Gran during an incident.  Like filofaxgate, it was the sort of event that was difficult to fathom. Why? Dylan loved that photograph. He kept it by his bed, took it on overnight trips and carried it with him at times of emotional need (or at least that’s how I perceived it). It was, as far as I was concerned, the most precious of his possessions (greater than even his filofax had been) and therefore immune from danger at times of distress. Well, I turned out to be wrong about that. When I told my daughter she was upset (for Dylan) and cross (with me). She reminded me that the photograph had belonged to her, originally. Don’t give Dylan photos of my Gran if you don’t have copies of them, she said.

Changing Times

The ‘duplicate’ of the one Dylan chose…

So the following weekend, when I found Dylan with a photograph of mum he had snaffled from my room, I took it from him:  That picture of your Gran belongs to mummy, I said. The next day I went through old albums.  I didn’t have the time or energy to make copies right now (a  project for retirement maybe) but  I found some ‘duplicates’ – photos where another was taken soon after, so there is hardly a difference between the shots. I made an album of these, and some other photos, and showed them to Dylan. Would he like to choose one to keep, I asked?

I was surprised by Dylan’s choice. It is an aerial shot of me and Dylan on a beach in Dorset, taken in 2007. We are absorbed in the pebbles and too far away for Dylan and I to be ‘subjects’ in the photo (unlike the photo of his Gran, which was a portrait shot).  Presumably he chose this picture because it reminds him of a happy time?  I liked the fact that Dylan replaced the photo of his Gran with something quite different. There is a sense in which it represents him moving on, perhaps; finding new ways of using the past to help manage the present.

About Time

When I collected Dylan last weekend he wasn’t wearing his trademark Breton hat.  I was shocked. Dylan is never  without that hat; it stays fixed to his head when he is out of the house and he is very good at looking after it. Where is your hat, Dylan? I asked. He hasn’t ripped it, has he? I asked the member of staff who was with him. She didn’t know. In fact she hadn’t noticed that Dylan didn’t have it.  But now I had mentioned it, Dylan was on it:  lost it, he said, lost it.  Then:  find it, find it. 

We checked Dylan’s drawers and cupboards and the cars and rooms of other residents.  I drove to the pub where Dylan had been for lunch the previous day. The hat could not be found. Why don’t you wear a different hat for now, I said to Dylan, giving him a choice of three caps from his cupboard.  He chose a green one.  I’ll sort it out for you I promise, I said to Dylan.  I was telling the support worker that I had brought the lost hat back from Brittany and that Dylan had bought his first Breton cap in St Malo when we were on holiday in 2013, when I noticed Dylan looking at me as if he was listening to the conversation (as I think he quite often does).  Hey  Dylan, I said, perhaps we should go to Brittany next year and get you another hat? Boat, Sea, Cottage I thought to myself as I said this.  Dylan rolled his eyes as if to say About time.

No More Moons

Dylan and I usually go away twice a year, at Easter and during the Summer. For the first time ever, we didn’t have a holiday at Easter this year. I wasn’t sure whether Dylan would notice but he was clearly disappointed.  Although time is not an easy concept for Dylan he makes associations with key events through the year and keeps track of it. So when I gave Dylan his Easter Egg he looked at me and said ‘cot’ quizzically. He was, I realised, asking me when we would be setting off to a holiday cottage. ‘Not this year, Dylan’ I said.  ‘Boat?’ he asked, hopefully.

I hadn’t booked a cottage (or boat) for Easter because I thought my marking might fall awkwardly  this year and that I would have to work through the break. In the event the students have only just submitted their assignments so I could have taken Dylan away after all. Perhaps next year I will. Meantime, I am experimenting with regular overnight trips instead;  the money that we would have spent on a week’s holiday I am planning to use across the year.  This should mean that I can take Dylan on a short break every six to eight weeks.  I will be curious to see whether ‘little and often’ is better for Dylan than less frequent longer breaks.

So last weekend Dylan and I went to Durham, a place he loves and which he has recently been ‘asking’ to visit again (‘asking’ involves Dylan collecting leaflets of things he is interested in and stacking these up in piles in his bedroom like ‘vouchers’). Conscious that the last time Dylan and I went on an overnight trip (visiting Brighton for his birthday) I  vowed never again to stay in a Premier Inn, I decided  this trip would be a good opportunity to try and extend Dylan’s repertoire.

I knew that moving Dylan from the Moon wouldn’t be easy. Dylan has been fixated on ‘Moon Hotels’ for years and staying in Premier Inns has been part of the raison d’être of our trips. Dylan adores the moon logo and enjoys  the familiarity of the purple branding and predictability of  facilities and services. The buffet breakfast (as much as he can eat of things he loves) is probably also part of Dylan’s love affair with Premier Inns 🙂 I figured that if we were going to stay somewhere different I needed to ensure it offered something the Premier Inn couldn’t; I wanted a hotel with compensating attractions. So I browsed the other hotel options with Dylan’s favourite places and activities in mind and opted for a hotel on the bank of the river which Dylan likes to walk, with a view of his beloved Cathedral.  I also had an Ace in my pocket:  the hotel had a swimming pool.

Staff at Dylan’s care home suggested that I show Dylan the hotel website and include a photo of it on his programme. This seemed to go well. The pool, in particular, captured Dylan’s attention and was the thing he talked about on the run-up to the trip; when he pointed to the photo of the hotel on his programme, the words he said were ‘pool’ and ‘swim’ rather than ‘bed’ and ‘moon’. So I set off for Durham optimistically, fairly confident we had prepared Dylan for the change of routine.

On arrival it was clear that  Dylan had  understood we would not be staying at the Premier Inn; he didn’t protest at all when I made a right rather than a left turn on the walk from the railway station. I had put a note on the hotel booking to say I would be supporting my autistic son and if we could be allocated a twin room with a decent amount of space between the beds that would be appreciated. I had also said that if there was any way we could have a room with a river view that would be fantastic, but that space was the priority.

In my experience such requests are frequently ignored; I have often had to return to reception to ask for an alternative room.  As for adding a note about dietary requirements (I am vegan) I have wondered why I bother.  So I was amazed, on arrival at the hotel, to find that we had been upgraded to a family room (lots of space) overlooking the River Wear and that there was a jug of soya milk in the room.  Dylan seemed to enjoy the space and the view from the window!

Food is very important to Dylan and, happily, dinner and breakfast met with his approval.  Best of all, however, was the pool.  I hadn’t scheduled it on Dylan’s programme as I needed to check it was safe and that I could supervise alone. This is important because Dylan is a non-swimmer with high risk behaviour around water: in the past, he has leapt into water fully clothed, waded out of his depth  and plunged underwater, attempting to stay below.  Fortunately, the hotel pool turned out to be ideal (it did occur to me that had I found otherwise it would have been very difficult to say no):  fairly small, not deep and quiet.  We spent a lovely hour in the water before breakfast on Sunday morning, an excellent way to start the day.

I had assumed that staying at a different hotel would be challenging for Dylan and that it would be important to maintain his other routines while we were in Durham. However, breaking the Moon habit seemed to loosen Dylan’s patterns more generally. So instead of having lunch in our usual café on  Saturday we tried a different  place. I was thrilled; the vegan options were much better and Dylan caught the spirit of adventure and had a Panini.  I am guessing this was a positive experience because he accepted a different café again the next day.

Dylan was also open to taking different routes around Durham,  changing the order in which we did some of his favourite things and trying new activities. So on this trip we walked further down the river path than we had previously and discovered Old Durham Gardens. Further on, we happened on a pub – this was just what we needed after a long walk on a sunny Saturday. Dylan enjoyed it so much I suspect future trips to Durham might involve a walk to the Rose Tree 🙂  Then, on the rainy Sunday, we looked around exhibitions at the Cathedral  and Palace Green Library, something we hadn’t done previously. Again, this was a great success with Dylan’s interest captured by the acoustics of the Great Kitchen and a collection of skulls and bones.

I will be interested to see if Dylan builds some of these places into a revised repertoire next time we are in Durham. Another visit might not involve the same hotel – although we got a good deal on the booking it was more expensive than usual and I don’t want Dylan to grow too accustomed to such facilities 🙂  However, I now have the confidence to try something different again if need be.

 

 

 

What have I learned from this experience?  That Dylan’s ‘routines’ are partly maintained and constructed by me.  Once he has enjoyed something, I tend to let him repeat the experience as it gives him pleasure.  This becomes a pattern that is familiar and dependable and which Dylan starts to recognise. However, he is dependent on me breaking these patterns as well as creating them and I should perhaps be more proactive in suggesting changes to routines. The memory of Dylan smiling and laughing on the train home should help me not to forget this 🙂

 

Awkward Greetings: a neurotypical in autistic space

For many academics, now (before the marking comes in) is the ideal time to get away to a conference. As well as providing feedback on work in progress, conferences are a chance to network with colleagues from other institutions.

“You love it, don’t you.”  I said to a colleague as she put the finishing touches to a paper she is presenting in New York this week.

“Love what?” she replied.

“The conference thing.”

“Oh yes.” she said. “Absolutely. It’s my thing.”

Conferences aren’t my thing. They make me anxious. I have three issues with them. Firstly, they tend to be held in venues I find difficult to navigate;  I don’t like unstructured or open plan spaces with confusing layout and flow.  Secondly, I hate the eating arrangements at conferences; typically these involve juggling with a plate, cutlery, drink and conference papers while making small talk with a stranger, standing up. And thirdly I dislike the constant social demands. I don’t have an autism diagnosis but put these things together and a conference is likely to trigger my version of a meltdown: imploding in my room, avoiding everyone. I imagine the way academic conferences make me feel may be similar to the way Dylan experiences the world much of the time.

*

Developing enough self-awareness to recognise  conferences make me uncomfortable was helpful but it took years for me to admit that I didn’t enjoy them, even after I’d stopped going. Then, a couple of years ago, I was asked to give a presentation at a National Autistic Society (NAS) conference. This presented me with a dilemma.  I had been asked to contribute a parent’s perspective of supporting a young person with autism and intellectual disability (i.e. Dylan) into adult services.  This was a story I felt passionate about sharing; the experiences of ‘non-verbal’ autistic children and adults with a co-morbid diagnosis of intellectual disability are so often overlooked and I was delighted that the conference organisers were making  space to represent a narrative from this group.

I find it frustrating that Dylan is usually absent from accounts of what it means to be autistic:  the representations on TV, in film, in books, on the radio, on social media, in campaigns and (sadly) in training sessions and at conferences (even those which purport to focus on ‘autism’) tend not to have much relevance to my son’s life. I understand why this might be the case.  Those with intellectual disability as well as autism don’t always make for easy footage; there may be behaviour which is difficult to understand or which may challenge. If the young person or adult is also non-verbal the narrative is difficult to access; the process of advocacy is mostly conducted through language and without this people tend to be invisible.  Perhaps more importantly, those who are judged to ‘lack capacity’ as well as being ‘non-verbal’ are not only incapable of self-advocacy but unable to give consent to someone else to advocate on their behalf.  It is hardly surprising, given these layers of complexity, that people such as Dylan should be absent from accounts.

I am of the firm belief, however, that it is better to have the account of an advocate than to have no account at all; as I argue elsewhere, “if we are to include the perspectives of those with intellectual disabilities, we must accept the voice of an interlocutor” (Barrett, 2017, p. 5).  The invitation to speak at the conference was not something I could dodge; however difficult I found the process, I had to do this for Dylan. Besides, this was an NAS conference;  I would probably find the practices designed with autistic delegates in mind helpful.  I could, for example, wear a red badge to signal ‘please don’t approach me’ if I felt overloaded socially.  If I could be comfortable at any conference, surely it would be here?

*

So I went to the conference and, happily, all was well. I think this was because of the company of a couple of people I felt comfortable with and the privileged access I enjoyed, as a speaker, to a  sort of ‘green room’. I made heavy use of the room, retreating there with my plate of food at mealtimes and in-between sessions. I was conscious, during the conference, that I would probably not have found the event so comfortable were I attending as a delegate.  The NAS had introduced some thoughtful practices (such as the red badges) but these could not counter the usual challenges.

The venue involved difficult mezzanine spaces with noisy break out areas and cavernous rooms with difficult acoustics. As well as the lack of physical boundaries and the noise and cold, there was a lot of juggling with difficult food and a lack of private space. And I don’t even have an autism diagnosis, I thought to myself as I scuttled back to the Speaker’s Room after a presentation on the second day. But then neither did the majority of delegates, I reminded myself.  It was, after all, a Professional Conference, aimed at those who work with and support those with autism; a delegation from my son’s NAS residential home were attending the conference, for example.

The NAS annual conference provides an opportunity for autism professionals to reflect on their knowledge and skills, review new resources and network with colleagues in other settings.  Why, you could ask, should adjustments be made at a Professional Conference where the target audience are not (typically) autistic?  Well, yes.  Except that the NAS  (quite rightly) prides itself on making space for autistic voices. These were much in evidence at the conference; I probably heard more autistic than neurotypical voices, certainly from the floor and in the social space.  This is a good thing but, I reflected after the conference, it has implications…

*

Soon after I returned from the conference a friend told me how, meeting a new group of people for the first time, she had taken the hand of a man to shake it in greeting. But, she cringed, it turned out he wasn’t actually offering his hand:  “imagine how embarrassed I felt”, she said to me.  I could, I reassured her;  I had been equally embarrassed not to take a hand that was offered to me at an event at the NAS conference.  The hand I failed to shake belonged to someone who identifies as autistic and (I realised later when she confronted me about it) it had mattered to her that I hadn’t returned that handshake.  “I hadn’t meant to offend”, I told my friend. “Like you, I just misread the signals.”

Why was that I wondered? My undiagnosed autism or my neurotypicality?  Or perhaps simply because hand shaking  occupies an increasingly blurred space socially with many of us unclear of the rules?  And there is no agreement about the meaning of such behaviour either. While I may have upset the woman whose hand I failed to shake, not everyone would have shared her reaction.  This was brought home to me when a woman sitting next to me at dinner the next night told me that there was, apparently, someone at the conference who doesn’t shake hands.  “Isn’t it marvellous”,  the woman said to me, “that they feel able to say this?”  She seemed to enjoy the idea so much I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was me and that, actually, I did shake hands really.

I don’t know whether this is an example of being ‘a neurotypical in autistic space’ or ‘an autistic in neurotypical space’ but I recall it as an incident which made me think about the challenges of being truly inclusive and enabling everyone to feel comfortable in a social space.  I have no idea whether autistic delegates felt any more comfortable with the social space than I did but I’m guessing that at least some of them may have shared my neurotypical discomfort.

*

What I quickly realised at the conference, however, was that autistic delegates were made very uncomfortable (understandably) by presentations which adopted a medical approach to autism and by the use of terminology which is not that preferred by the ‘autistic community’. One presenter came in for a particularly rough ride. He was presenting research from a project which drew on  development psychology and which was not framed within the discourse of a social model of disability. A number of articulate autistic delegates challenged the project’s attempt to scientifically classify different ‘autisms’ and the medical language which the presenter used. While I understood the objections of autistic delegates, I didn’t share the view that the presentation should not have been included in the Conference programme; on the contrary, I welcomed the challenge and an opportunity to think differently.

This was a couple of years ago now and I’m conscious that my recall may be blurred and even distorted by time. But the gist of the presenter’s argument (as I understood it) was that if we  can clinically identify different ‘autisms’, with differing profiles and needs, then we can plan more efficacious interventions.  This is an argument I find attractive; although I understand the ways in which Dylan’s autism links him with others who share his diagnosis, I am conscious of the way in which his co-morbid condition (intellectual disability) means his experience and needs are significantly different. If the clinical identification of different ‘autisms’ allows individual needs to be met isn’t that ‘a good thing’?

Well, not necessarily. The problem with identifying different ‘types’ of anything is that it divides people; the larger population is divided into sub-groups which do not carry the same weight as they did together and, inevitably, competition emerges between the groups for resources and representation.  The attempt to support a sub-group by specifying their particular needs can thus undermine support in two ways; firstly, by the articulation of multiple and competing messages about the thing in general (‘autism’) and secondly through the emergence of hierarchies in relation to things in particular (the different ‘autisms’).

An example which the presenter gave struck a chord with me. He described how (in the US, where he is based) a group of autistic people without intellectual disability and with self-care skills and the potential for independence had initiated a campaign to close down the residential settings which had previously provided accommodation for autistic adults. The group had been well-organised, vocal and very effective in articulating their position in the community and on the media; their aim  was to challenge the concept of residential care and the discourse around such provision.  The presenter described how he had  challenged the campaigners:  ‘But the homes are not for you!’ The problem, the presenter explained, was that these autistic campaigners were undermining the availability of provision for other groups of autistic adults; for those  adults with co-morbid diagnoses who need additional care, residential living may be a good option.

The suggestion that different ‘autisms’ should be clinically classified did not go down well with autistic delegates at the conference because of the framing of the presentation within a model of disability which appeared at odds with the current discourse.  As the mother of an autistic son with additional needs, however, I could see the potential value in such sub-classification.  It is fantastic that autistic people who are capable of representing themselves are doing so but the problem with listening to some autistic voices is that others get lost. What are we going to do about the autistic people with intellectual disability who lack capacity and who don’t use speech to communicate? Without someone to advocate for them, they are not even in the conversation.  The idea that there is an ‘autistic community’  and that it speaks for all those with an autism diagnosis is, of course, a myth.

*

One of the best sessions I went to focused on language; a panel of ‘experts’ made position statements before a general question and answer session with the audience. The discussion was useful with deep attention paid to choices about person first and identity first language. The knotty issue of whether autism could ever be an ‘identity’ for someone with intellectual disability and who ‘lacks capacity’, however, was not tackled.  Nor was there a single mention of the difficulty posed by ‘learning disability’ as opposed to ‘intellectual disability’. As is perhaps clear from my own language choice, I prefer the term ‘intellectual disability’. This is because I find it a more exact way to describe Dylan, who is perfectly capable of learning and who is learning all the time; the fact that Dylan has not learned the same things as other people of his age is because he has a cognitive ‘impairment’ – a disability of the intellect – and not because he is unable to learn.

Although ‘intellectual disability’ is recognised terminology internationally, and used in many other countries (including the USA), in England we say ‘learning disability’. I make a real effort to use my preferred term of ‘intellectual disability’, and to apply this consistently, but it is very hard when other people don’t;  because language is about communication, for the sake of clarity I will sometimes adjust my own language so that I am understood by others. It occurred to me, at the conference, that if no one is talking about the language we use about people like Dylan, we are a very long way from bringing them respectfully into a respectful conversation.

I worry that autistic adults such as Dylan are not only absent from the conversation, but not even in the room.  While I was pleased to be invited to speak at the conference, and to describe my experience of supporting Dylan through the process of transition to adult care, there were no other sessions  at the conference which felt relevant to my life or to Dylan’s. The staff who had travelled down from Dylan’s residential home for the conference reported this was typical; ‘it’s not usually aimed at those with learning disabilities’, one of them told me.  An attempt had been made to acknowledge the diversity of interests at the conference through the organisation of sessions into different ‘streams’. I’m not convinced these worked, however; I found myself hankering after a ‘parents strand’ or a ‘Learning (sic) Disability’ strand so that I could find somebody who spoke my language and could understood my silence. Perhaps what is needed before we can find what unites us is a safe space to talk about our differences?

*

I intended to write this piece immediately after the conference; I have no idea why it has taken me so long to write, except that I find these issues challenging and my position is still evolving.  I’ve no doubt that the piece I am finishing today is a very different one to the one I would have written two years ago. What hasn’t changed, however, is the main impression I came away from the  conference with: that little attention is paid to those like Dylan who have intellectual disability as well as autism. Great leaps forward have been made for many autistic people in recent years, largely because of their own efforts and the fantastic contribution they have made to campaigning organisations, such as the National Autistic Society, through self-advocacy.  Part of me is heartened by this but I am also worried that the different interests of those who can’t self-advocate are lost in this process.

The NAS started life as a parents’ organisation and I imagine that, in the early days, most of the support it offered was to parents, such as myself, who needed to learn how to care for and support a child with autism and intellectual disability. The NAS is no longer a parents’ organisation, primarily, and this leaves a gap in provision.  As became clear to me at the conference, the NAS is not a professional organisation either (even though the annual event is billed as a ‘Professional Conference’). I’m not clear who the NAS is for; it  seems to be trying to be all things to all people but in the process is, perhaps, failing to meet all our needs.

The Book Hedgehog

In a previous post I lamented the departure of a member of staff who had coordinated the social enterprise activity at Dylan’s setting. During the recruitment process for a new social enterprise coordinator, the workshop and shop at the residential setting remained closed to members of the public and to residents.  This meant that there was a gap in Dylan’s daily schedule which had to be filled with alternative activities. Although staff did their best to keep Dylan purposefully occupied, he was more unsettled during this time and clearly missed his work in the shop.

In my post in December I described how, on the run up to Christmas, Dylan had been insistent that the shop be opened so that he could make the holly wreaths which he associated with that time of year.  I reflected:

What I am struck by is how important these seasonal rhythms are to Dylan. I suppose if you don’t use speech to communicate and have only limited communication, ’embodied’  sense-making through familiar activities is important. I have often thought of Dylan as needing consistency in his life but perhaps it would be more accurate to think of him as needing constancy. The difference between the two is that consistent things do not vary, though they may start and stop, whereas something that is constant does not stop,  although it may vary. Dylan seems to be able to manage everyday variations – the absence of a face, a change of detail – providing the anchoring rhythms remain.

I am very happy to report that a new social enterprise coordinator is now in post and that Dylan has resumed the ‘anchoring rhythm’ of his daily work in the shop. This seems to be going well. Since the shop re-opened Dylan has been more settled and has seemed generally happier.  As well as enjoying the rhythm and structure of working in the shop, it helps that Dylan knows the new coordinator; ‘J’ worked at the National Autistic Society school which Dylan attended so she is a familiar face. Not only does this mean that trust is already established, the continuity in terms of J’s knowledge of Dylan’s interests and skills is fantastic.

The arrival of J has provided an ideal opportunity to review Dylan’s work and to introduce new activities.  Since the social enterprise activity resumed Dylan has participated in a range of arts and crafts activities including candle making, paper printing and model making. He has also made ‘book hedgehogs’; these are ingenious creations, made by cutting the pages of a book. I am told that Dylan worked carefully and methodically at the hedgehogs; this is not something I would have expected Dylan to enjoy and reminds me (again) of the importance of keeping an open mind. As well as introducing Dylan to new activities, J is planning to continue the woodwork which Dylan enjoys so much.  She has identified some fantastic potential projects for Dylan and a new woodwork bench is due to be delivered.  Some new, and more accessible, qualifications are also planned.  Exciting times ahead for Dylan and the other residents  🙂

In my December post I drew a distinction between ‘consistency’ and ‘constancy’, suggesting Dylan might need the latter more than the former.  At the moment, serendipitously, Dylan seems to have both; the new coordinator provides Dylan with some consistency while the work offers him constancy.

Mother

Dylan missed being born on Mother’s Day, in 1994, by 21 minutes.  “Hurry up”, the midwife said to me towards the end of my 72 hour labour “or you won’t get a mother’s day baby.”  I wanted it to be over but I didn’t give a fig about Mother’s Day.  In more than 30 years,  I’d given my mother no more than a handful of cards to mark the day. I wasn’t the sort of person who cared about such things.

I care now I’m a mother myself of course. I love it when Dylan gives me a gift on Mother’s Day. This year, it was the most glorious bunch of roses: pink, lemon, cream, peach, apricot and white.  Yesterday (more than two weeks since Mother’s Day) I said to a member of staff at Dylan’s home: “the roses Dylan gave me have been amazing: I still have a few in a jug”.

As I threw the last stems out this morning I wished I’d given roses to my mum more often.

*

Dylan and I drove to Brighton on Mother’s Day to celebrate his 24th birthday.  We hadn’t been back since we left when Dylan was six months old but this year things fell auspiciously for a return visit to the town where he was born.

Firstly, Dylan has developed a passion for Premier Inns; an overnight stay in a different one, for his birthday, should go down a treat.  Secondly (by coincidence) it is the town where Dylan’s beloved ex-key worker now lives; if Dylan could meet up with E while we were there, that would be birthday happiness indeed.  And thirdly, my work commitments meant that (unusually) I could take a couple of days leave. For me it would be a welcome trip down memory lane; I wanted to find my old flat, by the sea, and piece together the life I’d lived.

This would be a joint and double celebration then: something for both of us.

*

What I hadn’t bargained for was my mother.  I didn’t connect her with the trip at all but as soon as we arrived I was ambushed by memories. Although she and I hadn’t been particularly close, mum stayed in Brighton with me after Dylan was born. This wasn’t planned; she had only meant to visit while her first grandchild made its arrival. But I didn’t have a clue how to look after the baby and when she realised this mum asked for leave from her job in a school so she could stay on for a couple of weeks.

Although mum and I hadn’t spent much time together previously we got along just fine. Full of tact and diplomacy, she was the ideal mother of the child’s mother. Her presence was empowering; she suggested ways of taking care of Dylan but always left it up to me to decide.  We had a lot of fun together taking the baby out for the first time and hanging out in my airy flat in the sky. I remember how she loved the sound of the gulls and the sea at the end of the avenue.

When the day came for her to leave I didn’t want her to go.

*

I had taken ‘Baby’s First Photo Album’ to Brighton hoping it might help me to explain to Dylan that we had once lived there.  I’m not sure Dylan understands that he is the baby in the photographs or, indeed, that he was once a baby himself. Babies hold a special terror for Dylan; he hates the sound of them crying and is made very anxious by their presence. So Dylan has not really been interested in looking at photo records of his early life.  Knowing Dylan’s interest in matching images, however, I thought he might pay attention if I could recreate the photographs while we were there.

So when we arrived at our Premier Inn, on Mother’s Day evening, I flicked through the album for a photo to take with us on a short walk along the seafront before dinner.  Surely I had a picture of the stretch between the town centre and Hove, where we had lived?  The ones I found were of Dylan’s first day at the beach; according to the inscription on the back he was one week old when mum and I took turns to push him along the front. “Look Dylan”, I said, “you and your Gran.”

This year, on Mother’s Day, I celebrated my mother and me, by the sea.

*

“I have become my mother” I said to my friend R over coffee next day.  I’d suggested meeting a poet friend and his partner for a walk while Dylan and I were in town. It was a cold, wet day and we’d retreated to a cafe for coffee and cake.  “I wear my hair longer than she kept hers but otherwise we look the same, right down to our coats of green”.  OK, mine is lime and hers was emerald. But even so…

Dylan was twitchy, asking when he would see E, so I kept him moving through the rainy day. But everywhere we went I found my mum; we rode the carousel and the ghost train on the pier and I remembered her with an ice cream, fending off a gull. In the Brighton Lanes I recalled her buying gifts to take back for a colleague and her Head. Even when Dylan and I went to ride the brand new i-360 (where mum could not possibly be) I heard her voice in my ear, telling me how much she loves this town, how comfortable she feels here.

And then, of course, she was waiting for us at my old flat.

*

“Smile, Dylan” I said.  “Let mummy take just one more”.  Dylan grimaced at me in the rain. I put my arms together and rocked them. “When you were a baby”,  I said, “this is where mummy and Dylan lived. Mummy and Dylan the baby lived here in this house”. I pointed up at my top floor flat. It looked shabbier than I remembered but just as lovely. “We were  very happy here”,  I told Dylan. “And your Gran stayed with us and helped mummy to look after you.”  Dylan tugged at me.  It was past lunch time…

The thing is (I thought to myself as we walked down the Western Road looking for somewhere Dylan- and vegan-friendly to eat) things were different then.  Were they? What was different? Actually, the place seemed remarkably unchanged.  I couldn’t find my beloved Sanctuary Cafe and the sea front had been tidied up a bit, but these were superficial changes. Other than the i-360, it was all pretty much as I remembered.  So what was the thing? I grew sad. The cafe I had decided would be OK had been awful. The rain was falling slantwise.  I was cold and exhausted.  I felt as old as my mother. “Mummy’s tired, Dylan”, I said. “Let’s go back to the hotel. You will see E later. I promise you.”

What was different, I realised, is that I didn’t know Dylan was autistic then.

*

Caring for Dylan is as natural, now, as breathing.  My mum taught me how to look after a new born baby and I learned, from Dylan, how to take care of my autistic son.  Our six months in Brighton, 24 years ago, seemed suddenly unreal; I had been in a bubble then, my eyes fixed on a thin blue line between sea and sky. Today, I couldn’t even see the horizon. I wanted to cry but I said “Dylan, let’s buy an umbrella then go and find E.”

By coincidence, it is E’s birthday as well as Dylan’s. In the pub where we have arranged to meet they exchange gifts. Dylan beams at the fiddle toys she gives him and gazes at her, unbelieving. Here is another thing for Dylan to process; just as he has a past, here, so E has a present. ‘Time’ is a difficult concept for Dylan and his birthday trip has been full of its knottiness. On the way back to our hotel afterwards, I find more knots: the number 7 bus passes the hospital where Dylan was born and where, four months later, he would spend a week on a drip, being treated for meningococcal  septicemia.

I push it out of my head:  some questions are too difficult to ask.

*

The next morning is the bluest of blues.  After breakfast we walk down to the beach.  The thin line at the edge of the world is so clear I imagine the ships could tumble off.  I watch Dylan throw stones into the sea. He concentrates hard on this for 40 minutes, testing the arc of his arm against the waves. I read some poems, try to make out the avenue where we lived, away in the distance. I think of mum and Dylan and feel part of a chain, a piece of their history.

“Let’s go back to the hotel and get our bags”, I say. “Then find a birthday cake to take home.”  There was almost a meltdown but I somehow managed to head off Dylan’s disappointment at not being able to strike out along the seafront, explore some more, and his intense frustration at the broken slush machine at the end of the pier.  As I steered Dylan away from potential triggers, and toward the sublime joy of a Rainbow Unicorn Cake, I realised Brighton was no longer my rinky-dink town;  the place belonged to Dylan too.

“But”, I said to Dylan as we left; “I am never staying in a Premier Inn again”.
*

It was a particularly grotty Premier Inn (though the staff were lovely).  I know Dylan adores this chain but I really think I have reached my limit. Suggestions for moving Dylan on to alternatives gratefully received 🙂

 

 

 

Residential Snow

When Dylan first moved to residential care one of the things that made me anxious was the idea of not being there for him if he became upset or was ill. The setting isn’t far from where I live, relatively speaking, but the quickest cross-country route from home takes 50 minutes; as it’s all but impossible by public transport I worry about being unable to drive.

As I’m not a particularly confident driver my anxieties about not being able to get to Dylan are compounded by bad weather.  I know emergencies are rare and that the chances of Dylan having an accident don’t increase when it is snowing  (well, perhaps a smidge).  I also accept that there is no need for me to drive to the home in response to minor incidents; familiar staff are there to support Dylan at such times. So it ought to be possible not to worry about the weather, even when conditions are arctic. This is not, however, necessarily the case.

Routine Emergency

One of the most important things to Dylan is his visual programme. He has various routines around this, one of which is that he likes his week  to end on the day he comes home.  Dylan really enjoys looking through his ‘new programme’ with me while he is visiting. For this to work, however, we need to agree Dylan’s weekly programme two or three days before he comes home for the weekend. What this means is that some of his activities are planned as much as ten days before they are to happen.  The weather  forecast is not something that can be reliably factored into planning.

At the height of last week’s snowfall, all planned activities at Dylan’s residential setting had to be cancelled as it was no longer safe to transport residents by car. This meant that a programme change had to be communicated –  not easy for Dylan, but he accepted it well and was happy to spend time in the snow instead.  The possibility that Dylan might not make it home at the weekend, however, worried me; this was not a disruption to routine that Dylan would so easily accept.

Essential Work

As well as feeling anxious about getting myself to Dylan’s home I worried about whether the care home staff could get to work. I know this is not my responsibility but because staffing is essential in a setting such as Dylan’s I still thought about it. The residents are bound to be unsettled by the change in routine and the inability to make trips out means they have to spend more time in the home together than usual. This is potentially a tricky situation and the best resource is plenty of staff.

I need not have worried of course; the managers had everything under control and the staff did what essential workers do and made it through the snow to the home.  When I asked how they had managed on the worst of the snow days, one member of staff told me that those who had got through ‘stayed on’, doing double shifts and sleeping over.  So while I spent most of the week working from home, work at Dylan’s home continued as normal.

No Snow Drama

This triggered two reflections. Firstly, that when we refer to ‘essential workers’ at times of extreme weather or public holiday we rarely think about the thousands of staff who work in residential settings supporting  the most vulnerable members of society.  Because the focus in such settings is about keeping residents calm and comfortable by maintaining routine and structure,  snow and ice doesn’t generate dramatic footage for the national news. Workers driving emergency response vehicles, Chinook helicopters and roadside recovery trucks may appear more heroic, but my heroes last week were the staff who took care of Dylan without turning the weather into a drama.

The second thing was a memory of when Dylan was living at home. The experience is still recent enough for me to remember how challenging it was to keep Dylan calm and happy during extreme weather. The disruption to Dylan’s routine if his school or day centre was closed, and the difficulty of being confined to a relatively small space,  without access to the therapeutic resources and spaces he needs, would often trigger anxiety and frustration. Recalling this, I was glad that Dylan was not only safe, but in the best possible place.

Weekend Work

There have been wintry weekends while Dylan has lived at his residential home but they have never prevented me from collecting Dylan for a home visit. With England in the grip of extreme weather, however, the situation was different. By the end of the week I had accepted that I could not get to Dylan and that he was safest staying where he was. The snow was so heavy that rather than fret about how Dylan would respond I settled into the idea;  there was nothing could be done and it would probably be good for me to have a break from caring for Dylan.

In the event, however, one of the support workers (a more confident driver than me) brought Dylan to me and collected him the next day. Although this was not quite the routine Dylan was used to it meant he had some time at home as well as relieving pressure on staff at the residential home. Dylan and I enjoyed our time together but I was a bit anxious about not being able to take him out for an activity as I usually do. This made me realise that Dylan and I have constructed a weekend routine which isn’t sustainable; there will be other times when the weather closes in and (in due course) age and ill-health to prevent me from looking after Dylan. I need to prepare us both for this somehow. I think an unsnowy break from our weekend routine may be on the horizon…

Dylan enjoying himself in the residential snow…

Finding Plato (or ‘getting back to work after having been a long-term carer’)

While organising child care is challenging for all working parents it can be particularly difficult for parents of disabled children as care needs often extend into adolescence and increase in complexity as the child gets older. This is frequently the case for autistic children with intellectual disability and for those children and adolescents whose behaviour may be considered challenging.

When Dylan was living at home I wrote several blog posts reflecting on the difficulties of managing the demands of a full-time job alongside my role as carer. While my employer was accommodating about certain aspects of my work, there were some employment practices about which nothing could be done; participation in evening research seminars, conferences away from home and professional development activities such as external examining were simply not possible.

As a single parent, I had to make sacrifices in the workplace in order to care for Dylan. I don’t regret these for a moment. I don’t recall ever having met a parent who has regretted the impact on their working life of caring for children. In fact I have probably read more accounts of parents who feel grateful that their caring responsibilities enabled them to re-think their relationship with the workplace and their career aspirations.

Obstacles

Academics often come into the sector on the back of their early experience of research, perhaps direct from their own PhD study or having worked on a research project. In this respect, I was a typical  early career academic when I took up my first appointment as a university lecturer in 1991. For the first six or seven years of my career I maintained a research-oriented focus to my work, contributing to articles and books while developing my experience of teaching and administration. From soon after 1996 however (the year Dylan was diagnosed autistic) my research articles started to decline and gaps began to emerge in my publications record.

Although there was still a trickle of papers through the 90s, these tended to be shorter and opportunistic. Then in 2004 (the year my ex-husband and I divorced) the publications come to an abrupt halt. From this point on the focus of my work would shift; I switched from research to undergraduate teaching (as this was easier to fit into the school day) and in order to manage financially I pursued promotions in leadership. While these roles took me further away from the research work I had wanted to do, it was a pragmatic strategy and I was glad I had the option.

One thing I have discovered about caring for someone with a disability is that fresh challenges emerge across the life course. Such spikes in the rhythm of family life can make the demands of the workplace feel overwhelming from time to time. When Dylan transitioned from school to adult services the lack of appropriate provision for his complex needs meant we hit crisis. The pressures were so great that, despite having managed as a lone working parent of a disabled child for years, it no longer felt possible. My responsibilities at home were overwhelming and had to take priority. I decided that I needed to reduce my working commitments. I had already given up research; now I gave up my leadership role as well.

Finding Plato

While there were downsides to this decision (the reduction in salary, for example) I was surprised to find that within a short period of time I was enjoying my work more than I had for years. As I no longer received remission from teaching for leadership responsibilities, and couldn’t claim any for research,  I had the heaviest teaching load of my career. I was physically exhausted but I found the teaching energising; suddenly I had the mental energy needed to advocate for Dylan and  renewed confidence in my ability to support him.

In the event, Dylan wasn’t offered an appropriate placement for another two years. The fact I was enjoying my teaching, however, meant that rather than feeling like a drain on my resources, work helped me to cope. Returning to teaching had allowed me to reconnect with my reasons for wanting to work in higher education and therefore with my sense of self.  In order to act as an effective advocate, it seems to me, such self-care and attention to our own needs and identity is essential. Setting up this blog became part of that process of re-connection and renewal.

Sometime in 2016, after Dylan had been allocated a residential placement, I was reading The Republic for a philosophy of education module I was teaching. I was struck by Plato’s suggestion that Guardians (the educated class of Athens) should give themselves to public service during the ages of 35-50 but then withdraw from  leadership in order to resume a focus on scholarship and private study. In the aftermath of Dylan leaving home I had been struggling to find a sense of purpose and to accept my new identity as an ex-carer.  The idea appealed; here was a self-justifying framework I could live with.

Opportunities

The problem was, it had been such a long time since I’d done any research I wasn’t sure how to go about it.  I hadn’t kept up with developments in fields I had previously researched and, in any case, had lost interest in them.  I no longer had a track record so there was no chance of being awarded funding to set up a research project in something new.  By now close to retirement, I was ineligible for the development initiatives which offered support to new researchers. Just how was I supposed to jump start my stalled academic career? Is this what happens to those with long-term caring responsibilities, I wondered? That by the time we are ready to resume a career it is too late?

I like to think that over the years I have turned my experience of supporting my severely disabled son from what could have felt like an obstacle into an opportunity. In relation to career, however, this had been a struggle. I was glad to feel re-engaged with teaching and not sorry to have given up my leadership responsibilities. I had worked hard to re-position myself in the workplace and not to care that the research route appeared to be blocked. Finding Plato, however, had stirred something in me.

I wish there was still some research I could do, I said to a colleague one day.  I explained how impossible it felt to return to research, more than a decade after I’d stepped back to focus on other things.

But you’ve so much to write about, she replied.  You have enough material in your blog for several papers.

Tied to the Worldly Work of Writing

My colleague knew what she was talking about as she had recently published an article drawing partly on a blog in which she documented her experience of caring for her elderly father. I had supported my colleague to set up her blog, based on my experience of keeping Living with Autism; now my colleague supported me to think about my blog as a resource for scholarship and enquiry. As well as listening while I tried out ideas, she suggested readings and scheduled writing days during which we worked alongside each other developing plans. The process was time-consuming; we spent over a year discussing ideas for a paper. The final outcome of this process was not what I’d anticipated; instead of a joint paper based on both blogs, the article which emerged focuses on parents of children with intellectual disability:

The premise of the paper is that parents and carers of autistic children acquire skills similar to those used in ‘ethnographic research’, a method based on participant observation in which a researcher immerses herself in the life world of another.  Parents of disabled children, I argue, need to adopt such an approach to parenting if they are to understand the world through their child’s eyes. This is particularly important, I suggest, when supporting a non-verbal child or adult with intellectual disability.  Based on this, I claim ‘ethnographic parenting’ of disabled children as a useful epistemology or ‘way of knowing’. Online blogs kept by parents of autistic children, I argue, represent valuable ‘single stories’ which enable us to build our understanding of children and adults whose voice would not otherwise be heard.

Writing the paper turned out to be an immensely satisfying process, enabling me to draw together the threads of years of parenting and academic work. As well as encouraging me to think deeply and carefully about the role of parents in advocating for children and adults with intellectual disability, writing the paper allowed me to acknowledge the intersectionality of my own working and family life. I know that I would not have embarked on this project without the encouragement of my colleague and I cannot stress the importance of her support enough. The experience leads me to suggest that we should do more to enable long term carers to resume their work and careers.