The Physical And The Emotional

wp_20170101_008I’d been reflecting that I was finding it hard to move on; 18 months since Dylan had moved to residential care and I’d managed hardly any of the things I’d told myself I was looking forward to.  I wasn’t sure what I’d done with the extra time; in fact I’d written fewer poems, been to the cinema less often and swum hardly at all.

I seem to have spent a lot of time thinking about Dylan, I said to a friend. That’s understandable, she replied. You haven’t stopped caring full-time for Dylan emotionally just because you’re not taking care of him physically.

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wp_20170101_009So I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the physical and emotional labour of caring for Dylan. One of the things I was concerned about when Dylan moved to residential care was that I’d forget how to look after him.  I worried that I’d lose the rhythm of bathing and shaving him if I wasn’t doing it every day. I feared the habit of being alert might leave me; that I wouldn’t hear the change in his footsteps or sudden silence summoning me to check that all was well. I was relieved I no longer had to do all the caring single-handed but I envied those who had taken my place; the fruits of this labour would now be theirs.

And the rewards of physical caring, I came to realise, are rich indeed. In this blog post, written 29 days after Dylan moved to his residential setting, I reflected on the possibility that chores are a currency of care. If you have a disability that means  you can’t take care of your own needs, perhaps care-giving acts, such as laundering clothes, acquire emotional freight? In the aftermath of Dylan leaving home, I realised that the physicality of caring for him had been a language of love.

I have learned that we don’t forget how to care for someone physically if we no longer do it every day; the rhythm is as deep in my body’s memory as climbing the stairs or swimming a length of the pool. The challenge is not remembering how to care for a person we love but finding a way of sharing responsibility for this. Perhaps, as a long-term single parent, I am less used to this than others. I have asked myself whether I would find it easier to share Dylan’s care with others if I had had to negotiate this with another parent while Dylan was at home. As I’m sure I’ve reflected before, there is something limiting as well as liberating about having sole care.

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wp_20170101_010And although Dylan is 22 years old he does still need physical care; he has to be supported to wash, dress, eat and to access the activities which he enjoys.  Since Dylan moved to residential care his ‘care plan’ has developed to reflect minor changes in his support needs;  Dylan needs more help selecting appropriate clothes than staff realised, for example, but minimal supervision when organising his daypack.

Sometimes Dylan shows a new streak of independence. When I arrived to collect him from his residential setting at New Year he took off at high speed. Where is he going? I asked staff. They weren’t sure. A support worker followed him and returned with a smiling Dylan: He’d gone back to his bedroom, she explained, to fetch his water bottle.

I was absolutely delighted.  The water bottle was new –  a present from Santa – and I wasn’t sure whether or not it was something Dylan would use.  It turned out that in the week since Christmas Dylan had got into the habit of filling it up each day and taking it with him on daytime activities. I could tell the present was a success – the fact that Dylan had remembered it, when we had not, indicated this. As we drove to the seaside to celebrate the new year I reflected that this may well have been Dylan’s most successful Christmas present this year.

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wp_20170101_011I used to love listening to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on Radio 4. In one programme he introduced me to the term ‘not on my watch’, a plea which Cooke suggested American presidents made in relation to errors happening during their term of office. I have taken this phrase and applied it to my various responsibilities over the years, albeit for less-significant events. ‘If the course fails to recruit, let it not be on my watch’. ‘If the External Examiner isn’t happy, let it not be on my watch’. ‘If the children don’t have their lunch boxes, let it not be on my watch’…

The problem is, if you’re a single parent it usually is your watch. Sharing Dylan’s care gives the term more currency. I was thinking about this at new year because a breakdown in communication had meant Dylan didn’t have appropriate clothes for our planned trip. When I returned Dylan to his residential setting after the holiday I discovered this was because he is running low on trousers and needs to buy some more. I was feeling a bit grumbly about this as I settled Dylan back into his room after our trip to the seaside.  I’ll do an online order when I get home, I said, hopefully they’ll come fairly quickly.

I didn’t like that we hadn’t noticed Dylan needed to replace clothes. We need a better system for keeping track of Dylan’s things, I said.  And as I said that, something different but related came into my head.  Dylan, I said, Where’s your water bottle? What happened to your water bottle?  He looked at me, inscrutable. I’m pretty sure he knew what I was asking and what the implications were.  I thought he looked a little sad, but perhaps I imagined this. I checked Dylan’s bag and the car but there was no sign of it.  Staff must have worked hard to help Dylan build the water bottle into his routine and to look after it while he was out and about, I thought to myself. I’d been looking after Dylan for less than 24 hours and had managed to lose it. I’m so sorry, I said to the support worker. I’m afraid that was on my watch.

Later, when I looked at the photos from our trip, I could see the water bottle in the pocket of Dylan’s backpack while we were kite flying on the beach. Perhaps it had fallen out then.  Still, I telephoned the restaurant where we had eaten dinner afterwards. They hadn’t got it. Those Jack Wills things are really popular with the young folk, the manager said. Someone probably picked it up.

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wp_20170114_003Last month I noticed that Dylan’s railcard had expired so I took it home to renew. Last week I remembered that I hadn’t done it and went to get the expired card from the ‘to do’ tray in my study. No sign of it. That’s odd. I hunted around a bit. It hadn’t fallen on the floor. I hadn’t put it in a drawer. I couldn’t remember for certain when I’d last seen it.  So much for keeping better track of Dylan’s things, I thought to myself. Now what to do? I searched though old emails for a record but drew a blank. I would have to sort this out: I had promised Dylan a train journey in the new year.

Can I have your Filofax please, Dylan? I asked him this weekend.  Dylan loves his Filofax and carries it everywhere with him.  He isn’t so interested in the daily records that we fill in (though he realises that they are important to us I think) but he’s very attached to the passes, tickets and concessions cards which he keeps there. As he gave it to me the Filofax fell open at his travel cards and to my amazement there was his rail card, neatly filed in its place. Dylan must have seen the card in my study and taken it back – keeping track of his own things, taking responsibility. Rather than just remove it again, this time I took the time to explain why. Dylan probably keeps better tabs on things than we realise.

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As I reflected at the start of this post, I might not look after Dylan full-time but I spend a lot of time thinking about him.  This week, I’ve mostly been feeling bad about that water bottle. This is a small thing, I know, but I’ve been surprised at how much a lost water bottle has taught me about sharing Dylan’s care. So while Dylan and I were shopping for clothes yesterday I encouraged him into the shop where I had bought the original. Dylan seemed delighted and quickly picked out an identical replacement.  Hopefully I’ll be a bit better at keeping an eye on it this time, at least until Dylan has built it so firmly into his routine that he looks out for it himself.

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The photographs of Dylan flying his kite were taken in Cleethorpes on New Year’s Day

The Key

berrien-2016-047This week is the start of the academic year in England; pretty soon I will be deep in teaching. Although September no longer marks a transition point for Dylan I don’t think I will ever lose the anxiety that the end of summer brings for parents of children with disabilities. Each year I would live on my nerves through the first weeks of term, hoping desperately that all would be well.

It is three years, now, since Dylan left school. That was the hardest end of summer ever; my nerves burned for months. Happily, Dylan is settled at last and can live his life without such difficult jags of time; there are no sudden changes to the year’s rhythm, or inexplicable annual endings, in his residential setting. There is a reassuring continuity to Dylan’s life.

berrien-2016-046That’s not to say there aren’t changes; periodically something disrupts a routine or we deliberately introduce a new pattern to Dylan’s week. The last time I posted an update here, for example, I was anticipating taking a holiday without Dylan. I fretted terribly about the proposed trip, concerned that Dylan would be upset by my absence, but he was absolutely fine.

The key to this, I’m sure, was the extended timetable the care home staff made for Dylan. Instead of a weekly programme Dylan had a schedule which ran for the time I was away, ending with the day he would see me again. Dylan also had a weekly ‘overview’ schedule so that he could count the sleeps until his next visit home.  It didn’t seem to matter to Dylan that the gap between my visits was longer as long as he knew he would see me again.

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13901449_293441187680481_5004186233514663936_nI’m really glad that I took that ‘next step‘ during the summer. I had a fantastic week in Brittany and relaxed into the different pace of time without Dylan. Some of the things that my girlfriend and I did Dylan would also have enjoyed, but I was able to linger over them in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past: a Chagall exhibition in Landerneau; a beach day at Poul-Rodou; a folk festival in Plomodiern; cycling on the Isle de Batz. I returned from holiday this year refreshed instead of exhausted.

I missed Dylan of course. I kept his timetable close by me and checked it each day to see what he was doing. Initially I talked about him a lot. In fact on the drive down to Portsmouth for the ferry I must have come close to driving my friend away with my talk of Dylan. That journey was terrible for me. I was in such a state of anxiety about leaving Dylan I had made myself ill: my stomach was in knots and I had a dreadful sense of foreboding. My friend let me talk or not as I needed. Having her to support and encourage me was probably key to my being able to take the step at all.

wp_20160821_006I’m not sure how patient she would have been with me had I continued to talk so much about Dylan during the week. At some point in the Channel , however, I felt the knots in my stomach loosen and my anxiety lift. The sun was shining. We were on deck. I could sit and read Zola and drink tea, as I had dreamed of doing. And so the week continued; while we were in France I made only one phone call to Dylan’s care home and sent just one email.

The email was to ask staff what size Dylan’s head was.  The last time he and I were in Brittany he bought a Breton cap which he has worn constantly since and I wanted to get a new one for him, as a gift. He looked a bit puzzled when I gave it to him on my arrival home, as he did about the Breton biscuits which had mysteriously appeared in the house.  I think he pieced things together when he saw my photos from the holiday, however. Usually Dylan looks through photos from our trips with great interest but I’d describe his interest in my pictures from Brittany as ‘passing’. So mummy had been away without him.  He ate the biscuits. He put on his cap…

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berrien-2016-025Dylan’s care home manager told me she thought parents should take a holiday, even if it causes separation anxiety. I understand that now.  It is important for parents of disabled children and adults to have a complete break, not just from caring but from thinking about themselves as care-givers.  And, I remind myself, learning how to be apart from your adult child is part of learning how to be a parent. In this respect the experience of a parent of a disabled adult is not dissimilar to the experience of any parent;  I was also anxious about being far from my daughter when she lived in France.

There is  something about being away from a disabled child or adult which can provoke particular anxiety, however.  Their vulnerability and dependence on others means you need to have complete confidence in the people caring for your son or daughter.  I feel lucky that Dylan is finally living somewhere I can put my trust in others.  This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we make such decisions.  How do we figure out levels of confidence in someone? Is there a science to it? Do ticks on a checklist really reassure us?  Parents of children with disabilities spend their lives making difficult decisions about care provision,  but how we make them – well, that’s something I’m not absolutely certain of.

As well as the checklist there is surely something magical to this? Call it intuition, if you will. Something in your guts, perhaps. An unknotting.  Sense of lightness. Je ne sais quoi.  I’ve written about this before; how some of the critical decisions I’ve made about Dylan’s care have been based on something entirely irrational magical. And this week it struck me that I’ve been relying on such seventh sense since Dylan was born. Because, as a single working parent, I had to go back to work when Dylan was only a few weeks old so needed to find someone to look after him. I was pretty clueless about the berrien-2016-088 process; I didn’t know how to care for babies and certainly had no system for figuring out how to choose a childminder. But someone very special came into our lives and I was able to get back to work – which some days meant working a distance from Dylan – with the complete confidence which comes from knowing you trust someone else to care for your child.

Blogs can be wonderful can’t they? I was so thrilled to find a message on mine last week from Dylan’s first childminder 🙂 I moved away from the area quite soon after Dylan was born but Tan has remained a precious memory. She was a key person, perhaps, because she made my first difficult separation from Dylan not just possible but positive. I think that is probably also an accurate description of my experience this summer.

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berrien-2016-153The thing about key people is that they tend to be transitory:  children outgrow childminders;  parents move away; friends move on.  I can add something else now:  care workers get promoted.  Dylan’s key worker will be moving onto a new role next month so one of the things we will be discussing at his annual review this week is her replacement. E has been a fantastic key worker; she has developed a great relationship  with Dylan and has been instrumental in developing critical aspects of his care, particularly around communication and behaviour support. Although I was sad to hear Dylan would be losing her as his key worker, I can’t say I was surprised. Key people are special people and if they are young,  gifted and ambitious they inevitably get promoted 🙂   The only question in my mind had been when and to where she would move.

Happily, the promotion is within the organisation so Dylan will still have occasional contact with E. I am telling myself that Dylan was lucky to have her as his key worker during his first year in a residential home; E has helped him to settle in and created a system of care around Dylan which should ensure continuity. As the message from Dylan’s first childminder reminds me, we keep people in our hearts and minds long after they have moved on: I’m sure Dylan will not forget.

One of the many things I love about Dylan is his capacity to form deep  relationships.  He has his own magical system for deciding whether to trust someone; I’ve seen Dylan reject some people entirely while embracing others with utter loyalty and commitment.  The transparency of Dylan’s affections means I am confident his ‘voice’ will be heard in the process of selecting a new key worker.

berrien-2016-104There are, of course, no promotion opportunities for parents; it is a role for life, with no possibility of moves up, down or sideways.  While that means there is no escaping the temporary anxiety of being far from your child, from time to time, it also means you are their continuity; the birth rock on which their whole life pivots. So although I don’t care for Dylan on a daily basis now, and am no longer the only person who knows how to do this, I am the one with the long view, holding his narrative together. That, I tell myself, is a privileged position to be in.

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A final key is for my daughter. She will turn 21 this week, a birthday we used to refer to as the  ‘key to the door’.  So this September I’m making wishes for both my children to walk  happily through their newly-opening doors …

 

Except for the photo of Dylan (looking uncertain in his Breton cap) the photographs were taken in Brittany in August.

Kissing The Screen

speed cameraSo last week Dylan had Facetime scheduled on his programme on Tuesday and Thursday after his evening meal.  The icon looked like one of those warning signs for road traffic cameras I thought to myself.  I doubted I would be up to speed: I wasn’t even sure I’d created the accounts correctly. If something unexpected happened would I be able to sort it, I wondered?  Or would techno-anxiety get the better of me?

Even though the Facetime symbol didn’t mean anything to Dylan I was conscious that if it didn’t work he might be upset at not completing an activity that was on his programme. It was also likely that Dylan would be less than interested if we attempted to re-schedule (in the future) an activity that hadn’t impressed him the first time. No pressure then. It was with some nervousness I tapped the Facetime icon for the first time last Tuesday evening…

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Proloquo2go (assistiveware.com)

I had spent the previous Sunday restoring both ipads (Dylan’s old one and the new ipad mini) to their factory settings. I had decided that I wasn’t happy with Dylan’s favourite films being ‘in the cloud’ on the mini as he needs to access them without an internet connection (when travelling for example). I was also uncomfortable with the way the ipads were linked, allowing my personal data to be accessed (hypothetically) by Dylan’s support staff.

In the process of setting the ipads free of each other  Ariel’s Beginnings disappeared and some photographs were lost. Other than that, however, the restore was a success and I was able to load Dylan’s resources onto the mini. This clearing of the digital decks also encouraged me to think about how Dylan might use his new ipad in the future. I’ve been wanting to get Dylan a copy of the well-regarded communication software Proloquo2go for a while and, with my newfound confidence, last weekend felt as good a time as any. On a roll, I also subscribed Dylan to Disney Life, an app which allows him to watch any movie he wants as well as offering access to songs, books and games. While Dylan will only be able to use this with an internet connection it is potentially a good use of his pocket money, providing Dylan with on- as well as off-line access to new and familiar resources.

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WP_20160517_006As Dylan didn’t understand what the Facetime symbol on his programme meant he didn’t have the fear I had but nor did he know what to expect. For our first session Dylan was in the corridor outside his room as if unsure where to locate this new activity on his mental map.  I wasn’t surprised – even with some awareness of what would happen I’d wondered where in the house to sit for our Facetime call.

Dylan was clutching his ears and moaning softly, something he does when encountering experiences for which he has no coordinates. I decided to wander around the house, hoping this would help Dylan see we were in real time.  Look Dylan, it’s raining in the garden.  This is what I’m going to cook tonight. The day bed arrived today – let me show you – here I am, walking up the stairs.  As I moved around the house, visiting various rooms, I could see Dylan peeking at the camera from time to time. When I got to the attic (where Dylan watches his old VHS videos when he comes to stay) he lifted his head and looked straight at me.  Good:  I had caught his interest 🙂

*

facetimeiconDylan finds the telephone distressing and computer activities can make him anxious if they involve audio. I knew, therefore, that I had to stay open to the possibility that Facetime might not work for him. Although Dylan’s glances at the camera during the first session were encouraging it was hard to know if he was comfortable; Dylan needs time to process new experiences and I didn’t want to make assumptions. Perhaps, I suggested to the staff supporting Dylan, I could have a conversation with them while Dylan watched?

This proved really useful as through it I discovered that Facetime is a great way to chat to staff even if Dylan doesn’t join in. I found it far richer than my daily telephone calls as I had so much more context information and therefore a better understanding of how Dylan was.  While I chatted to a member of staff, for example, I could hear Dylan in the background. Because I know Dylan’s vocalisations so well this gave me valuable information about how he was feeling and when to finish the call. Dylan kept drifting in and out of view, drawn by my voice and image, so as well as hearing him I was visually reassured that he was appropriately dressed and (apart from the ear clutching) at ease physically. This information was so much more powerful than any phone call.

When I waved goodbye to Dylan and tapped the icon closed I felt such relief and delight: it was like magic, almost a miracle. How could it be that I could see and talk to Dylan so simply, at the swipe of an icon? I walked around the house smiling:  even if Dylan decided he wasn’t interested in Facetime, I thought to myself, I could use it to chat to staff.

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WP_20160517_004Dylan had a second Facetime session scheduled  for Thursday. After our first session I had emailed staff to say that I thought it had gone well but I would understand if Dylan didn’t want to do it again. I then tried to be as good as my word by not looking forward to our Thursday evening arrangement too much in case it didn’t happen.

Perhaps that’s why, this time, I signed in rather casually at the appointed time rather than ten minutes early, as I had before. Imagine, then,  my excitement when I found a message from Dylan to say he was waiting for me to do Facetime 🙂   This time Dylan was sitting downstairs in one of the resident lounges with E, his key worker.  I chatted with E about Dylan’s day and held up some things to show Dylan. Dylan seemed very relaxed next to E on the sofa and looked straight at the camera for a full 15 Facetime minutes. This is great, isn’t it? I said to them.

As I made to wrap up the session, aware that Dylan was getting itchy feet, I waved my hand and blew a kiss. Bye bye, I said, lovely to see you. See you on Saturday.  Dylan looked at me for a moment then suddenly all I could see were his features looming, getting closer – the top of his head first, as he stooped down towards me, then his eyes, nose and finally his mouth, kissing the screen.

The Familiar And The Strange

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Arriving

It’s not surprising that Dylan likes Premier Inns: the rooms are identical, the facilities standardised and the buildings similar in style. Such predictability  can be enabling; I’m not sure Dylan would be as relaxed as he is away from home without the reassuring familiarity of a ‘moon hotel’. When we arrived at a  Premier Inn last weekend, however, I was shocked; the twin room wasn’t configured in the same way as those we had stayed in previously and the narrow space between the beds made them feel more like a double.

In the context of a mother and adult son the room wasn’t acceptable. Dealing with the situation, however, was potentially tricky; Dylan was already looking around, working out where to put his things. If I were to do something about the situation I had to act quickly. I managed to persuade Dylan to leave bags unpacked while we returned to reception. It was a holiday weekend and as I had struggled to find accommodation for the evening I wasn’t confident about my chances but, keeping my voice cheery so as not to make Dylan anxious, I explained the problem with the room.

Once again I was struck by how improved autism awareness is; the staff instantly understood the situation and dealt with it beautifully, identifying  potential solutions and involving Dylan in the process.  Would Dylan like to view an alternative room, one of the receptionists asked? We followed her up the stairs where we were delighted to find a larger room with a bed by the window for Dylan. I am sure that involving Dylan in this way helped him to understand the situation; had I simply negotiated the room change at the desk  then returned to the original room to retrieve our bags he would probably have thought we were leaving and become anxious.  With the visual support of visiting the alternative room, however, Dylan accepted the change without a problem.

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Departing

This turned out not to be the only disruption to routine Dylan had to cope with; returning to our room after a meal out  I discovered I couldn’t get Brave to play on his ipad mini. As I mentioned in my last post, the ipad mini is a new acquisition. I haven’t used it for Facetime with Dylan yet as I am still trying to get myself up and running with Dylan’s old ipad.  I thought, however, that I’d managed to transfer Dylan’s music and films across to the mini and that all was well. ‘You can watch a film on your new ipad when we get back to the moon hotel’ I had said to Dylan as we left the restaurant.

Fortunately I managed to distract Dylan with a bath when Brave wouldn’t play as promised. The next morning I managed to head off a repeat request with the suggestion of breakfast.  I had figured out that the films Dylan used to have on his old ipad were ‘in the cloud’ on his new mini; rather than available to him at all times these are now dependent on Dylan having an Internet connection capable of downloading them (which the hotel’s free Wi-Fi service was not). This is not ideal and will be very confusing for Dylan who was previously able to watch whenever he wanted. For his technophobe mother, meanwhile, it’s another argument against life’s unremitting upgrades.

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York Minster

Last weekend’s ‘moon hotel’ was in Chester, a place neither Dylan or I had visited before (except for trips to Chester Zoo which hadn’t involved driving into the town centre).  When introducing Dylan to new  experiences it is useful to make a connection with things which are already familiar. This is true of all learning, of course, but seems to be particularly the case for Dylan who embraces new experiences happily, with confidence, when they are grounded in something he already knows. So my reason for taking Dylan to Chester was the town’s similarity to York, Dylan’s favourite place in the world.

As I have noted before,  Dylan has been visiting York for years; he recognises and collects information about York, says the word ‘York’ beautifully, and spends much of his time looking at pictures of York.  Part of this attraction is the Minster but recently I’ve realised that of even more interest to Dylan are York’s city walls. We have developed a hand sign for city walls which involves drawing a horizontal circle in the air; ‘York’ Dylan says to me optimistically, tracing a flat ring with his finger. Surely, I told myself as we drove into Chester last Saturday morning, Dylan would love it; there was a cathedral, a railway, a river and city walls, just like at York.

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Chester Cathedral

Serendipitously we found a mobility car park (hats off to Chester Council) at the entrance to the Cathedral and city walls. Dylan was on alert; he had the quick look about him that means something has caught his attention.  As I switched the car engine off I turned to him and drew a circle in the air; ‘there are city walls here’ I said. I didn’t need to tell Dylan; he had already clocked them.  As we emerged from the car park into a stained glass dazzle of light I wondered if Dylan might head into the Cathedral first? But no:  off he tore, anti-clockwise, around the walls.

*

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City Walls, Chester

Perhaps Dylan likes city walls because the way they encircle an area is intuitive to him and feels comforting.  When Dylan was very young – before we realised he was autistic – one of the things he did was stake out perimeters. It’s quite a common behaviour among autistic children: lining objects up around edges, creating boundaries. Before I knew it wasn’t playing I used to smile at Dylan’s imaginatively-placed bricks and cars and tea set pieces. The first time I remember puzzling at it was on holiday in France when Dylan was 16 months old.  As we only had a few toys with us Dylan emptied the kitchen cupboards of pots and used those instead.  I have a memory of watching him scratch his head like an old man as he surveyed a border he’d built around a room with cups and plates and saucers. There was something about it that didn’t seem right.

Looking back I can see that being taken into a new environment with differently-configured space must have been very confusing for Dylan. With no knowledge of his autism, I wasn’t looking out for Dylan or mediating the world for him as I do today. For the undiagnosed child, the world must seem a very scary place indeed. Now I can smile because I understand that  Dylan’s attempt to impose order on the holiday cottage was smart; he found the pots, on his wobbly toddler legs, and did his best.

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River Dee, just outside the Walls

Later, I would watch Dylan mark territory with his body: pacing the edges of a library or art gallery; establishing a boundary in a park or field; setting himself limits when visiting friends. ‘It’s alright’ I would say, ‘once Dylan fixes his boundary he’ll keep within it’. It is a way of mapping but also a safety mechanism; when Dylan has paced a border, or marked a route, he seems to feel less anxious about inhabiting the space. I think this is partly about his location in relation to others but is also about his embodied self; he needs to know where he is in relation to himself as much as to the outside world.

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Dylan with his book

As well as visiting Chester Cathedral we visited St John the Baptist’s Church, Chester’s  original Cathedral.  There was a second hand book sale in the church and Dylan went rummaging, returning with a Thomas the Tank Engine book (no surprise) and a coffee table book (which was unusual). ‘What is that you’ve got, Dylan?’ I asked, pointing to the large book under his arm as I helped him find his purse.  ‘York’ he replied.  The book was called ‘Colourful Britain’ and had photographs of various iconic locations in Britain. The reason Dylan wanted the book was the photo of York Minster on the cover.

Was Dylan making an explicit link between the town we were visiting and his beloved York? Could his experience of somewhere strange be helping him re-think the familiar? As I wondered this I recalled how, at Dylan’s age, I had spent a year in the USA as part of an exchange programme. As Christmas approached one of my English peers felt so homesick she decided she would go home for Intercession. I hadn’t settled either but I didn’t want to spend money on a round trip flight to England; I decided to go travelling in Mexico instead.

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Magnolia, Chester Cathedral Garden

Those weeks turned out to be some of the most difficult of my life; I got into scrapes I shiver to recall 35 years on. But one of the positive things that came out of the experience was that when I made it back to the University of Massachusetts it felt different. I remember how relieved I was to see the vast campus (which before Christmas had seemed so alien) and hear the American accents telling me they would see me later (which had seemed unintelligible before but was now reassuringly familiar).  It was wonderful to be back, I told my friend Nettie: it was as if I’d come home. 

*

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Water of Life (Garth, 1992)

Before we set off to drive back over the Pennines on Saturday evening I showed Dylan his programme for the next day and week ahead. The plan was that I would return Dylan to his residential setting  but I wasn’t sure whether Dylan would accept this; usually I see him Saturday/Sunday at home rather than Friday/Saturday away from home.  I pointed at the symbols and photographs and tried to explain, reassuring Dylan that he would see me as usual the following weekend.  I fell silent, wondering if he had understood. Dylan looked  at his programme and pointed to the photo of our house:  ‘Home’, he said to me.

This is the first time Dylan has said ‘home’ unprompted. I have never been sure whether or not he understands the word or knows where home is – and since Dylan moved to residential care I have become even more confused about this. Should I call his care home ‘home’, I have asked myself,  or the house where we used to live together and which he now only visits?  I have kept fudging this, never quite sure what to say. But Dylan seems to have it figured out. Perhaps moving to residential care has given Dylan a stronger sense of home in the same way that I came to appreciate the familiar through the strange at his age?

‘Yes Dylan’, I replied: ‘That is our home’.

Easter, Restored

Wales March 2016 160Dylan and I had a tradition, for many years, of going away for Easter week; in the last ten years we have spent delightful holidays in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as across England and particularly in our beloved Yorkshire Dales. Since Dylan became unsettled in 2013, however,  I haven’t been able to take him away by myself and our Easter breaks have been a thing of the past.

In the new year, with Dylan continuing to do well in specialist residential care, I felt confident enough to book a cottage for Easter week. I chose the Llŷn peninsula in Wales; as well as beautiful walks there are steam trains, churches, castles and slates mines, all of which Dylan enjoys. On the run-up to the holiday I temporarily lost my nerve after an incident with Dylan while I was out in the community. I had struggled to manage the situation on my own and was worried about my ability to keep us both safe if Dylan became distressed in a vulnerable location while we were away. ‘Had I been foolish to plan the holiday?’ I asked Dylan’s care home manager. But she was reassuring:  I had thought things through and based the holiday on Dylan’s needs as well as my own; if I was prepared to be flexible and return home if necessary, she didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t give the holiday a try.

So on Good Friday Dylan and I set off on our trip. I think we were both really happy to have our Easter tradition restored; there was something wonderfully familiar about the time, like deep memory. Because there have been significant changes in our lives, however, there were things we had to rediscover about each other. Here are seven things I learned…

  1. Dylan’s key worker is key

Wales March 2016 001This was the first time I hadn’t packed for Dylan myself. I wondered whether he would have the clothes with him that he needed and enough music, books and films for the week. What I discovered, however, is that I am not the only person who knows what Dylan needs 🙂 Apart from a belt and DVD, Dylan had what he required.  Furthermore, Dylan’s key worker had prepared symbols, choice boards and day and weekly timetable strips for Dylan to take on holiday.  She had tried to think of all the things Dylan might need to communicate while we were away. This support proved invaluable!

  1. The schedule is essential

Wales March 2016 008One of the first things Dylan did on arrival at the cottage was give me a timetable strip to fix for the next day. I suggested we might spend the morning looking through leaflets to pick some activities for the week followed by a trip to the supermarket and a walk on the beach in the afternoon.  The weather during the holiday was a mix of blue blown sky and heavy rain; the first day, however, it poured.  After lunch, therefore, I suggested a film. Dylan hovered nearby. ‘Why don’t you get a film?’ I repeated. He crossed his arms.  ‘Dylan’, I said, ‘do you want to watch Pinocchio? Or The Good Dinosaur perhaps?’  Fixed Stare.  After a while he disappeared. I got out a book and settled myself on the sofa. Soon after, Dylan reappeared, timetable in hand, showing me the beach.

We had a lovely walk, of course, and I was glad I hadn’t been so easily let off the hook; we were on holiday in the UK after all and walking the beach in rain is part of the deal.  I was aware that Dylan’s support staff have a method for ‘change of schedule’ and that Dylan is usually happy to accept this but I didn’t attempt it again. Instead, I was careful to promise only things I was pretty sure we would be able to do. What I discovered was that as long as we followed the schedule Dylan didn’t mind if something went wrong.  The day we visited ‘Electric Mountain’,  for example, all the tours were full.  At the booking desk, I felt my heart sink; there would be a scene I was sure. But Dylan was fine; he seemed to understand and accepted my proposed alternative of a steam train by the lake.

  1. It’s getting to the start of something, not the end, that matters

Perhaps this was because, for Dylan, it is getting to the start rather than the end of something that seems to matter. During the week we had a routine of preparing Dylan’s schedule each evening, sifting through the leaflets and symbols to build the next day’s activities. And each day, wherever we went, Dylan carried his schedule with him, pulling the symbols off one by one until the strip was empty. Early in the week I puzzled as to why Dylan removed the symbols  before he started the activity rather than when he had finished it which seemed counter-intuitive to me. I ended the week, however, appreciating the sense of achievement in getting to the starting point rather than the finishing line.

  1. Technology sometimes saves the day week

Wales March 2016 018Holidays might be a welcome break from email and social media but I was glad, on Easter Sunday, that I hadn’t left all our technology at home.  Dylan doesn’t use an ipad to communicate but he has one and at the last minute – literally as we were saying goodbye to his key worker – I decided to bring it with us. I’m not very comfortable with technology  so I didn’t think it likely I’d be able to support Dylan with his ipad while we were away. In the event, however, it virtually saved the holiday.

‘Memo’ Dylan started saying to me loudly and repeatedly as soon as we arrived at the cottage on Good Friday evening: ‘Memo.’  I knew the word was familiar but I hadn’t heard it for a while and couldn’t quite place it. There were pictures of clown fish on the wall of the room Dylan was sleeping in and that night it occurred to me that he was perhaps wanting to watch his Nemo DVD. I looked through the films he’d brought with him; his key worker had restricted Dylan to seven films and Nemo wasn’t among them.

Next day, at the supermarket, Dylan made a beeline for the DVD display. ‘Memo’ he said repeatedly as he flicked through all the racks systematically: ‘Memo’.  There was no Nemo. Dylan became distressed. ‘We will look somewhere else’, I told him. Dylan picked up a copy of The Good Dinosaur. ‘That’s a good choice’, I said. Dylan wasn’t entirely satisfied and continued asking for ‘Memo’ while we shopped. ‘What does he want?’ the check out girl asked. ‘Nemo I think’ I replied:  ‘Do you know anywhere he might find it today?’  But she didn’t. ‘There isn’t anywhere else in the town really’, she replied. ‘We might find Memo’, I reassured Dylan, ‘when we go on our train trip tomorrow’.

What I’d forgotten was that the next day was Easter Sunday and the shops would be closed. Dylan hadn’t forgotten about ‘Memo’ though.  Although he enjoyed the trip his anxiety about finding ‘Memo’ was palpable. When we arrived back at the end of the day Dylan prostrated himself on the station platform in protest. These ‘lie down’ protests can last a while and escalate; I looked at Dylan lying in the rain, face to the ground.  What could I do? Then I remembered the ipad…

A few years ago, when we took a short break by plane instead of car, I had downloaded a couple of films onto Dylan’s ipad. If we went back to the cottage, I told Dylan, I could get try to find Nemo. Eventually I persuaded Dylan to get up – we headed back towards the car. ‘Memo’ he insisted:  ‘Memo’.  And then, another light bulb moment:  ‘Memo’ was not Nemo  – it was Dylan’s word for The Little Mermaid. What he wanted was his beloved Ariel. Could he really not have this with him?

Back at the cottage I discovered he didn’t.  As this is probably Dylan’s favourite film (along with Peter Pan and Pinocchio) the fact he didn’t have it made me realise that Dylan does still need support to pack the things he is likely to want.  My technological anxiety meant it took me ages to get Ariel’s Beginnings onto Dylan’s ipad but I finally managed it. This made Dylan so happy 🙂

  1. I’m no longer a carer

It was with a shock I realised that I had lost the rhythm of caring for Dylan; washing and shaving him each day, and supporting him with self-care skills, was something I had got out of the habit of doing. Only eight months since Dylan moved to residential care and already I had forgotten so much.  Instead of doing it automatically, now I had to make a conscious effort to care.

  1. Sugar might not be the problem

Wales March 2016 145‘Shortbread’ Dylan said to me on day four.  Since he has been following a low-sugar diet Dylan bakes with a sugar-substitute so that he can still enjoy sweet-tasting treats. I had neglected to think about Dylan’s supply of sugar-free cake; I didn’t have any xylitol with me and there was no possibility of buying low-sugar products in the places we were visiting. I realised, too late, that I should have made a batch of Dylan’s special shortbread and brought it with us.

As Dylan doesn’t understand why some shortbread is OK for him to eat and some shortbread isn’t,  my refusal to let him have it must have seemed unfathomable. The next day, therefore, I decided I would let Dylan buy some regular shortbread. I prepared myself as best I could for the aggressive behaviour that has been linked with Dylan eating sugar by making sure we were safe home before it was likely to kick in. There was, however, no reaction (except joy).  Next day, curious, I let Dylan have an ice cream (again as we were about to head back to the cottage). Again, nothing.  On our final day: another ice cream. And, again, nothing. Ho hum. What to make of that? Maybe sugar isn’t the problem I thought it was?

  1. Symbols can be reinstated as well as removed

Wales March 2016 185As well as a daily schedule Dylan had a weekly chart which I used to illustrate the number of days we would be staying at the cottage. So that Dylan understood when the holiday would be over I encouraged him to remove a photo of the cottage from the chart each day.  On the final day of our holiday, as I was gathering things for departure, I glanced at Dylan’s schedule: he had stuck all seven photographs of the cottage back up. ‘Very clever, Dylan’, I told him, ‘but I’m afraid we do have to go home’.

As we walked down to the beach to say goodbye I realised Dylan understood this perfectly well. It was good that he was initiating two-way conversation through his schedule, I told myself, even if it was a request to do something over again. I’ll take that as an indication the week was a success: not just symbols reinstated, but Easter restored.

Learning By Writing: reflections on blogging (i)

booksIt’s two years – virtually to the day – since I made my first blog post. I had no idea what I was doing that day: I simply typed into my barely-developed WordPress site and hit publish. The piece was different to my subsequent posts in that I didn’t write it offline, there were no drafts, I didn’t include images and it was relatively short. It was also different in terms of ‘voice’: more meditative and detached. Nonetheless, it has consistently been near the top of my blog post leader board and currently stands as my 6th most popular post (out of 82). This is not due just to longevity; there is no direct relationship between the number of views a post has received and when it was posted. My advice to anyone reading this who is hesitating about making that first post? Just do it!

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The focus and style of my first post puzzle me as my reason for setting up the blog had been more campaigning than musing. It was my frustration at the lack of provision for autistic adults with severe learning disabilities in my area that led to Living with Autism. My son had left his autism-specialist school that summer but had not been allocated any continuing provision. I was concerned about Dylan, who needed the structure and routine of a specialist environment, but was also anxious about how I was going to return to work. When a legal action against my local authority uncovered failures and omissions in Dylan’s care, my instinct was to share what I had discovered. My blog would be worthwhile, I told myself, if it helped other parents to get information I had not had access to.

If someone had told me, when I made that first post, that it would be two years before Dylan was allocated an appropriate placement I would have said I could not manage. And if I had known that I would have to learn how to support Dylan through some difficult ‘challenging behaviour’ I would have doubted my capacity to cope. If it had been explained to me, then, that in order to keep Dylan at home through these darkest of days I would have to make radical changes to my working life, I would have hesitated. And if I had been aware that surviving these years would come at high cost (to my poetry, my relationships and my health) I would have wondered whether I had the resources.

Perhaps it’s just as well we don’t know how the road ahead looks and what it will require of us. Most parents, when facing a challenging situation, give what is needed – and sometimes it is through such challenge that we discover just how deep our resources are and how much we are able to give. But I don’t think that we find this in ourselves alone; most of us also draw strength from some external force. For many of us, this is friends and family. For some, it is faith. For others, work or an interest or hobby. All of these have been important to me. I want to use this post, however, to reflect on the positive contribution of something I did not anticipate: blogging.

Learning through writing

batdetectorFor me, the most interesting writing is transforming; if I don’t come out of the process seeing the world differently, I’m not really interested in finishing it. This is true of any piece of writing, whether it is a poem, a short story or an academic article –  so perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that writing posts for this blog turned out to be a vehicle for learning and development.

If I want to be changed by what I write, I cannot be too in control of it. While I always have a defined topic in mind, and some key points or examples I want to communicate or explore, I try to leave enough space for a piece to breathe by itself once it has lungs. It can feel very scary when a piece heads off down a branch line, but I know that these diversions can lead to unexpected blessings as well as to dead ends. So I never plan a piece of writing (a poem or article or blog post) in too much detail or to the end because I don’t know, until I’ve written it, what I know. This might sound strange to people who don’t connect writing with thinking but for me the two processes seem to be inseparable; I simply don’t understand something until I’ve written about it.

I think for me this is to do with being a visual learner. I need to see how things connect with each other so I love moving sections of text around in a piece of writing to see if I can find new and surprising links. The connections between sections are important to me; I think this is about finding the progression and coherence in ideas. Perhaps my main preoccupation, however, is pattern and paradox; a concern with things that are similar and things that are different seems to underpin most of my writing. I suspect that it is through this re-organisation of material that (if I’m lucky) I happen across new connections and alternative ways of knowing.

So, at its best, writing blog posts has been a process of discovery; some of the pieces I have written have genuinely changed the way I think. This has particularly been the case for posts which focus on knotty abstract concepts, such as ‘independence’ or ‘voice’, and for sensitive topics, such as suicide and ‘challenging behaviour’ , but has also been so for posts with a more applied focus. Writing about the early interventions I made with Dylan when he was first diagnosed, for example, enabled me to understand the meaning and significance of the ‘treatments’ in a way I doubt I would have grasped had I not explored them through writing.

Writing is increasingly used therapeutically with professionals, particularly in health and allied sectors, and for several years now I have used it myself with staff and students in education in order to explore issues in personal and professional development. Keeping this blog has reminded me of the power of writing as a tool for exploring and transforming our knowledge, understanding and beliefs. Perhaps there should be more opportunities for parents and professionals to explore their experiences of autism through writing in structured and supported settings?

Making space

The other way in which keeping a blog has been helpful is in the space it creates for thinking and reflection. It’s a bit like having time in the therapist’s chair; setting myself a target of one post a week encouraged me to prioritise and make room for this. I would choose a topic from the scribbled list on my desk and spend half the week thinking about it (in whatever space I was in) before making the space to sit down and see where it would lead. Sometimes the posts would be written swiftly but if it were a thorny topic, or I found myself up a branch line, it could take longer than planned. Occasionally something I hadn’t expected came bowling in, elbowing its way to the top of the list, and sometimes (by contrast) the magic didn’t happen: there was no flash of pattern or paradox.

One thing I resolved when I started the blog was that I wouldn’t keep it at Dylan’s expense; on the ethics page of this site I identify a range of ways in which it could enrich Dylan’s life and a protocol to protect him from harm. One issue I don’t refer to on the ethics page, however, is the practical challenge of making space. When I set the blog up I told myself that it would be daft to be tapping away at a keyboard, writing about caring for Dylan, instead of actually caring for him. I had to find a space to blog which took nothing away from the time I spent with Dylan. How, as a single parent with a full time job, did I manage this? The short answer is that I sacrificed my diary and my poems.

The early morning hour before Dylan wakes, which I had previously used for writing, became ‘blog time’. Consequently, I haven’t done much with the manuscript of poems I was working on when I started this blog. In fact I have been so little involved in the world of my poems that it has been hard to think of myself as a poet at all some days. This would make me sad except that a) I’m not scared of fallow periods b) I have continued to edit poems that were already written c) the poems worth writing will still get written (albeit differently) and d) even if I never write another poem it was worth it.

The other sacrifice I made was to reduce the amount of time I spent writing a journal; a daily diarist from the age of 14, in the last two years I have allowed myself only one entry a week. Could I not have made the discoveries I refer to above through the process of writing in a journal? I doubt it. In fact I suspect that I have rarely discovered something new through a journal entry . I think this might be because I don’t pay the same attention to structure and organisation in a diary; as it’s handwritten, text does not get moved around and re-organised. I am therefore less likely to unearth pattern and paradox. I am also less concerned with logic and evidence in a diary entry and am far more indulgent and much less rigorous. Perhaps it is the one form of writing where I don’t expect transformation?

Being Provisional

dartofgreenAs I begin to think about writing poetry again I ask myself if blogging will have spoiled my poems the way squash once ruined my tennis (or so I claimed in the summer of 1986). What, I wonder, is the impact of one form on another? I am convinced that we take it into our deep subconscious; I know by instinct, for example, when I have written a sonnet-length piece.

When I started blogging I realised my posts were longer than most. I also realised, however, that I was incapable of writing to the more usual length of 1000 words and I have to work to limit myself to 2000; my natural ‘prose breath’ is, I suspect, closer to 4000 words. One thing I have enjoyed about the form, however, is its provisional nature. The WordPress facilities allow me to go on editing a piece even after it has been published; for me (for whom nothing is ever finished and everything can only ever be provisional) this is a marvellous format. I am an inveterate drafter and editor of my own work. Blogging allows me to go on polishing and I love it for this.

I have a reservation about this post-publication editing facility, however. If someone has ‘liked’ my post and I then edit it, how do I know they would still approve? I comfort myself (and, I hope, you) by limiting my edits to style not substance. If I change my mind about something as a result of comments from readers then I add a postscript or correct myself through the comment trail or in a subsequent post. Reader interaction with a blog is of course a central feature of the medium, particularly in relation to the capacity for learning and change. In the early days of my blog, when I had posted only a handful of pieces, a colleague suggested that my voice sounded ‘careful’. I replied that I checked my claims, of course, and was careful to make clear that my observations were based only on a single story. I realised later, however, that she hadn’t used ‘careful’ in the sense of ‘rigorous’; my colleague had meant I was holding back. Perhaps as well as being excited by the idea of a conversation with an international audience, I was nervous about the interactive format? My next post will reflect on this and on what I have learned through dialogue.

The Humber Bridge

humber5Before I had my own family I used to say that for every child I gave birth to I would adopt another. This seemed a small but realistic way of balancing the desire to have a biological child with the desperate need of already-born children for a family.

After Dylan was diagnosed I gave up my pledge; with an autistic child to care for, I told myself, it wouldn’t be fair and, anyway, I probably wouldn’t be approved to adopt. Later, other promises would be adjusted. I couldn’t, I realised, volunteer regularly or even for Crisis at Christmas; Dylan needed me and it wasn’t possible to undertake such commitments with him in tow. So I made donations to charity instead; I might not be able to give my time but I could at least do this.

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‘I’m thinking of volunteering’ I said to my daughter the other day. Just weeks since Dylan’s residential placement had been approved and already the idea had risen to the top of my newly-shuffled priority pack. ‘Good’, she said, ‘I’m glad to hear it’. My daughter understood the new imperative; not just my earlier idealism but the desire, now that Dylan is receiving help from society, to give something back.

I’m not sure the job I do has given me many useful skills but I’m hoping that I acquired some from my years supporting Dylan. At the moment I’m open-minded about what I might offer but am drawn to end-of-life care. The only thing I would rule out right now is autism. ‘I need a break ‘ I told my daughter. But it’s not just that. If I volunteered my time to autism I might as well be with Dylan. It has to be something different; a bit like a collective where you trade and exchange.

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humber bridgeI remember making the case for collective child rearing in an undergraduate seminar in the early 80s. I can’t imagine how we got on to the topic but perhaps the discussion arose from the study of a political thinker. Rousseau maybe or Dewey. I’m not sure. What I do remember, though, is that I was a lone voice that day. After arguing valiantly but without effect I turned to Dr Robinson and appealed for his support against my peers. But he wouldn’t give it; having children, he told me, was not motivated by a will to improve society but by the desire to perpetuate the self.

I understood this a little better once I’d had my own children. Perhaps having an autistic child added to my growing realisation that families are private entities, managing themselves according to their own value systems. An autism diagnosis forces us to confront aspects of our practice which might previously have run humdrum and unexamined. I found myself weighing the cost and benefit of every decision: whether to be relaxed about diet or intervene; how to manage meltdowns; when to use directive approaches and when to be non-directive. Sure there was professional advice for parents but ultimately the choices were my own; there is thus no less variation in how autistic children are raised than in that found across all families.

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For some parents the desire to raise a family without interference from the outside world is strong. I suspect there are different reasons for this: the parents whose own upbringing was so troubled they want to do things differently, their own way; or the mother who has so little power over her life she wants control of the way her children are raised at least. I once knew someone like this. I wasn’t close to him (he was the husband of a friend) so didn’t have a context for his parenting except that it was NYC in the early 90s. Every morning he would take the bus from their Central Park apartment and head downtown with the baby. Why is it, he asked me when I visited, that people think it’s OK to interfere in your life when you have a baby? A private man, he was not enjoying the way fatherhood had turned him into public property; strangers, he complained, would stop to talk at and even touch his son. These unsolicited approaches were a source of great irritation to him.

I remember him telling me how the baby had been crying one day while they were riding the bus. A woman seated behind started to dispense advice. He needed to take the baby out of the sling. He should give the baby a pacifier. That baby needed to get into a routine. Suddenly, he told me, he’d had enough. He took out a pad of paper and a pen and thrust them at the woman. Lady, would you write your name and telephone number down here for me ? Because the next time my son’s crying at 3am in the morning I’d like to call you up and ask your advice. He reported this with glee, happy he had found a way to tell this member of the public to butt out of his life.

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humber8To make a call for help at 3am in the night you have to be desperate and my friends were not – they were simply new parents dealing with the usual demands of a not-unusually unsettled baby. A desperate night is one when you are scraping poo off the walls yet again (I haven’t done that for years but will never forget when I had to, repeatedly). It is when you have lain next to your screaming child for five hours and they are still screaming. It is when you fall down the stairs because you are dog-tired from weeks of being up all night. It is when you drive 100 miles in darkness trying to settle your crying child. It is when you sit in the garden or barricade yourself in your room because you fear you will be hurt by your anxious son whose needs you have failed to understand well enough to help and who is in meltdown, a danger to you and to himself. It is when the house finally falls silent and you go to bed and cry yourself to sleep because you couldn’t be better or make a difference. It is when you stay up all night googling for answers or writing long letters, asking for help, which you know you will never send.

These are just some of the ways to become desperate in the night. There are others (some harder). I’ve heard parents of autistic children say that you only get help when you get desperate. I’ve said it too. It’s right, of course, that scarce resources should go to those in most need but it scares me (I mean it really did scare me) that the trigger for allocation is a crisis.

Some years ago Dylan and I went for a walk one summer with two autistic boys and their mothers. I had been invited by the woman whose child’s 12th birthday we were celebrating but didn’t know the other mother. Still, we talked the same easy language that parents of autistic children tend to when they are together. At some point we swapped stories about autism services within our Local Authority. They just don’t seem to hear, the mother I had just met complained. They don’t listen because they think I’m coping. But I can guarantee that if I go within 50 miles of the Humber Bridge they’ll listen.

We didn’t have to ask her to explain.

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humber4The Humber Bridge is a beautiful bridge over a wide river in the east of the county where I live. But in 2006 the way I would think and feel about that bridge changed forever when a mother and her autistic son climbed over the railings and down onto the underbelly of the bridge and jumped.

Alison Davies and her 12 year old son Ryan were caught on CCTV camera moments before they fell 100 feet to their deaths on Easter Day. The Humber is a tidal river with sands which shift so dramatically it has to be re-charted each week. In such conditions, finding Alison and Ryan was difficult. It was four days before Ryan’s body was discovered, upstream of the bridge, and it would be some time before his mother’s body was found. In the days after the tragedy, while the police waited for the river currents to surrender Alison, the media speculated on what had led her to the bridge.

CCTV footage had recorded the pair arriving, smiling, at Hull railway station in the morning. They no longer lived in the town but, we would learn later, it was a place where they had once been happy. There were reports of an interrupted 999 call having been made from Alison’s mobile phone moments before a camera on the bridge recorded them falling – not together but 8 seconds apart.

We will never really know what happened that day or why. The tragedy was, commentators agreed, a result of the strain Alison was under as a single mother of an autistic child (Ryan’s diagnosis was Fragile X Syndrome). The Independent reported that the closure of a parents group had represented a significant loss to Alison who had no other support mechanisms apart from limited help from her mother. A friend of Alison’s, also the carer of disabled children, said: “She just didn’t get the help she needed. You have to fight for everything when you are looking after children with disabilities because if you don’t fight for it, you don’t get it.”

And yet, it seemed, in the days before the tragedy Alison had been feeling quite positive. She had started a new job, passed her driving test and was tackling some DIY projects at home – challenging for anyone, never mind a single parent with caring responsibilities. The picture which emerges from neighbours is of a well-liked mother and son with an active and happy life. As the newspapers later reported, however, this was a veneer; Alison Davies was, in reality, struggling to care for her son.

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humber6Sadly there have been similar cases, often involving mothers who had appeared to be coping. I have listened to people express astonishment at such tragedies and suggest that had they only known they would have helped. I remember reading a request by one woman, in the aftermath of a similar case in America, that mothers bring their autistic children to her, rather than kill them, ‘in the middle of the night if need be’. 

So we are back to that call at 3am (the one my friend’s husband threatened the woman on the bus with). Such night calls may not be easy to receive but they are even harder to make in a society which does not encourage collective responsibility for parenting. And if you are a family in crisis there is a tipping point beyond which it becomes hard to even pick up a phone; holding on to any sense of your own agency, or a belief in the power of others to help, is difficult when you are at the bottom. In a note which Alison Davies left she referred to having failed as a mother and of the need to ‘end the pain’. She didn’t want her family to ‘have to worry any more’ about her and Ryan. ‘Clearly Alison was in distress’, a police investigator observed: ‘clearly she felt a burden and clearly she felt that she wanted to relieve her family of that burden’.

I recognise some of these feelings: doubting you will ever get the help you need; not wanting to ask for it; feeling helpless; wondering if your child might be better off without you; the impossibility of life alone. When you do your best and it doesn’t seem to make a positive difference to your child you can question whether there is anything anyone can do. You are the mother. You love your child more than anyone else in the world will. If you can’t help, who can? These feelings are natural and some may even be necessary. But if they combine in a particular way on a particularly bleak day or night, their impact can be devastating.

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humber3Later, in August, the coroner would refer to Alison Davies’ ‘life of despair’. Although she was struggling to cope with her son’s increasingly violent attacks, Alison was determined that Ryan should not be taken into care. ‘She loved Ryan so much and she tried so hard; her bank of resilience had been depleted ‘, her family said in a statement following the inquest. Alison was, they added, ‘a wonderful mother’.

It emerged that Alison had a history of depression and suicidal tendencies which made her and Ryan particularly vulnerable. Her family had intervened to help the mother and son on previous occasions. The call from Alison’s mobile phone had, apparently, been made 30 minutes before the tragedy but was not effectively followed-up. The inquest was told that Ryan was not pushed but jumped independently; it was noted however that Ryan had no understanding of danger and would have jumped, with encouragement, if told he could fly. The second person falling from the bridge was Alison. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide on her and a verdict of unlawful killing on Ryan.

During media reporting of the tragedy and inquest there were frequent references to other such cases, no less tragic. The Guardian reported that the incident had led to calls ‘for more respite care for families with autistic members’. The Independent, meanwhile, quoted a National Autistic Society spokesperson as saying that: ‘if one good thing comes out of the tragedy it is an awareness of the lack of support for respite care. Local Authorities are reluctant to pay for support.’ Other newspapers reported sympathetic interviews with parents of autistic children, explaining some of the stresses of living with autism and the benefits of regular respite care.

I would hazard that every one of these tragic cases could have been averted had there been a timely response to the family’s need before they reached the tipping point. For an autistic child to be safe and to flourish, the family that provides care also needs to be well. Parenting an autistic child can become more challenging with adolescence and adulthood but instead of increasing with age, support falls away. Is it any wonder that parents are pushed to breaking point, especially if they have few support networks or are battling an existing mental health condition? I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve got support. But I would be lying if I said that I’d never, sometimes, tried to think of places where Dylan and I had been happy.

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humber7In the US, where there have been similar cases, there has been much discussion in the press and much condemnation of the mothers on social media. I understand this response but worry that a backlash against individuals obscures the spotlight from shining, as I believe it must, on all of us. I am not questioning that Ryan was unlawfully killed. Nor am I suggesting that Alison’s actions could ever be justified or excused. I do believe, however, that we are all involved in these tragic deaths because, in a civilized society, caring for vulnerable children and adults is a responsibility we share.

While it is not natural or intuitive for us to adopt a collective approach to parenting, we need to be better at offering and receiving support. Alison Davies seems not to have found this easy – certainly she was reluctant to let others care for her son. And who can blame her? There are so many awful reports of care standards that it is hard for parents to trust their children to others. But instead of closing down specialist services because they have failed in the past, we should be improving them. If we put our energy into achieving excellence in the care system, with effective mechanisms for supporting families before they are in crisis (without creating a sense of failure or fear in parents that they are letting down their child) then we might help avert at least some of these tragedies.

The more individualistic a society, the less likely it is that the vulnerable will survive; certainly Dylan’s disability means he will only ever flourish in a society that prioritises social care. If we are to emphasise the importance of human flourishing, rather than human capital, we have to develop more cooperative and community-based approaches to supporting one another. With so much concern about our ability to meet the cost of an increasing care sector, developing sustainable models of support has to be a priority. I would hazard that those who receive support from others, offer it in return. Hopefully, as I adjust to no longer being a full time carer, my own life will bear this out.

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Disturbed by the tragic case of Alison and Ryan Davies, I kept news reports of these and similar stories determined that one day I would write something. I haven’t got around to the poem I thought I might write but let this stand, instead, as my small wreath. RIP.

Acknowledgements:

I have had these images of the Humber Bridge on my PC for years. I’m unsure of the sources now but hopefully they are from public domain sites such as Wikipedia.  In this post I refer to media cuttings of the incident (April 2006) and the inquest (August 2006) from The Independent, The Guardian, The Mail Online and the BBC.